2 Corinthians 3:1-18

Paul’s mentioning his sincerity or the purity of his motives may have caused some of the Corinthians to reason that he was recommending himself. He countered this implied conclusion with questions. “Are we starting again to recommend ourselves? Or do we like some need letters of recommendation to you or from you?” The Corinthians knew how Paul had conducted himself in their midst, and so there was really no reason for him to recommend himself. As he had labored among them and elsewhere, he needed no letters of introduction, as did believers who were not known in cities to which they intended to travel. (3:1; compare Acts 18:26, 27.)

The Corinthians themselves were the fruit of his labors in declaring the glad tidings about Christ. Paul could point to them as his letter of recommendation, identifying him as Christ’s servant. According to numerous manuscripts, the apostle referred to this letter has having been “written in our hearts.” This suggests that he included his fellow workers as having deep love for the Corinthians. They were believers who had a place in their “hearts” or inmost affections. The message the apostle and his close associates proclaimed had resulted in great changes for the better in the lives of the Corinthians. The remarkable transformation would not have escaped the notice of the people among whom they lived. So, as Paul added, the Corinthians were a letter “known and read by all men.” (3:2; see the Notes section.)

The apostle, however, did not claim the Corinthian believers as his own. They belonged to the Lord Jesus Christ who had sacrificed his life for them and to the Father who had sent his Son. Appropriately, therefore, Paul referred to them as being manifest as a “letter of Christ.” Their lives revealed what the Son of God had done for them. Pointing to his role (and possibly also that of his fellow workers [if the first person plural is not to be understood in the editorial sense]) respecting this “letter of Christ,” Paul continued, “served [diakonéo] by us.” He functioned as one who had ministered to them with deep concern and affection. (3:3) In their renderings of the Greek word diakonéo, translators often have been more specific (“entrusted to our care” [NJB]; “administered by us” [NAB]; “prepared by us” [NRSV]; “given to us to deliver” [REB]; “sent through us” [NCV]; “which we ourselves have written” [J. B. Phillips]; “the result of our ministry” [NIV]).

The community of believers in Corinth was not a letter written with ink. It was a letter written with the “spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of fleshly hearts.” Upon accepting Jesus as God’s unique Son and their Lord in response to Paul’s ministering among them, the Corinthians received God’s spirit. The working of the spirit within them transformed their lives. Unlike the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites, which were written on stone tablets, the “writing” of, or the transforming impression by, the spirit of the living God proved to be on “tablets of fleshly hearts.” Whereas stone is hard, flesh is not. So the hearts or the inmost selves of the Corinthians were responsive to the “writing” or the activity of the spirit. (3:3; compare Exodus 34:1; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:25-27.)

When it came to discharging his commission as an apostle, Paul had confidence “toward God.” This could mean that the apostle felt confident before God in carrying out his ministry. It was “through Christ” and so by reason of what Christ had done for him that the apostle had this assurance. (3:4)

Paul recognized that his being fit, equipped, suited, or qualified to carry out his commission could not be attributed to his personal ability. He gave all the credit to God, saying, “But our fitness [comes] from God, who also made us fit servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit makes alive.” (3:5, 6)

On the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death, a new covenant came into being. This covenant replaced the Mosaic law covenant and made it possible for those who responded in faith to the message about Christ to be forgiven of their sins. As a minister of the new covenant, Paul made known how individuals could become its beneficiaries. (3:6)

“The letter” relates to the written law given to the Israelites. In the case of the new covenant, there is no written legal code, with prescribed penalties for violation of specific commands. From this standpoint, the new covenant is not of “the letter.” (3:6)

Through the prophet Jeremiah (31:33), God revealed that, in the case of the new covenant, the law would be written on hearts. So the new covenant is “of spirit.” The operation of God’s spirit within believers enables them to conduct themselves according to his ways. The result to them as beneficiaries of the new covenant differed markedly from those who were subject to the law given to the Israelites. The “letter” or the written law “kills,” for it condemns those who fail to live up to it, but the “spirit makes alive.” This is because the spirit brings about a newness of life in the case of those who are forgiven of their sins and enables them to maintain an approved standing before God. Those who are led by the spirit are not under condemnation. They are justified children of God who are destined to enjoy life in the sinless state. (3:6; see the Notes section.)

