Second Corinthians 3 is a hotly debated and difficult text. For example, Thomas Schreiner says 2 Corinthians 3 is “one of the most controverted texts in the Pauline corpus,”1 and is “full of exegetical difficulties and knotty problems.”2 David Garland believes the passage is “notoriously obscure”3 and Anthony Hanson says it is the “mount Everest of Pauline texts as far as difficulty is concerned—or should we rather call it the sphinx among texts, since its difficulty lies in its enigmatic quality rather than its complexity?”4 The result has been a hermeneutical maze of literature almost impossible to navigate.5

Nevertheless, the complexity and difficulty in translating and interpreting 2 Corinthians 3 is matched by its biblical-theological depth and insight.6 As the growing literature demonstrates, this one chapter leaves readers with a host of themes central to developing a Pauline theology (e.g., law, ministry, Spirit, glory, covenant). However, our task is not to enter into the myriad of grammatical and interpretive debates (though we will engage some), nor is it to focus on each of the Pauline themes present (see other articles in this issue). Instead, our purpose is to analyze 2 Corinthians 3 with a particular eye on the theme of “covenant.” More precisely, our aim is to better understand the relationship between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant” through the lens of 2 Corinthians 3.

As a word of caution, 2 Corinthians 3 will not tell us everything we need to know about the old and new covenants, nor did Paul intend it to. Yet, 2 Corinthians 3 is a text that sheds considerable light on the structure and nature of the new covenant. Therefore, we will (1) briefly explore the logic of Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3 in order to (2) draw several broad theological conclusions about the newness of the new covenant.7 As we explore the contours of Paul’s new covenant theology in 2 Corinthians 3, we will have an important question in mind: What is so new about the new covenant?

A New Covenant Letter from Christ

The context of 2 Corinthians 3 is key if we are to understand properly why Paul appeals to the “new covenant.”8 Certain opponents questioned Paul’s credentials, and though innumerable opinions exist as to exactly who these opponents were, it may be the case that such opponents were those whom Paul later on calls “super apostles” (11:5; 12:11).9 In reality, however, they were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13), even promoting another Jesus and another gospel (11:4-5).10 Such opponents raised suspicions about Paul as to whether his resume was adequate and legitimate. Since Paul did not come to the Corinthians with letters of recommendation or an externally impressive ministry, these opponents—who were all too concerned with charisma, external appearance, and success (e.g., 10:10, 12:1, 12)—scrutinized, criticized, and disparaged Paul’s ministry, which was instead a ministry characterized by suffering and tribulation.11 Unfortunately, such opponents had influenced the Corinthians and since certain Corinthians measured success by worldly standards, they considered Paul an embarrassment.12

It is conspicuous throughout 2 Corinthians that these opponents, as well as those Corinthians who followed them, made outward appearance the priority and standard by which all else was to be judged, so much so that they exalted themselves in light of their own credentials, letters of recommendation, and accomplishments.13 Indeed, their competition was with one another, as they were first and foremost concerned with who was superior, being defined by a spiritualized one-upmanship.14 They commended themselves even, measuring themselves by “one another” and comparing themselves “with one another” (2 Cor 10:12b). Naturally, they were totally unimpressed with Paul, for though his written letters may have been “weighty and strong,” his “bodily presence” was “weak,” and his “speech of no account” (2 Cor 10:12a).  Hence, Paul was now placed in the awkward situation of having to defend himself to the Corinthians when in fact the Corinthians should have been commending Paul (1 Cor 12:11), their spiritual father (1 Cor 4:14-15).

Second Corinthians 3:1-3 conveys Paul’s response. He asks rhetorically whether he is beginning to commend himself again15 or whether he needs (as some do) to provide “letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” (3:1).16 While this may be the external standard certain Corinthians had been convinced must be met, Paul answers that such a standard is all wrong in light of who he is (apostle) and what God has done through him (founded the church in Corinth).17 Indeed, Paul has credentials but they are far superior to physical letters of recommendation or self-commendation. Paul even has a letter, but to the shock of the Corinthians Paul says that the Corinthians themselves are his letter of recommendation, one written on his own heart (3:2).18 Paul could say this because it was under his apostolic ministry that the Corinthians were converted (1 Cor 3:6). Whether Paul is truly an apostle is verified and proven by the fact that the Holy Spirit, through Paul’s ministry, has regenerated, justified, and is now sanctifying the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:1-2). Paul’s ministry, therefore, is self-authenticating.19

While Paul may have initially been placed in an awkward position, Paul has now placed the Corinthians in a very awkward position. If they reject Paul’s credentials, his letters of recommendation (i.e., the Corinthians themselves), then they are essentially rejecting the Spirit’s work in their lives as genuine and authentic.20 Therefore, they must acknowledge the superiority of Paul’s “letters” and in doing so they demonstrate that they are saved because of Paul (or more accurately, because of God’s work through Paul). Paul’s point, then, is that there is no better letter of recommendation than the Corinthians themselves because their salvation is the greatest conceivable evidence that the Spirit is at work through Paul as an apostle. In short, physical letters of recommendation that his opponents so prided themselves in (and subsequently criticized Paul for not having) simply pale in comparison to the salvation of real people under Paul’s new covenant ministry.21

