The surpassing glory of Christ
2 Corinthians 3:4-18
We have been in verses 4-18 of 2 Corinthians 3 considering the glory of Christ and the New Covenant and this week we continue in those verses. This section hangs together in Paul’s thought and is really laying a crucial foundation for Paul’s explanation of ministry in the New Covenant. As some of you may have noticed in the last two weeks of our study we have landed in verses 7-11 but have not yet really unpacked verses 4-6 in any real depth. There is a reason for that.
Next time, if the Lord wills, we will take up verses 4-6 and verses 12-16 as those verse apply the glory of the New Covenant to New Covenant ministry. The surpassing glory of Christ and the New Covenant in His blood shapes New Covenant ministry and ministers is certain ways. And really the shape of New Covenant ministry is what Paul is going to be unfolding all the way through chapter 5 and into chapter 6 and beyond.
But we still have work to do in understanding the glorious nature of the New Covenant as Paul describes it in these verses. So we are going to be focusing in on verses 17 and 18 as Paul gives us two more aspects of the New Covenant. And although Paul does not explicitly tease out the contrasts with the Old Covenant here, the contrasts are implied. And elsewhere in the NT Paul does tease out the contrasts and so we will look at some of the contrast as well.
But the two aspects of the New Covenant that we will consider this morning are Freedom and Transformation.
Slavery vs Freedom
Let’s dive right into verse 17:
2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Let’s focus in here on the contrast Paul is making. He says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Make no mistake, he is saying that every person in the New Covenant has had the Spirit of the living God written upon their hearts (3:1-3). He is talking about the nature of the New Covenant. Every person who comes to God through faith in Jesus Christ has the Spirit of the Lord in them. Christ is in you. This is one of the terms of this Covenant: God plants His Spirit in you. You are a new creation.
But what we need to notice here is that this means something in your life now and into eternity. Paul says, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” When the Spirit of the living God lives in you He brings with Him freedom. What is Paul talking about?
Well, to unpack this allow me bring in a parallel passage of Paul.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
In this Galatians context that yoke of slavery is the law. He says in the next verse that if you accept any part of the law (circumcision being the issue there) as required to get you right with God you are then obligated to keep the whole law and Christ is of no advantage to you.
In other words, there is no middle ground between these covenants. Either you approach God by your own merits and works of the law, which is slavery, or you approach God by Christ’s merits and work on your behalf, which is freedom. To stand in some imagined middle ground where Christ does something and you do something, is to reject and distain Christ’s perfect, sufficient, completed, finished glorious work.
So Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This is a very similar context as in 2 Corinthians. False teachers had come in undermining the sufficiency of Christ in the gospel. And Paul would have none of it! Christ has done it all!
The Law did not serve to liberate and set free; it served to enslave and imprison. The prison is the prison of sin and fear and guilt and death. And the Law is the cord that binds us there. The holy standard of God enslaves us in the prison of our sin and guilt. Again, let’s get this language and picture in our thinking as New Covenant people. We do not relate to God as slaves, yoked with a heavy burden. We do not sit chained in a dungeon, restricted by the holy standard of God from doing what we want to do. Slaves labor because they must. Slaves are kept in line by external restrain and force. That is not the nature of our relationship with God. You are not a slave to your sin and the law does not bind you to sin and condemnation and death.
You are free. There is no heavy yoke on your shoulders. There is no chain on your wrists or ankles. There is no dungeon. There is no locked door keeping you from doing what you want to do. There is no whip ready to strike your back – there is no threat of death in this covenant. There is no external restraint or force keeping you in line. You are a member of the New Covenant and you are free!
And the language Paul uses over and over again in his New Testament letters (and as he will quote from Isaiah in chapter 6 of 2 Corinthians) is that we are sons, not slaves; we are heirs, not enemies. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26)!
How do you think about your relationship to God? Are you coming to church desperately trying to get God on your side? Are you laboring under a yoke of slavery trying to behave and perform because you fear the lash? Do you feel chained in a dark dungeon – forced to do what’s required but hating ever minute of it?
Or have you beheld the glory of Christ and the New Covenant in Him and been set free? As the great hymn And Can It Be? says so well,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off; my heart was free. I rose went forth and followed Thee.
Has this happened to you? Has God sent out His quickening ray into your heart – in other words have you been born again, made live, and has He written the Spirit of the living God on your heart? Have your chains fallen off? Has your heart been set free? Have you left the dungeon of sin and guilt and fear and stepped forth into the freedom of the sons of God?
Paul says in Romans 8:14 -15 “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
How do you think about your relationship to God? What are the terms of that relationship? Are you compelled by fear because you are a slave or are you compelled by love because you are a son or daughter? Paul tells us in our passage this morning, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Is that how you would describe your life? If the Spirit of the Living God is in you this means something extraordinary in your life now and into eternity. It means you are free indeed. Free from fear. Free from condemnation. Free from death. Free from the power of sin. Christ has set you free forever and you are an heir of glory. That is who you are in Christ.
