Bible Book List
2 Corinthians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Superiority of the New Covenant Minister

At verse 12 Paul turns from a consideration of the merits of the old and new covenants to what it means to be a minister of each. What most likely prompts this discussion is the fact that rival missionaries at Corinth were looking to Moses as the consummate minister. Only in this way can Paul's contrast in verses 12-18 betoeen Moses and the new covenant minister be explained. An additional reason Paul pursues what he does in these verses is the evangelistic conundrum that existed both then and now. One of the most difficult audiences to reach with the gospel today is a Jewish one. This is an amazing fact considering that the gospel is the good news of God's fulfillment through Jesus of his promises to his people Israel. The Jewishness of the gospel is reflected in the early Christian preaching that Jesus is the Messiah of Jewish expectation and in the attempt to prove from the Scriptures that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead (Acts 2:22-36; 13:26-39; 17:2-3; 18:4-5). No one struggled with this conundrum more than Paul. His own success rate among his people was so low that it caused him "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" (Rom 9:1-3). The "why" of this state of affairs was something that constantly preyed on his mind. 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 is a brief version of Paul's lengthier reflections in Romans 9--11.

The Unveiled Face of the New Covenant Minister (3:12-13) Paul's train of thought in verses 12-18 has long been considered obscure. In part this is because he is dealing with too different but related criticisms. It appears that he was accused at some point of professional arrogance. Verses 12-13 and 18 address this matter. It also seems that his opponents were pointing out his lack of success among his own people. Verses 14-17 tackle this issue. Interestingly, Paul does not deny either charge.

We are very bold, he tells the Corinthians (v. 12). But it is only because they have such a hope that they act in such a fashion. By we Paul has in mind the minister of the new covenant, as 2:14--3:11 makes clear. The Greek word for bold (parrhrsia) originally referred to the right of a Greek citizen to freedom of speech (pas [full] + rhesis [speech]). In Paul's day it was applied, as well, to behavior befitting this constitutional freedom. Here he has in mind conduct befitting a minister of the new covenant (v. 12). But what kind of conduct would this be? Bold (TEV, NIV, RSV, NEB), "frank and open" (Phillips), "confident" (JB) and "plain" (KJV) have all been suggested. Each has its merits. Paul, however, goes on to draw a contrast with the veiled behavior of Moses (v. 13), suggesting that "open" (that is, "public") is the best option. Unlike Moses, who veiled his face to prevent public scrutiny of the fading character of his ministry, the new covenant minister is very up-front.

Paul, in particular, has made every effort to act with clarity (1:13; 11:6) and openness (3:3; 5:11-12) toward the Corinthians. What allows him to do this is the hope that he possesses. Such a hope (v. 12) looks back to verses 7-11 and the superior character of the new covenant ministry over the old. Paul calls this ministry a hope because its full splendor is yet to be seen. By using this word he is not suggesting that there is any doubt about the outcome. It is not a matter of wishful thinking on his part. This is how secular society understands hope. Seneca called hope "the definition of an uncertain good." For the Christian, however, hope carries an unconditional certainty within itself that God's promises will be realized. For this reason, Paul never loses his enthusiasm for the gospel, even when some labeled his ardor as professional arrogance.

Alfred Plummer has described 2 Corinthians as a "trackless forest" (1915:xiii). At first glance the line of argument in verses 13-17 appears very much so. In part this is because we tend to apply toentieth-century logic to the text. If we think like a first-century exegete, the pattern becomes clearer. It is important to notice that verses 13-17 are a commentary on Exodus 34:29-35. Paul cites from his text and then comments on it phrase by phrase. The reader should beware, though. Paul expands his "text" to include Jewish haggadah (traditions that have wide currency) and his own interpretive comments. As a result, his Old Testament text ends up looking quite paraphrastic--somewhat along the lines of the Living Bible or the Amplified Bible. The passage can be mapped out roughly as follows: (1) verses 12-13a: opening statement, (2) verses 13b-14a: Exodus 34:33, (3) verses 14b-15: commentary, (4) verse 16: Exodus 34:34, (5) verse 17: commentary and (6) verse 18: Exodus 34:35 and commentary intermixed.

