Text: 2 Cor 3:1-18
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Have you ever noticed that it is almost normal to begin the Christian life with glorious and joyful experiences which deeply impact friends and family? (All of the immediate family followed me into the church and were saved, plus some old friends.) Yet with time this so-called “honeymoon period” of God’s immediate presence seems to fade away. This draining away of glory often occurs on a larger scale too e.g. revival movements e.g. Methodism, Pentecostalism, within two generations become institutionalised and lose the holy fire of God (what has happened to the spiritual gifts in the “assemblies of God”).
Back in the 70’s, when I became a believer, a seasoned Baptist pastor came away from a camp testifying that “the people’s faces were glowing” such was the intensity of God’s presence (Ps 34:5).
Today as we see a largely intimidated Church that has lost confidence in the power of the gospel to turn things “upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Is the problem our “lack of commitment”?
We have all heard exhortations from pastors or evangelists telling us of the urgency to communicate Christ to lost people, but these appeals are rarely productive because boldness before man is a fruit of boldness before God and the average Australian Christian is not bold with God; if they were bold with God we would have a praying Church, which we don’t. Our lack of spiritual confidence shows we have fallen away from the very reason why humanity was created, which is to behold the glory of God and to become one with that glory.
As it says in Isaiah, v.6 “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, v.7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”” (Isa 43:6-7).
One of the early Church Fathers famously put it like this, “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (Irenaeus).
Who is “beholding God” today?
These facts are open to anyone’s observation, but the reason I believe that the Spirit wants to speak to the Church about these things stems from an encounter at our “Looking To Jesus” prayer meeting which runs in Perth every Friday morning. We do not focus on prayer for revival, church growth, ministry matters, health, prosperity or even the salvation of the lost. Rather, we are asking for “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1; Col 1:16).
Several weeks ago the passage which someone shared as the subject for our prayers was 2 Corinthians 3. 2 Corinthians 3 is perhaps the clearest passage in the New Testament which talks about the danger of taking our eyes off “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”, this is the problem of trying to keep the law as though we were still under the old covenant (2 Cor 4:6)
A Stark Contrast
To be a Christian is to belong to a covenant essentially new in nature compared to the old.
In 2 Corinthians Paul seems to contrast the old and new covenants in nearly every possible way:
|Tablets of stone||Tablets of human hearts|
|Letter which kills||Spirit who brings life|
|Ministry of condemnation||Ministry of righteousness|
|Passing glory||Permanent glory|
|Moses : the Lord, a veiled heart||Unveiled face|
As the writer of Hebrews sums up, “speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (9:13). If things were that simple this passage to the Corinthians would never have been penned let alone Galatians and Hebrews. Sometimes it seems like the glory of the new covenant can be as fading as that of the old; the reason for this experience is why Paul is writing.
Paul contrasts two glories.
The first is the glory of God which came upon Moses when he received the Law at Sinai (Ex 34:29-35). “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory…there was glory in the ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:7, 9).
Even though the letter of the Law brought death, because Moses had been in the presence of God he was transfigured so that his face was shining with glory (3:6; Ex 34:30).
This glory was very real but Paul emphasises it was temporary by saying three times it was “being brought to an end” (2 Cor 3:7, 11, 13). Law never had a permanent or central place in God’s purposes (Rom 5:12-21; Gal 3:15-20).
The Lord had something better in mind with the new covenant; “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” (2 Cor 3:10-11). Moses put a veil over his face to hide from the Israelites the fading nature of the glory he had received; but the glory we see in the face of Jesus is the unfading glory of his own eternal life (2 Cor 3:13).
When I was a young minister I had no idea about these things and thought I needed somehow to sustain the presence of the glory of God in the church by my uncompromising preaching. I well remember someone coming to me and cautioning me that I was spiritually striving, but at the time I couldn’t/wouldn’t listen. My drivenness eventually led to a church split.
Whenever a committed religious person feels that they have lost the glory of the presence of God they will turn to self-sufficiency rather than dependence on the Spirit.
This is why Paul commences this passage with a warning, v.5 “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, v.6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:5-6).
The story is told of an aged Chinese pastor who after suffering much for his faith was taken to America. After a time someone asked him; “What impresses you most about the Church in the United States?” He replied, “How much you can achieve without God.”
You cannot behold the fullness of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and suffer burnout.
I read this passage from The Message to someone a few days ago:
““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”” (Matt 11:28-30).
Spiritual stress can be traced back to the impact of the tyranny of the Law on the human conscience; which is a chronic heart condition.
What Sort of a Heart?The Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God on stone (Ex 31:18) but the prophets promised a new dispensation of S/spirit in a new heart. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idol… And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezek 36:26-27).
This prophecy is fulfilled every time someone is born again of “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Central to the identity of every new believer in Jesus is a soft heart sensitive to the Spirit of God. Tragically this softness is rarely sustained.