Now I can imagine an objection: It sounds like you’re saying we have been set free to be lawless – the chain that bound us is gone and we are set lose. It sounds like your saying that Christians are free… to sin, free… to plunge into wickedness and do whatever they please. What are you saying? Are we free to do wickedness?
As Paul says in Romans: may it never be!
Maybe an illustration will help:
Let’s say your great uncle dies and you have the misfortune of inheriting his dog. Now this is not an ordinary dog. Your uncle spent years making this dog the meanest, most ugly, most vicious guard dog he could. This dog is ferocious. Just a nasty critter. Well soon someone comes over to deliver this dog to you from your uncle’s estate and it comes in a cage, which is dropped off in your backyard. Well, you can’t get within 25 feet of that cage without his dog snarling and barking and snapping at the cage. This is one mean-hearted stinker of a dog.
Now we would all agree that it would be foolish open that cage. If you value your skin and your children that dog is doomed to the cage. For all intents and purposes this dog is a slave. Because of the nature of this dog it needs to be chained, confined, restricted. The fact is that the cage is a testimony to its nature.
You see, by nature we are the dangerous dog and the law was like a cage keeping us restrained by external force, but doing nothing to change our nature. In fact, the law only enflamed the sinful nature in our heart and served to condemn us. So, you can understand the objection of somebody when they think they hear Paul in 2 Corinthians saying Christ has set the nasty dog free! Free?!? Free to kill and devour and maul? Don’t let that dog out!
But what if there was a way to change this dog’s nature? What if you could change its heart of stone – its nasty dog eat dog heart – and replace it with a heart of flesh – a new nature?
Now, I don’t know of any surgery or pill or therapy that can change a dog’s nature, but I do know of a covenant that always without fail change a person’s nature – a covenant that takes out a heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh – a heart that feels what it ought to feel.
Here is a crucial thing: Paul did not say, Christ has let the nasty dog out. He said through Christ the Spirit of the living God was been written on the tablets of human hearts to be seen and read by all. He said, in the new Covenant the Spirit gives life. He said the New Covenant is the Ministry of the Spirit and where the Spirit of Christ is there is freedom. You no longer need a cage because you have the Spirit; you don’t need a chain, you don’t need restraint or a whip to do what you ought to do
In the New Covenant how do we serve? What moves us?
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Brothers and sisters, in Christ, we are not whipped or chained or caged or threatened. There is no external force bearing down on us. That is not how we serve. We are free. We serve in the new way of the Spirit. We are not whipped from behind. We are led from within – as God’s sons and daughters. In the New Covenant we are actually remade in the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Where do I see that here in 2 Corinthians 3? Verse 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.
We need to take note of a couple things here.
First, notice that in the New Covenant we are actually remade in the likeness of Jesus Christ: we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord (Jesus), are being transformed into the same image. We are being transformed. This is a passive action on our part. God is the one transforming us; we are the one’s being transformed as it says, “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Let’s mark this carefully in our thinking.
When one comes to the Lord Jesus Christ by saving faith and enters the New Covenant it is not simply that Divine justice is satisfied, wrath is removed, a righteous verdict is given, there is now no condemnation, and an everlasting inheritance with God and His people is secured – that is all true – but that is not all. The New Covenant comes with the glory of Christ’s transforming power as well. The New Covenant does not leave us to go on snarling. You can’t change yourself, but God can. And Paul says, “we all.” If you are a believer the Spirit is at work in you.
But notice here also that this transformation is not instantaneous. We are being transformed – on going action, not, “we have already been completely transformed in the past.” No, it is from one degree of glory to another. So when you catch yourself snarling at someone don’t throw your hands up and think God is not at work in you. No. The question is not do you ever struggle with that old dog nature, the question is: are you in Christ by faith because if you are you have Christ in you! You may have a lot of nasty dog in there, but if you are in Christ His Spirit is leading you, transforming you, and it will be seen.
Now, in verse 18, does Paul describe this process of New Covenant transformation in such a way that we have nothing to do with it at all? Does God just zap us periodically and bingo we are one step closer to being fully remade? (wow! I woke up more godly this morning!) No.
Is it as we compile longer and longer lists of dos and don’t and review those lists? “I’m not supposed to steel… not supposed to lie… not supposed to lust… not supposed to worry.” No.
God has designed our transformation so wisely – in this New Covenant. It is as we are beholding the glory (weight, significance, excellencies) of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are transformed into His image from one degree of glory to another.
Steady Diet of Beholding
I want to land here just and consider the immensity of this New Covenant occupation and privilege of beholding the glory of Jesus. It is our great New Covenant occupation and privilege.