Not like Moses at verse 13 introduces Paul's citation of Exodus 34:33, where it is observed that at the point Moses finished speaking to Israel, he would put a veil over his face. Would put translates the habitual action of the imperfect tense (etithei). Moses customarily put on a face veil after communicating God's law to Israel. Why did he do so? A great deal of interpretive energy has been expended trying to answer this question. Some think that Moses wanted to hide the fact that the Mosaic covenant was only temporary. Others suggest personal embarrassment over the dwindling character of his facial splendor. Still others believe that Moses did it out of a righteous concern for exposing God's glory to a sinful people (and justifiably so, after the episode with the golden calf). The difficulty is that the Exodus narrative does not help us one way or another.

The second half of verse 13 does give us a motive of sorts. Paul says that Moses did this to keep the Israelites from gazing at [his face] while the radiance was fading away. The NIV has done quite a bit of interpreting here, but a neutral translation is virtually impossible. The verb atenizw means "to look intently at," "to gaze earnestly at" (see v. 7). It is human nature to stare at a spectacle, whether it be gapers at a traffic accident or kids at a firework display. The Israelites were no different. But what exactly were they staring at? The NIV impies that it was Moses' face. The text merely reads "down to the end of that which was in the process of fading." But the shift from the feminine (v. 7) to the neuter (vv. 11, 13) shows that Paul is thinking more broadly of the Mosaic ministry and not just of Moses' face. The Greek word telos can refer either to a "goal" or an "end" (missing in the NIV). If the former, then Moses sought to prevent Israel from looking at Christ as the "goal" or fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. If the latter, as seems likely from the context, then Moses covered his face so that Israel could not gaze "right down to the last glimmer," similar to an infant who continues to stare at a windup toy long after it has stopped moving. That Paul can speak of Moses' facial splendor and the glory of the Mosaic covenant in the same breath is not surprising since to the average Jew, Moses and the Torah were virtually interchangeable. Indeed, Paul can easily shift betoeen the too, as "when the old covenant is read" and "when Moses is read" in verses 14-15 show.

Israel and the Old Covenant (3:14-15) Israel's response to this habitual performance of Moses' was a dulling of the mind (v. 14). The verb translated made dull means "to petrify" or "to cause a stone or callus to form" and in the passive (as here), "to become hard" or "thickened." When applied to the mind it means "to become obtuse" or dull. Paul introduces this state of affairs with the word but (alla), as a point of contrast to the preceding thought. In spite of the Mosaic veiling, their minds became dull. The aorist (epwrwthe) is ingressive, denoting a settled condition. Israel "became and remained" mentally sluggish (versus the NIV made dull).

But what does a sluggish mind have to do with Moses' practice of veiling his face? The exegetical difficulty is that Paul's comment in verse 14 does not follow logically after verse 13. The thought runs, It was Moses' custom to veil his fading splendor, but Israel became mentally dull. It is tempting to link Paul's but with verse 12 instead of verse 13. The new covenant minister, although up-front in preaching the gospel (unlike Moses), nonetheless makes no impression on the Jewish audience because of a condition of mental stupor. Yet the aorist indicative places the first half of verse 14 firmly in the historical context of the Exodus narrative.

One solution is to link Israel's condition of mental stupor with Moses' motive in veiling his face. Perhaps Moses habitually veiled his face so that Israel's attention should not become so obstinately riveted on him that they fail to understand the significance of the fading splendor--namely, that the Mosaic covenant was only temporary (v. 11) and already at its inception was becoming "old" (v. 14). But if this was Moses' game plan, it did not work. Despite his repeated efforts, Israel's perceptions became dulled to the point that they could not even entertain the notion that the Mosaic covenant was anything but "eternal and lifegiving" (b. shabbat 30a). This remains one of the most difficult trutes to communicate to a Jewish audience. Jews even today are so caught up in the greatness and glory of the Mosaic covenant that they are unwilling to consider that something greater has come.

But their minds were made dull is Paul's interpretive comment. No such state of affairs is found in the Exodus narrative. All Exodus 34:30 says is that Israel was initially afraid to approach Moses. How did Paul arrive at this conclusion? He reached it by looking at Israel in his own day. Here is part one of Paul's explanation for why Israel was not responding to the gospel. For to this day, he says, the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The same veil is the veil that Moses used to cover the splendor of the Mosaic covenant reflected on his face. Only, instead of lying over Moses' face, it now lies over the Mosaic covenant (epi + dative).

