Matthew Poole's English Annotations
on the Holy Bible
2 Corinthians 3
2 CORINTHIANS CHAPTER 3
2 Corinthians 3:1-3 To obviate the imputation of vain glory, Paul showeth
that the gifts and graces of the Corinthians were a
sufficient commendation of his ministry,
2 Corinthians 3:4,5 the efficacy of which he ascribeth entirely to God.
2 Corinthians 3:6-11 He proveth the superior excellency of the gospel
ministry to that of the law,
2 Corinthians 3:12-18 and thereupon justifieth his plain speaking, as under
a dispensation of greater light and liberty than that
The apostle, in the former Epistle, had spoken much in the vindication of himself and of his office; he seeth reason to return again to something of the like discourse, being provoked by the many imputations which the false apostles and teachers, in this church, had laid upon him: therefore he saith:
Do we begin again? Or else these words may have a special reference to the last verse of the former chapter; where he had commended himself, as being none of those who corrupted the word of God, but had preached as of God, and in the sight of God. No, (saith the apostle), though some others stand in need of commendatory letters, and are very careful to procure them, (by which others he very probably means the false apostles and teachers, which were Paul’s great enemies), yet I trust I need not any letters commendatory to recommend me to you, any more than letters of recommendation from you to commend me unto any other churches of Christ.
Your Christianity, and embracing of the gospel of Christ, your fiath and holiness, are instead of an epistle to me, to let the world know, both with what faithfulness, and with what blessing of God, and success upon my labours, I have preached the gospel; and you are such an epistle as I do not carry about in my pockets, or lay up in my closet, but it is written in my heart, where I carry continually both a thankful and honourable remembrance of you. Nor are you only taken notice of by me as a famous church, to the planting and watering of which God hath blessed my labours, and the labours of other ministers; but, as he saith to the Romans, Romans 1:8: Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world, so he saith here:
Ye are our epistle, known and read of all men; that is, all Christians take notice of you as a church to which God hath particularly blessed my ministry; so as I need no other recommendation than what I have from your receiving, and the proficiency you have made in, the gospel. Nothing so commends a minister as the proficiency of his people.
He had told them before that they were his epistle, his epistle recommendatory, the change which God had wrought in their hearts did more recommend him than all the epistles in the world could; but here he tells them that they were
the epistle of Christ, it was Christ that wrote his law in their hearts, (which writing was that which commended the apostle, who himself had but a ministration in the work), nor was it a writing
with ink, but the impression of
the Spirit of the living God. An epistle
not written in tables of stone, but in
the fleshy tables of the heart: he alludeth to the writing of the law, which was written in
tables of stone, Exodus 31:18, and also to the promises, Ezekiel 11:19 Ezekiel 36:26. That work of grace in the hearts of these Corinthians, which recommended the apostle, was wrought by Christ, and the apostles were but ministers in the working of it; it was a work more admirable than the writing of the law in tables of stone, and this work (he saith) was
We are not infallible in the case; but I tell you what confidence we have, hoping in God concerning you, through the merits of Jesus Christ.
I would not have you think that we judge ourselves sufficient to work a change in the hearts of men; we are so far from that, that we have no sufficiency so much as to think one good thought, which is the lowest human act. Though the subject, upon which the apostle is here discoursing, be a sufficiency to work a work of grace in the hearts of men; yet here is a strong proof to prove the impotency of man’s will unto any thing that is truly and spiritually good: for though the apostle declares here his own and all other ministers’ insufficiency to the change of any man’s heart, yet he proveth it by an argument, concluding from the lesser to the greater; for if they be not sufficient of themselves, and as of themselves, to think any thing which is truly and spiritually good, they are then much less sufficient for so great a work as the conversion of souls. Nor doth that term,
as of ourselves, any thing alter the matter; for if we can think good thoughts, in any sense,
as of ourselves, it is not
of God, in the sense which the apostle is speaking of; who is not here speaking of God as the God of nature, (from whom indeed we derive our power of thinking), but as the God of grace, from whom we derive our power of thinking holy thoughts, and such as are truly and spiritually good. The apostle determineth all our sufficiency to spiritually good actions to be from God, our sufficiency to the lowest (which is thinking good thoughts) as well as to those of the highest sort; amongst which must those actions be accounted, by which men are made workers together with God, in the bringing of souls out of darkness into marvellous light; opening their eyes, turning them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, Acts 26:18. Our sufficiency to think any thoughts, or to do any natural or moral actions, is from God, as he is the God of nature. But it appeareth from all the preceding discourse, that our apostle is here speaking of that sufficiency which floweth from God through the mediation of Christ: our power of thinking floweth from the providence of God towards all men; and if that had been all which the apostle had meant in saying,
our sufficieney is from God, it had been no more than what they might have learned from the heathen philosophers, who would have acknowledged, that all men’s sufficiency to natural actions is from the Divine Being, or the first Mover.
