NOTES II Corinthians
3:1-6 (click here for study)
Paul has digressed from recounting his itinerary and has given the Corinthians advice about handling discipline problems in their church. He follows that advice by a passage of praise to God for his triumph over evil and for including his followers in that triumph, even though that inclusion means suffering and death for His sake. Now he catches himself and draws attention to what he realizes might sound like self-defense:
"Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation?" (v.1)
False teachers and apostles had infiltrated the Corinthian church. Many of these people, eager for power and authority and financial support, undermined Paul's apostleship and cast doubts on his integrity. Unscrupulous imposters were so common in the early church, in fact, that true teachers or representatives of the apostles often carried letters of introduction and commendation when they went to visit the fledgling Christ-followers.
Examples of believers who received letters of introduction include Apollos who took with him a letter of recommendation from the apostles in Jerusalem when he visited Achaia. (Acts 18:27) Paul sent the Romans a note of introduction for Phoebe, "a servant of the church in Cenchrea," who, he said, had been "a great help to many people, including me." Another example of an introductory letter is recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:3 where Paul advises the Corinthians to select trustworthy men to take the Corinthian's monetary gift to Jerusalem, and Paul offers to personally write a letter of introduction for those men so believers in Jerusalem would trust them.
Paul's feelings were actually hurt by the Corinthians' being swayed to doubt his apostleship. He had been the one who brought the gospel to them. (1 Cor. 3:6) He considered himself their spiritual father because he had first nurtured their belief in Jesus. "Even though I may be an apostle to others," he says in 1 Corinthians 9:2, "surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord."
Paul reminds the Corinthians that their conversion was real. They themselves are his letter of recommendation validating his apostleship and his integrity. Even though Paul brought the Corinthians to Jesus, it was not he who wrote the truth on their hearts. "You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God." (v.3)
The fact that the Corinthians are born-again Christ followers, Paul argues, demonstrates that he is a true apostle. If he were not, the message he preached to them would not have changed their hearts. But they have new hearts; the Holy Spirit has written new life in them. Paul's gospel, therefore, was genuine. The Corinthians' status as born-again Christ-followers is the proof, the evidence, the letter of recommendation to all that Paul is a true apostle of Jesus Christ.
The Corinthians' response to Jesus, Paul says in effect, is Christ's letter of recommendation for Paul. The Corinthians themselves are written on his heart. He has invested himself in them, and he loves them. He knows they truly accepted Jesus, and he holds this knowledge as a treasure in his heart, accepting it as reassurance from God that his work is God's work, and it is not in vain.
The Corinthians are also Paul's commendation to the world, "known and read by everybody." Their conversion and their born-again status is apparent to everybody with eyes to see, and Paul tells them that their new lives are the proof to the world that his ministry is valid.
Tablets of Human Hearts
Paul continues his metaphor of a letter by saying that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ, "written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts."
The references to letters written on tablets of stone came from God giving the law to Moses. Exodus 24:12, 31:18, and 32:15-16 tell the story of God writing with his finger on tablets of stone. When God called Moses to meet him on Mt. Sinai, he verbally gave him the regulations of the Mosaic law. Then, "when the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God." (Ex. 31:18)
"Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets." (Exodus 32:15-16)
It is clear that Paul is contrasting what the Holy Spirit has done in the Corinthians' lives with the written law of the old covenant.
The image of writing the law on tablets of human hearts was not new in the New Testament. Solomon, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all used this metaphor.
"Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart," Solomon said. (Proverbs 3:3) "Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart." (Prov. 7:2-3)
Jeremiah's prophecy of the new covenant is the best-known passage of the miracle to which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 3.
"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer. 31:33-34)
Ezekiel also foreshadowed the new covenant written on the heart. "I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:25-26)
How Is This Heart-Writing Possible?
Although the ministry of the Spirit, the new covenant, was prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, no one fully understood the actual reality of its application until the coming of Jesus. Israel understood that God planned to redeem his people and bring them freedom, but they did not understand that God himself would be the promised Messiah. They did not understand that the freedom for which they longed would be spiritual freedom. They did not fully understand the future reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Even now people miss the power and freedom of the completed work of Jesus in their lives and the replacement of the old covenant with the new. The ministry of the Spirit, the writing of the law on tablets of human hearts instead of on tablets of stone, is the direct result of Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus' death was not merely a demonstration of the depravity to which humanity had sunk, as some people claim. God could not have forgiven and restored us to himself, as some people insist, without Jesus shedding his blood. Jesus' death is absolutely central to the fulfillment of the law and to the ministry of the new covenant. The death of Jesus is what makes it possible for us to live in freedom before God.
