A Brief Commentary on II Corinthians 3-4

Introduction

This paper’s function is to give a brief thesis of Paul’s point concerning sanctification in chapters 3 and 4 of II Corinthians. I believe Paul’s thesis in chapter 3 and 4 is that “true ministers of the New Covenant edify and build the church by manifesting Jesus Christ glory through joy embraced suffering.” This point will be argued from the passage being studied.

Background

II Corinthians is an epistle to the church in Corinth from the Apostle Paul. Paul begins the letter with three major themes and those themes are carried throughout the entire epistle. Those three themes are: suffering/comfort, the centrality of Christ and the gospel, and false teachers (who Paul refers to as “super apostles). All three of these themes are masterfully weaved together in chapters 3 and 4. Therefore, we will see Paul addressing these themes and also be aware that these themes are influencing what Paul is saying.

Lastly, it would seem that the grand scheme of this letter is to see the church in Corinth conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Paul is writing this letter and ministering to Corinth for this purpose, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but that we work with you for you joy, for you to stand firm in your faith.” II Corinthians 1:24 (italics added for emphasis). Notice the parallel Paul makes with faith in this verse. He states that Paul’s ministry is not intended to “lord over” their “faith” but rather he works with them for their “joy.” Paul is seemingly putting at the beginning of this letter a formula for growing in faith in the gospel and Paul seems to be arguing that it is joy!

Because the Bible sees sanctification as a piece of the larger package of salvation, this will play a big role because salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. In other words, sanctification is a fight to grow in faith in the gospel. Or, sanctification is the process of a believer placing more and more faith in the gospel’s saving power. The result/fruit of sanctification is holiness in the believer or the believer becoming more like Jesus Christ.

Chapter 3

The chapter begins with Paul’s comparison of his credentials and those of the false teachers. Paul compares the visible temporal credentials the false teachers had offered to convince the Corinthian church that they were authentic teacher to his invisible eternal credentials written on their hearts.

Paul’s argument that he is a real apostle is two-fold here. First, his ability to be an apostle of Jesus is clear by the work that has already been done because of his faithfulness to Christ in serving the Corinthian church. The Corinthian church had much to be grateful of because of Paul’s ministry and this is Paul’s first appeal.

The second argument is even weightier. Paul states that the work that has been accomplished is not based upon Paul’s ability or skills but rather the Corinth church was benefiting from the power of God through the Apostle Paul. The false teachers Paul was dealing with had no such evidence of God working through them; they attested their authority from themselves.

This leads Paul into a comparison of Paul’s ministry of the “New Covenant” and the Mosaic Covenant. Why Paul chose to compare his ministry to Moses is unsure exactly. Perhaps the false teachers he was dealing with were some form of legalism or perhaps Paul was thinking of the greatest covenant he could compare his to to show the greatness of this New Covenant. Regardless, Paul places emphasis on importance and genuiness of a teacher by his message and ministry. And so, Paul appeals to the New Covenant.

Paul then argues the magnitude of the New Covenant (vs.5-18). He does this by comparing the two covenants by terms such as: letter, Spirit, kills, gives life, condemnation, righteousness, temporal glory, eternal glory, fear, confidence, hardened, transforming, veiled, and unveiled.

In this passage the writer refers his readers back to Exodus 34. Exodus 34 takes place just after the golden calf incident. Moses went up Mount Sinai and has received the law and covenant between the LORD and His people. When he came down he saw the people already breaking the Lord’s commands and out of anger broke the tablets on which the covenant rules were written. Moses rebukes the people and has them drink the golden calf after being melted and poured in a river and then has many of the people killed.

Moses then returns up the mountain in hopes of restoring the covenant that had been broken by the people. It is here where Moses pleads with God to see His glory. God reveals Himself to Moses by revelation and manifestation. Moses remains on the mountain for forty days and does not eat or drink. He spends his time in fellowship with God.

When Moses heads back down the mountain to return to his people, unbeknown to him, his face is shining with the glory of God. At first the people are afraid but then he sends out messenger’s to tell them it is safe. Moses shining face becomes a comfort and aid to the people to remind them that Israel had received God’s favor and that He was with them.

There was however a problem to this manifestation, and Moses knew it. The glory on his face was fading. Paul says in II Corinthians 3:13 that Moses put a veil over his face to cover this up. For he did not want his people to see the weakness of the covenant and how it was being “brought to an end.”