Therefore, Paul can confidently answer his own rhetorical questions, saying, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Cor 3:2). Furthermore, Paul demonstrates that the Corinthians are letters of recommendation on Paul’s behalf precisely because they are ultimately “a letter from Christ” (3:3). Or, stated more precisely, the Corinthians are a letter “produced by Christ” (i.e., genitive of production22 ), which is a Pauline metaphor involving conversion.23 In other words, Paul is the ministerial messenger and emissary of Christ, the one through whom Christ is working to bring about the conversion and transformation of the Corinthians.24 Ultimately, Christ is the divine author of this tangible letter known as the Corinthians. As we will soon see, Christ writes this letter (via Paul’s gospel-centered, apostolic ministry) not with ink, but with the Holy Spirit (3:3; i.e., the Spirit being the instrument of writing). It follows that Paul’s new covenant ministry is one empowered by the Spirit (cf. Rom 15:17-19; 1 Cor 2:4-5).25

The Life-Giving Spirit of the New Covenant

In that light, Paul feels confident in the legitimacy and authority of his ministry: “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God” (2 Cor 3:4). However, such confidence, as we would expect, does not stem from Paul himself, but is grounded in Christ (i.e., “through Christ”; 3:4).26 As Guthrie explains, Paul “expresses an unflinching trust that the source (Christ), effect (the work of the Spirit), validation (the fruit among the Corinthians), and orientation (toward God) of his ministry all mark the authenticity of his work and are summed up with two phrases, ‘through Christ’ and ‘toward God.’”27 It’s notable that Paul, in contrast to his adversaries, is actually inadequate by his own admission, insufficient to “claim anything as coming from us” (3:5).28 Nevertheless, Paul remains confident because his sufficiency is from God, “who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:6a).29

Up to this point, we have been intentionally avoiding the “new covenant” language that pervades these verses (3:3-6). But with the context now set, we can see Paul’s motivation for appealing to the new covenant in defense of his apostolic ministry. The place to begin, then, is with verse 3 where Paul says, drawing two different contrasts, that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ delivered by Paul, one written (1) “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God,” and (2) “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”30 If we skip ahead to verses 5 and 6 Paul also says his 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.”

What does Paul have in mind by comparing the old covenant with the new covenant in terms of an antithesis?31 First, Paul intends to highlight the inadequacy and impotence of the Law. When Paul refers to tablets of stone (3:3) and a “letter” that “kills” (3:6), he has in mind the Ten Commandments, or in its broadest sense the Mosaic Law (Exod 24:12; 31:18; 32:15; 34:1; Deut 9:10).32 The Law at Sinai was written on stone by God, delivered by Moses, and for Israel (Exod 31:18). In other words, the letter refers to the old covenant Law without the Spirit.33 Or as Augustine said (and Luther would agree), the letter refers to “Law without grace.”34

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with God’s commands on tablets of stone; they are divinely given and a perfect standard.35 However, the Law was written by the finger of God on stone, not on the human heart. In other words, while the Law was good (cf. Rom 7:12, 14), it remained external, not internal to Israel. As a result, the Law, being external, could not change Israel’s heart within. The Law “set the standard, but offered no power to reach it.”36 The Law, in other words, was impotent to produce the obedience that it required.37

Furthermore, since the Law revealed God’s perfect, holy, and righteous standard, the Law served to judge Israel in light of her sinfulness and idolatry (cf. Gal 3:10-14).38 The Law was incapable of effecting transformation and it could only stand as witness to her condemnation.39 Israel was a law-breaking bride, full of transgression against the Law. “In this way, what God intended as good is turned into a death-dealing instrument (Rom 7:13)—and the reason? We may refer to Rom 8:3a: the Law is weakened by human inadequacy, ‘the flesh.’”40 Being children of Adam (Rom. 5:12-17), Israel consisted of sinners, unable and unwilling to obey the Law.

The Law, therefore, only served to expose Israel’s inability and disobedience, her defiance and rebellion. By consequence, the Law exposed Israel’s condemnation before the giver of the Law, who is the holy judge. The Law, in short, told the world that Israel was a covenant breaker, one who had violated the pactum God had graciously established with his people.41 This explains why Paul can speak so negatively about a letter written with ink (as opposed to one written through the instrumentality of the Spirit),42 one written on tablets of stone (as opposed to one written on tablets of human hearts; 3:3), for the “letter kills” (3:6).43 We can agree, therefore, with Harris when he says that Paul “recognized not only its [the Law’s] impotence to impart life (Gal. 3:21) but also its ability to bring death [Rom. 7:10).”44

In contrast, the Spirit of the new covenant gives life (3:6; cf. Rom 8:2-4; Gal 6:8).45 As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:3, the Corinthians are a letter from Christ written “with the Spirit of the living God” on “tablets of human hearts.”46 Paul appears to be merging allusions47 in order to draw out a contrast: while the Law was limited to the external (commandments on tablets of stone), in the new covenant the Spirit writes internally (upon the heart).48 As we will see shortly, Paul is highlighting the fulfillment of God’s promise to write the Law on the heart of his people by and through the Holy Spirit.49

Second Corinthians 3:6 draws a similar contrast. We cannot miss how Paul creatively turns the conversation from “letters” of recommendation (3:1) to the “letter” that kills, namely, the Law (3:6). Once again, Paul’s aim here is to contrast the old covenant with the new covenant.50 In the old covenant, the Law meant the spiritual death of Israel (even physical death at times). She could not keep the Law, resulting in judicial punishment.51 However, the ministers of the “new covenant” have great news: while the letter brought death, the “Spirit gives life.”52

In order to understand Paul’s contrast better, it should be observed that Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 3:3-6 is intentionally loaded with OT imagery. Paul’s reference to tablets of stone in contrast to tablets of human hearts, as well as his contrast between the external letter of death and the internal Spirit of life, is undoubtedly drawn from at least three well-known passages whereby God promised the arrival of the new covenant.53 For our purposes, we must pay attention to precisely what God, through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, promised the new covenant would be like in its structure and nature.

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezek 11:19-20).

