To grasp the relevance of our text in 2 Corinthians to our day, one need not look far. As I turned recently to the Religion section of The Dallas Morning News, I found two statements that relate to our passage directly. The first is from an article describing a recent pastors’ gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by Promise Keepers:
The men [pastors of churches] said they are burdened with the world’s cares, tired of whining parishioners, worried about lack of time with their families. They said they are demoralized and discouraged about their lack of status.13
David Wells describes the same problem this way:
Ministers are among the homeless of the modern world. They have neither a place in secularized society nor, as it turns out, in the church. Because they are the purveyors of belief, the modern world shunts them to the margins of importance. Because the expectations of what a minister is and does have expanded mightily in the twentieth century, few satisfy their congregations for long and many burn out trying to do so. To find respite they flit from church to church like wandering itinerants, which they are not. They are thus strangely dislodged from both the church and society.14
The second newspaper article contains a statement by the man who produced Jesus Christ Superstar:
‘Jesus has got to have sex appeal and real star quality,’ says Andrew W. Lloyd Webber, who is ‘casting about for just the right actor for a revival of his 1970 musical Jesus Christ Superstar.’15
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2:12–4:6 apply to both matters directly: (1) the cares and concerns of pastors who feel dangerously close to “burn out” in their ministries, and (2) the marketing mentality of a producer who feels the only way to attract attention to Jesus today is by “spicing Him up” considerably. The ministry of the gospel is not easy. In truth, it is not even possible—in our own strength. Thus, some grow weary and discouraged, as we see in the first quotation. Others give in to the temptation to adapt (corrupt) the message of the gospel, hoping that in so doing a greater and more favorable response can be obtained. In our text, Paul clearly corrects both of these improper responses to the difficulties of the gospel ministry.
One question summarizes the problems Paul addresses in our text, which then sets the stage for his teaching. The question is found in verse 16: “And who is adequate for these things?”
What is the answer to this question? No one is adequate for the gospel ministry. But God, in His grace, has made us adequate and given us the privilege of participating in this glorious ministry. Because of the glory of the ministry, and the adequacy we have in the Holy Spirit, we need not despair nor tamper with the gospel message. I must tell you that our text is one of the most difficult passages to interpret and one of the most fascinating and encouraging texts in the New Testament. Let us look to God’s Spirit to make the words and thoughts of this text clear to us, and then let us look to Him to give us the grace to believe and obey what our text teaches.
12 Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia (Phillips).
The city of Troas, situated on the northwestern edge of Asia Minor, has considerable historical significance. Named after the ancient Troy, the original site was only a couple of miles distant. For the Apostle Paul, Troas held many memories, for it was here that Paul and his companions found themselves on his second missionary journey described in Acts 16. God had restricted Paul, and Timothy and others with him, from preaching the gospel in Asia or Bithynia, so they had come down to Troas. At Troas, the Holy Spirit gave Paul what is known as the “Macedonian vision” (Acts 16:9-10), which prompted him to cross the Aegean Sea to Macedonia. Eventually, Paul traveled through Macedonia to Achaia, which brought him to Corinth, where the gospel was proclaimed and the Corinthian church was founded (Acts 18:1ff.).
On his third missionary journey, Paul set out from his home base at Antioch, traveling north (Acts 18:22-23). Passing through the upper country, Paul arrived at Ephesus (Acts 19:1), where he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8, 19). Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was lengthy and effective. Paul performed many miracles there (Acts 19:10-12), so that Luke writes, “fear fell upon them [those in Ephesus] and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified” (Acts 19:17), “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20), and “all in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). The considerable resistance (Acts 19:9) in Ephesus finally precipitated a riot (Acts 19:23-41).
But Luke tells us nothing in the Book of Acts about the events which took place in Troas after Paul’s departure from Ephesus and before his arrival in Macedonia. The only information we have is from Paul himself, recorded in our 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 text and in more detail in 7:5ff. Paul’s brief description of his troubles in Troas is the setting for the entire section, beginning at 2:12 and ending (to some degree) in 4:6.
Paul’s words in verses 12 and 13 may be understood in several ways. They could indicate Paul’s ministry in Troas has been a miserable failure, which was my initial impression from reading the text. Paul has left Ephesus and arrived in Troas. Titus had been sent to Corinth while Paul was still in Ephesus. Once in Troas, Paul hopes to meet up with Titus and obtain a first-hand report concerning the Corinthian church he has just visited. God opens a door of opportunity in Troas, and people are not only hearing the gospel, they are responding to it. There easily could have been a revival in Troas, as there had been in Ephesus. But Paul is so troubled in spirit that he is unable to function as he should. He finally throws up his hands and leaves for Macedonia, his ministry in Troas a disaster, even though there may have been the possibility of a great revival.
Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that the interpretation of Paul’s words as indicated above is based on a number of assumptions which may not be correct. We should begin by reviewing what we do know for certain, based upon Paul’s statements:
It seems that Paul must be having some success in preaching the gospel in Troas. How else does he know that a door has been opened for him in the Lord? I take it that Paul did have a successful ministry in Troas. Paul’s primary reason for being in Troas is to preach the gospel; his secondary goal is to find Titus and to learn how the Corinthian saints are doing. Not finding Titus troubles Paul deeply. Sooner or later, Paul leaves Troas and travels on to Macedonia, where we know from chapter 7 that he meets up with Titus and receives much encouragement. It is possible that Paul ends his stay in Troas prematurely (more preaching and revival could have taken place). We know, for example, that the Holy Spirit directed Philip to leave a successful ministry in Samaria to proclaim the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26ff.). We must at least acknowledge the possibility that Paul preaches with great success in Troas, even though his spirit is troubled. But we can hardly view his ministry as a failure.
I want to stress this point because it is so true to real life for preachers and for every Christian. On any given Sunday when I am preaching, I may currently be counseling someone considering suicide, dealing with a couple in the midst of a divorce, talking with a friend who is on his way to prison, dealing with a dying neighbor, and also rejoicing with a couple about to have their first child. In the morning, I may joyfully conduct a wedding ceremony and later conduct a funeral for a dear Christian who has died in a tragic accident. The Scriptures instruct us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). The problem for some of us is that we minister to all kinds of people in many different circumstances all at the same time. How easy it is to have a troubled spirit in the midst of ministry.
Consider our Lord. We could not characterize His life and ministry as one continual “high.” He was often deeply troubled over the unbelief and spiritual blindness of His opponents. He was distressed greatly by the spiritual dullness of His disciples. Our Lord did not suffer just at the cross, but throughout His ministry (see Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 5:7-10). In the midst of great spiritual success, it is quite possible, even likely, that the one ministering may be undergoing great personal distress of spirit. And may I remind you that this is not ungodly “distress” but true, godly distress. Paul is distressed over his concern for the spiritual welfare of the saints (see 2 Corinthians 11:28-29). I must confess that sometimes I too have been troubled in spirit, but not over such spiritual concerns as Paul.
There must be a lesson here to help us put our “feelings” into proper perspective. I do not wish to minimize the role of emotions nor overstate the intellectual and academic aspects of our Christian life. But I must point out that, from what Paul tells us about his “troubled spirit” in Troas, we can hardly conclude that Paul discerns God’s will for him by his feelings. Frequently, I hear Christians justify their actions by asserting that they “have peace about it.” Does “having peace” about something mean it is God’s will, while not “having peace” indicates it is not the will of God? Paul would say no. Paul does not “have peace” while he ministers in Troas, and yet it is the will of God for him to be there preaching the gospel. What Paul has is the commandment of our Lord in the Great Commission and the indication by God that he has been called to proclaim the gospel far and wide (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 9:15-16; 22:21; 26:15-18). Obedience does not always feel good; indeed, obeying God when we do not feel like it is often the test of true obedience.
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God (Phillips).
We may not know about the success of Paul’s ministry in Troas, but we do know that his spirit is greatly troubled while he is there—and all because of his great love and concern for the church at Corinth. In dramatic contrast to the distress Paul describes so honestly in verses 12 and 13, his tone in verses 14 and following is triumphant. How can a man so greatly troubled be so triumphant? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to Paul’s first question. “Who is adequate for these things?” (verse 16). Are Paul’s confident and joyful words his response to the arrival of Titus and his favorable report? Paul does not say so here, although he speaks more of this in chapter 7. Here Paul gives us the basis for his confidence and joy, which will sustain him even if Titus comes with a bad report. He points us in the same direction we can always expect from Paul—Christward.
“We are always led in triumph in Christ,” Paul tells us in verse 14. The victory we have in Jesus is always constant, not occasional. Christians are always victorious in Christ. As Paul points out in the verses which follow, the victory we have in Christ is not measured in terms of the number of those who are saved due to our proclaiming the gospel. The victory and triumph Christians experience are results of the faithful proclamation of the gospel, whether or not men believe in Christ.