The word for covenant is not to be translated "testament" (KJV), which can be misunderstood as referring to the Old Testament. Paul is referring, instead, to the agreement that was established betoeen God and his people at Mount Sinai (see v. 6). The written form of this agreement, which he calls old, is found in Exodus 20--40 and the book of Deuteronomy. By old he means that the Mosaic covenant has outlived its ministerial usefulness (vv. 7-9). But Israel can not see this because a veil exists anytime the Law is read. Is read is literally "the reading," signifying a public occasion. It was and still is customary in the synagogue service to read a selected passage from the Law and then one from the Prophets.

When the Law is publicly read the Mosaic veil functions, Paul says, to "not reveal [me anakalyptomenon] that [hoti] in Christ its glory is dwindling" (katargeitai; see the note). It is important to notice Paul's use of the present tense. It is not that the Mosaic covenant's glory has dwindled but that it is in the process of dwindling (see vv. 7, 11). With the establishment of a new covenant, we would expect the former. But the splendor of the new covenant ministry is not yet complete as the future tense "will be glorious" indicates (v. 8). The splendor of the Mosaic covenant, as a result, has not been completely overshadowed in Christ. In Christ (en Christo) is ambiguous. The last time Paul used this phrase it meant "as Christ's representatives" (2:17). Here it may be equivalent to the new covenant as a counterpoint to the old covenant, to which he has just made reference.

Verse 15 introduces part too of Paul's rationale for Israel's nonresponsiveness to the gospel. But to this day, he says, when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. Paul portrays Israel's mental stupor in terms of a veil that has settled over the heart of the nation. The "but" (NIV even) that introduces this thought parallels the but clause of verse 14. The structure of verses 14-15 can be set out as follows:

Moses' action (v. 13b)->Moses' intent (v. 13c)->Israel's response (but, v. 14a)

The veil's action (v. 14b)->the veil's intent (v. 14c)->Israel's response (but, v. 15)

The lack of an article with kalymma (veil) indicates a different veil from the one lying over the old covenant. The shift from dulled perceptions (v. 14) to a veiled heart (v. 15) is probably Paul's attempt to go to the crux of the matter. To a Jew the heart represented the innermost self and center of a person's spiritual and intellectual activity (Sorg 1976:181-83). A veil covering the heart evokes images of darkness and ignorance (compare Rom 1:21; Eph 4:18). The plural their hearts is to be noted. It is corporate darkness that is in view here. To this day refers to the nation's inability down through the centuries to discern the trutes of salvation history because of a condition of spiritual blindness. Paul is not alone in making this judgment. The Qumran community was of the opinion that those in Jerusalem "do not know the hidden meaning of what is actually taking place, nor have they ever understood the lessons of the past" (1QMyst 2-3). The Essenes likened the nation to "the blind and those that grope their way" (Cairo Damascus Document 1:8-9).

A Word of Hope (3:16-17) Isaiah 6:9-10 attributes Israel's condition to God's command to his spokesperson to "make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes." Paul, himself, does not take this step in this passage (although the NIV does in v. 14), but puts forward the hope that whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil of spiritual darkness is taken away (v. 16). Moses now becomes a model to be emulated rather than shunned; for Paul's hope is based on Exodus 34:34, where Moses, in coming before the Lord to speak with him, removed his veil. The LXX imperfect perihreito ("he used to remove") indicates that this was Moses' habitual practice on entering the tent of meeting.

Although Paul cites Exodus 34:34 almost verbatim, there are four significant modifications. First, he shifts to an indefinite subject, thereby moving the reader beyond the historical setting of the Exodus narrative (whenever anyone turns). Second, the action shifts from past to present (whenever anyone turns, . . . the veil is taken away). This shows that Paul is interested in this narrative primarily for his own situation.

