2nd Corinthians 3:1-8 describes Paul’s ministry of the New Covenant as a ministry of the Spirit. In 1:3-2:17, Paul defended his legitimacy as an apostle on the basis of his suffering as the means by which Christians are comforted (1:3-11) and God is made known to the world (2:14-17). Now he does so based on the reality of the life transforming Spirit being preached through his apostolic ministry of the New Covenant. Paul in (2nd Corinthians 3:1-6) describes the reality of the Spirit in Paul’s ministry. Paul begins this section by making it clear that as an apostle, he was called to mediate the Spirit in fulfillment of the New Covenant.
2nd Corinthians 3:1, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” Paul expects a negative answer to his two rhetorical questions since his claim to be an apostle is not an empty boast (he does not commend himself) but is supported by the Spirit and by his ministry of suffering.
2nd Corinthians 3:2-4, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, 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. 4(Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.”
The changed lives of the Corinthians give a clear message from Christ (they are a letter from Christ) testifying to Paul’s true apostleship as the one who brought the Gospel to them (delivered by us). In fulfillment of Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26, Paul contrasts the old covenant, in which God wrote on tablets of stone (Ex 24:12; 31:18; 32:15; 34:1; Deut 9:10), with the apostolic ministry of writing on tablets of human hearts. Paul “writes” on hearts not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. The Spirit’s work of changing the Corinthians’ hearts as a result of Paul’s ministry confirms that the New Covenant is being established through his ministry.
Dr. Hendrickson said, “In the Greek text, the verb to write on (with the figurative meaning inscribe or engrave occurs only here (Luke 10:20 conveys the meaning records).” It was widely used in the ancient world to express the idea of inscribing something on the heart. Jeremiah voiced the same thought when he recorded the divine prophecy, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33b; Heb 8:10b; Isa. 51:7; Rom. 2:15).
Paul is not interested in talking about himself and what he did. Paul calls attention to the Corinthians that through the grace of God they are demonstrating their relationship to Christ. God is at work in the Corinthians effecting His will and showing that they belong to Christ.
2nd Corinthians 3:5, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,” Paul’s sufficiency is from God, not from himself, just as it was for Moses. Paul’s sufficiency as an apostle recalls the pattern exhibited in the call of the Old Testament Prophets: the prophet is not sufficient in himself but is made sufficient by God’s grace (Judges 6:11-24; Isa. 6:1-8; Jer 1:4-10; Ezek 1:1-3:11).
2nd Corinthians 3:6, “who has made us competent to be ministry of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul was made competent to be a minister of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) as a result of his call on the road to Damascus, just as Moses was called to be a minister of the Old Covenant at the burning bush (2nd Corinthians 2:16b-17). Whereas “apostle” refers to Paul’s authorative office, “minister” (or “servant,” Gk. Diakonos) refers to his function of being an ambassador of God’s presence and word, a role he can share with non-apostles (4:1; 5:18; 1 Cor 3:5). Here it refers to Paul’s role of mediating the Spirit as promised in the New Covenant, by which God will create a people who will keep His covenant (Ezek 36:26-27); in other words, God will write his law on their hearts (Jer. 31:33) and forgive their sins (Jer. 31:34; Ezek 36:25). The New Covenant and its ministry therefore consist not of the letter but of the Spirit, because the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. On the letter/Spirit contrast, see Romans 2:29 and 7:6, the other two New Testament occurrences of this contrast. The letter kills since it announces God’s will without granting the power to keep it, thereby bringing people under God’s judgment as covenant breakers. The Spirit alone gives life because only the Spirit can change the heart, thereby enabling God’s people to keep His commands.
The New Covenant was established through the bloody death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s ministry under the new covenant reaches across people groups and generational gaps. The Gospel is not confined to anyone people group whether that be Jew, Gentile, American or European. The Gospel is rooted in God’s promises to His people in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament through the person and work of Jesus.
In a day when the latest fads and programs are popular Paul’s message to the Corinthians is a much needed message. No believer needs to have letters of recommendation to gain people’s attention what they need is God’s Word which reveals God’s program to the nations. God’s program begins with the Gospel as it has since Moses penned Genesis. God would send a deliver to crush Satan’s heel. The story of the Old Testament is not just a story of God going to war, but a story of God’s promises being worked out in the lives of real people. God through the Prophet Jeremiah foretold the day when the New Covenant would come into being (Jer. 31:31-34). The New Covenant is not the latest gimmick, fad, or latest theology to be popular but it is God’s means of saving people who were once enslaved from the bondage of sin and granting them new life through the Gospel.
The New Covenant forms the basis for the ministry of reconciliation by which every believer can go forth into the harvest fields of King Jesus. The meaning of New Covenant ministry begins with the Gospel. The Gospel is God’s story rooted in the history of God’s people and revealed in the person of Jesus. All of believers’ ministry efforts should be rooted in the Gospel without, which no one may come to the Father. Faithful Gospel preaching brings people out of spiritual bondage and into a relationship with God.
Simon J. Kistemaker, 2nd Corinthians New Testament Commentary (Michigan, Baker Academic, 1997), 101.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to his wife, Sarah. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021), The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022), and Contentment: The Journey of a Lifetime (Theology for Life, 2024). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.