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezek 36:26-27; cf. 37:3, 14).

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31-34).

Unmistakably, Paul is building off of both Ezekiel and Jeremiah (cf. Deut 30:6).54 As the Lord promised through Ezekiel, the new covenant is one in which God himself surgically implants a new heart/spirit, removing the one of stone (i.e., one that is lifeless and dead) and placing within a heart of flesh (i.e., one that is alive and beating).55 As Paul will do, Ezekiel emphasizes the Spirit, and notice that the Spirit, unlike the letter, doesn’t work on stone tablets, but within the human soul, so that God’s commands are actually loved and obeyed.56

Table 1

New Covenant in Ezekiel and Jeremiah57
Ezekiel 11
Ezekiel 36
Jeremiah 31
God puts one heart and new spirit within
God gives new heart and new spirit within
New covenant not like old covenant, which Israel broke
God removes heart of stone and gives heart of flesh
God removes heart of stone and gives heart of flesh
God puts his law within, writes it on their hearts
People will keep rules and obey
God puts his
Spirit within
People belong
to God
People belong
to God
God causes people
to obey
Not necessary to tell neighbor to “Know the Lord” for all will know the Lord, from least to greatest
God forgives their iniquities
Jeremiah’s language is similar, exhibiting an even more explicit contrast between the new covenant of the Spirit and the old covenant God made with Israel’s fathers. In the old, Israel broke the covenant and was incapable of keeping it. The Law was strictly external. However, in the new, God’s laws are not limited to stone, but placed within. While in the former God’s finger wrote the Law on rock, in the latter God’s finger writes upon the human heart itself. Unlike the old, where not all Israel was Israel, in the new covenant all of God’s people will know the Lord and all their sins and iniquities will be forgiven (31:34).58

The contrast between the old and new could not be greater, and hence the contrast between the death-dealing Law and the life-giving Spirit could not be more vivid.59 Certainly Paul is emphasizing the notable discontinuity between the two in light of the latter surpassing and eclipsing the former.60 And in view of where Paul places his confidence (in contrast to his opponents), this new covenant emphasis only serves to demonstrate that Paul’s ministry does not rely upon human ability, credentials, or accomplishments, but entirely upon Christ and the Spirit, who alone can save.61

The Permanent and Surpassing Glory of the New Covenant

Paul accentuates the contrast between the letter and Spirit, and between life and death, even more so when he compares the old covenant under Moses with the new covenant of the Spirit. In doing so, Paul is contrasting two covenants in order to show the superiority of the latter over the former and the inherent inferiority of the former to the latter.62 Notice how the two compare with one another in Table 2:

Table 2

Two ministries, two covenants63
Old Covenant
New Covenant
Ministry of the letter (3:6)
Ministry of the Spirit (3:6)
Ministry of death (3:6, 7)
Ministry of life (3:6)
Carved in letters on stone (3:7)
[Corinthians] written on human hearts (3:3)
Glory limited (3:7, 10)
Glory unlimited (3:8, 9)
Brought to an end (3:7)
Permanent (3:11)
Ministry of condemnation (3:9)
Ministry of righteousness (3:9)

 

The result of this eschatological dichotomy, as Meyer observes, can be summarized under two broad categories: (1) the ineffectual power of the old covenant versus the effectual power of the new covenant, and (2) the temporal nature of the old covenant versus the eternal nature of the new covenant.64 Table 3 reflects these two comparisons:

Table 3

Nature of the two covenants
Old Covenant
New Covenant
Ineffectual power
Effectual power
Temporal nature
Eternal nature

 

In order to understand the contrast further, particularly why the Mosaic Law/covenant is now obsolete in light of the new covenant of the Spirit, we must take into consideration Paul’s exposition and interpretation of Exodus 34:29-35 in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11.

Exodus 34 occurs after Israel worshipped the golden calf (Exod 32). Moses broke the tablets that contained the Ten Words when he saw Israel’s idolatry, symbolizing the breaking of the covenant by Israel (32:19). God, however, graciously renewed his covenant with Moses and Israel, making new tablets (34:1-28). Moses was with the Lord “forty days and forty nights” when “he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (34:28). These tablets of stone represented the covenant and would be placed in the ark (Exod 24:12; 25:16; 31:18; 32:15); hence the label “tablets of the covenant” (Deut 9:9-11).65

When Moses first came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets in hand, he was unaware that the skin of his face was brightly shining since he had been talking with God (Exod 34:29). When Aaron and the people saw Moses’ face “they were afraid to come near him” (34:30). Why? Israel was afraid because the brightness symbolized the presence-glory66 of God and in light of Israel’s sin such brightness conveyed judgment and wrath, especially in light of her recent idolatry and the judgment that resulted (cf. 33:3-5).67 As Hafemann explains, “The presence of God’s glory means Israel’s death.”68 In other words, Moses’ face was a reminder that God was holy and Israel was very sinful, deserving condemnation.69 More to the point, the brilliance of Moses’ face reiterated to Israel that as a sinful people God could not dwell with them lest they be consumed (though there is far more to the veil than just fear, as we shall see).70

Therefore, when Moses finished speaking with the people, he would place a veil over his face, keeping Israel from the presence of God. This practice continued each time Moses went into God’s presence. Moses would return, tell the people what was commanded, and then Moses would cover his shiny face with a veil until next time (34:34-35). While Moses does not specify this explicitly, it is a legitimate inference71 to say that the veil not only kept Israel from seeing the brightness-glory of Moses’ face—given Israel’s fear of divine judgment72 —but also from seeing the transient, temporary nature of its radiance, symbolizing the impermanence of the old covenant and its eventual termination.73 It is upon such an inference that Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:7-13, argues that the glory of the Mosaic covenant has been brought to an end, giving way to the eternal glory of the new covenant.74 As Paul says in 3:13, Moses “would put a veil over his face “—Why exactly?—” so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.”