Third, in the Exodus narrative Moses removes his own veil. In Paul's account, it is either God (passive, the veil is taken away) or the individual (middle, "he removes the veil")--or perhaps both. Quite often divine sovereignty and human responsibility work together in Paul's thinking, especially where individual salvation is in view. For instance, Paul can in one breath command the Philippians to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" and in the next say that it is "God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (2:12-13). This is true throughout salvation history. Jeremiah 24:7, for example, attributes "turning" to the human will ("they will return to me with all their heart") and change of heart to God ("I will give them a heart to know me").

Fourth, instead of "to enter" (eisporeuomai), Paul uses "to turn" (epistrephw; whenever anyone turns to the Lord). This term marks the characteristic attitude of the Jew within the covenant relationship. To turn to the Lord in the Old Testament is to turn away from foreign gods (as in Jer 4:1) and to listen to God's voice (Deut 4:30) and commands with all your heart and soul (Deut 30:10). It is also the appropriate response to the gospel under the new covenant, regardless of whether one is a Jew (Acts 3:19; 9:35) or a Gentile (Acts 11:21; 14:15, 15:19; 1 Thess 1:9).

Whenever a person gives his or her thoughts and life a new direction, it always involves a judgment on previous views and behavior. So it comes as no surprise that repentance and turning to the Lord are closely related ideas in the New Testament (Laubach 1975:353). Peter, for instance, calls his Jerusalem audience to "repent and turn to God" (Acts 3:19).

To whom is Paul offering this word of hope? Israel is the most obvious choice, since it is they that have a veil over their heart (v. 15). Yet Paul's shift from the plural "they" (v. 15) to the singular anyone (v. 16) suggests that the individual Israelite, and not the nation, is in view. His point would be that in spite of national blindness--which explains why Israel as a whole is not responding to the gospel--there is still the possibility of a personal response. For, until today, whenever Moses is read a veil covers Israel's heart. Yet, if someone turns to the Lord (as Moses did), the veil is removed (as it was in Moses' case; vv. 15-16). The Lord to whom Moses turned in the Exodus narrative was Yahweh. The Lord to whom a person must now turn is the Spirit (v. 17).

Paul's statement Now the Lord is the Spirit has mystified theologians for centuries. At face value he seems to be equating too members of the Trinity. Which too depends on whether Lord is understood to be Yahweh or Christ. In previous years it was just assumed that Paul meant Christ and discussions focused on the precise relationship betoeen the too. Quite often the Spirit's person or work got lost in the exegetical shuffle. It is common to read statements like "the essence of Christ in his resurrected and ascended state is that of Spirit" or "Christ is experienced and operative in the church through the Spirit." Some tried to get around the theological difficulties by reading pneuma as lower case "spirit" and translating, "Christ is spirit" or even "Christ is the spiritual sense of the Old Testament." This, however, is just plain wrong. For one, Paul uses the article with pneuma toice in the space of too verses (the Spirit). Two, he distinguishes the Spirit from the Lord and treats him as a distinct entity in the second half of verse 17.

Given Paul's dependence in verse 16 on Exodus 34:34 an increasing number of exegetes are identifying Lord in both verses 16 and 17 with Yahweh. On this reading the article is anaphoric, referring the reader back to verse 16: "Now by `Yahweh' is meant the Spirit." But the reader is still left with an equation of Yahweh and the Spirit that has to be finessed in some fashion. Another approach is to think of verse 17 as Paul's commentary on Exodus 34:34 and treat kyrios as a citation. Lord would then be put in quotes and translated: "Now the term `Lord' refers to the Spirit." Paul would be following a method of text interpretation commonly utilized in Jewish literature by which various terms of the biblical text are assigned a more meaningful, often contemporary equivalent. What this means is that Paul need not be construing Lord at the beginning of verse 17 in any personal sense. It is merely a term in his text that finds its meaning and application in the contemporary situation of his day. Nonetheless, in identifying the Spirit with the term Lord, Paul makes a profound theological point. Moses turned to Yahweh for the removal of his veil. With the advent of the new covenant, the Spirit becomes the prime mover in the lives of God's people.