It is possible that Paul is using imagery here which was familiar to the saints of his day but which is foreign to us. In those times, kings who had been victorious in battle marched through the city with their conquered foes trailing along behind in a victory parade. Incense was burned, or garlands of flowers scattered, dispensing a sweet aroma throughout the procession. The King James Version translates verse 14 in a way which indicates that Christ leads us to triumph. There is a sense in which this may be true, but the term is never employed in this way. The form of the verb indicates it is Christ who triumphs over us. For this reason, A. T. Robertson writes, “… [The] picture here is of Paul as captive in God’s triumphal procession.”16
While we are sharers in the victories of our Lord, the point here is that Christ is victorious over us. He has “taken us captive” by saving us from our sins. Paul paints a somewhat different picture than Robertson does. Is Paul so burdened with his cares concerning the Corinthian saints that his deeply troubled spirit hinders his ministry in Troas? Who is adequate for the gospel ministry when the minister’s heart is deeply troubled about truly spiritual concerns? God is! God is victorious over our weaknesses, so that He actually employs our weaknesses in a way which brings about His purposes—to His glory. He triumphs over our weaknesses; He triumphs in and through our weaknesses. Now we see how Paul can give thanks for the successful ministry he has in Troas, even though he is troubled in spirit at the time.17
Paul further explains how the preaching of the gospel (even by those troubled in spirit) is always God’s triumph in Christ. Through His saints, God produces a sweet aroma, the aroma of Christ. Have you ever noticed how godly saints exude a kind of Christlikeness? This is what Paul describes for us. He says that where Christians live out the life of Christ (which surely includes righteous suffering—such as Paul’s suffering in Troas), a sweet aroma ascends Godward. Godly living, which includes the proclamation of the gospel, manifests Christ to men, and thus, it brings pleasure and glory to God. The preaching and the living out of the gospel are sweet smells to God. We say, “That is like music to my ears.” Paul says, “Godly living and the preaching of the gospel are perfume to God’s nostrils” (compare Philippians 4:18).
Some Christians suppose that God is glorified only when unbelievers are converted by the preaching of the gospel. But this is not what Paul says. Paul says God is glorified (and pleased) by the preaching of the gospel, period, whether men believe or reject the gospel. And so, that sweet smell of the gospel (to God) is the smell of death unto death for those who are perishing in their sins, while it is the smell of life unto life for those who are being saved. The gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive to unbelievers. Using Paul’s analogy here, the gospel “stinks” to them, smelling like death, which is the exact outcome of those who reject the gospel. But to those who are being saved, the gospel is like perfume, attracting them to Christ and leading them to eternal life.
We are not adequate for “these things,” as Paul makes clear in this text. What “things”? For what are we inadequate? We are not adequate to manifest Christ to a dying world. We cannot live like Christ, in and of ourselves. And we are not adequate to present the gospel in a way which convinces and converts sinners. Saving sinners is an impossible task. When Paul asks who is adequate for these things, he wants us to understand that no one is—in their own strength.
Verse 17 begins with the word, “for,” indicating that Paul is giving us an explanation of what he has just said. We are not adequate to save men because we must not employ humanly deceptive or persuasive devices to “con” people to faith in Christ. The gospel is offensive (it stinks) to the unbeliever. It is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). When we proclaim the gospel, we should do so knowing that there is no human way unsaved men will receive the gospel and repent. Our only hope is that God will sovereignly intervene, bringing about conversions that would not happen in any other way.
In contrast to Paul and others who preach a straightforward gospel, there are those who “peddle the word of God,” (2:17).18 The gospel peddlers do not believe that salvation is the work of God, and they do not trust Him to give sight to the spiritually blind or to give life to those spiritually dead. They are, however, very concerned with results. They want to be successful, and their motivation for such ambition is questionable. If the gospel is offensive, and no one receives it out of human motivation, there is only one solution for the gospel hucksters: modify the message to make it humanly appealing to the flesh, so that men receive the gospel for the fleshly benefits it seems to offer (2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 2:18-19). If parts of the gospel are offensive to potential converts, the gospel hucksters change them, or at least they do not mention them. If a straightforward presentation of the gospel is “ineffective,” then they employ the same methods Madison Avenue uses to sell soap and toothpaste. Do not tell people they are sinners destined for eternal torment; tell them that if they invite Jesus into their lives, things will go even better for them.
Paul and his fellow-laborers in the gospel are not gospel peddlers. They speak the truth of the gospel, plainly, and with purity of motive. They do not speak so as to please men and gain their approval and applause; they speak in the sight of God, seeking to glorify Him by accurately representing His Son, and thereby pleasing Him with the sweet smell of Christ.
Only gradually in these two Corinthian epistles does Paul identity and expose the troublemakers in the church. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the Corinthian schisms as groups of believers who follow a certain person like Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or “Christ” (1:12). We know from 1 Corinthians 4:6 that these are not the real leaders which divide the church, but that Paul has figuratively used his name and the names of Apollos, Peter, and Christ to conceal the identity of the real troublemakers. We know these church troublers are teaching a message different from the true gospel, one that does not focus on Christ crucified. Instead their message is one of worldly wisdom, and their methods are seductively persuasive (1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5; see also 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). In the closing chapters of 2 Corinthians, these opponents of Paul and the true gospel are identified as false apostles (11:13), who are preaching a different gospel (11:4) for their own personal profit (11:7, 20). They are really messengers of Satan (11:14-15), who are authoritarian, if not authoritative (11:20). Paul also indicates that a good number of them are Jews, who seem to claim to have spiritual authority, and perhaps even have some official office or function:
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death (2 Corinthians 11:22-23).
