It is all too easy to be overly impressed with a list of credentials and to lose sight of the fact that inward change, not outward achievement, is what validates someone in God's eyes. Such a misplaced emphasis often follows from the need for some kind of objective standard by which to evaluate a person's competence. Paul faced this problem as well. So he tries to give the Corinthians an objective standard by which to judge his competency as a minister of the gospel (5:12). But he also recognizes that competency in the ministry is something that is God-given rather than humanly achieved—a fact that is often forgotten in a twentieth-century culture that is oriented toward such overt signs of approval as applause and kudos.
Paul fears that his claim to possess divine references could be construed as overconfidence. To forestall such an allegation he interjects a series of disclaimers. His first disclaimer is that such confidence as he exhibits before God is his only through Christ (v. 4). Before God is better rendered "toward God" (see note). Through Christ (dia tou Christou) defines the basis for his confidence. Paul is probably thinking of his commissioning by Christ on the road to Damascus as apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-19; 26:12-18). It was a commissioning uniquely his, yet not because of any competency that he himself possessed. Indeed, Paul freely admits elsewhere that he is the "least of the apostles" (1 Cor 15:9) and the "worst of sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). Here he merely states, as a second disclaimer, that he does not possess any competency in and of himself (v. 5). The Greek is literally "not that we are competent to reckon anything as of ourselves" (ouch hoti . . . hikanoi esmen logisasthai ti hos ex heauton). The Greek verb for to reckon means "to credit to one's own abilities." "There is nothing in us that allows us to claim that we are capable of doing this work" (TEV) catches the gist of Paul's statement. Competency in our society is largely determined by whether we are able "to get the job done." Ministerial competency, by contrast, issues not from self but from God, who has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—Paul's third and final disclaimer (vv. 5-6).
Verse 6 functions as a transition to an extended treatment of the superiority of the new covenant or Spirit ministry over the old covenant or letter ministry. The emphasis throughout is on ministry. The terms diakonia (ministry) and diakonos (minister) occur five times in verses 6-11. In fact, close to 40 percent of all Pauline uses of both nominal and verbal forms appear in 2 Corinthians. Paul's point is that competence as a minister lies in the competency of the ministry represented. Paul's competence stems from being a minister of a new covenant. Diathekh should be translated covenant, not "testament" (KJV; corrected in the NKJV), and it should not be capitalized. There were no Old and New Testaments in Paul's day, only "the Scriptures." "New Testament" applies to the Christian writings that were given canonical status alongside the Jewish Scriptures. The process of canonization was a long one. Clement of Alexandria (c. 215) and Origen (c. 250) are the earliest church fathers to distinguish between "old" and "new testament" writings. Canon 59, which was issued by the Synod of Laodicea in A.D. 363, is the first church document to use the phrase "new testament" of a distinct body of literature. The actual phrase "canon of the new testament" does not appear until about A.D. 400 in Macarius Magnes's Apocriticus 4.10 (Belleville 1994:375-76).
The language of new covenant comes from Jeremiah 31:31-34, the only place in the Old Testament where this phrase occurs: " `The time is coming,' declares the LORD, `when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers.'"
A covenant, simply put, is an agreement into which too parties enter. It can be a bilateral agreement between equals or a unilateral arrangement where the terms are dictated by one, superior party. God's covenants with his people are of the latter kind.
The word new (kainos) denotes that which is qualitatively better as compared with what has existed until now (Haarbeck, Link and Brown 1976:670). This is borne out in how Paul describes the new as opposed to the old arrangement between God and his people. The character of the old covenant is that it is of letter (grammatos) and kills. The new covenant, on the other hand, is of Spirit (pneumatos) and gives life. Both nouns are in the genitive case and lack the article. Letter and Spirit are therefore descriptive terms, setting forth the quality or nature of their respective covenants. What is qualitatively better about the new covenant is that it is not a letter covenant—that is, an external code—but a Spirit covenant—that is, an internal power. A covenant that is letter in nature kills because it makes external demands without giving the inward power for obedience, while a covenant that is Spirit in character gives life because it works internally to produce a change of nature. Paul describes this change of nature elsewhere as a "new self" created "to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph 4:24).
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