I can remember where and when I first hardened my heart and said “No” to God; as if my heart was a heart of stone.
In my confusion I came to believe that Jeremiah 17:9 applied to me, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Let me use an illustration to explain what I am getting at.
At a prayer summit a brother boldly stood up and prayed to “the Lord”, “My heart is as hard as the stone country in the North West.” Rather than give this chap a lesson in the new covenant I quietly took him aside and asked, “Are you a peach, soft on the outside and hard in the centre, or a tortoise, hard on the outside but soft underneath?”
What do you think he replied? (Tortoise).
Believers certainly can harden their hearts, but only when they are deceived about the heart’s true condition before God, a deception that is fed by their experience of the law (Heb 3:12-13). Israel of old continually hardened their hearts because the letters on stone beginning with “You shall not… (murder… adultery…steal…false witness…)” continually reminded them that they were hateful, covetous, lying, lustful and dishonest.
No wonder they hardened their hearts. But the Spirit writes on our hearts not the letter of the law which kills but the righteousness of Christ which brings life (2 Cor 3:6, 9).
Jesus Writes in the Spirit
Day by day the Spirit is writing on our hearts the life of Christ.
I see this clearly in the story of the woman caught in adultery.
The Pharisees challenged Jesus to condemn her to death (John 8:3-5) but “he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” (John 8:6). No doubt this reminded the legalistic Pharisees of how God wrote with his own finger one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Deut 31:18).
They believed that the penalty for breaking this command was set in stone because it felt like this to their own stony hearts (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22, 24).
Of course Christians are never like Pharisees, are they?
I remember listening to a teaching about this passage and the speaker suggested that Christ wrote words on the ground that exposed the hearts of the woman’s accusers; words like “liar, hypocrite”. (What do you think?) This interpretation is impossibly wrong as it would give to Jesus a ministry of judgement and condemnation, something he repeatedly denies (John 3:17; 8:11; 12:47-50).
All the commandments undergo a radical transformation through the life of Christ because of his relationship with the Spirit. Let me open this up a little.
In Luke 12:28 Jesus says “I by the finger of God cast out demons”, in Matthew’s parallel it is, “I by the Spirit of God cast out demons.” (12:28). So whatever the finger of God in Christ is writing on the ground is written by the agency of the Spirit, not according to “the ministry of condemnation” but by the Spirit’s ministry of “righteousness” (2 Cor 3:8-9).
We don’t know what Jesus wrote on the ground, but we do know the meaning of those words written by the Spirit. As the end of the story shows the meaning of those words is, “No condemnation” (John 8:11). “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17).
Paul testified, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:4-5). As Jesus was born under the Law and born of God the Spirit was constantly writing the requirements of the Law on his heart of flesh, commands which he completely fulfilled (Luke 1:35; Heb 4:15).
In this positive sense Jesus is “the end of the law” on our behalf for he has perfectly kept all the requirements of the law for us (Rom 10:4). This good news but is only half of the story, because the law not only commands obedience but law prescribes penalties for lawbreakers, like us.
To understand what Jesus did for our lawbreaking requires answering the question, “What was the Spirit writing on the heart of Jesus at the point when he cried out in terrible dereliction from the cross, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34).
Since Jesus is personally sinless he is guiltless, and it is impossible, in the words of 1 John 3:19-21, that his heart was condemning him. His was a perfectly pure heart that had always seen the glory of God (Matt 5:8).
If however Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree” then he carried the penalty for our sin and “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56; 1 Pet 2:24).
Let me share a typological/prophetic way of understanding Jesus’ experience of the impact of the Law on the heart of the sinner. (The following is not careful biblical exposition but the way God led us in through the scriptures in prayer.)
Psalm 68 is a messianic psalm (68:18>Eph 4:8) and in verse 17 the psalmist tells us “Sinai is now in the sanctuary” (68:17). The awesome presence of God on Mt Sinai at the giving of the Law with fire, gloom, darkness, smoke and wrath was so intense that Hebrews tells us that even the covenant mediator Moses said, “I tremble with fear”, this is what entered into the temple at Jerusalem where the sacrifices of the Law were offered continually to keep peace with God (Ex 19:18; 20:18; Deut 4:11; 5:22; Heb 10:11; 12:20).
Christians know that the old covenant temple and its sacrifices was only a type of the real temple of Jesus’ own body (John 2:21).
This means that at Calvary all the terror which the delivering of the Law at Sinai struck the fallen human conscience was taken into Christ on the cross; it is like the heart of Jesus himself becomes the tablet upon which the condemning power of the Law is written against a fallen rebellious humanity.
If the terrifying traumatic scene of the giving of the law at Sinai was a taste and prefiguration of hell then on the cross Jesus endures the fullness of what the law does to the guilty consciences of law breakers. For us this is the best news, as Paul can boldly proclaim, “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”(Rom 7:4).