This verse plainly openeth what he had said before, and lets us know what sufficiency of God that was of which he there spake. He hath (saith the apostle) not found, but made us sufficient. We were men before, and, through the creating power and providence of God, we had an ability to think and to speak; but God hath made us sufficient, by a supervening act and influence of his grace, to be ministers of the new testament, that is, of the gospel; which being the new revelation of the Divine will, and confirmed by the death of Christ, is called the new testament.
Not of the letter, but of the Spirit: by the letter, here, the apostle understandeth the law; for the law is called the letter, Romans 2:27 Romans 7:6: Who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law; that is: While thou, by some external acts, professest a subjection to the law (particularly by circumcision) in a multitude of other actions, (which are more valuable in the sight of God than those external acts), thou transgressest the law. The law, in opposition to the gospel, is called the letter, sometimes a dead letter; because it was only a revelation of the will of God concerning man’s duty, no revelation of God’s grace, either in pardoning men their omissions of duty, and doing acts contrary to duty, or assisting men to the performance of their duty. As the gospel is also called the Spirit, both in opposition to the carnal ordinances of the law, and because Christ is the matter, subject, and argument of it; and chiefly because, that the preaching of it is so far attended by the Spirit of grace, that where men do not turn their ears from the hearing of it, nor shut their eyes against the light of it, nor harden their hearts against the precepts and rule of it, it becomes (through the free grace of God) effectual to change their hearts, and to turn them from the power of Satan unto God, and to make them truly spiritual and holy.
For the letter (that is, the law) killeth; the law showeth men their duty, accuseth, condemneth, and denounceth the wrath of God against men for not doing their duty, but gives no strength for the doing of it. But the
spirit (that is, the gospel) giveth life: the gospel, in the letter of it, showeth the way to life; and the gospel, in the hand of the Spirit, or with the Spirit, working together with it, (the Holy Spirit using it as its instrument), giveth life; both that life which is spiritual, and that which is eternal, as it prepareth the soul for life and immortality.
The apostle is manifestly comparing the ministry of the gospel with the ministry of the law, and showing the excellency of the former above the latter. In the former verse he had called the law, the letter; and the gospel, in opposition to it, he had called, the spirit: here he calleth the ministration of the law,
the ministration of death; because it only showed man his duty, or things to be done, but gave no strength or help by which he should do them; only cursing man, but showing him no way by which he might escape that curse: so it did kill men, and led them to eternal death and condemnation, without showing them any means of life and salvation. He also undervalueth the law, in comparison with the gospel, as being only
written and engraven in stones; whereas (as he had said before) the gospel is written in the fleshy tables of men’s hearts. Yet (saith he) the ministration of the law (which was indeed but the ministration of death) was glorious: there was a great deal of the glory and majesty of God attended the giving of the law, of which we read, Exodus 19:1-25.
So that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance: of this we read, Exodus 34:29,30: When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. So as it was glorious to be but a minister of the law, that is, of the revelation of the will of God, as to man’s duty,
which glory (saith the apostle) was to be done away: Moses’s face did not always so shine, neither was the glory of his ministration to abide always, but to cease by the coming in of the new covenant.
How shall not that ministration, which is more spiritual, and the effects of which are much more spiritual, be accounted much more glorious? Thus the apostle doth not only magnify the gospel above the law, but he also magnifieth his offices in the ministration of the gospel; which ministration he reasonably concludeth to be a more glorious ministration than that which Moses had, in whom the Jews so much gloried.
What the apostle before called the ministration of death, he here calleth
the ministration of condemnation; and therin gives us a reason why he called it the ministration of death, because it led unto eternal death, as showing men sin, so accusing and condemning men for sinful acts. If it pleased God (saith the apostle) to make that ministration glorious, that the minister of the law (Moses) appeared so glorious in the eyes of Aaron and of the people;
the ministration of righteousness (by which he means the gospel) must needs be more exceedingly glorious. He tells us, Romans 1:16,17, that he was not ashamed of the gospel—for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; that is, the righteousness wherein a soul must stand and appear righteous before God.
The ministration of righteousness signifieth the ministration of that gospel, that doctrine, which revealeth righteousness.