Commentators rigorously debate whether the purpose of the veil was meant to accommodate Israel’s fear, thereby mercifully protecting sinful, stiff-necked, hard-hearted Israel from God’s consuming glory (e.g., Scott Hafemann75 ), or whether it was meant to keep Israel from seeing the transient, fading glory of Moses’ face which was being brought to an end, ultimately representing the transitory nature of the old covenant (e.g., Murray Harris, Jason Meyer76 ). We cannot explore the legions of arguments on both sides, but I see no reason why both aspects cannot be present, as each appear to be legitimate inferences drawn from the text and do not necessarily entail contradictory conclusions. (Though it may be wise, as we will note shortly, to adjust the latter view. Rather than saying that the glory of Moses’ face, and thereby the glory of the old covenant, faded we should instead say that it was rendered inoperative/ineffective, which more accurately fits the translation of the text.) Is it inconceivable that Moses veiled his face to mercifully keep Israel from divine judgment and to keep Israel from beholding that which was being rendered inoperative and ineffective as the new covenant approached?77 After all, the Exodus narrative highlights the fear of the people (34:30), while Paul highlights the temporary, evanescent nature of the old covenant’s glory (2 Cor 3:14).

It does seem, however, that in Paul’s retelling of Exodus 34 it is the impermanent nature of the old covenant that is his main focus, as Paul nowhere mentions Israel’s fear (as Exod 34:30 does), but strictly focuses on the nullification of the old covenant instead.78 In other words, while it is true that the veil accommodated Israel’s fear of God’s judgment (and therefore the veil was a means of divine mercy), perhaps the primary reason for the veil in Paul’s mind is that it kept Israel from seeing the reality that the old covenant would be brought to an end (i.e., Paul’s argument is eschatologically driven).79 According to Kruse, Paul “saw in the passing radiance of Moses’ face a symbol of the abolition of the old covenant under which Moses ministered. He inferred that Moses lacked boldness because he knew the old covenant was to be abolished and he veiled his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the radiance associated with the old covenant.”80 Or as Harris brilliantly explains, when Moses veiled his face “he was dramatizing the impermanence of the newly established order.” In other words, “Time after time his veil effected an eclipse of glory, an acted parable for the spiritually perceptive of the coming eclipse of the glory of the Sinai covenant.”81 Dramatization, parable—these words vividly capture what Moses was doing, namely, picturing the coming eclipse of Sinai’s glory.

What is Paul’s point, then, in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11? Simply put, the glory of the new covenant makes the old covenant obsolete, for the glory of the former far surpasses the glory of the latter.82 Notice the logic in Paul’s argument. The Sinai covenant, he says, is a “ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (3:7).83 Yes, it was glorious; after all, it was God-given and divinely initiated, communicating God’s perfect Law to his sinful people.84 Nevertheless, it was ineffectual and incapable of saving, for it was carved on tablets of stone (3:7), not on tablets of human hearts.85 Paul illustrates his point by drawing attention to the disturbing reality that “the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end” (3:7). The inferiority of the old covenant is evident in Paul’s argument from the lesser to the greater: the new covenant ministry of the Spirit has far more glory (3:8).

It must be noted that scholars fiercely debate whether καταργουμένην (from καταργέω; 3:7, 11, 13, 14) conveys something that is “fading,” “culminating,” “abolished,” “nullified,” “made ineffective,” or “rendered inoperative.”86 Scott Hafemann and Duane Garrett, however, make a substantial case from other NT uses of καταργέω that the correct translation is to “render powerless” or to “make inoperative or ineffective.”87 Guthrie concludes that Paul must be conveying that “the glory was snuffed out by the veil.”88

Regardless, what is undebatable is that the glory suffusing Moses’ face—and therefore the glory of the old covenant (cf. 3:11, 13)—has been terminated. As Martin says, “impermanence has given way to that which has come to stay.”89 Therefore, whether the sense of the text is that the glory actually faded or was rendered inoperative and powerless, the end result was that it was temporary in nature and has been cancelled.

Furthermore, it was absolutely necessary that it be “made null and void”90 because the ministry of Moses (i.e., Law) was a ministry of death (3:7) and condemnation (3:9).91 It was a ministry of death and condemnation because man could not keep God’s holy Law.92 As Paul says elsewhere, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).93 And as God himself says in Exodus 34:7, he “will by no means clear the guilty.” The consequence of law-braking is certain death (e.g., Exod 35:2). The Law, therefore, only reveals our incompetence, inability, and guilt. The Law cannot regenerate, justify, and sanctify; the Law can only condemn those guilty of breaking it (cf. Rom 7:10; 8:1-11).94 Hence, the glory of the “ministry of condemnation” was ephemeral and has now passed away with the advent of Christ.

How much more so, then, will the “ministry of righteousness” (i.e., the Spirit’s new covenant ministry) exceed the ministry of condemnation in its glory (3:9), for it does not bring death but life.95 The former is appropriately titled the ministry of righteousness because unlike the covenant with Moses, in the new covenant God’s people are not only forever acquitted, but they have imputed to them the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21) so that they are justified in God’s sight on the basis of Christ’s new covenant work (Rom 3:21-26).96 Not only are sinners justified, but sanctified as well, for the Spirit writes God’s laws on the heart so that all of his new covenant people walk in his ways and obey his commands, just as God promised through Ezekiel (Ezek 36:27; cf. Rom 8:3-4).97 Certainly this is something the Mosaic Law could never offer or accomplish.