The penalty of the law has been fully taken away because Christ has borne it to the full; we no longer belong to the realm of law and death but to that of Spirit and life. This translation from the old to the new is directly related to Christ’s resurrection.
If the Spirit wrote the penalty of the law with grief on the heart of Christ crucified (Gen 6:5-6; Lam 3:33) he wrote the Father’s joy on Christ’s heart when he raised him from the dead; “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead,” (Rom 1:4).
As the perfected human being Jesus is no longer a Son under the Law. The cry, “Abba Father”, which is first his and now ours, is conveyed by the Spirit in complete freedom from the law (Gal 4:4-6). We are now no more “under law” than Jesus is (Rom 6:14; 1 John 4:17). This means that the Christian relationship with God’s law has been radically transformed.
The Law Which is Written on our Hearts
When God made a promise in the Old Testament of a coming new covenant he stated, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (Jer 31:33). In New Testament terms it is the Spirit who writes the law of the Lord on our hearts. Now the truly exciting news is that the law of the Spirit written on our hearts is a law already kept by Christ; “Christ in us the hope of glory” is the one who never had an idol, committed adultery or murder, bore false witness and so on, the law as fulfilled by Christ written on our hearts can never condemn us (Rom 8:2-4; Col 1:27)
With Christ at the centre of our thinking about the law it becomes, as James puts it, “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 2:12) and as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. In Christ law and Spirit are in a perfect life-giving unity. The conscience of the Christian has been set free from trying to conform to the old covenant law or the family code or the spouse’s commands or the peer group or the church rules etc.
The Spirit writes the law on our hearts daily upholding the character of Christ to whom we are called to conform by his power (John 14-16; Rom 8:29).
This is challenging but not at all threatening, for our security is in Jesus and not our own performance. But it is exactly at this point that there is massive confusion in the Church.
The lack of boldness in approaching God and testifying to people is a sign that we are carrying a sense of condemnation which veils the grace of the Spirit in our hearts.
Missing the Spirit
Many times over the years I have heard the following passage quoted of the work of the Spirit in the life of believers, “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:” (John 16:8). This word “convict” means prosecuting an accused party and finding them guilty before the court room of God in an act of judgement (cf. Jer 2:19; Hos 5:9).
This is exactly what the Spirit does to “the world”, but he does not and cannot “convict” the believer like this because in Christ judgement has been taken away (Col 1:22). To think otherwise reveals a fundamental confusion about the very nature of the gospel. The sons of God may be accused and condemned by Satan as breakers of God’s law but this is never the testimony of the Spirit (Rev 12:10).
I don’t expect the average Christian or pastor to confess their own spirituality is based on a mixing of law and Spirit, but in Romans 6:14 Paul sets up a litmus test about these things; “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
The lack of discipleship in the Church testifies that much of our effort is based on striving to keep the law as though it had not already been kept by Christ.
The remedy is a restoration of “exceeding, surpassing and permanent glory” which Paul concentrates on in 2 Corinthians 3. This glory is fully seen only in the “image of God” who is Christ (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).
The Spirit formed the image of God in Christ through incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection (Matt 1:18, 20; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 9:14).
Paul’s converts became letters from Christ written by the Spirit because Christ in them is the perfect letter of the Father written by the Spirit as the fulfilment of the law (2 Cor 3:1-3; Eph 3:16-17; Col 1:27).
The Spirit has renewed the image and glory of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the Jews were fascinated by the physical radiance of the shining face of Moses many today want to believe signs and wonders in the physical world will somehow bring lasting revival. This is impossible.
The Spirit loves to reveal the glory of God and he has done this most fully in the renewal of the image of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
If the Church pursues conformity to this image of glory it will always experience an unveiling of the presence of God in her midst.
It is the depth of our desire to reflect this image of glory that has been tried and found wanting in the last generation.
Let me finish with some words from Jesus about the work of the Spirit which complement the teaching of Paul. Speaking from his own experience Christ prophesied, v.19 “do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. v.20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt 10:19-20).
This is tremendously encouraging, but it will only empower us if we accept the wider context of the promise; “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matt 10:25).
The Pharisees accused Jesus of being possessed by “Beelzebul, the prince of demons” because he was operating in the power of “the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:23, 28).
Suffering believers across the globe, from Syria to China instinctively understand these things.
When a friend of mine returned to Australia from Afghanistan after being imprisoned for 100 days by the Taliban she came to the conviction that her church at home had become Ichabod, “the glory of God has departed” (1 Sam 4:21).
Surely she could only spiritually see these things because suffering had brought her into the open-faced presence of God of which Paul speaks; v.17 “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. v.18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:16-18).
These are great promises, but do we really want to inherit them through death-and-resurrection or will we go on preferring the way of law?