Paul referred to the law covenant as the “service of death,” for the Israelites were unable to live up to the written code and, therefore, came under condemnation, with death in view. The Ten Commandments, which formed part of the law, were engraved on stone tablets. For this reason, the apostle referred to the “service of death” as consisting of “letters incised [on] stones.” (3:7)

This “service of death” came to the Israelites “in glory.” When Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were incised, his face emitted rays. (Exodus 34:29, 30) So the Israelites could not “gaze at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face.” That glory, though, did not last. (3:7)

In view of the glory associated with the “service of death,” should not the “service of the spirit” come in much more glory? And it did. The new covenant provided freedom from condemnation and was far superior to the law covenant. Guided by God’s spirit, the beneficiaries were destined for life. Rightly, the apostle spoke of the new covenant arrangement as the “service of the spirit.” (3:8)

Referring to the law covenant as “the service of condemnation,” Paul continued, “For if the service of condemnation [was in] glory, much more does the service of righteousness abound in glory.” The law covenant unmistakably identified the Israelites as sinners and so under condemnation, but the new covenant made forgiveness of sins possible. On the basis of faith in Christ and the benefits of his sacrificial death for them, believers are justified. God regards them as righteous and accepts them as his approved children. With reference to results, “the service of righteousness” is far more glorious than “the service of condemnation.” The splendor of “the service of righteousness” does indeed abound. (3:9)

The law covenant arrangement (“the service of death” and “the service of condemnation”) formerly had been glorified or had come in glory. This glory was eclipsed by the surpassing glory of the new covenant arrangement (“the service of the spirit” and “the service of righteousness”). (3:10)

Through the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-33), God had revealed that there would be a new covenant, indicating that the law covenant would not be permanent. Since the law covenant, which was made obsolete, came “through glory,” much more would the new covenant, which remains, be “in glory.” In the results the new covenant effects, its glory or splendor is enduring. (3:11)

The sure hope which Paul mentioned relates to the enduring nature of the new covenant and its associated glory or splendor. This meant that all the benefits of the new covenant were permanent. On the basis of the hope linked to the new covenant, Paul added, “We act [with] much assurance.” He carried out his ministry boldly or courageously, not holding back in any respect from declaring the vital message that would mean life for those who responded in faith. (3:12)

The apostle’s course contrasted with that of Moses when he spoke to the Israelites. Moses put a veil on his face to prevent the people from gazing “to the end [of the glory]” that would fade or vanish. According to the Exodus account (34:29-35), Moses would veil his face whenever he spoke to the people, but removed the veil in his communication with YHWH. Paul’s words suggest that, while Moses addressed the people, the rays emitted from his face would fade and then vanish. Then, as a result of communicating with YHWH at other times, Moses’ face would shine again. It appears that Paul’s mention of the passing glory was intended to illustrate that the law covenant also was not permanent. This aspect is what neither the Israelites in the time of Moses nor in the apostle’s own time understood. (3:13)

The mental faculties of the Israelites were “calloused” or impervious to perceiving the transitory nature of the law and its real purpose. To Paul’s own day, the veil remained in the case of the unbelieving Jews when they heard the reading of the words of the law covenant, “for in Christ” the law covenant is set aside. With the validation of the new covenant on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, the law covenant had served its purpose. The law was designed to make the Israelites fully aware of their sinful state and to prepare them to accept the new covenant arrangement, with Christ as its mediator and his sacrifice as the basis for forgiveness of sins. (3:14)

