2 Corinthians 3:7-18
We are looking through the book of 2 Corinthians. And forgive me for spending a bit of time explaining a bit about the background to 2 Corinthians
It is a letter written by Paul to the church in Corinth. It is possibly 2 of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth put together.
It is principally a defence of his ministry.
It is the most personal of all the letters. We glimpse Paul the man. He shares some of his deepest trials and some of his most profound experiences.
But if it is a defence of the messengers, it is even more a proclamation of the message and the person who the message is about. And so, in our reading next week, we have those fantastic words: “For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).
So Paul defends his ministry
He affirms that he is trustworthy.
His accusers were saying – we see this in chapter 1 – that he had said in an earlier letter that he was going to come and visit them (it is possible that chapter 13 might be part of that earlier letter). But in chapter 1 Paul says that although he wanted to come and visit them, he knew it would be a painful visit. He would need to come to bring discipline to the church. It appeared that the Corinthian church was tolerating a sin (probably of a relationship issue – it appears that a man was living in a relationship with his father’s wife cf 1 Corinthians 5:1), and the church was proud of it, because it showed that they really were free from the requirements of the Old Testament law. The problem, says Paul, is that that sort of behaviour is not loving because it is not right, and because it is making the church an object of ridicule – and so causing people not to listen to the message and come to Jesus.
And Paul was angry. And because of that, even though he had said that he would come and visit the church, he knew he had to wait and not come. And in fact it seems that that was wise. The church listens to what he says, exercises discipline, and the people involved repent. And now in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul urges them to welcome those people back into the fellowship.
But Paul is saying, ‘I am trustworthy. Even though I said I would come and did not come, it was because I loved you, and there are times when love requires us to break our word'. Interestingly he goes on to say that God never breaks his word. When God says ‘yes’, he means ‘yes’.
He affirms that he is competent
His accusers are saying that Paul is not a real apostle. They want leaders to be leaders. They need to be charismatic, impressive, miracle workers and successful. They need to come with letters of recommendation from other churches, saying how impressive they are. And Paul, they say, just doesn’t fit the bill. He is not up to the job.
And much of the letter is Paul’s response to those who say that he doesn’t behave like an apostle. 'No', he says, 'I don't have letters of recommendation. Why? Because you are my letter of recommendation. You came to faith through my ministry. And I love you.' And that really is the best letter of recommendation: the life of a believer.
Ignatius [Epistle to the Ephesians, 10] writes, "Give unbelievers the chance of believing through you. Consider yourselves employed by God; your lives the form of language in which He addresses them. Be mild when they are angry, humble when they are haughty; to their blasphemy oppose prayer without ceasing; to their inconsistency, a steadfast adherence to your faith."
And his answer in the later part of the letter, as we will see, is that actually it is our weakness and our dependence on God that qualify us for ministry - for then our competence does not lie in our own ability, but in the power of God. And ultimately it is God who calls and God who equips. Paul writes in 3:5, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.”
He affirms that when it comes to preaching Jesus he is bold.
His accusers are saying that the reason he did not come to Corinth to personally challenge the church, or that – for instance - he doesn’t demand the rights of a senior church leader (such as a higher salary from them), is because he is a coward.
Paul replies and says that the reason he didn’t come to Corinth and that he does not wish to overburden the church financially is because he loves them, and he is not in the business of lording it over them.
In fact, here – and we finally get to our passage today – he says he is bold in his preaching: 'Since we have such a hope we are very bold' (3:12). And he explains why he is bold (later on in chapter 11 he tells us what has happened to him, the cost he has had to pay, because he is bold for Jesus).
As an aside, it is very easy to accuse our bishops and public church leaders today of not being bold. Why don’t they denounce Islam? Why don’t they tell it as it is? Why don’t they publicly say that there is only one way to salvation and that is through Jesus Christ? Why are they so wishy washy?
