How many here have been to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia? When you first arrive outside it in the daytime, you see that it has pleasant exterior, but it is not striking or massive, and in fact seems dwarfed by surrounding buildings. Except for a few small signs, there is not much to let you know what happens inside. And you might stroll by without paying it much attention. Only when you enter in can you grasp the significance of the structure. This third chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians might affect you in the same way. Read the first two verses and you might be ready to stroll on by, but come with me and enter in! There are sights here to dazzle those with faith in Christ. Local churches also—not the buildings but the gatherings of those in Christ—can produce the same effect. You can look at a congregation casually, and it might seem rather plain and ordinary. It is only as you enter in by the Spirit of God that you can experience the wonder and glory of what God is doing in this gathering. So then, let’s enter in by the Spirit and the Word and see some of the glory of the Lord.
We will do well to remember the connection of these verses with what precedes them. Paul is writing about his service as a minister of the gospel. He follows Christ and spreads everywhere the beautiful knowledge of our crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again Lord. Christ is the theme of all he does, and he wants his readers to grasp the glory of Christ, so that they will not turn aside to lesser things. Let us see how he leads us deeper and more fully into the riches of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I. Christ’s minister and Christ’s people (3:1-2)
A. We must understand the cultural setting. When someone commends himself or herself, this sounds very prideful or arrogant. So if approach the text from our perspective, we could come away with a wrong attitude about Paul and his coworkers and misread the text.
1. Letters of commendation were common during New Testament times. Paul gave them often (Rm 16:1-2; 1 Cor 16:10-11; 2 Cor 8:22-23; Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-8, 10; Phm 10-12, 17-19). They functioned like resumes do in our day.
2. The false teachers were taking advantage of letters of commendation to try to discredit the apostle. It seems they carried such letters with them and questioned Paul’s lack of letters of commendation. Paul is saying that he doesn’t need them, since he is the spiritual father of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:14-15).
B. The congregation at Corinth serves as Paul’s letter of commendation (1 Cor 9:2).
1. At first hearing this sounds very surprising given what we know of these believers. But we should remember where they came from spiritually speaking. They had either been involved in formal Judaism or worshiped false gods and had lived wicked lives (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-23; 6:9-10). But now they were set apart for God in Christ and in fellowship with the Son of God (1 Cor 1:2, 9). This is a remarkable change that only the Lord could produce. (We’ll come back to this point later.)
2. This letter was written on Paul’s heart—the center of his personality. It was a personal letter in the fullest sense, and not something written with pen and ink. All people could read and know the change brought about by his ministry to them. It was obvious. The point is that the Corinthians could not deny Paul’s ministry without also denying the reality of their conversion to Jesus Christ.
Apply: This text clearly speaks of the close spiritual connection between Christ’s minister and Christ’s people. Paul was not some roving evangelist, showing up to make a few converts and then traveling on without concern for their growth in grace. Instead, he maintained a steady interest in those who came to know the Lord through his gospel ministry. The tragedy is that some in the Corinthian assembly did not reciprocate Paul’s love. We ought to carry one another around in our hearts
II. Christ’s powerful work in his people (3:3a)
A. Christ wrote the letter—“a letter from Christ”.
1. The Lord is the efficient cause of our salvation. Jesus is the Savior. We do not help him save ourselves. He saves his people from their sins. He is the powerful actor; we are acted upon by him. There are some “people who decide to take up Christianity instead of being taken up by Christianity. They have never known this feeling of constraint, this feeling of, ‘I can do no other, so help me, God’, that they must, that everything else has to be excluded, that the truth has so come to them that they must accept it” (Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, pp. 59-60). But when Christ writes on your heart, he takes you! He says, “Come, follow me!” And his sheep hear his voice and follow him (Jn 10:27).
2. Christ has his “fingerprints” all over this letter. In us he expresses his mind and will. In us he makes known his affections and attitudes. In us his power is displayed.
3. Like the Corinthians, local gatherings or congregations of Christ-learners are this letter—all of us together. While we come to know the Lord individually, the Spirit joins us together in Christ’s body. Together we are his bride and his temple.
B. Christ used Paul’s ministry to write the letter: “the result of our ministry” or “served by us”.
1. Paul had a significant part in the establishment of the Corinthian assembly. He ministered the gospel of Jesus Christ to them. To tell others the good news of forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life through faith in Jesus is crucial in God’s plan (Rm 10:14-15). The effective power comes from Christ, but the proclamation is also essential.
Apply: Who are you seeking to bring to Christ? Where are you going? How are you doing? We must keep these things on our weekly agenda.
2. The Lord’s use of Paul’s ministry to them provides all the commendation that the Corinthians need of Paul. Every group of Christians needs to learn the Lord’s way of evaluating ministers. It is not the criteria of worldly pizzazz and the Corinthians needed to know this. Paul will come back to this point later in the letter.
Apply: Are you satisfied with a ministry of the gospel of Christ? Do you thank the Lord that you can hear his good news preached week after week?
III. Christ’s new covenant way (3:3b) – Paul moves into an extended contrast between the old and the new covenants. He begins with two contrasts, which can be plainly seen by the form “not… but…” He draws from four OT passages:
- When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God (Ex 31:18).
- I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezk 11:19).
- I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezk 36:26).
- “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:33).
A. A letter written with ink can convey a message, but a letter written with the Spirit of the living God can change lives.
1. Paul wants his readers to grasp that something very significant has happened to them. Christ changes lives by the power of the Spirit. He comes inside us and changes the inner person of the heart.
2. True Christianity is evidenced by the presence and activity of the Spirit of the living God in Christ’s people. When you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you receive the Spirit. He makes you a learner of Christ and starts to remake you to be like Christ. And then you are immersed in water to testify about this radical change that has happened in you.
B. The writing with the Spirit indicates that the new covenant age has arrived. God used to reveal and act according to the law covenant written on tablets of stone, but now it is by Christ writing with the Spirit on tablets of human hearts.
1. A “relationship to God does not come through the revelation of God in the law but through the heart-changing work of the Spirit. The reason is that the law demanded obedience but could not engender obedience. The Spirit makes the letter obsolete, ‘since what the Law requires is now written on the heart’” (Garland, who also quotes Fee). Everything in the old covenant revolved around the tablets of stone that were in the ark of the covenant. The other laws, the priests, and the sacrifices all administered that covenant, but it could not change sinful human hearts.
2. The reception of the Spirit that occurs because we are adult sons of God through faith in Christ indicates that the new age prophesied by Ezekiel has come.
3. The old covenant that guided conduct by the letter of the law is no longer in force “because it has been replaced by a new covenant where conduct is guided by God’s Spirit” (Garland). The Spirit leads us to do the will of our ascended Lord. We sense in our hearts the surpassing correctness and value of God’s word and desire to do it. The Spirit provides Christ’s almighty power that we might do it. In the Spirit we delight to do Christ’s will. Now we worship in the new way of the Spirit, and not the old way of the written code.
Apply: What does your spiritual experience show about the Spirit’s presence in you?