Whenever the unbelieving Jews heard the law of Moses read to them, a veil continued to cover their minds (literally, “hearts”). This hindered them from understanding the law’s purpose in relation to Christ and to act in harmony with its guidance to put faith in him. (3:15)

Only when there is a turning to “the Lord,” the veil is taken away, making it possible to comprehend the significance and purpose of the law. Jesus Christ is the Lord to whom the unbelieving Jews needed to turn. (3:16) He alone is the one through whom deliverance from sin and condemnation is possible. (Acts 4:12)

Earlier, Paul had contrasted “letter” and “spirit” and indicated that the “spirit makes alive.” (3:6) Here, in verse 17, the apostle said, “Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord [is, there is] freedom.” In the life of believers, the “spirit” or the spiritual power is the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul’s words may be understood to mean that Christ is the energizing or motivating spiritual power. Where that spiritual power is active, freedom exists. Those who turn to Christ cease to be dead in trespasses and sins. They are made alive, forgiven of their transgressions, and discharged from the law and its condemnation. (3:17; compare John 8:31-36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 5:1; Ephesians 2:1.)

As a servant of the new covenant, Paul did not veil his face as did Moses when speaking to the people. “And all of us [with] unveiled face reflect (katoptrízo) the Lord’s glory, being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord of spirit.” (3:18)

The Greek word katoptrízo is in the middle voice and could be understood to mean “reflect” (like a mirror) or look at (as in a mirror). Both meanings are found in modern translations. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.” (NRSV) “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.” (NAB) “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness.” (NIV) “So our faces are not covered. They show the bright glory of the Lord.” (CEV)

The Son of God is the flawless reflection of his Father’s glory. (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:3) So, for Paul to have meant gazing upon the Lord’s glory with an unveiled face would really not have differed from what Moses did when communicating with YHWH. This would also mean that, as the unveiled face of Moses came to be glorious, so also the transformation in the case of Paul and other believers came about by gazing at the Lord. The emphasis in the context of the letter, however, has been on Paul’s role in discharging his ministry as an apostle. He hid nothing when carrying out his commission as a servant of the new covenant but reflected the glory of the Lord as his faithful imitator. Seemingly, therefore, “reflect the glory of the Lord” is the rendering that fits the context better. (3:18)

As imitators of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul and other believers continued to be transformed into his image. Being “from glory to glory,” the transformation process did not stop. As the apostle and other servants of the new covenant conformed their lives ever closer to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, they were transformed from one degree of glory to another degree of glory. When saying “as from the Lord of spirit,” Paul appears to have meant that the Lord Jesus Christ is the source of the spirit or the spiritual power that made the transformation possible. (3:18; see the Notes section.)


In verse 2, the oldest extant manuscript (P46, c. 200) and numerous other manuscripts read “our hearts.” Many other manuscripts say “your hearts.”

A misinterpretation of verse 6 contributed to the distortion of the true sense of the Scriptures. Origen (c. 185-c. 254) negated the value of the contextual significance, saying, “By the ‘letter’ [Paul] means that ‘exposition of Scripture which is apparent to the senses, while by the ‘spirit’ that which is the object of the ‘understanding.’” This view gave rise to erroneous teachings and numerous allegorical interpretations that completely obscured the correct understanding of the Scriptures. The Bible translator William Tyndale (c.1494-1536) called attention to the twisting of the apostle’s words. “Is it not great blindness to say ... that the whole Scripture is false in the literal sense, and killeth the soul? To prove this their pestilent heresy, they abuse the text of Paul, saying, The letter killeth, because that text was become a riddle unto them, and they understood it not, when Paul, by this word ‘letter,’ understood the law given by Moses to condemn all consciences, and to rob them of all righteousness, to compel them unto the promises of mercy that are in Christ.”

Numerous translations render the expression “Lord of spirit” (verse 18) to mean that the Lord is the Spirit (pneúma [here in the genitive case]). The context, however, does not require that pneúma in the genitive case be represented as an appositive.