Therefore, argues Paul, the glory of the new covenant far surpasses (and outshines) the glory of the old covenant, so much so that Paul can say in 3:10 that “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it.”98 As represented in the veiling of Moses’ face (3:13), the glory of the old covenant is now obsolete and inoperative. “For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory” (3:11).99 Once again (cf. 3:7), Paul is using a lesser to greater contrast (a minori ad maius) to prove the superiority of the glory of the new covenant.100 The result is that the glory of the Law, visibly portrayed in Moses’ face, has diminished before the glory of the gospel in the face of Jesus Christ.101

Though this will be discussed further below, 2 Corinthians 3:11 demonstrates that the Law under Moses was never intended to be permanent, nor was the old covenant administration.102 It came to an end when Christ spilt his blood (i.e., the blood of the newcovenant; Luke 22:20; cf. Rom 7:1-4; 9:4; Gal 3:22-4:6; Eph 2:15-16; Col 2:16-17).103 A new, superior covenant has arrived in its place, one whose glory cannot be rendered inoperative like the radiance of Moses’ face and one which will not deal death but life everlasting.104 This was the covenant prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied would come, thereby superseding the covenant at Sinai.

The Unveiled Face of the New Covenant

Having such a profound hope in the new covenant work of the Spirit (3:12), one can see why Paul is so bold. While the covenant under Moses, and its glory, was made void and null, Paul ministers under the new covenant which is not only effective due to the life-giving Spirit, but is permanent and accessible in its glory.105 Paul’s hope and boldness (and every new covenant believers’ by default) is in direct contrast to Moses “who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (3:13).106 Paul’s hope, in comparison, is grounded upon the new covenant whereby the Spirit not only grants new life, but God himself guarantees that the glory of the new covenant is permanent (3:11).

Paul, in verses 13-15, returns once more to the imagery of Moses’ veil, and he does so in order to show typologically and metaphorically the contrast between those still stuck in the old covenant and those in the new covenant.107 As before, Paul aims to highlight once more the ineffectual and temporal nature of the old covenant in contrast to the effectual and eternal nature of the new covenant.108 Just as the veil covered Moses’ face, so does a spiritual veil remain over the hearts of unbelieving Israelites “to this day” (3:14, 15; cf. Deut 29:4; Isa 6:9-11).109 Paul persuasively drives this point home by describing the unbeliever as possessing a hardened mind.110 “Saying that the mind of Israel was hardened means they did not have the Spirit.”111

The Israelites, including many in Paul’s day, knew the OT backwards and forwards. Yet, Paul can say that their minds were hardened because every time they read the “old covenant” they refused to believe it pointed forward to Christ and the redemption that comes through him. Though they heard the old covenant read, they could not (and would not) accept its fulfillment in the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, and his new covenant (cf. 2 Cor 3:15). As a result, certain Jews of Paul’s day could not perceive that the old covenant had come to an end.112 It’s as if a veil remained over their “hearts” (3:15), keeping them from seeing and savoring the gospel.113 As a result, they remained cut off from its glory.114

What a contrast there is, as Guthrie notes, between the “hardening or dulling of the mind” and the “open-faced experience of the glory of God.”115 Certainly the hard, blind, dull heart Paul makes reference to was apparent among Jews in Jesus’ day for though he taught Israel concerning himself and the kingdom of God, they remained hardened and blinded to his mission and identity (e.g., John 12:40; Isa 6:10; Luke 24:27-46). Just as the veil kept Israel from the privilege of viewing the glory of the Lord—i.e., the veil being not only an instrument of mercy but divine judgment—so did a spiritual veil cover Israel’s hearts in the first century, shielding her from seeing the glory of God in the gospel of his Son (2 Cor 3:14-15; cf. Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8, 15; 4:7).116

However, “through Christ” (3:14) this veil is removed, taken away and abolished when the sinner is converted to the Lord (3:16).117 The Law could not remove the veil, for the Law only revealed the hardness of man’s mind. Only in Christ can the veil be lifted once for all.118 Conversion, in other words, changes everything, for the veil that previously blinded the sinner (cf. 2 Cor 4:4) is now removed when one turns to the Lord (3:16).119 While previously the sinner was blind to divine glory, now his eyes are unhindered from seeing such glory (3:18).120 While before, like Israel, he was cut off from seeing and experiencing God’s presence, now he knows God’s presence first hand for he beholds the glory of the Lord with an “unveiled face” (3:18). Just as Moses stood face-to-face with the Lord, so does the new covenant believer see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:4-6).121 In this sense, then, “every Christian has become a Moses.”122 Such is the marvel of the new covenant in contrast to the old.

2 Corinthians 3 and the Newness of the New Covenant

As mentioned at the start, 2 Corinthians 3 tends to be a hermeneutical labyrinth. No doubt, some will disagree with our interpretation. Nevertheless, interpreters may agree on one thing: Paul is drawing a contrast between the old covenant, characterized by the Mosaic Law, and the new covenant, characterized by the Spirit. In what follows, we will labor to take yet a further step, transitioning from exegesis to theology, specifically Paul’s new covenant theology. To be sure, 2 Corinthians 3 does not provide us with a full biblical or systematic theology of the new covenant, nor does it solve all debates between covenantal systems. However, 2 Corinthians 3 does reveal some of the most basic building blocks to the new covenant. We will consider merely three as we paint with very broad strokes in order to draw out the implications of Paul’s new covenant theology.