Much (perhaps most) of the opposition against Paul and the gospel comes from those who are Jews. This does not mean that there is no Gentile opposition, for there is a great deal. But it is very clear, as one reads through the book of Acts and through the New Testament epistles, that Jewish opposition is prominent. The Jewish leaders quickly opposed the newly-born church in Jerusalem (see Acts 4:1ff.). The Jews are the ones who turn on Paul, once their ringleader in the persecution of the church (Acts 9:22-23). A Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus, seeks to hinder Paul’s preaching of the gospel to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-8). Jewish unbelievers resist and oppose Paul when he preaches Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah in their synagogues, some following Paul from one city to another to oppose him (see Acts 13:45, 50; 14:1-7, 19). The Jews from Judea insist that if any Gentile is to be saved, he must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5).
The Jews opposed Paul when he preached Jesus as the Christ in Corinth (Acts 18:1-6), and they accused Paul before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, a fact which neither escaped Gallio nor impressed him favorably (Acts 18:12-17). I believe that identifying Paul’s main opponents in Corinth as Jews fits his description of them generally. They felt superior to other saints, and surely we cannot overlook the fact that the Jews of the New Testament times (as at other times in history, including today)19 view themselves as superior to Gentiles. Why did John the Baptist warn the Jews that God could raise up seed to Abraham from the stones (Matthew 3:9)? Was it not because they forgot that God’s salvation is by grace? Did they not wrongly believe that they would possess the kingdom of God simply because they were the physical descendants of Abraham (see Romans 9:6)? Why did Peter cease to associate with the Gentile saints in Antioch and associate himself with the separatist Jews from Judea (Galatians 2:11-21, note especially verse 15)? Why did Paul find it necessary to tell us in Philippians 3 that, after he was converted to Christ, he came to regard the things in which he formerly took pride as a Jew as “dung,” in light of the cross of Christ? Why does Paul warn Gentile readers that Israel was like a branch, broken off the olive tree because of arrogance, and that this could happen to the Gentiles as well (Romans 11:17-21)? Why does Paul stress that when we are saved, not only the enmity between us (as sinners) and Christ is removed, but also the barrier and distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2)? Why does Paul strongly rebuke Peter’s actions in Galatians 2:11f. as a denial of the gospel, and why does he indict the Galatians for turning from Christ to another gospel (Galatians 1:6-10)? Why does the writer to the Hebrews regard turning back to Judaism a turning away from the faith?
When God made His (Abrahamic) covenant with Abraham, He promised to bless “all nations” through Abraham’s seed (whom we know to be Christ—see Galatians 3:15-16). The Jews began to believe that God’s blessings were only for Abraham’s physical descendants. When God gave the law to Israel through Moses, it was not to keep the light of salvation from the Gentiles; it was because God gave the Jews the duty and privilege of being a “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). The Jews ceased to think of themselves as stewards of the truth of the gospel and began to think of themselves as the exclusive possessors of the gospel. If a few Gentiles must be saved, then they must become Jewish proselytes to do so (Acts 15:1, 5). Even so, they were regarded by many as second-class citizens of heaven, rather than as the “children of Abraham” (Romans 4:16-17), and the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
I know this sounds harsh and judgmental, but I sincerely believe what I am about to say is true to the teaching of God’s Word. Even today, why are many Jewish converts to Christianity not willing to become members of our (largely Gentile) churches, but instead establish their own Jewish Christian congregations? When they teach and preach in the church, why do they seem to be unable to avoid reminding us of their Jewish identity and their status as God’s “chosen people,” even though all saints are referred to as His chosen (see Ephesians 1:4)? Why do they persist in referring to themselves as the “chosen people,” when for this period of time they are those whom God has called “not My people” (Hosea 1:9; see also 2:23)? At present, those who may legitimately call themselves “My people” (that is, God’s people) are those whom Judaism disdains as “not My people.” Only when the Jews acknowledge their sin and understand that they are “not God’s people” can they be saved (see Isaiah 65:1-7; Hosea 1:9-11; Romans 10:16-21).
If you are reading me correctly, you have understood me to say that throughout the Old Testament and the New, much of the opposition to God and those who were truly His people came from Jews. You have heard me say that the opposition to Paul in Corinth, and in the Corinthian church, was substantially Jewish. You have also heard me say that, just as Judaizers plagued the church in Paul’s day, they continue to do so today. They profess to know Christ as Savior, but they believe themselves to be superior to mere Gentile saints, and they may even corrupt the truth of God to put themselves in a more favorable light.
