1* a Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2You are our letter,* written on our hearts, known and read by all, 3* b shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.
4* Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God,c 6who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit;d for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.*
Contrast with the Old Covenant. 7* Now if the ministry of death,* carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade,e 8how much more* will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? 9For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. 10Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. 11For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.
12Therefore, since we have such hope,* we act very boldly 13and not like Moses,* who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not look intently at the cessation of what was fading. 14Rather, their thoughts were rendered dull, for to this present day* the same veil remains unlifted when they read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away. 15To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts,f 16but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.g 17Now the Lord is the Spirit,* and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18* All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.h
* [3:1] Paul seems to allude to certain preachers who pride themselves on their written credentials. Presumably they reproach him for not possessing similar credentials and compel him to spell out his own qualifications (2 Cor 4:2; 5:12; 6:4). The Corinthians themselves should have performed this function for Paul (2 Cor 5:12; cf. 2 Cor 12:11). Since he is forced to find something that can recommend him, he points to them: their very existence constitutes his letter of recommendation (2 Cor 3:1–2). Others who engage in self-commendation will also be mentioned in 2 Cor 10:12–18.
* [3:2–3] Mention of “letters of recommendation” generates a series of metaphors in which Paul plays on the word “letter”: (1) the community is Paul’s letter of recommendation (2 Cor 3:2a); (2) they are a letter engraved on his affections for all to see and read (2 Cor 3:2b); (3) they are a letter from Christ that Paul merely delivers (2 Cor 3:3a); (4) they are a letter written by the Spirit on the tablets of human hearts (2 Cor 3:3b). One image dissolves into another.
* [3:3] This verse contrasts Paul’s letter with those written…in ink (like the credentials of other preachers) and those written…on tablets of stone (like the law of Moses). These contrasts suggest that the other preachers may have claimed special relationship with Moses. If they were Judaizers zealous for the Mosaic law, that would explain the detailed contrast between the old and the new covenants (2 Cor 3:6; 4:7–6:10). If they were charismatics who claimed Moses as their model, that would explain the extended treatment of Moses himself and his glory (2 Cor 3:7–4:6). Hearts of flesh: cf. Ezekiel’s contrast between the heart of flesh that the Spirit gives and the heart of stone that it replaces (Ez 36:26); the context is covenant renewal and purification that makes observance of the law possible.
* [3:4–6] These verses resume 2 Cor 2:1–3:3. Paul’s confidence (2 Cor 3:4) is grounded in his sense of God-given mission (2 Cor 2:17), the specifics of which are described in 2 Cor 3:1–3. 2 Cor 3:5–6 return to the question of his qualifications (2 Cor 2:16), attributing them entirely to God. 2 Cor 3:6 further spells out the situation described in v 3b and “names” it: Paul is living within a new covenant, characterized by the Spirit, which gives life. The usage of a new covenant is derived from Jer 31:31–33 a passage that also speaks of writing on the heart; cf. 2 Cor 3:2.
* [3:6] This verse serves as a topic sentence for 2 Cor 3:7–6:10. For the contrast between letter and spirit, cf. Rom 2:29; 7:5–6.
* [3:7–4:6] Paul now develops the contrast enunciated in 2 Cor 3:6b in terms of the relative glory of the two covenants, insisting on the greater glory of the new. His polemic seems directed against individuals who appeal to the glorious Moses and fail to perceive any comparable glory either in Paul’s life as an apostle or in the gospel he preaches. He asserts in response that Christians have a glory of their own that far surpasses that of Moses.
* [3:7] The ministry of death: from his very first words, Paul describes the Mosaic covenant and ministry from the viewpoint of their limitations. They lead to death rather than life (2 Cor 3:6–7; cf. 2 Cor 4:7–5:10), to condemnation rather than reconciliation (2 Cor 3:9; cf. 2 Cor 5:11–6:10). Was so glorious: the basic text to which Paul alludes is Ex 34:29–35 to which his opponents have undoubtedly laid claim. Going to fade: Paul concedes the glory of Moses’ covenant and ministry, but grants them only temporary significance.
* [3:8–11] How much more: the argument “from the less to the greater” is repeated three times (2 Cor 3:8, 9, 11). 2 Cor 3:10 expresses another point of view: the difference in glory is so great that only the new covenant and ministry can properly be called “glorious” at all.
* [3:12] Such hope: the glory is not yet an object of experience, but that does not lessen Paul’s confidence. Boldly: the term parrēsia expresses outspoken declaration of Christian conviction (cf. 2 Cor 4:1–2). Paul has nothing to hide and no reason for timidity.
* [3:13–14a] Not like Moses: in Exodus Moses veiled his face to protect the Israelites from God’s reflected glory. Without impugning Moses’ sincerity, Paul attributes another effect to the veil. Since it lies between God’s glory and the Israelites, it explains how they could fail to notice the glory disappearing. Their thoughts were rendered dull: the problem lay with their understanding. This will be expressed in 2 Cor 3:14b–16 by a shift in the place of the veil: it is no longer over Moses’ face but over their perception.
* [3:14b–16] The parallelism in these verses makes it necessary to interpret corresponding parts in relation to one another. To this present day: this signals the shift of Paul’s attention to his contemporaries; his argument is typological, as in 1 Cor 10. The Israelites of Moses’ time typify the Jews of Paul’s time, and perhaps also Christians of Jewish origin or mentality who may not recognize the temporary character of Moses’ glory. When they read the old covenant: the lasting dullness prevents proper appraisal of Moses’ person and covenant. When his writings are read in the synagogue, a veil still impedes their understanding. Through Christ: i.e., in the new covenant. Whenever a person turns to the Lord: Moses in Exodus appeared before God without the veil and gazed on his face unprotected. Paul applies that passage to converts to Christianity: when they turn to the Lord fully and authentically, the impediment to their understanding is removed.
* [3:17] The Lord is the Spirit: the “Lord” to whom the Christian turns (2 Cor 3:16) is the Spirit of whom Paul has been speaking, the life-giving Spirit of the living God (2 Cor 3:6, 8), the inaugurator of the new covenant and ministry, who is also the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of the Lord: the Lord here is the living God (2 Cor 3:3), but there may also be an allusion to Christ as Lord (2 Cor 3:14, 16). Freedom: i.e., from the ministry of death (2 Cor 3:7) and the covenant that condemned (2 Cor 3:9).
* [3:18] Another application of the veil image. All of us…with unveiled face: Christians (Israelites from whom the veil has been removed) are like Moses, standing in God’s presence, beholding and reflecting his glory. Gazing: the verb may also be translated “contemplating as in a mirror”; 2 Cor 4:6 would suggest that the mirror is Christ himself. Are being transformed: elsewhere Paul speaks of transformation, conformity to Jesus, God’s image, as a reality of the end time, and even 2 Cor 3:12 speaks of the glory as an object of hope. But the life-giving Spirit, the distinctive gift of the new covenant, is already present in the community (cf. 2 Cor 1:22, the “first installment”), and the process of transformation has already begun. Into the same image: into the image of God, which is Christ (2 Cor 4:4).
a. [3:1] Acts 18:27; Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 16:3.
b. [3:3] Ex 24:12; 31:18; 32:15–19 / Jer 31:33; Ez 11:19; 36:26–27.
d. [3:6] Eph 3:7 / Jer 31:31–34.
h. [3:18] Rom 8:29–30; 12:2; Gal 4:19; Phil 3:10, 20–21 / 4:4–6; 1 Cor 15:49; Col 1:15; 3:9–11; 1 Jn 3:2.