1. The old covenant and the Mosaic Law are now obsolete, for the new covenant supersedes the old covenant.

Unlike the new covenant, the old covenant was not intended to be eternal. Consider, for example, the titles used of the new covenant throughout the OT. The phrase “everlasting covenant” is used sixteen times in the OT (three of those times in the context of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which Paul plays off of in 2 Corinthians 3).123 However, never is this label used of the old covenant nor is the old covenant ever referred to as a permanent covenant.124 In fact, Paul says just the opposite in 2 Corinthians 3, unapologetically announcing that the old covenant and its glory (along with its Law of death) has been brought to an end (3:7, 11, 13), whereas the new covenant and its glory (along with its Spirit of life) is here to stay (3:11). We must conclude, therefore, that the old covenant and its Law are now obsolete, much in contrast to the new covenant. Or as Schreiner has said, “Paul evidently has constructed an antithesis in which one covenant is said to remain forever, while the other (the Mosaic) is coming to an end.”125 The Mosaic covenant “has reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ” and this “fulfillment means that the Mosaic covenant no longer is in force.”126 Hence, it is right to call the covenant of Sinai an “old” covenant.

One of the entailments of the temporary nature of the old covenant in 2 Corinthians 3 is that new covenant believers are no longer under the Mosaic Law. It is not sufficient to say that in the new covenant the old covenant is merely confirmed, reestablished, or renewed. Rather, with the coming of Christ and the Spirit, God really has created and inaugurated a brand new covenant. As Seifrid asserts, “In Jesus Christ ‘the letter’ has been done away with … Paul describes the Law as ‘the old covenant’ (3:14; cf. Heb. 8:13). Moses, who is read in the synagogue, gives way to Christ and to the Spirit, who is present in the apostolic proclamation (3:15-18).”127 The Mosaic Law, which was part and parcel of the old covenant, is now obsolete. The new covenant believer is no longer under its administration and rule, nor is he bound to it. Since the letter kills (3:6) and functions within a ministry of death and condemnation (3:7, 9), this certainly is good news to those under its enslaving domain.

Lest the charge of antinomianism follow, we must quickly qualify that though the new covenant believer is no longer under the Mosaic Law, nevertheless, the righteousness of God contained therein is in many ways manifested in the new covenant where the believer is now under the Law of Christ.128 Or as Gentry and Wellum put it, the righteousness of God “demonstrated in the old covenant has been enshrined and incorporated into the new.”129 One might wonder, then, how such an incorporation manifests itself in the new covenant life of a Christian. Gentry and Wellum explain:

As a Christian, I am not bound by the Ten Commandments, because they are part of an agreement between God and Israel that does not apply to me. My relationship to God is based upon and defined by the new covenant. Nonetheless, within the new covenant the divine instruction calls me to love my neighbor so that adultery, murder, stealing, etc., are still covenant violations. The righteousness of God has not changed.130

In light of Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Ezekiel’s (11:19-20; 36:26-27) prophesies, we see such a principle applied by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3. In the old covenant, the Law without the Spirit only brought condemnation for the unregenerate. However, in the new covenant the Spirit regenerates all of God’s people and bestows upon them the power to obey God. The Spirit writes God’s moral law upon the heart. Therefore, the “moral norms of the law can now be kept because of the internal working of the Spirit of God. The law is no longer just an external standard; it is also an inward delight.”131 Granted, in the new covenant it is not the Mosaic Law in view; however, the righteousness of God found in the Law has not ceased, but has been enshrined and incorporated into the Law of Christ, which the Spirit-filled believer is now capable of following.

One last observation is in order before we move forward. If the old covenant is now obsolete, it is obsolete because the new covenant has superseded it, as was God’s intention. The old covenant, in other words, finds its telos in the new covenant, due to the redemptive work of Christ and the effective application of that work by the Holy Spirit upon our hearts. To be more precise, the old covenant finds its telos in the new covenant precisely because the new covenant fulfills the old covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-34).132

To qualify, this does not mean (as some might assume) that the old covenant no longer has value. To the contrary, it does carry tremendous value for as we learned in 2 Corinthians 3 it came with glory of its own. Furthermore, its Law is and remains the Word of God, canonical and God-breathed, and therefore profitable for instruction (2 Tim 3:16-17). At the same time, we must recognize that this side of the cross we have entered into a new covenant, one that has brought to fulfillment through Christ what the old covenant could only foreshadow and anticipate through types and patterns and at times through explicit prophecy. The eschatological goal of the old covenant has been inaugurated in Jesus and the new covenant cut by his own blood. So the new covenant supersedes the old covenant, but it does so as that which brings to fulfillment the promises and types of the old covenant.

But now the question must be raised: In what way does the new covenant fulfill the old covenant? This question brings us back to the very heart of Paul’s logic in 2 Corinthians 3.

2. The solution to the problem inherent in the old covenant is found in the new covenant’s structure and nature

As seen already, Paul contrasts two covenants by comparing the Law to the Spirit (2 Cor 3:6, 8, 17). One deals death, the other deals life. The Law, though good in and of itself, brought man face to face with death, precisely because the Law revealed his inability to meet God’s standard. Because man’s heart was hard, rebelling against his Creator, the Law came along and not only exposed man’s rebellion but declared him guilty and therefore worthy of condemnation. Paul says it best: “the letter kills” (2 Cor 3:6). So he calls the old covenant the “ministry of death” (3:7) and “condemnation” (3:9). He even uses the imagery of Moses’ veil to explain that Israel, given her hardened mind, has a veil over her own heart (3:14-15). Paul’s language is rooted in the OT where repeatedly we read that Israel was stubborn in heart (Deut 29:29; Jer. 3:17; 7:24; 9:14; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 18:12; 23:17; Ps 81:12). At the center of this problem is Israel’s covenant infidelity; she is a covenant breaker.133

However, in 2 Corinthians 3 the apostle Paul, building off of Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s prophecies, demonstrates that the new covenant carries with it the solution to this deadly problem inherently manifested in the old covenant. While in the old covenant Israel did not and could not remain faithful to the covenant, in the new covenant all covenant members are born again and therefore capable of faithfulness.134 While in the old covenant the Law was written externally, on tablets of stone, incapable of creating heart change, in the new covenant the Spirit writes God’s commands within, upon the heart, so that real change occurs as a result.