What we learn is that Moses then would go and speak to the people with his face shining; when he was done he would veil his face and return to the tent of meeting where he would remove his veil and fellowship with God. This was to recharge the fading glory on his face. Paul then argues (vs.7-13) that the covenant was fading because there was another covenant coming of such greater glory that the former would seem to have no glory. The apostle believes that the New Covenant is that covenant of greater glory.

Paul’s point is that the Old Covenant was powerful and glorious in that it revealed God and his standards by which he called us to live; however, it ended up only condemning because it did not enable fallen man to live out what they were called out to live but rather exposed man’s inability and depravity. The New Covenant comes with the power of the Holy Spirit which enables the formerly unable, fallen, depraved man to fulfill what was required of him.

There seems to be some parallel to idolatry and worship in verse 18 and its effect. In the Old Testament the prophets would often state that worshippers would become like their idol. We see this theme most clearly in the Psalms and Isaiah. Paul seems to be making a connection here in verse 18 stating the same is true concerning the worship of the one true God. When one beholds the glory of God, the worshiper/believer is transformed from “one degree of glory to another” into the image of Jesus Christ. Technically we do not find out that the specific person of the Godhead that Paul has in mind is Jesus till chapter four.

So Paul is arguing that seeing God’s glory is the means by which people are changed into the image of Christ. This is the Lord’s (Holy Spirit vs.18) work. The Old Covenant could never accomplish what God desired in His people then because that glory was fading under that covenant. However, this is not true concerning the New Covenant because its glory was permanent (vs.11).

Paul states the result three times in 3:12-13; 4:1, 16. The minister of the Old Covenant was afraid and lacked confidence but the ministers of the New Covenant were bold and did not lack confidence. The minister of the Old Covenant veiled the glory out of fear and the ministers of the new are very bold about the New Covenant.

Chapter 4

One could argue that the heart of the whole book of II Corinthians is chapter 4. And in this chapter the Apostle Paul repeats the phrase “we do not lose heart” twice, once in the beginning of stating his argument and once and the end of defending his argument. It would seem then that Paul wants his audience to know this point for it has crucial importance to accomplishing his desire and goal.

As stated earlier, Paul’s goal is to comfort the Corinthians by pointing them to the gospel and protecting them from false teachers. Paul states that his means of doing so is working with them for their joy making them steadfast in their faith. In chapter three we see their faith or confidence should be placed in the New Covenant. It would seem that Paul sees the New Covenant and the gospel as synonyms.

Paul states the power and source of the gospel is Jesus Christ in His glory (vs.4). Then he writes that the confidence of this gospel is giving by God the Father in the hearts of those whom He wills to give (vs.6).

So Paul thus far has argued that people come to faith and people are strengthened in their faith by beholding the glory of God ( 3:18). The power of the gospel is most clearly explained in Jesus Christ and His life, death, resurrection (vs.4). At this point Paul has not yet explained how this glory is manifested in the present as Moses face did in the analogy previously given.

Paul does this in verses 7-12. The glory of Christ is manifested in jars of clay by confidence in the midst of affliction:

We are afflicted in everyway, 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 be given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Paul’s point could not be any clearer.

Jesus’ sacrifice and power of resurrection is manifested to the lost and the church alike in the confident embracing suffering of the saint. The result is also clear (v.12). “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” Paul was so confident in the New Covenant that he knew that his confidence in the midst of suffering manifested Christ Jesus’ glory to the end that it produced life in the church.

So in verses 7-15 we see that this suffering produces life corporately, whereas in 16-18 we see it having effect on the individual sufferer as well. For Paul states,

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

Paul believes that the suffering is actually producing something for the believer in the gospel. Something that is eternal and weighty in glory, something that cannot be compared to anything else. Paul is clearly speaking of the transforming process into the image of Christ back in 3:18.

Paul then concludes his point that this is done once again by fixing our eyes (faith/confidence) on things unseen (New Covenant). And it is not done by fixing our eyes (faith/confidence) on the things that are seen (temporal things).

Conclusion

Paul believes that suffering is a key ingredient to the sanctification of the corporate church and individually. This does not mean that suffering is good or that suffering will always have this effect. Rather, Paul’s point is that the Christian can have confidence in the gospel in the midst of suffering and that by doing so he is being sanctified.

It could be argued that Paul may be informing the church that by their lack of sacrifice and confidence in the gospel but in temporary things (as these false teachers were advocating) that they were veiling the glory of the New Covenant as Moses did with the Old Covenant. Perhaps Paul meant this as a corrective rebuke about discerning among good and bad teachers, as well as, a pointer to the centrality of the gospel in the believers life. That is my conviction and thesis for this paper.

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