Sunday, July 10, 2016
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Summer Bible Series
2 Corinthians 3

Introduction and offering:

 

This is the Summer Bible Series; we work our way through a book of the Bible, one chapter at a time. This summer, it’s 2 Corinthians. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church at Corinth, a church that he planted, but that now was questioning his authority as an apostle of Jesus. In chapter 3, Paul continues to defend his ministry. I hope you’ll bring a paper Bible with you each week so you can leave it open, because we’ll be referring back to the text often. Here we go.

2 Corinthians 3

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

 

  1. You are a letter from Christ. 1-3

In ancient times, people traveled with letters of recommendation. Imagine a stranger showing up in your church and making claims: “The apostle James sent me.” Or, “I walked with Jesus.” Is it true? How can you know if this guy is the real deal? What if he brought a letter from someone you knew and trusted, and that person vouched for him?

ILL: We still do this. When someone is looking for a job and sends me a resume, they always include letters of recommendation, or references whom I can call. Same idea.

There are many examples of these letters in the New Testament itself.

Acts 18:27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters (in Ephesus) encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.

The Ephesian church wrote a letter of recommendation for Apollos to give to the churches in Achaia, including Corinth.

Romans 16:1–2 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon, of the church in Cenchreae. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

To the church in Rome, Paul recommends Phoebe, a leader from the church in Cenchreae, a suburb of Corinth. There are at least half dozen other examples in the New Testament.

So this was common practice. Evidently some false teachers had shown up with “credentials” (letters of recommendation) and were peddling their message for profit and challenging Paul. They were asking if Paul had any letters of recommendation. “Who is Paul, anyway?”

Paul’s response was that they didn’t need any letters of recommendation from or for Paul. He brought them the gospel, he introduced them to Jesus, he founded the church. They were his letter!

ILL: I’ve led Life Center for 38 years now. Imagine if I was gone for an extended time, and when I came back, you all asked me for a resume and letters of reference. What? You don’t need that from me. You are my letters! You are my resume. You are the proof of my ministry.

That’s what Paul is saying. “Do you want proof that I am an apostle? Look in the mirror! Y’all are the proof!” Paul’s credentials were not on paper, but in persons. The existence of the Corinthian church—every Christian there—was the proof of Paul’s ministry. That’s what we think is going on here. And then Paul drops in this thought:

3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

You are a letter from Christ. They were living letters, each one of them written not with ink, but with the Spirit of God, written not on parchment or tablets of stone, but on human hearts.

You are a letter from Christ. Jesus is writing a living letter to be “known and read by everyone.” You are that living letter. Your life tells a story of the goodness and grace of God.

I said a couple weeks ago that you are the only Bible some people will ever read. What do people read from your life? What does your life say about Jesus?

This fall we kick off Rooted, a 10-week small group discipleship experience that we hope everyone at Life Center will go through, especially if you’re new. New people ask, “What do I do to get connected here?”

  1. Life Group

You’re going to hear lots about Rooted. One of the things you’ll do in your Rooted group is share your story, and then we help you refine it down to a 2-minute version of your story. Why do we do that? Your story is compelling, and we want you to learn how to share your story with others. You are a living letter, a letter from Jesus, known and read by everyone.

We are letters from Jesus, known and read by everyone. We represent Jesus; we are walking advertisements for the gospel. What kind of ad are you? Does your life, your story, make others want what you have?

In 2:16, Paul asks, “And who is equal to such a task?” I hope you feel that way! I do! When I think that my life is a letter from Christ to be read by others, I feel completely inadequate to the task. So did Paul, as we’ll see.

 

  1. God has made us competent. 4-6

4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Paul begins by saying he has confidence through Christ before God. Remember, he is talking about not needing a letter of recommendation. He is confident that his ministry among the Corinthians speaks for itself, that he doesn’t need any outside letters of commendation. But does that mean that Paul thinks he did it on his own? No way! “Not that we are competent in ourselves…”

In 2:16, Paul asks, “Who is equal to such a task?” Who is competent?—it’s the same Greek word as in verses 5-6. Who is competent, qualified, worthy, good enough to represent Jesus, or do God’s work? The answer, Paul says, is “not me!” We are not competent in ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

When I said that you are a letter from Jesus, known and read by everyone, and that you represent Jesus, that you’re the only Bible some people ever read—I hope you shuddered! Yikes! That’s a pretty tall order! That’s some high expectations! Yep! It’s beyond me. But here’s the good news.

6 God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

God has made us competent as ministers of the new covenant. Paul, of course, is saying this about himself, but by extension, it certainly applies to any Christ-follower who wants his or her life to count for Christ.