Well actually there are reasons. Not every community in our country is like Bury St Edmunds. There are places where there are deep deep rifts running within communities and the serious threat of violence; and there are times when a love for people means that we have to restrain what we say. Not because we are not passionate about Jesus. Not because we do not wish moslems, or atheists, or the millions who have been deceived by our secular western values to find Jesus. No, there are other ways of doing that: more costly ways than standing on a pedestal and denouncing them out there and being called bold by the in-crowd. It is the way of our friends who chose to move from Norwich to Leicester so that they could live among people of other faith, and so that they could befriend them, care for them and be cared for by them, and so that they could talk with them and share with them about Jesus. That takes far more courage, and is far more costly.
And that is the sort of courage, of boldness that Paul is speaking about.
And Paul here continues and explains why we can be confident in Christ, and why we can be bold in our speaking and living.
He writes, ‘Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold’ (2 Corinthians 3:12)
Our hope is the hope of Glory.
Do you see how glory saturates this passage?
And Glory here is so physical. It can be touched. It could be seen on the face of Moses after Moses had been speaking with God.
I wonder whether, after our times of prayer and bible study, after receiving communion, our faces are radiant. If they are not, we should be praying that they will be. There are some people who read the bible and after they’ve read it, their faces become colder and harder and sterner. If that is the case, then ‘our minds have been made dull’ (3:14), we are reading it wrong, we are encountering our demons through its pages and not the Lord of glory.
Paul compares the ministry of Moses with the ministry of the Lord.
The ministry of Moses brought glory, astonishing glory. It says that the people could not look on the face of Moses because it was so glorious (3:7). I find it very difficult to look into the face of one who is both absolutely pure and who can see right through me. I want to look and I want to turn away at the same time. That was how it was with Moses.
But the glory on Moses’ face was transitory. It faded. It was a sign that it was not a permanent ministry, that it pointed forward to something else. And that was why Moses wore a veil (3:13). Both so that people would not see the fading glory and as a way of showing the people that they were separated from the presence of God.
And so the ministry that God gave through Moses was a ministry – which although glorious - actually brought condemnation. It was a ministry of the letter, of external law. It showed us simply how far we had fallen from God, the extent to which we are sinners. It was a ministry that ultimately brought death. But it was also a ministry that pointed forward to something different, to something new.
But that is not our ministry. Our ministry is a ministry of life. It is a ministry of freedom. It is not a ministry of the letter but of the Spirit. We are not teaching a law, a list of do this and do that and you will get to God; be obedient, be good, be generous, be kind, be self-controlled and disciplined and God will like you, and things will go well for you and you’ll go to heaven; be bad and God will hate you and bad things will happen and you’ll go to hell. That way leads to proud faces, crushed faces, tired faces, anxious faces, defiant faces – it does not lead to radiant faces.
But the ministry of the Spirit is different. It comes when we turn away from the rule book and we turn to the Lord Jesus, to the one who loves us, who died for us, who gives us his Spirit. And his Spirit will come and live in us. And the law of God, the ways of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, will be poured into our minds and our hearts.
And we do not need to be like Moses. We do not need to put a veil over our faces, because this glory will never fade away. If we continue to look to Jesus that glory will never fade. It is permanent. The ministry of the Spirit will not lead to death, but to life.
If you are a Christian, and you have spent much time with Jesus, looking at the Lord, it will show. It will show in your face.
It showed in the face of Stephen when they were about to stone him: ‘He had the face of an angel’.
It showed in the face of a Christian lady who I met in Nottingham many years ago. She had been a police officer and had gone to a call out at a bank. She walked in and was smashed over the head with a stick. For 12 years she had been paralysed from the neck down. We went with a home group to sing carols at her bedside. And although she experienced great pain, her face shone.
It showed in the face of an elderly priest in the St Petersburg seminary. He had been sentence to hard labour in the gulags for 10 years, not once, not twice, but three times. He could have been so bitter and twisted, and yet his face shone.
There is such a thing as the beauty of holiness.
Paul went to hell and back. He had to defend his ministry against those who said that he could not be trusted, that he was not confident, that he was a coward.
He didn’t defend his ministry because he was worried about what they said about him; he knew that the only thing that matters is what God thinks about us. That is part of the freedom that he writes about in v17. But he defends his ministry passionately because the message that he had been entrusted with mattered desperately.
He was abused, he was beaten up, he spent many years in prison, he was stoned (on several occasions) and left for dead, and finally he was executed. But he could write this, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. (2 Corinthians 3:18).