Jeremiah 3:16-18 promises this much when it says that the Ark of the Covenant would no longer be needed in the new covenant.135 The Ark carried within it God’s instruction, his laws. However, a day was to come when God’s people would no longer point and say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord” (Jer 3:16). Instead, “It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again” (3:16). Why? It shall no longer be needed for at that time the people “shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart” (17). As Jeremiah will explain later on in 31:31-34, in the new covenant God places his commands within, writing it upon the heart, so that all of his people know him personally. “Thus the people of God will faithfully keep the new covenant. God’s instruction will be internalized, it will be ingrained in their thinking, feeling, and planning.”136

It’s no surprise, then, that when Paul compares and contrasts the old covenant with the new covenant, this is the very point he labors to make. As he explains in 2 Corinthians 3:3, in the new covenant the Corinthians (and all believers by inference) are a letter written not with ink but with the Spirit, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Death is no longer their fate for they are no longer under the Law’s condemnation. Instead, they are alive due to the internal, heart-changing work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:6, 16-17). As a result, the veil that was over the heart has been removed and every believer shares the privilege of Moses, namely, beholding with an unveiled face the glory of the Lord, which results in Christ-like transformation (2 Cor 3:16-18).

Given Paul’s contrast, we are left to conclude that the new covenant is far superior to the old covenant, for (1) the former’s glory is eternal and therefore much greater than the temporary glory of Moses’ face, and (2) the former is far more effective, regenerating instead of killing. In short, such superiority is rooted in a simple fact: the new covenant, both in its eternality and effectiveness, has the solution to the problem the old covenant could not solve.

One might ask, then, what is so new about the new covenant? Answer: Since the new covenant carries with it the solution to the old covenant dilemma, the new covenant must be new in its structure and nature.137

The old covenant involved a “tribal” approach, whereby God dealt mostly with leaders in Israel (prophets, priests, and kings), rather than with every covenant member. In other words, the permanent structure (and problem) of the old covenant was that it had to be forever mediated, as seen when Paul refers to the mediatorial role of Moses in 2 Corinthians 3, a role that necessarily kept the people from beholding the glory of God. Gentry and Wellum helpfully elaborate upon what this “tribal” structure looked like and how it stands in contrast with the structure of the new covenant:

Despite remnant themes and an emphasis on individual believers, the Old Testament pictures God working with his people as a tribal grouping whose knowledge of God and whose relations with God were uniquely dependent on specially endowed leaders—thus the strong emphasis on the Spirit of God being poured out, not on each believer, but distinctly on prophets, priests, kings, and a few designated special leaders (e.g., Bezalel). Given this hierarchical structure of the covenant community, when these leaders did what was right, the entire nation benefited. However, when they did not, the entire nation suffered from their actions. …But what Jeremiah anticipates is that this tribal structure is going to change [Jer. 31:29-30]. …the covenant community [Christ] mediates is not structurally the same as the previous covenant communities. Those who come under his mediatorial rule and reign include both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, and one enters this relationship, not by physical birth, circumcision, or the Torah, but through spiritual rebirth and faith. Only those who are in faith union with their covenant head are his family, and all of his family know God and have access to God through Christ.138

While the old covenant involved a physical relation between the covenant mediator and the seed, as is evident from Adam to David, with the advent of Christ and his kingdom the new covenant involves a spiritual relation between the Mediator and those he has purchased.139 As a result, in the new covenant all of God’s people have the Spirit, having been born again, and all of God’s covenant recipients know the Lord.140 This is the very exciting news that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel announce, as do other prophets like Joel (2:28-32).141

It should be added, in light of our focus in this essay, that for Paul, who is building off of these prophets, such a change in the structure of the new covenant is assumed throughout 2 Corinthians 3 and is the basis on which Paul erects his new covenant theology. Note not only Paul’s confidence but the confidence he expects his Corinthian readers to possess as well. It is a confidence rooted in the ministry of the new covenant where, unlike Israel’s mixed community, every one of God’s people has been given new spiritual life by the Spirit (3:6). Paul’s new covenant ministry is not a ministry of condemnation, as was the case with the ministry of the old covenant (i.e., a ministry of death), but instead it is a ministry that breeds life and gives righteousness freely (3:7-9). Unlike the old covenant, in the new covenant there is a type of boldness that defines every member, for every covenant member sees the Lord with an unveiled face (3:12-16), something that could not be said of Israel at Sinai. No longer is this privilege limited to Moses, but due to the priestly work of Christ and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost all new covenant members stand in the shoes of Moses now. While Paul doesn’t touch on the structure as explicitly as he does elsewhere, nevertheless, it is present, assumed everywhere in his language about the efficacy of the life-giving Spirit, the permanent glory of the new covenant, and the immediacy found in the open-faced access to the glory of God, all of which old covenant Israel lacked in full.