The old covenant, the law of Moses, was necessary to bring order to the rag-tag, undisciplined slaves that were to become the nation of Israel. The old covenant also was a living symbol of God's plan to save humanity. The sacrifices, the priesthood, the ministry of intercession in the temple, the feast days-all these pointed toward the sacrifice and restorative work of Jesus.
The law, including the Ten Commandments, outlined how living a holy life would look. The rules and requirements were extensive and unyielding. There could be no compromise in the life of one of God's chosen people. The problem was that no one could keep the law. Over and over people sinned; over and over they brought their sin offerings to the temple; over and over the high priest mediated for the nation of Israel on the Day of Atonement, offering the blood of sacrificial bulls and goats as atonement for the sins of the people.
No matter how diligent the people and the priests were in following the rules, the Israelites never experienced the freedom and rewards that come from keeping the law perfectly. The law always stood before them, condemning them for their repeated sins and unrepentant hearts. The standards of the law were ideal requirements that Israel's sinful hearts could not obey. Even when their intentions were good, their behavior failed.
Then Jesus came. In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, he "upped the ante" by stating that obeying the law was insufficient; people were not even to THINK about disobedience. Even lustful, self-serving thoughts counted as breaking the law. Jesus, however, did not intensify God's requirements and then leave the people to flounder in hopelessness. He personally made it possible for people to experience righteousness before God.
When Jesus died, he was the sacrifice that centuries of Days of Atonement had foreshadowed. He offered his own blood to God in fulfillment of the curse of the law that stated, "Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out." (Deuteronomy 27:26) He was himself without sin, but he "redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'." (Galatians 3:13)
Jesus fulfilled the entire law. God "made us alive in Christ." Jesus "cancelled the written code [the law]that was against us and that stood opposed to us, nailing it to the cross." He "disarmed powers and authoritiestriumphing over them by the cross." The old covenant regulations regarding eating, drinking, religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and Sabbath days were merely "a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however is found in Christ." (Colossians 2:13-17)
Jesus is the person, the life, the event that brought the old covenant to an end and introduced a new, better covenant by which we can be personally, not merely symbolically, intimate with God. He has reconciled us to himself by Christ's physical death in order to present us holy in his sight and free from accusation if we continue to live by faith in him. (Colossians 1:22-23)
The law with its rigid regulations and its curse of death "made nothing perfect." God "set aside" the old covenant and replaced it with the new, Christ's shed blood. The ministry of life which Jesus, our eternal high priest, has received, is as superior to the ministry of the Old Testament priests as the covenant which he administers is superior to the old covenant. (Hebrews 7:18-19)
The new covenant, however, didn't begin and end with Jesus' dying. After he died, Jesus rose back to life, defeating the curse of death promised in the law. His sacrifice for sin was perfect, and it alone could break the curse that hung over humanity. After Jesus ascended back to heaven to sit at the right hand of his father (Hebrews 10:12), he sent his followers the Holy Spirit who indwelled them. (Acts 2; John 3:5-8; 7:38-39) This indwelling Holy Spirit is what completes the New Covenant in our lives. No longer do we gaze at an external law, condemned because we cannot keep it perfectly. Now we are made alive by the indwelling presence of God Himself, and his life and perfection he gives to us when we accept his sacrifice and his love! It is God's own presence that transforms us. Our righteousness is the gift of God; it is unrelated to our performance or our keeping the law. Jesus' perfect sacrifice paid the price for our sins; his own Spirit now lives in us, bringing our own dead souls to life and uniting us with himself forever.
"For it is by grace you have been saved through faith," Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and "this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-10) He also told them they were "marked in him by the Holy Spirit" who guarantees their inheritance as God's children who will be eternally with him. (Eph. 1:13-14)
The ministry of the Spirit is written on tablets of the heart instead of on tablets of stone by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts.
Law on Hearts Superior to Law on Stone
The law written on stone was good, not bad. It was given in glory, and Moses reflected the glory of God after he received the tables of stone. The law clearly defined the actions a righteous person would avoid. It clearly stated what sinful behavior looked like. Before Moses received the law, there was no written code from God. Every human since Adam had been born in sin, and every person lived according to whatever tradition his parents taught him. Most of humanity was pagan and worshiped idols and false gods. When God appeared to Abraham, he promised that a redeemer would come, and he promised that his descendants would be clearly defined as God's people. Abraham began teaching his offspring the truths he knew about God, but humanity at large had no clear standard of God or his expectations for humans.