Righteousness is here opposed to condemnation; and therefore signifieth that which is opposed to it, viz. justification. For God doth not so freely remit sins, but that he declares his righteousness in the remission of them; and will show himself just, while he showeth himself the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus, Romans 3:26. And from hence it appeareth, that the gospel is called the ministration of righteousness, because he that ministereth in it exhibiteth the righteousness to Christ to be reckoned to the soul, as that whereby it must be justified; for God could not otherwise declare his righteousness in the remission of sins, nor show himself just in justifying the ungodly. This ministration (he saith) must needs be more glorious in the eyes of men than the ministration of the law; for that ministration afforded nothing but terror and death, this affordeth relief, and comfort, and life.
The law had in it something of intrinsic glory and excellency, as it was the revelation of the will of God to and concerning his creatures; there was an inseparable glory attending it upon that account: and it was made glorious in the ministration of it; as it pleased God that the giving of it should be attended with thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and an earthquake, and a voice like to the sound of a trumpet, as we read, Exodus 19:16-18: this was an accidental and adventitious glory, and made that which was glorious in itself, glorious also in the eyes of the people, that saw and heard these things. But yet, saith the apostle, if we compare it with the glory of the gospel, it had comparatively no glory; so much doth that excel. For though the law was the revelation of the Divine will, as well as the gospel, yet the law was the revelation of the Divine will but as to duty, and wrath, in case of the nonperformance of that duty: but the gospel is the revelation of the Divine will, as to grace and mercy, as to remission of sin, and eternal life. And although the gospel came not into the world as the law, with thunder, and lightning, and earthquakes; yet that was ushered in by angels, foretelling the birth and office of John the Baptist, and of Christ; by the great sign of the virgin’s conceiving and bringing forth a Son; by a voice from heaven, proclaiming Christ the Father’s only begotten Son, in whom he was well pleased. But that which the apostle doth here principally intend, is the exceeding excellency of it, in regard of its further usefulness and comfortable nature.
The apostle, by another argument, proveth the ministration of the gospel to be much more glorious than the ministration of the law, because it is more durable and abiding. The strength of the argument dependeth upon this principle, that any durable good is more excellent and glorious than that which is but transitory, and for a time. The ministration of the law is done away; the law, contained in ordinances, is itself done away, and therefore the ministration of it must needs cease. There are now no priests and Levites, no worldly sanctuary, nor any ministrations in it, or relating to it. But our Saviour hath told us, that the gospel shall be preached to the end of the world; so as that ministration must (according to all principles of reason) be more glorious, as that which is eternal is more glorious than that which is fluid and vanishing.
Hope here signifieth nothing but a confident, certain expectation of something that is hereafter to come to pass. The term such referreth to something which went before: the sense is: We being in a certain confident expectation, that our ministration of the gospel shall not cease, as the ministration of the law hath done; and that the doctrine of the gospel brings in not a temporary, but an everlasting righteousness; that there shall never be any righteousness revealed, wherein any soul can stand righteous before God, but that which is revealed in the gospel to be from faith to faith; we are neither ashamed nor afraid to preach the gospel with all freedom and boldness. We do not, as Moses, cover ourselves with a veil when we preach the gospel to people, but we speak what God hath given to us in commission to speak, unconcernedly as to any terrors or affrightments from men: we know, that great is the truth which we preach, and that it shall prevail and outlive all the rage and madness of the enemies of it.
We have the history to which this passage of the apostle relateth, in Exodus 34:33,35, where we read, that when Moses had done speaking, he put a veil on his face. The apostle here elegantly turns that passage into an allegory, and opens to us a mystery hidden under that piece of history. That shining of Moses’s face, in a type, prefigured the shining of Him who was to be the light of the world; as he was from eternity the brightness of his Father’s glory. Moses’s covering himself with a veil, signifies God’s hiding the mystery of Christ from ages. Moses did not put a veil on his face for that end, that the children of Israel might not look upon him; but this was the event of it, which also prefigured the blinding of the Jews; they first shut their eyes and would not see, then God judicially sealed their eyes that they should not see, that Christ was the end of the law for righteousness, the true Messiah, and the Mediator between God and man; they could not (as the apostle expresseth it) see
to the end of that which is abolished; to the end of the legal dispensation, to the end of all the types of Christ which were in the Levitical law. Now, (saith the apostle), we do not do so, but make it our business to preach the gospel with as much openness, and plainness, and freedom, as is imaginable. The whole history of the gospel justifieth what this text affirmeth concerning the Jews; that they could not see that Christ, by his coming, had put an end to the law, and the righteousness thereof. We find upon all occasions how much the Pharisees, and those who adhered to that sect, stuck in the law, to the hinderance of their receiving of, or believing in, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here the apostle expoundeth what he meant before by the mystical veil, viz. the blinding of the eyes of the Jews; of which we read often in the New Testament, Matthew 13:14 Mark 4:12 Luke 8:10 John 12:40 Acts 28:26 Romans 11:8: see the notes upon all those texts. And (saith the apostle) to this day the veil remaineth not taken away; that veil, which was signified by the veil with which Moses covered his face.