Furthermore, a change in nature is part of this structural difference as well. Not only is there an immediacy between God and the new covenant member thanks to the once-for-all mediatorial work of Christ—an immediacy that involves a spiritual relation between the mediator and his people as opposed to a physical one—but there is also an internal, spiritual change in the person as well.  As God promised through Jeremiah (31:33-34), and as Paul hints at in 2 Corinthians 3:3, 6, 7, the Law is no longer external, on tablets of stone, but is now internalized, since the Spirit has written his commands upon the heart, resulting in authentic obedience. The forgiveness of sins follows as well, which is also promised in Jeremiah 31 and assumed in 2 Corinthians 3, particularly in how Paul contrasts condemnation (old covenant) and righteousness (new covenant; 3:9). To put the matter theologically, all of God’s new covenant members are both regenerated and justified (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:25).

To clarify, we are not denying that old covenant members were regenerated and justified (as if there are two peoples of God and two ways of salvation). Contra certain forms of dispensationalism, from start to finish redemptive-history has one people of God and one plan of redemption in Jesus Christ. However, contra certain forms of covenant theology, we would also be mistaken to assume, based on this rich redemptive-historical continuity, that Israel and the church are virtually the same. To the contrary, much changes in structure and nature now that Christ has secured redemption and the Spirit has been universally distributed upon God’s people. The major difference is that in the new covenant all covenant members are born again (Jer 31:31-34), and not only born again but justified, which simply was not the case in the old covenant as “not all Israel was Israel” (Rom 9:6).142 Or to rephrase the matter in light of 2 Corinthians 3, in the new covenant the normative experience of every member is life in the Spirit and a lifting of the veil to behold the glory of the Lord (3:16-18). Paul assumes this when he utilizes Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. Therefore, while there may be one people of God and one plan of redemption, the church is defined by a new reality: rather than being a mixed entity as was the case with Israel, the church is a regenerate body of believers.143 This is the great hope the prophets foretold and longed to see.

Thus, there is an efficacy to the scope of the Spirit’s work in the new covenant that sits in stark contrast to the impotence of the old covenant letter, the latter of which cannot regenerate and transform. And such an efficacy is inherently tied to Paul’s emphasis on the permanence of the new covenant, for unlike the glory of Moses’ face which was rendered inoperative and had to be covered up with a veil, the glory of the new covenant shines brightly for all new covenant members to see and experience. Its brilliance is accessible and eternal in nature.

3. The new covenant, therefore, is ontologically superior to the old covenant.

Given the change in structure and nature, we must now conclude with a final question: Is the new covenant ontologically superior? The answer must be yes.144

In light of what we have seen in 2 Corinthians 3, we cannot agree with those who say that the newness of the new covenant has nothing to do with its nature and structure, as if it is a mere renewal of the old covenant.145 Take, for example, the role of the Spirit. It’s not as if the new covenant is new simply because it brings with it more Spirit.146 Such an assumption misses the contrast Paul draws in 2 Corinthians 3. The newness of the new covenant is that while the old covenant was characterized by the letter, the new covenant is totally different, for it is characterized by the Spirit. In short, the Spirit is inherently part of the new covenant, which is why the new covenant produces life whereas the old covenant produced death because it was inherently characterized by the letter.

Therefore, the differences between old and new are not merely quantitative, but especially qualitative. As Meyer has put it, the “new covenant is an eschatological advance over the old.”147

The presence of the Spirit is an intrinsic element of the new covenant, while the old covenant is largely defined in terms of the Spirit’s absence. Therefore, the intrinsic element of the new covenant is the Spirit while the intrinsic element of the old covenant is the letter. The old covenant could not change Israel’s spiritual condition because it did not possess any intrinsic provisions for changing the heart. The genius of the new covenant comes in its different design. God made the new covenant with the intrinsic provision of the Spirit for changing the heart of its covenantal members.

Therefore, the character or ontological elements of the covenants determine the results that flow from the covenants (death or life). The new covenant produces life because of its essential character consists of the life-giving presence of the Spirit. The old covenant produces death because of its essential character consists of the impotent letter, which is not able to effect a change within the covenantal members.148

Such a contrast is apparent when one looks at Israel in comparison with the new covenant community. Israel was a nation, consisting of ethnic Jews. One entered into this nation, and therefore into the covenant community, through birth. But such an entrance in no way initiated or created a change within, that is, a change of the heart. In fact, physical birth and entrance into the community was shortly followed by an introduction to the death-dealing letter.149

The new covenant, however, is entirely different. Covenant membership is not based upon physical birth but spiritual birth, which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit resulting in faith-union to Jesus Christ. Unlike the letter, the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6), and in contrast to the mixed community of the old covenant, every covenant member has a heart change effected by the Spirit.150 Paul describes the result in 2 Corinthians 3: Every new covenant member beholds the glory of the Lord with an unveiled face (2 Cor 3:16, 18). The result is the type of transformation (cf. 2 Cor 3:18) that the prophets promised would only arrive in the new covenant, and it is a heart change they promised would characterize all new covenant members (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27).

Therefore, while the old covenant is ontologically connected to the Law which kills, the new covenant is ontologically connected to the Spirit who gives life.151 It is precisely because the new covenant is (1) a ministry of life and (2) a ministry that eternally abides that its glory is inherently superior to the glory of the old covenant ministry.152

There can be no doubt, then, that the new covenant and its glory is inherently superior to the old covenant and its glory, for the former is neither limited in its power or scope (to save) nor temporary in its nature. No doubt, Paul would have agreed with the author of Hebrews who strongly asserts that the new covenant is “better” for it is “enacted on better promises” and is superior to the old covenant which was far from “faultless” (Heb 8:6, 7). After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, as Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 3, the author then concludes, “In speaking of a new covenant, he [God] makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13). The ontological superiority of the new covenant could not be stated any stronger!

It is no wonder why Paul, in his defense of his apostleship, has the superior argument, for his ministry is entirely grounded upon a superior covenant, and the Corinthians are living proof that such a covenant has arrived, just as the prophets promised.