In our text, Paul does not identify his opponents in Corinth as Judaizers; that will come later. But he does identify the key issue over which Judaizers and those true to the gospel divide—the role of the old (Mosaic) covenant and its relationship to the new covenant. Those who “peddle the word of God” (2 Corinthians 2:17) are those who also feel adequate in themselves to do so, with all their worldly wisdom and persuasive methods (compare 2:16). And some of these gospel “peddlers,” from whom Paul seeks to distinguish himself, are Jewish false apostles, who exalt and glorify the old Mosaic covenant as though it were superior to the new covenant. Chapter 3 of 2 Corinthians is almost a miniature version of the Book of Hebrews, pointing out the superiority of the new covenant to the old.
Who is adequate for the new covenant ministry of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the glory of God and the salvation of God’s chosen? Who is adequate to preach the gospel in Troas when their heart is torn with concern for saints who are far away in Corinth? How is the proclaimer of the gospel able to preach with clarity and simplicity, rather than with deceptive methods of persuasion, especially when no one is inclined or able to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ because of their fallen state and the blindness Satan imposes on them in their unbelief? The answer, recorded most beautifully in chapter 3, is that we are, we who have trusted in Jesus Christ, who proclaim the true gospel in simplicity, who are made bold by the sure hope of the glory of God in Christ, and who are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.
From 2 Corinthians 2:17, it should be clear to us, as it was to the ancient readers of this epistle, that Paul distinguishes himself from the “peddlers of the Word of God.” I can almost see the rolling of the eyes of these false apostles as they sigh deliberately, “There he goes again. Paul is simply trying to use this letter to commend himself and to condemn us.” In part, this is true. But Paul reminds everyone in Corinth that, of all people, he should not need a letter of commendation to convince them of his integrity as an apostle.
Now letters of commendation were indeed very beneficial. Paul wrote a “letter of commendation” to the church at Rome on behalf of Phoebe (see Romans 16:1f.). When saints traveled from one place to another, it was important for those in the churches they visited to know something of the faith and character of those who met with them for worship and for instruction. This practice is also beneficial today to help protect the flock from “wolves,” and from those who have been placed under church discipline. But certainly Paul does not need such a letter to be received by the church in Corinth. He is not only known to the Corinthians, he is their spiritual father, through whom many have come to faith. Those who “come in” to deceive and “sell” their new gospel (see 2 Corinthians 11:4) to the Corinthians come with some kind of “letter of commendation,” some credentials which at least the gullible Corinthians find impressive. Ultimately, it is not a letter which distinguishes a true apostle from a false one, but rather a kind of divine certification. Paul reminds the Corinthians of his accreditation and the kind of credentials which set the true preacher of the gospel apart from the false. And in so doing, Paul also begins to contrast the “letter” and the “spirit,” the old covenant and the new. Paul writes these first three verses assuming his readers recognize that his imagery is biblical, based upon the promise of the new covenant in the Old Testament, its fulfillment in Christ, and its preaching by the apostles.
The Corinthian saints do not need a letter commending Paul; they are Paul’s letter. They are a letter written on Paul’s heart.20 He cannot feel more intimately “connected” with them. Of greater importance, Paul’s preaching is written on their hearts. Paul’s preaching (unlike the legalism of the Judaizers) is not of salvation by law-keeping, but of salvation by God’s grace, through the sacrificial life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His message is not chiseled on stone tablets, but written on hearts of flesh, just as the Old Testament prophets had promised:
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. 33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
19 “And I shall give them one heart, and shall put a new spirit within them. And I shall take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances, and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
Playing out the “letter” imagery, Paul goes on to say that these Corinthians are, themselves, a letter. They are the fruit of Paul’s service and of the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts, turning their stony hearts of unbelief into hearts of flesh. They are not little “clones” of Paul, but rather they reflect Jesus Christ to a darkened and dying world. Paul says the same of the Thessalonian saints:
4 Knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:4-7).
Why does Paul mention this word about commendation or accreditation? I believe it is because in Paul’s day, as in ours, many things which give one status in an unbelieving world do not offer status or authority in the church. The wisdom and persuasive methods of these false teachers impress some of the Corinthians. This should not be so. Today we have “letters” (a play on words), like “Ph.D.” and “Th.M.” which may impress some. Recently, the D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry) has been introduced in Christian institutions of higher learning. For a very challenging perspective of this recent phenomenon,21 I suggest reading David Wells’ excellent chapter entitled, “The D-Min-Ization of the Ministry” in the book, No God, But God.