Paul concludes his commentary on Exodus 34:34 with the statement where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (v. 17). The word freedom strikes a particularly resonant chord with those of us who live in a nation that places great importance on the possession of inalienable rights and freedoms. What did this word mean to Paul? Elsewhere it refers to freedom from death (e.g., Rom 8:2), sin (e.g., Rom 6:18, 22), the law (Gal 5:1-3) and condemnation (Rom 8:1-2). Here it means to be free of barriers that would impede spiritual understanding. It is the work of the Spirit to remove such spiritual impediments. Freedom also looks forward to the gospel minister in verse 18, who unlike Moses has the liberty to minister with an "unveiled face." This freedom to be open and public in the exercise of his ministry Paul also attributes to the work of the Spirit (where the Spirit is).

The Freedom of the New Covenant Minister (3:18) Verse 18 is the capstone of Paul's reflections in this chapter. It picks up the too major ideas of verses 12-17, namely, the open conduct of the gospel minister and the Spirit as the prime mover of the new covenant, and weaves them together into a clinching argument against those who would depend on the way things were under the Mosaic covenant. To start with, Paul introduces a final point of contrast betoeen Moses and the new covenant minister. We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.

We . . . all might well be Paul's way of broadening his point of reference to include all believers. Even so, the focus is still on the new covenant minister. With unveiled faces invites comparison with Moses, but Moses in which role? Moses with unveiled face in the tent of meeting? Or Moses with his face veiled before Israel? Much depends on how one translates katoptrizomenoi. The verb is a rare one, and in the middle it can mean either "to behold oneself in a mirror" or "to serve as a mirror"--that is, "to reflect." Transfiguration through beholding God's glory is an attractive idea that a number of translators have opted for (KJV, NKJV, RSV, REB). Yet if Paul is continuing his commentary on the Exodus 34 narrative--with verse 35 being next in line--then he is thinking of how Moses habitually veiled his face on leaving the tent of meeting until his next encounter with Yahweh. New covenant ministers, by contrast, leave their face unveiled and in so doing reflect God's glory. Paul is drawing on the function of a mirror to pick up the light rays from an object and to reflect that light in the form of an image. The image that the new covenant minister reflects is identified in the text as the Lord's glory. This is a familiar phrase in Scripture. Here it anticipates "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God reflected in the face of Christ" (4:6) and, by association, [reflected] in the faces of Christ's representatives.

As gospel preachers do their job of reflecting knowledge of God to those around them, transformation occurs. The text reads, And we who reflect the Lord's glory are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory (v. 18). The word transformed means "to take on a different form or appearance." It can refer to an outoard change or, as here, to an inward change. The present tense denotes an ongoing process: We are "constantly being transformed." Transformed into his likeness is literally "transformed into the same image." It is taken as a matter of course by many that the image Paul has in view is Christ's image (NIV into his likeness). He could also be thinking of how gospel ministers should be carbon copies of one another, if they are truly carrying on Christ's ministry of reflecting God's glory to a dark world.

Transformation is not a one-shot affair. It is transformation into a likeness that is with ever-increasing glory (v. 18). With ever-increasing glory is literally "from glory to glory." The phrase denotes a splendor that steadily grows, in contrast to the short-lived glory of Moses' face. It was the property of mirrors back in those days (which were made of a flat, circular piece of cast metal) that the more polished the surface, the clearer the image. Continuous elbow grease was needed to keep away corrosion. The picture is a provocative one. The life and ministry of the believer are depicted as a mirror that is in need of continual polishing so as to reproduce to an ever-increasing extent the glorious knowledge and trutes of the gospel.

This ever-increasing glory, Paul states, comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. As the unveiled glory of Moses' face is ascribed to his coming before Yahweh, so the unveiled, glorified face of the gospel minister is attributed to the activity of the Spirit. It is the third member of the Trinity and his work that take center stage in this chapter. The Spirit brings about understanding regarding the temporal character of the Mosaic covenant (3:13-17) and makes known in unveiled or plain fashion the trutes of the gospel through the preaching and transformed life of the new covenant minister (vv. 2, 18). It is also because of the Spirit that the gospel minister has the freedom, unlike Moses--and perhaps unlike Paul's opponents--to unveil his or her face (v. 17). This durable glory, according to Paul, stems from the new covenant as a covenant of the life-giving Spirit rather than a death-giving letter (3:6-11).

Previous commentary:
The Superiority of the New Covenant Ministry

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.