2 Corinthians 3:1b-6


2 Corinthians 3:1  (Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?)  Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?

The final sentence in the previous chapter reads thus: "At least we don't peddle an impure Word of God like many others, but in Christ we talk sincerely as men who come from God and stand before God" (AAT). From experience Paul knew that his adversaries would turn this statement against him. It is clear from 3:1 that Paul had been accused of commending himself to the Corinthians congregation.

The second question throws light on the first question. Note that it begin with "do we" which requires a negative answer. "Some people" are plainly his adversaries. Paul is implying that these people had used letters of commendation either from or to the Corinthians. The two prepositional phrases are adjectival, distinguishing letters of recommendation to and from the Corinthians.

Tasker: As a minister of the Gospel Paul has never made use of testimonial letters written by other Christians; and he does not intend to write one in his own interest.
Kretzmann: This is a fine bit of irony directed against the false apostles and Judaizing teachers. It seems that some of these, upon their arrival at Corinth, produced such letters written by prominent members of the older congregations, especially by men with Judaizing tendencies.
Rienecker: Letters of recommendation were generally requests for help and hospitality for aid in seeking employment or instruction based on the virtues of the one introduced and the opportunity of the recipient to express his loyalty to the writer.
Lenski: There are those who certainly need many letters to have people accept them . . . These false teachers who broke into Corinth, appear to have come with letters of recommendation.
Hughes: Paul's implication here is that those to whom he is referring are unworthy adventurers with unreliable credentials.

2 Corinthians 3:2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.

In the Greek text verses 2-3 constitute one period. The main clause is the first words of verse 2: "Our epistle you are." The three participles which follow are adjectival. Verse 3 is an extension and amplification of the first main clause. This time it is:  "You are Christ's epistle" again modified and qualified by two participles. "Our" refers either to Paul only or to Paul and his helpers, Silas and Timothy. All our versions, except RSV, read "in our hearts." RSV reads the variant reading: "on your hearts." We think "our" is correct. It shows Paul's great love for his converts.

Now follow the two participles: "constantly recognized and read by all men." The "all men" were, of course, those who knew them in Corinth. What could they recognize and read? The same as Paul mentions at 2 Corinthians 5:17: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." 

One cannot hide true Christianity. It will show. It is paradoxical that these Corinthians who caused Paul so much trouble nevertheless are told that their Christianity shows before all Corinthians.

Hughes: It is the transformation of their lives by the power of the Gospel which presents incontrovertible testimony to the world at large of the genuineness of Paul's apostleship.
Plummer: The asyndeton is effective, and the two pronouns are in telling juxtaposition . . . No other testimonial is needed, either TO the Corinthians or FROM them. They know what Apostolic teaching has done for them; and all the world can see this also.

2 Corinthians 3:3 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, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

As mentioned above, this verse is an extension and amplification of verse 2. They were Paul's letter. True. But they were more than that. English idiom requires either an adverb, thus KJV and NKJV: "You are manifestly, etc." or a verb, thus RSV and NIV: "you show that, etc." or an impersonal verb, thus TEV and JB: "it is clear that, etc." NASB translates literally: "being manifested that, etc." 

Again we have "this letter" but this time it is of Christ.  "Christ" is subjective genitive. Christ is the Author of the letter. The Corinthians are Christ's message to their city. "Result of our ministry" is translated variously by the versions. NIV covers what all have in common. Paul is saying that he and his helpers were simply the human agents in bringing about their conversion to Christianity.

"Written," again we have a form of the perfect passive. Lenski thinks that Paul is using the figure of a public monument which all passers-by can read. It is not an ordinary letter written in ink. It is inscribed by the Spirit of the living God. It is written not on stone tablets. This lends weight to Lenski's interpretation. Paul is not yet talking about the tablets of verse 7. Paul continues to say in verse 3 that they are written on tablets, fleshly hearts.

To summarize: verse 3 tells us that this epistle was inscribed by the Holy Spirit on the fleshly hearts of the Corinthian Christians. This is again another way of saying: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." 2 Corinthians 5:17. Here we have the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33.

Kretzmann: Christ the Author, the Holy Ghost the Transmitter of divine power, Paul the secretary and minister.
Lenski: Paul thinks of all men reading how indissolubly the Corinthian congregation is united in heart and soul with the heart and soul of Paul and of his assistants.

