Whenever in our varied careers we have made job changes, we understand that it is characteristic to give the prospective employer some references as to the genuine nature of our abilities and experiences. It is wise for the interviewing party to check out those references by making a phone call or email contact.
Letters of reference were a part of the ancient world of Bible times as well. We see Paul writing words of commendation about associates. But checking credentials was much more difficult in an era without electronic communications or even a well-defined postal system. Anyone could produce their own letters of reference from famous people far away, claiming them to be genuine. And it is not as if anyone could easily authenticate these communications.
And apparently Paul’s opponents had trafficked in something of this sort. In any event, they were proud of their references while claiming Paul’s background was rather scant. Paul had a better answer for them…
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? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 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.
Paul says that all the confirmation they needed concerning the effectiveness of his genuine ministry could be seen in the mirror. Their lives had been changed by the gospel message that Paul and his companions had brought to them, along with the founding of the church community. He could make this bold statement upon strong authority and in great confidence …
2 Corinthians 3:4 – Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 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.
In the previous chapter, when thinking about the complexities of the gospel ministry, Paul exclaimed, “who is sufficient for such things?” And here he answers that his sufficiency – his competence – is strong through the power of God.
It is great to have outstanding credentials. Hey, I gave a HUGE chunk of my life (nine consecutive years, not counting doctoral studies after that) to the attainment of education and ministry credentialing. It’s nice, and I’m thankful for it, but academics alone are not the fuel of effective ministry. Quite a number of those with whom I went through those years did not enter ministry work, and many who did were not able to sustain it for a lifetime. It takes God’s blessing to make it happen fruitfully, and Paul had that blessing.
This was the ministry of the gospel, the fulfillment of God’s promises in what was the new covenant. The old covenant – loved so much and promoted by Paul adversaries – came with great glory. But it was not the final deal, not the final chapter of God’s work …
2 Corinthians 3:7 – Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
Before commenting on this, let’s take a moment to read the seven verses from Deuteronomy that gives this account that Paul is talking about …
Deuteronomy 34:29 – When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.
The law given to the people through Moses was amazing! This truth was evident by the radiance that accompanied its transmission to the people through God’s servant. Moses had to cover his face! But this great law, wonderful as it was, did not really bring life. Rather, it brought condemnation. The law revealed God’s perfection. The covenant was not able to be kept by the people – who repeatedly broke it and went into sinful directions. But God, in His grace, would promise a new covenant.
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[reflect] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The law was transitory – fading and passing away. It was ultimately insufficient. And the Israelites who did not accept Christ were like those with a blinding veil over their eyes, something that could only be taken off by Christ. And in him, through his work on the cross, a greater glory has come. This new covenant of grace, redemption and freedom will not fade away. It grows and expands, all the way through to the eternal state.
When you read this, you cannot help but be so very thankful to have had the opportunity to live at a time when all of this is in the past. We have a completed record about it. And though we don’t know all the details of what remains to get us to our ultimate destination, we have such a clear understanding as to what has foundationally made it possible. It is not fading, it is growing in brightness and intensity.