In the reading of the Old Testament, is, when the Old Testament is read: some part of which was wont to be read in the synagogues every sabbath day. But we shall meet with this in the next verse more fully. But (saith he) this
veil is done away in Christ. It is really taken away upon the coming of Christ; that is, the veil, that covered the face of Christ, is now truly, taken away upon his coming; the types are this filled in nim, as their complement and antitype; the prophecies are fulfilled in him, as he whom they concerned, and of whom the prophets spake. But the veil, that is drawn over men’s hearts, is not taken away, till they come to receive Jesus Christ as the end of the law for righteousness, to close with him, and to believe in him. God hath taken the veil off from Christ, by sending him personally to fulfil all righteousness; but Christ profiteth nothing particular souls, until they come to believe in him, then it is taken away from their souls, and not before. Which was the reason that it remained still upon the Jews, among whom he came, as among his own, but they received him not.
The veil, mystically signified by the veil upon Moses’s face, which hindereth them from seeing or discerning the Messiah to be come. But why doth he say,
when Moses, that is, the books of Moses, or rather of the Old Testament, are read? Possibly he thereby hinteth, that it was their duty, when in the synagogues they heard the chapters of the Old Testament read, which contain the types and prophecies of Christ, they ought to have looked through those veils, and have considered Christ as the end of those things; so the law, as a schoolmaster, should have led them to Christ: but it was quite otherwise. When they heard those portions of the Old Testament read, through the veil upon their hearts, they could not see through the veil of those types, prophecies, and ritual performances, but rested in them as things in the performance of which they laid their righteousness. Or, if they before had some little convictions upon their spirits, yet when they again came into the synagogues, and heard the law read, the veil again appeared over their hearts, so as they could not see Christ.
When it shall turn, may be understood of the whole, or of the generality (at least) of the Jews; when they shall be converted to the faith of Christ, or when any particular person shall be converted to Christ, then
the veil shall be taken away; not the veil with which God covered and veiled the mysteries of the gospel, (that was already taken away upon Christ’s coming in the flesh), but the veil of blindness, which they had drawn over their own souls. Though the light of the gospel shineth clearly, and Christ be unveiled, yet until men, by a true faith, receive Christ, and turn from sinful courses to the obedience of the gospel, they see little or nothing of Christ. The taking away of this veil, and the turning to the Lord, are things done in souls at the same time; therefore nothing is to be concluded here, from the apostle’s naming the removal of the impediment, after the effect of which that is a cause.
The Lord Christ was a man, but not a mere man; but one who had the Divine nature personally united to his human nature, which is called the
Spirit, Mark 2:8. But some think, that the article here is not merely prepositive, but emphatical; and so referreth to 2 Corinthians 3:6, where the gospel (the substance of which is Christ) was called the Spirit. So it is judged by some, that the apostle preventeth a question which some might have propounded, viz. how the veil should be taken away by men’s turning unto the Lord? Saith the apostle:
The Lord is that Spirit, or he is that Spirit mentioned 2 Corinthians 3:18; he is a Spirit, and he gives out of the Spirit unto his people, the Spirit of holiness and sanctification.
And where the Spirit of the Lord is, ( that holy, sanctifying Spirit, which is often called the Spirit of Christ),
there is liberty; for our Saviour told the Jews, John 8:36: If the Son make you free, then shall ye be free indeed: a liberty from the yoke of the law, from sin, death, hell; but the liberty which seemeth here to be chiefly intended, is a liberty from that blindness and hardness which is upon men’s hearts, until they have received the Holy Spirit.
Some by we here understand all believers; others think it is better understood of ministers: but the universal particle all rather guideth us to interpret it of the whole body of believers, of whom the apostle saith, that they all behold the glory of God with open face; that is, not under those dark types, shadows, and prophecies, that he was of old revealed under, but as in a looking glass, which represents the face as at hand; not as in a perspective, which showeth things afar off. We behold him in the glass of the gospel, fully opened and preached; and this sight of Christ in the gospel is not a mere useless sight, but such a sight as changeth the soul into the image and likeness of Christ,
from glory to glory; carrying on the souls of believers from one degree of grace to another; or making such a glorious change in the heart, as shall not be blotted out until a soul cometh into those possessions of glory which God hath prepared for his people. And all this is done
by the Spirit of the Lord, working with the word of God in the mouths of his ministers, but so as the Spirit hath the principal agency and efficiency in the work.
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Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25