2 Cor 3:4-11
I have learned that parents take different approaches when it comes to the college expenses of their children. Sometimes circumstances or choice determine that parents don’t provide any real assistance in paying for college. Sometimes parents assist as much as they can, and then anything not covered by scholarships and other financial aid must be paid for by using student loans. Sometimes parents are able and willing to pay for all of the undergraduate education not covered by the different forms of financial aid.
I have been surprised to learn that some parents also take different approaches when it comes to the expenses for graduate school. I know parents who have as their goal to pay for this as well. I think that is probably unusual, and that most parents take the approach that my parents did: the expenses for anything beyond an undergraduate degree were going to be my responsibility.
I think this was totally reasonable, and so when I went to seminary the financial plan for my education consisted of three parts: scholarships, staying in contact and grades. First, I aggressively pursued every scholarship that I could. I invested a lot of time in finding out about scholarships and then in applying for them. Next, I stayed in touch each quarter with the different organizations that were giving me money. When I did this, I sent them a copy of my grades – and I made sure I had all A’s every quarter. It was a very successful approach since my scholarships exceeded my tuition by a great deal and also helped pay for my living expenses.
I applied for a lot of scholarships. That process almost always involved getting letters of recommendation. And so I had several carefully chosen professors who were extremely helpful in writing those letters for me. Because they helped me out so much and because it helped to make such a big difference for me, I am now always willing to write this kind of letter when I am asked, and I really try to do the best job that I can for the person in order to help them get money.
Letters of recommendation are nothing new. It is a practice that stretches far back into the ancient world. There they often followed a form that in its day was called a letter of commendation. This was a letter that was written to introduce a person to someone in the hopes that the person would be acknowledged and receive assistance. Letters like this were used all the time in the ancient Mediterranean world – but they were especially important in the early Church. As a small group that was linked by faith in Christ, it was important that Christians support each other. Christians in general and especially those engaged in spreading the Gospel could expect that they would be shown hospitality by other Christians wherever they went. A letter of commendation helped to verify that a person really was a believer and not a fraud who was trying to scam Christians.
In our text this morning, Paul contrasts the letter and the Spirit. He talks about letters of the alphabet written on stone. When he does this, he is developing and playing off the idea introduced by the previous verses – verses that talk about letters of commendation. There Paul says, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of commendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of commendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 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.”
In 2 Corinthians Paul is responding to some people who are causing trouble in the Corinthian congregation. They had shown up with impressive letters of commendation. And now they were using the status provided by those letters to challenge Paul’s ministry.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that he doesn’t need any letters of commendation because they are his letters. God had used his Gospel ministry to create the church at Corinth. They were now a letter of Christ written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God - not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. The Holy Spirit had created faith in the crucified and risen Lord. They had received rebirth through water and the Word, and now in Christ they were a new creation.
Because God had done this among the Corinthians, Paul has confidence. He goes on to say in our text, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 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.”
This confidence wasn’t grounded in Paul. Instead it was because God had provided the sufficiency for ministry. He had made Paul and his companions ministers of the new covenant that had arrived in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new covenant had replaced the old covenant, and the two covenants were different. Paul says of the new covenant that it is “not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The first covenant – the old covenant – was one that had been given in the written letters of the Torah. It was written in stone in the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was a word of Law. But it was not God’s final word because it could not bring life. Instead as a letter of demands and requirements that people were unable to do, it brought death. As Paul says, “the letter kills.”
But in Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the new covenant gives life. The Spirit is the One who creates new life and also enables those who are in Christ to begin to live as the new man – to live according to God’s will.
What God had done in Christ through the Spirit was new and amazing. Paul was engaged in a ministry of the Spirit. It was ministry that provided righteousness before God. And the glory of this ministry surpassed the glory of the old covenant.
In the book of Exodus we learn that after Moses had been in God’s presence, his face shone in a way that frightened the people of Israel. So, when he left God’s presence he put a veil over his face to hide the glory. And when he returned to God he removed the veil.
Paul notes that if the ministry of the old covenant was glorious in this way, how much more glorious is the ministry of the new covenant? The apostle writes “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, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.”
In our text this morning we learn that the way of doing; the way of the letter; the way of the law, is a way of condemnation and death. It may sound inviting – after all, who doesn’t want to believe that they have a part to play in a right standing before God? We don’t want to be helpless. But the Law does not provide life. It does not supply the means by which the believer is able to do the things of the Law and be righteous before God.
Instead it is the new covenant of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is able to give life. He won forgiveness through his sacrifice on the cross. And then by the work of the Spirit he began the life of the resurrection. That resurrection life is already at work in all who have been born again through the work of Christ’s Spirit – it is at work in you. You have life and are able to begin to live in ways that show forth that life. You are able to forgive the person who wrongs you. You are able to love that person who doesn’t show love towards you. You are able to sacrifice for the person who can do nothing for you.
In our text, Paul strongly emphasizes that the glory of the new covenant surpasses that of the old. He says that it is a ministry of life; a ministry that gives righteousness. But he hammers home this point because very often the appearance of this ministry contradicts these claims.
After all, you experience this yourselves. Many people with whom you share the Gospel don’t believe. As Paul says in the next chapter, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Paul assures you that in spite of rejection, it is still the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ that is present in the word you believe and share.
In the same way you see your own weakness. Beyond that you see the ways the Church is being persecuted around the world – especially in places like Iraq and Syria. You see the weakness that seems to be everywhere in the life of those who confess Christ. And this can lead you to doubt.
However, Paul says in our text today, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 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.”
Paul wants us to know that we are not sufficient in ourselves. Instead the Gospel comes from God. It is his doing. Through it the Spirit does give life. And it is glorious – more glorious than even the glory of Moses and his shining face of the old covenant.
This is true. And the reason you look like you do – the reason the Church looks like she does – is so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that it is God’s doing. Paul goes on to say in the next chapter, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
In the midst of weakness the life of Jesus the risen Lord is being manifested in your lives. The Holy Spirit sustains you in this life through the Means of Grace. He keeps you in the life of faith as you live in Christ. And this life points forward to the resurrection that will be yours on the Last Day. For as Paul goes on to say, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.”