I am not saying there is something evil about biblical and theological education. I am deeply indebted to Dallas Theological Seminary for the tools it gave me to better study and proclaim the Bible. Nevertheless, my degree from the seminary does not accredit me or my ministry. There are those who have graduated from this and other fine schools who have denied the faith and taught error. Here and elsewhere, Paul tells us what commends a Christian’s integrity in ministry. A Christian’s ministry is commended first by the practice of servanthood, rather than by an authoritative or authoritarian leadership style. Paul reminds the Corinthians in verse 3 that he “cared for” them. The marginal note in the NASB informs us that literally the word is “served.” Those whom God has certified are servants, not “lords.” Second, true laborers of Christ are marked by the integrity of their message and their methods. They are not “peddlers” of the Word of God, but those who simply, boldly, and truthfully proclaim the truth of God’s Word in such a way that men turn to God and depend upon His Word, rather than upon those servants who proclaim it (see Acts 20:17-32).22 Finally, true servants of God are evident when men are convicted and converted by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and whose lives are so changed that the world cannot help but notice. True servants of God may or may not have educational diplomas, but the fingerprints of God are all over them and their ministries.
4 And such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Paul’s troubled spirit does not deprive him of his confidence in proclaiming the gospel. The gospel is not rendered powerful to save by Paul’s state of mind or by any persuasive methods he employs. It is the Christian’s duty to faithfully proclaim the Word of God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 2 Timothy 4:1-4); it is God who uses the preached word to glorify Himself by saving some and condemning others (see 2 Corinthians 2:15-17; Romans 9:6-23).
Like Paul, we can be confident as we obey our Lord’s command to proclaim the gospel to lost sinners. Our confidence must not to be in ourselves, but in God, through Jesus Christ. This confidence in God, rather than in ourselves, strikes a death blow to the “human potential” teaching which is so popular in our day. I concede quite readily that men have far more “human potential” than they will ever fully utilize. “Human” is the key word here. The preaching of the gospel in power, and the salvation of lost souls, are humanly impossible tasks. Human potential, no matter how great, is not enough. Our adequacy is from God, period.
Paul describes more fully in verse 6 the adequacy which God grants. God has made us adequate “as servants.” God does not empower us to “lord it over others,” but rather He empowers us to serve Him and others. Further, God empowers us as servants “of a new covenant.” The Judaizers were persistently emphasizing the old covenant as superior to the new. Our power is as servants of the new covenant. This power is provided through the Holy Spirit, whose ministry is the consequence of the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets foretold (Ezekiel 11:19), and as our Lord Himself promised (see John 7:37-39; 16:7-15).
The final words of 2 Corinthians 3:6 are important because they distill the reason for the superiority of the new covenant over the old: “… not of the letter,23 but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”24 The old covenant does not give life; it brings about condemnation and death. The Spirit of God, working in the dispensation of the new covenant, brings life. The following verses explain this in greater detail.
7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8 how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. 12 Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, 13 and are not as Moses, who used to put a veil over his face that the sons of Israel might not look intently at the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 16 but whenever a man 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 liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
4:1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, 2 but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
To the Judaizers, the Old Testament is the high-water mark of biblical revelation. The standard against whom all others are compared are patriarchs like Abraham and prophets like Moses. The woman at the well asked our Lord, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You … ?” (John 4:12), expecting the answer to be, “No.” She could not believe such a thing could be true. The unbelieving Jews who prided themselves on being the physical descendants of Abraham (John 8:33), asked our Lord, “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). In these few verses, Paul summarizes what the entire epistle to the Hebrews teaches, namely that the new covenant is vastly superior to the old. Do the (Jewish) false apostles pride themselves for possessing and proclaiming the old covenant? Paul has confidence and courage in the fact that his ministry is one of much greater glory, for he has been appointed as a servant of the new covenant, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The old covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) was given on Mount Sinai with awesome evidences of God’s glory, such as thunder and lightning and trumpet-like blasts. No one was to get too close to that mountain, or they would die (see Exodus 19:16-26). The people were so terrified that they pled with Moses to intercede with God so He would not come to speak directly with them lest they perish (Exodus 20:18-21). Great glory was associated with the old covenant, even the Shekinah glory (see Exodus 16:7, 10; 24:16-17; 28:2, 40; 29:43; 40:34), but the glory of the new covenant is even greater. Our Lord’s incarnation revealed His glory (John 1:14). Men saw God’s glory at our Lord’s birth (Luke 2:9, 14). Jesus revealed His glory to His three disciples at His transfiguration (Luke 9:31-32) and by means of His miracles (John 2:11). When He returns to this earth, it will be in all of His glory (Luke 9:26; 21:27).