On my own, I’m not good enough, not competent. With God, I’m good enough, I’m competent. Why is that?

When God calls, He equips. When God calls, He empowers. He will never ask you to do something without empowering you to do it. So when He says that you are a letter from Christ, He will empower you to be the person He wants you to be. God is writing the letter! God is making something beautiful of your life, if you’ll let Him. What God commands, He provides.

ILL: When Laina and I have left town and had someone stay at our house and take care of things, we made sure they had everything they need. We made sure there was plenty of food in the refrigerator and cupboards for them, and dog food for the dog. We made sure the bills were paid and the power wouldn’t be shut off. We made sure they had phone numbers to reach us, and clear instructions for everything, especially how to use the TV remote. We want them to succeed—we want everything to go well, so we provided everything they need.

It’s the same when I hire someone here. I want them to succeed, so I try to make sure they have everything they need to do their job well.

What God commands, He provides. When God calls, He equips. God makes us competent. So our job is simply to stay close to God, stay dependent and humble.

ILL: This week we read the story of Uzziah, king of Judah. It says in 2 Chronicles 26:5 that “as long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success.” The next few verses describe his success. Then in verse 15-16: “His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful. But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.”

Here is the key to success and the danger of success. The key is that we seek the Lord. We stay humble and dependent on God. If we seek God, He will fill and empower us. He will make us competent—He made Uzziah a successful king. God will fill whatever you give Him. When we come to Him empty and surrendered, he fills us and empowers us. God will fill whatever you give him. He will make you competent.

The danger of success is that it can go to our heads, and we can think that it was all our doing. “I did it. I’m competent in myself.” We get proud, and pride comes before a fall. That’s the danger of success. The key is to keep seeking God. Stay hungry, stay humble.

Do you want to represent Jesus well? Stay humble and open to God. Keep seeking Him. He will fill whatever you give Him.

God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but the Spirit. Paul now compares the new and old covenants.

 

  1. The new surpasses the old. 7-11

7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

Paul compares the old covenant with the new covenant. A little background: a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It can be a bi-lateral agreement, negotiated by both sides. Or it can be unilateral: one side lays down the terms for the other. When God makes a covenant, it is unilateral. God declares the terms. “Here’s what I will do for you; here’s what I expect from you.” We don’t negotiate any deals with God. We simply accept or reject His terms. You don’t negotiate with God!

There are several covenants in the Bible.

  • Covenant with Noah: Genesis 9.
  • Covenant with Abraham: Genesis 12, 15
  • Covenant with Moses: Exodus 20
  • Covenant with David: 2 Samuel 7
  • New Covenant through Jesus.

Paul is comparing the old covenant made with Moses, with the new covenant made by Jesus. Why is he doing this? Our best guess is that his opponents in Corinth were Jewish and were pushing the Corinthian Christians to reject Paul’s gospel and embrace a Jewish version that included Jesus, but also required you to become a Jew and keep the Mosaic law. In other words, they were mixing the covenants. Paul’s response is to show that the new surpasses and replaces the old.

ILL: Before Pastor Noel passed away last fall, we helped him update his will. The new will superseded the old. The old became null and void, replaced by the new.

This is common practice with wills, with contracts and with covenants: the new replaces the old.

Paul uses a familiar Old Testament story to make his point. It is found in

Exodus 34:29–35

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

That’s the story Paul uses here, but how does it show that the new surpasses the old? The Jews debated why Moses wore the veil, and many suggestions were made. One was that it was to prevent the Israelites from seeing that the radiance was fading. That’s the one Paul uses.

2 Corinthians 3:13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.

Paul points out that the giving of the law was a glorious thing: the mountain quaked and was covered in clouds and fire; God’s voice boomed and Moses’ face shone. It was awesome—glorious! But it was also fading from the moment it happened. There was something better, something more glorious coming: that was Jesus and the new covenant. So Paul uses the fading radiance of Moses’ face to illustrate the difference between the old and new covenants. Paul names four differences:

The old brought death; the new life. 7

The Mosaic Law brought death. It showed us what to do, but gave us no power to do it. And the penalty for lawbreaking was death. In the end, it simply brought death.

ILL: Let me illustrate it for you this way. How many of you are lawbreakers? Think of all the laws: federal, state, county, city, tax laws, school laws, speed limits, the rules where you work, golf course rules—all of the laws—and finally, God’s law. How many of you are lawbreakers? All of us. Now imagine that the penalty for all our lawbreaking was death. In that scenario, the law brings death. We all break it; we all die.