When God gave Moses the law, he gave his people a clear picture of what holy living would look like. He gifted his people with a definition of sinful behavior so they wouldn't live by guessing. They finally had a system of worship that provided for atonement for their sins and a clear understanding of what God expected of them. The law was glorious; it brought people from the darkness of anarchy into the structure of God's expectations and the hope of a coming Redeemer.
But the glory of the law and the old covenant was a fading glory because it was merely a shadow of the covenant to come. A shadow gives a hint of the real thing; it has roughly the shape of the reality. It does not, however, have substance. While a shadow may be perceived by a change in light or temperature, it cannot be touched or experienced in three dimensions. While a person can sense the magnitude and presence of the reality from the shadow, he cannot see or experience the details of the real thing.
The old covenant was such a shadow. It hinted at redemption, righteousness, and atonement with God. It promised that people would eventually be able to experience a relationship with God that was more personal and satisfying than what they had. But it was only a hint, a promise of something to come.
Furthermore, the law made people conscious of sin, and sin actually increased. "The law was added so that the trespass might increase," Paul wrote I Romans 5:20. Without the law, people had lost sight of the fact that they were born broken and needed a Savior. They needed an external standard to hold them accountable so they would not live simply by their own desires. But that external standard made them focus on sin, and Israel became increasingly aware of their intrinsic inability to live up to the law.
When Jesus came and revealed what the old covenant had foreshadowed, the reality began to replace the shadow. When Jesus died and rose again, when he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in his followers, the shadow was no longer necessary. Atonement was complete. People had been restored to direct communication with God. Their sins were forgiven; they could rest in his perfect sacrifice.
Furthermore, Jesus trumped the law. While sin increased in the presence of the law, "grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
The glory of the law began to fade, as did the glory on Moses' face. The reality, Jesus, had replaced the law, and the presence of God literally living in the hearts of believers was far more glorious than the law had ever been. No longer do people live by faith in a coming Redeemer; they now live by faith in the finished work of the Redeemer who has already come. The glory of the new covenant is increasingly bright because it's not merely a reflection of God's plan for his people; it is actually his plan. A Christ-follower's face shines with ever-increasing glory as opposed to fading glory, as did Moses' face, because the living God is in him, and his life increasingly reflects the likeness of Christ.
Ministers of the New Covenant
As saved people living in the new covenant, restored to the Father through Jesus' sacrifice, we can approach God directly and with confidence. No longer do we need a priest to mediate for us before God; we can personally approach God through the curtain, or veil, that is Christ's body. (Hebrews 10:19-22) No longer is God's presence shielded from humanity, as it was in the Most Holy Place of the temple where a heavy curtain kept the light of glory from people's sight. That curtain which protected people from the overpowering glory of God represented Jesus. When he died, that curtain in the temple ripped, demonstrating that God is now directly accessible to us. Through faith in Christ, we can become personally intimate with God.
We cannot claim any qualification in ourselves to explain our new status as intimates of God and ministers of his new covenant. We have not "figured out" a secret incantation or a special sacrifice or formula for becoming close to God. Our inclusion in his new covenant and as his loved ones is entirely the work of Jesus who became a human and died for us. He chose us; he redeemed us; he sent us his Spirit to live in us. Our competence as ministers of the new covenant is completely an act of grace.
"But by the grace of God I am what I am," Paul wrote to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 15:10) "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Romans 3:22)
"Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." (Romans 3:27-28)
As Christ-followers filled with the Holy Spirit, we mediate the new covenant to the world. Christ's presence in us is literally Christ's presence in the world. Through us Jesus loves and ministers to those whose lives we touch. Through us people see God's grace in action. Through us Jesus demonstrates his wisdom, love, and discernment. The Spirit of God makes his home in our hearts, and He reveals himself to the world through our lives.
This reality of being born again by the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus and his finished work on the cross is the physical and spiritual reality of the new covenant. Jesus' blood fulfilled the old covenant and ushered in the new. The new covenant is marked by the miracle that humanity that is born broken and separated from God by sin can be restored, not by their own decision and right living, to intimacy with God. A human cannot find God by deciding he wants him and fixing his behavior. A human must choose to accept Jesus' sacrifice by faith, believing that Jesus died for him and his own unfixable sin. Only when a person surrenders himself entirely to Jesus, acknowledging his deep unworthiness and giving his future into God's hands, sins and all, can the miracle of the new covenant come alive in his heart. Only when a person submits himself to being vulnerable before God and knowing the truth about himself can God have access to the deep brokenness inside him. Giving God one's right to oneself is the secret to living in the miracle of the new covenant.