In verses 9 and 10, Paul shows that logically the glory of the new covenant must be greater than the glory of the old. The old covenant produced condemnation. The Law of Moses set a standard of righteousness which no one could meet, and thus it condemned men as sinners. The new covenant is the provision of God’s righteousness for unworthy sinners, through Jesus Christ. If the old covenant had glory, how much more glory the new covenant has!
Paul takes up some Old Testament imagery here to illustrate what he is saying, based on the events recorded in Exodus 34:
29 And it came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. 30 So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. 32 And afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded them to do everything that the LORD had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would take off the veil until he came out; and whenever he came out and spoke to the sons of Israel what he had been commanded, 35 the sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him (Exodus 34:29-35).
When Paul takes up the story about Moses’ shining face, he fills in details not found in the Exodus account, which fit perfectly and explain why Moses veiled his face after he spoke with the people. Exodus 34 informs us that when Moses met with God, his face glowed brightly. Moses was not aware of it the first time this happened. The people were afraid to approach him, but he called them to him. His face reflected the glory of God. Every time he was with God, his face would glow brightly. Moses would then come to the people to tell them what God had said. After he finished speaking to the people, Moses would veil his face. When he went to speak with God again, he unveiled his face and did not replace the veil until after he had spoken to the people.
A careless reading might cause us to explain Moses’ actions in a way that does not square with the text in Exodus or with Paul’s words in our text. We might conclude that Moses veiled his face so the people would not be overcome by the glow of his face. Putting on the veil in this case would be like dimming his high beam lights. The only problem is that we are told Moses left his face uncovered until after he spoke to the people. His face was only veiled from the time he spoke to the people (after his encounter with God) until the next time he again went into the presence of God. Why would he need a veil during this period of time? Paul tells us. It was because the “glory-glow” faded. The longer Moses was away from God, the more the glow on his face dimmed. Each meeting with God was like recharging the batteries which powered the facial glow of Moses. Moses did not want the people to see the glow of God’s glory dimming, and so he covered his face during that time when the glory faded.
Paul’s point is this: the glory Moses experienced in conjunction with the old covenant was a fading glory; in stark contrast, the glory which Paul enjoys in conjunction with the new covenant is unfading: “For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory” (verse 11, emphasis mine). Moses needed a veil because the glory of the old covenant, as great as it was, faded away. The messengers of the good news of the gospel need no veil at all, because the greater glory of the new covenant never fades: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (verse 18).
This new covenant glory is that which we see “in the face of Christ” (4:6). You may remember that Moses begged God to “see His glory” in Exodus 33:18. God made it very clear that Moses could see only a portion of His glory. Specifically, Moses could not see the face of God (Exodus 33:20, 23). This greater glory, which we enjoy along with Paul, is the glory we see “in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Indeed, the glory we enjoy is a greater glory.
The Spirit of God is the One who “lifts the veil” and enables us to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the instrument by which the greater glory of Christ, and thus of the new covenant, is beheld. The Old Testament spoke of the new covenant (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34) and of the ministry which the Holy Spirit would play in turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (see Ezekiel 11:19). Paul now emphasizes that greater glory. Are there Jews in Corinth who are false apostles and who pride themselves because of their old covenant expertise and ministry? They are the ones who are mistaken and misguided—not Paul.
It is the glorious nature of the new covenant ministry which gives Paul and every other saint such hope. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of glory (1 Peter 4:14), who causes us to rejoice in the midst of our suffering (see Acts 7:55). It is the Spirit of God in us who mediates the presence of Christ to us, and Christ in us is the “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This glory we experience in measure now and in a greater measure than Moses. It is also a glory we shall experience to the full in eternity. This is why we are being transformed from (present) glory to (ultimate) glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
This “hope of glory” gives us great boldness in our proclamation of the gospel (3:12). Whether men receive us and our message of the gospel, or whether they reject both the gospel and us, must never dampen our spirit or reduce our confidence in proclaiming the gospel. We know the gospel ministry is a glorious one, now and for all eternity. I think of Stephen, standing boldly before his Jewish opponents, who are about to kill him. His words have no note of concession. They cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand up when I read them. Stephen could speak boldly because, whether in life or death, he was certain of the glory of God, which is precisely what he beheld as they stoned him (Acts 7:55).
Allow me to give an earthly illustration of what Paul says here. Suppose that you are an employee in a company which is about to make massive cutbacks in its staff. You and your boss are not on good terms. Your boss calls you in and asks you for an honest appraisal of his leadership. Your boss is a very poor leader. How confident will you be in telling him he is doing a miserable job, knowing that tomorrow you may not have your job? Now, suppose you have already interviewed with another company, and they have hired you, starting tomorrow, at a significant increase in salary. In fact, your new employer is buying the company you are now working for, and you will be your boss’s boss the very next day. Now, does this not change the confidence and directness with which you speak to your present (for this day only) boss?