But the gospel brought life. Jesus paid our penalty, died in our place, offers full forgiveness for our lawbreaking and power to live a new and different life. The old covenant brought death, the new life.

The old was the law engraved in letters on stone; the new is the ministry of the Spirit. 7-8

The old was external—the letters of the law written on the stone tablets. But the new is internal—the ministry of the Spirit in our hearts. The law could tell us what to do, but gave no power to do it. The Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts and gives us the desire and power to do it.

ILL: Here’s a little different example. How many of you had to read Shakespeare in high school or college? How many of you loved it? I had a Shakespeare course my senior year in high school and hated it. For the first few weeks, reading Shakespeare was torture. I endured it. I did it because I had to, and did the bare minimum, just enough to get my grade. Then something happened. It clicked. I got it. Somehow, Shakespeare got inside me, and I loved it. Then I devoured his plays not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I loved Shakespeare.

The old covenant was external: laws written on stone—God telling us to read Shakespeare. But the new covenant is internal: the Holy Spirit lives within us, and changes our hearts. It’s personal now—we love Him and that changes everything. Now we want to do the will of God from our hearts, rather than just an external pressure of law.

From death to life.

From external letter to internal Spirit.

The old brought condemnation; the new righteousness. 9

Because we couldn’t keep the law, we stood condemned. But in the new covenant, what the law was unable to do because our weakness, God did by sending His Son. Jesus forgives our sins and empowers us to live righteously.

From death to life.

From external letter to internal Spirit.

From condemnation to righteousness.

The old was transitory; the new lasts. 11

The old covenant was temporary from the beginning; it always pointed to Jesus. The Old Testament predicts the New; the New fulfills the Old. Jesus was the fulfillment and the end of the Law as God’s means of interacting with us. When the New Covenant came in Jesus, the Old ended. It was superseded and surpassed by the New.

And this leads to a very important point: you can’t live under two covenants. The new supersedes the old. Many Christians live powerless and confused lives because they are trying to live under both covenants. Jesus was the end of the Law as a way of relating to God. Now we come to God through Jesus. He is the way to God, not keeping the Law.

Please don’t read the Old Testament as the way to please God. It points us to Jesus. This is why I say all the time that we correct back to Jesus. He is the full revelation of God, the only way to God, the new covenant that lasts.

 

  1. We are open-faced before God. 12-18

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 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.

Paul continues to use the veil of Moses to make his point.

First, he says that we are not like Moses, who wore a veil to hide the fading glory. We are unveiled, open-faced. We’ll come back to that.

Second, he says that Jewish people of his day were unable to understand the old covenant, the Law of Moses, because they had a veil over their hearts. That veil is lifted in Christ. When anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

The first Christians were all Jewish, but when they turned to Jesus, they read the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) very differently. They saw Jesus everywhere. It all pointed to Jesus. You can see this as you read the New Testament—its authors constantly quote and allude to the Old Testament, and they are seeing Jesus everywhere in it.

Jesus taught them this. One of many examples: in Luke 24, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disciples walking on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaeus. Not knowing it was Jesus, they told him about the crucifixion and the resurrection and their perplexity. Jesus reprimanded them for being slow to “believe all that the prophets have spoken.”

Luke 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Later, after they recognized him, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Jesus opened the Scriptures—the Old Testament—to them, showing them that it pointed to Himself. Their minds were opened, the veil was lifted.

When we read the Old Testament, we read it through a Jesus lens. More than that, the Bible comes alive once you turn to Jesus. The Bible is God’s love letter to us. Before you know Jesus, reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail—it doesn’t make much sense. But when you meet the author, the book comes alive. The veil is lifted and you see Jesus in every page.  

Paul finishes by saying that with unveiled faces, we contemplate the Lord’s glory, and we are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Spirit.

The Greek word translated “contemplate” literally means to look at something in a mirror. It came to mean, “behold, contemplate, or reflect.” So Paul could mean that as we look at Jesus, we are transformed into His image. Or He could mean that we reflect Jesus and are transformed into His image. Both are possible. I love how Eugene Peterson translated it in the Message:

2 Corinthians 3:18 (The Message)

18 All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

We are unveiled before God—nothing between us and Him. We are open-faced before God, and we reflect His glory to those around us as we are transformed into His image. “Our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”

The gospel—the new covenant—invites us into a face-to-face relationship with God. Nothing between us and God! And as you focus on Him, you gradually become more like Him, “transformed into His image in every increasing degrees of glory”—literally, “from glory to glory.” Your life gradually becomes brighter and more beautiful as God enters and you become like Him. What a vision! How many of you want that?

Let’s pray.