The "letter" to which Paul refers in v. 6 is the law. The law brings death. It cannot justify us and redeem us and reconnect us to God. It can only point out how desperate we are. The law reminds us that we are deeply flawed, flawed beyond fixing, flawed beyond our ability to compensate. It shows us our sin, and it condemns us to death for not being able to live up to its requirements. The law is an eternal statement of God expects righteousness and that we cannot live if we cannot become righteous.
The Spirit, however, brings life. Because Jesus carried our sins and died, fulfilling the law's requirements of death for sin, God clothes us with the righteousness of Christ. When we accept Jesus, God looks at us through Jesus' blood. He sees us covered by the protection of Jesus, just as the Israelites were protected by the Passover blood on the night they left Egypt, and he counts us as righteous because of our faith in Christ.
When we have accepted Jesus, he fills us with his Spirit, and the Spirit takes us beyond merely being counted righteous. Through the Spirit in us, the same power that "raised Christ from the dead will also give life to [our] mortal bodies." (Romans 8:11) Through the Spirit, our spirits are brought to life and eternally connected to God. Furthermore, the Spirit in us does not leave us to wallow in our sins, saved but struggling hopelessly with our "mortal flesh." The presence of God in us makes us increasingly aware of the brokenness and sin in ourselves, and He begins to heal those deep wounds and help us to become more and more like Christ instead of imprisoned by our sinfulness. The Holy Spirit begins to change our behavior as we submit to His love and instruction in our hearts.
Through the Holy Spirit we are brought from death to life. Through Him we become spiritually alive and connected directly to God. We enter a completely new reality, the reality of the new birth. Through him we begin to act more and more like Jesus and less and less like self-centered brats!
God is asking you to surrender yourself to the new covenant. He is asking you to walk away from the shadow of the law and to enter the brilliant, fully defined reality of being saved and being connected to Him. The law is seductive because it suggests we can do pious and righteous behaviors. It suggests there are things we can do that will ensure our status as true Christians living holy lives.
The law, however, brings death. If we look back to the law and take our cues from it when we have before us the completed work of Christ and the reality of living by the Spirit, we are essentially returning to paganism. (see Galatians 4:8-10) If we live by the shadow instead of living in the light, we are allowing our hearts to be covered by a veil that blinds us to the truth. When we let the law tell us how to live instead of submitting humbly to Jesus and giving up the control of our lives to him and his Spirit, we are turning away from the full revelation of God and allowing the god of this age to blind us, keeping us in darkness that does not understand the light. (John 1:5)
Legalism, even if the legalism is based on the 10 Commandments, is the condition of natural man. As unreborn sinners we can live rigid, carefully observant lives, guarding the requirements of the law. But if we let the law teach us, our hearts will not change. We will still be broken, self-seeking, vindictive, shamed, and hopeless. Only by letting go of the law as our guide and turning completely around, facing Jesus directly instead of gazing at his shadow, can we experience the miracle of salvation and the new birth.
God is asking you to trust him. Risk letting go of the things you believe are required of you and bow before him empty and with open hands. Let Jesus teach you and heal you. Let him fill you. Ask him what he wants of you. Ask him to help you to be willing to surrender whatever it is in your life that stands between you and knowing him.
Ask God to reveal to you what "good" things and pious, religious observances you do that you need to surrender, making yourself completely open to his filling.
It is frightening and it feels vulnerable to let go of the things we believed we had to do if we were truly Christian. But until we risk letting everything go and allowing Jesus to teach us what he wants us to know and do, we continue to manage our own salvation instead of letting God manage it. We must be willing to let Jesus be everything to us, even taking the place of our goodness and righteous behaviors.
Praise God for giving Israel the law to bring order into their chaos and to foreshadow the miracle of salvation. Praise God for sending our Redeemer to fulfill the law and to make real the promises of the old covenant, the "ministry of death," bringing us into the ministry of the Spirit that gives life." Praise God for giving us the Holy Spirit, the new covenant made tangible in our lives.
Praise Jesus for taking our sins onto himself and for giving us his righteousness. Praise Him for nailing the curse of the law to the cross and for superceding the law in our lives. Praise Jesus for being our reward and for replacing our dogged efforts at holiness with his own finished work.
Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing our spirits to life. Praise Him for teaching us and for being the law in our hearts, informing us every moment we live. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing life to our mortal bodies, growing in us the likeness of Christ as we increasingly trust him.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted March 2, 2002.