What has happened to the false teachers who gave Paul trouble? They have been forgotten for many centuries. But Paul and his congregation have never been forgotten. They are a monument to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Paul is vindicated by the judgment of history.

2 Corinthians 3:4 Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.

At this point the Nestle Greek text and most modern translations start a new paragraph. Verses 4-6 grow out of verses 1-3 but have a new thought. This new thought centers in a set of three cognates, forms of  "competence." 

JB translates verse 4: "Before God, we are confident of this through Christ." Verse 4 points back to verses 1-3. Paul had good cause to be confident. His confidence was anything but self-confidence or self-esteem. Christ is the channel through whom the confidence flows to Paul. "Before God" phrase denotes the face-to-face relationship of the honest, humble Christian who gives God all the credit. Paul says this with full knowledge that God knows what he is saying.

2 Corinthians 3:5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

Four of our translations preserve the idea of cognate words in verses 5-6. NKJV reads: "sufficient -- sufficiency -- made us sufficient." RSV reads: "competent -- competence -- made us competent." TEV reads: "capable -- capacity -- made us capable." And JB: "Qualified -- qualification -- gives us the qualifications." 

Note how the two prepositional phrases shut out every possibility of Paul and his helpers claiming any honor or credit for the Christianity of their congregations. Nonetheless Paul is not denying their own capability. He knew that they were capable. No false humility here. But their capability was not of human origin. Contextually "to claim" must mean to think or originate something in the spiritual sphere. Quite to the contrary, their sufficiency is of God.

Paul is not speaking about the qualifications for the Christian ministry. These are found at 1 Timothy 3:27 and Titus 1:6-9. In only two areas are pastor required to be superior to ordinary Christians: the ability to teach and Christian maturity. Otherwise the qualifications for the ministry are the same as they are for all Christians.

In our text Paul is speaking about the inability of man's natural powers to will or do anything in the spiritual sphere. The Book of Concord uses verses 5-6 several times to make this clear. It lists 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 along with many, many other passages which deny to fallen human nature any and all spiritual powers. For example, at Tappert 522:12 we read:

Thus Scripture denies to the intellect, heart, and will of the natural man every capacity, aptitude, skill, and ability to think anything good or right in spiritual matters, to understand them, to begin them, to will them, to undertake them, to do them, to accomplish or to cooperate in them as of himself. 'Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our sufficiency is from God,' 2 Corinthians 3:5.

For other examples see Tappert 470:2 and 535:71.

Hughes: Paul is saying in effect what he had said explicitly on a previous occasion, 1 Corinthians 15:10.
Tasker: What made the apostle so confident about his ministry was the certainty that on his own initiative and by the light of his own unaided intellect he could never have devised or comprehended anything so good or so gracious as the Gospel.

But it is even more than that. Paul is saying that he has absolutely no spiritual powers of his own.

Kretzmann: Everything that a preacher thinks, does, and carries out successfully in his office is given to him by God, is performed through him by God, to whom therefore all glory and honor must at all times be given.

2 Corinthians 3:6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

We translate, filling out the ellipses: "He is the One who has made us sufficient to be New Testament ministers, not Law (letter) ministers but Gospel (spirit) ministers." The explanation clause beginning with "for" brings out that meaning.

In our opinion Paul is not yet referring to the Old Testament. That comes in verse 7. We think that he is comparing himself and his helpers with the false teachers in Corinth who were Law ministers. Paul explains: "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life." Plainly he is comparing a Law oriented ministry with a Gospel oriented ministry.

Kretzmann: The letter kills: the Law is the instrument of death, Romans 5:20; 7:9; 8:2, because no man is able to fulfill its demands, and therefore every person is under its condemnation of death; the Spirit gives life: the Gospel bring us the glorious news of the free grace of God in Christ Jesus, of the complete fulfillment of the Law, of the payment of all guilt, of the appropriation of perfect righteousness, life, and salvation.
Plummer: Verse 6 is almost a summary of the Epistle to the Romans.
Hughes: Look at Romans 2:28ff as a parallel. He is not a Jew who is one OUTWARDLY; neither is that circumcision which is OUTWARD in the flesh; but he is a Jew Who is one INWARDLY; and circumcision is that of heart, IN THE SPIRIT NOT IN THE LETTER.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 57-59. Used with permission.

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