In John 17 this was Jesus’ prayer to the Father, that you and I might be with Him to behold His glory (17:24). And here Paul says that it is as we behold the glory of the Lord that we are being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to another by the Spirit.
How will we be changed (transformed) from being selfish, lying, thieving, bitter, mean, lusting, using, addicted, self-righteous, un-loving people? In God’s infinite wisdom this is not automatic. The transforming power of the New Covenant to remake us in Christ’s image does not, cannot, will never happen apart from beholding the glories, excellencies, beauties of Christ as He shines forth from the gospel. If you don’t see His glory, you won’t become like Him. If you don’t know Him you will not be transformed.Transformation will not happen if we are ignorant of and indifferent to the Lord of glory. Storms:
“Sanctification is the fruit of seeing and savoring”
The Essence of Sin
I think to understand the essence of Christian transformation we need to understand the essence of sin. The essence of sin, according to Romans 1, is the exchanging of the truth about God for a lie and worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, amen (Romans1:25). It is the exchanging of the glory of the immortal God for images – fakes! (Romans 1:23). The essence of sin is to take the infinite worth and loveliness of who God is and cast it aside as common and worthless – to not honor Him or give thanks to Him.
As the Lord says in Jeremiah 2:11-13,
…my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
That is the essence of sin. Many will say that sin is the breaking of God’s law. Yes, that is true. But what is God’s law? To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, just as He does. The essence of sin is the rejection of God as the great treasure, the great fountain of life, the great satisfaction of the soul, our very great reward. And so the essence of righteousness and holiness is to love and esteem and value and enjoy and treasure and savor the Lord above all other treasures.
Transformation in your life cannot take place apart from beholding the glory of the Lord, because the very transformation we are talking about is the transformation of going from one degree of seeing and savoring His glories to another, deeper, fuller, higher degree of seeing, that is comprehending, and savoring, that is loving, adoring, enjoying His glories. Transformation in your life is all about learning of God in the revelation of the Son, Jesus Christ and loving Him.
Sanctification, this process of going from one degree of glory to another, truly is the fruit of seeing and Savoring Christ as He is revealed to us in the gospel.
Under the Law, to gaze upon the Lord of glory was to be condemned to death. Under the Old Covenant there was no transformation, there was increased trespass and guilt and death. Do you know the terms of the New Covenant and the infinite privilege that is ours in Christ to gaze upon the Son for life and joy and love and peace! Are you setting your gaze upon Him? Is this you occupation? Do you see it as the highest privilege of your life?
Christians Without Christ
This week I had the frustrating experience of listening to a preacher do what he called preaching a sermon. The message was about life as a Christian and the preacher claimed to be drawing the message from the bible, though there was no effort given to understanding any particular biblical text. Instead, the preacher pulled out one idea: persevere. And this pastor went on to define and explain this important quality that Christians should have. We must finish what we have started, press on, and finish well. Many motivations were given: this is what pleases God, this will reap great benefits in your life, etc. And he gave personal illustrations and even showed a secular movie clip to punctuate his point.
And yet there was nothing Christian about this sermon (the suffix ‘-ian’: of, relating to, or resembling; one relating to, resembling, or belonging to) The only time our Lord was mentioned was the closing prayer: in Jesus name, amen.
But how does Christ factor into our Christian lives?
It is an absolute travesty of Christianity to think that what we really need more than anything is moral instruction and practical tips for living. That is not what we need. The Old Covenant contains many details about what Israel was to do – and all that did was condemn them. Yes, the bible is full truth about what is good and right and acceptable, but unless we understand the terms of the New Covenant in Christ and what transformation is and how it happens, we will misuse and abuse ever word and sentence in the Bible, claiming to be teaching Christian truth all the while ignoring the Christ.
What we need is to behold the glory of Christ in His Person and work. And it is a tragedy in the Church when we abandon Him, the fountain of living water, and seek happiness and satisfaction and joy and maturity and godliness apart from Him.
The great endeavor of our lives in this age and the one to come must be to drink from the fountain of living waters, Jesus Christ. In Him there is abundant life and perfect peace and fullness of joy and practical holiness and satisfaction and maturity and every other spiritual blessing. Are you setting your gaze upon Him?
So, we have seen this morning that the terms of the New Covenant in Christ result in freedom. Freedom from fear and guilt and death. Freedom from sin’s power. In Christ you are a son, not a slave, an heir not an enemy. And we have seen this morning that the terms of the New Covenant result in transformation. The glory that once meant condemnation and death and fear and guilt now means righteousness and life and love and joy and satisfaction in God for all who are in Christ by faith. The law could not touch our nature, but the Spirit has come and is at work to transform us from one degree of glory to another as we behold the excellencies of our beloved lord and Savior, Jesus Christ as He comes in the gospel with power and wisdom and holiness and meekness and mercy and love.
Let us press on, let us press on to know the King, Jesus Christ.