The Christian should have this kind of boldness in proclaiming the gospel. Our confidence and boldness are not based on the response of those to whom we speak. Even though our message is true, and even though it is glorious and proclaimed with enthusiasm, this does not mean that men will receive it. Paul tells us why, using the same “veil imagery” but altering its symbolism. Paul tells us that those who hear the gospel as unbelievers are veiled; they are blind to the gospel. As we see in 1 Corinthians 2, the wisdom of God is foolishness to the lost. Apart from the Spirit of God, men cannot fathom the wisdom of God.
This is true of the Gentiles and of the Jews. In our text, it is especially true of the Jews. The Judaizers plaguing the church at Corinth think they are experts in teaching the Old Testament. There are many of them elsewhere as well (see 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 2 Timothy 3; Titus 3:10-11, 14). These folks seem to think that, because they are Jews, they “own” not only the promises of God, but also the ability to interpret the Old Testament. Paul tells us that they are the most blind of all to its message. The veil is over their faces, and their minds are hardened at the reading of the old covenant (3:14). That veil is only removed by faith in Christ, and this only occurs through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Even in Paul’s day, he says, a “veil lies over their heart” (3:15) when the Law of Moses is read. And so it is today as well. Liberty from this bondage comes in Christ through the Spirit. This is why Paul can speak so boldly and with such confidence. He knows that no one can, or ever will, believe the message of the gospel through the wisdom of the hearer or through the persuasiveness of the speaker. The only way anyone will understand and believe the gospel is if the Holy Spirit illuminates and quickens the unbeliever to do so. There is no reason to water down the gospel, because the Holy Spirit is the agent who miraculously brings the truth to life.
This gives Paul such great comfort that he does not lose heart. Does he feel he has done a poor job in Troas? Feeling differently would not make him any more effective. It is God who makes us adequate, through His Spirit. God does not just work in spite of our weaknesses; He works through our weaknesses. When we are weak, then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). The key to Paul’s encouragement is not his skill, nor his persuasive power; the key is God’s grace. Notice that Paul says, “as we have received mercy,” in the first verse of chapter 4. Mercy is for those who are unworthy. God does not bless just those things we do well; in His grace, He shows us mercy when we are pitiful.
I have been preaching for a good many years now. I have yet to walk away from the pulpit thinking I really did it right. I have often walked away wondering if I should go back. I do think I have done a better job in some messages than in others. And yet, at moments when I have felt a failure in preaching, I learn later of those whose lives have been enriched and blessed by my miserable message. The God who has been gracious to me by saving me, an unworthy, undeserving sinner, is the God who continues to show mercy to me by using my words to enrich others and to bring praise and glory to Himself.
This assurance frees me from succumbing to my sense of inadequacy and enables me to reject all of those means and methods which are unworthy of the gospel. The gospel is not some broken down, used car, which requires much deception and deceit to sell to someone. The gospel is glorious, and the Holy Spirit is mighty to save. The gospel brings glory to God always and saves some when it is proclaimed in simplicity and truth, empowered by the Holy Spirit. My job is never to convince or to convert; it is only to convey the truth as simply and accurately as I can. I do not have to water down the message of the gospel, adulterating it so that it will be more palatable. The gospel is not palatable. People believe the good news and trust in Jesus as the Savior because they have been supernaturally quickened by the Holy Spirit. When they are divinely quickened, they can do nothing but believe. We see this in Paul’s conversion (see Acts 9:1-19). We must realize that Paul’s experience is not the exception but the rule. This is the way every unbeliever is saved—supernaturally. And thus, we only need to preach the truth, with no gimmicks or modifications, trusting in God to save the lost (to bring the spiritually dead to life, to give sight to the spiritually blind), by His grace and by His power.
If men do not receive and believe our message, there is a good reason. Not only are they naturally predisposed to reject the truth of the gospel, they are supernaturally blinded to keep them from seeing the truth. This is what Paul tells us in 4:3-4. Satan, the god of this world, blinds the minds of unbelieving men, so that they cannot and will not believe the gospel and be saved. Only God can overcome Satan’s blinding and override men’s blindness. But when men fail to believe, we should not assume automatically that it is because of a deficiency in our message or methods so that we are tempted to imitate the peddlers of the word. If it is true that men are saved in spite of their sin and our weakness, it is just as true that those who reject the truth are not lost due to our weaknesses, but due to their blindness to the truth.
Paul reminds us that when we preach the gospel as we ought, we are not preaching ourselves but Christ. Those who are converted through our ministry and message are not grounds for pride and boasting on our part. And those who are not saved through our preaching should not be a blow to our pride. We are but servants, preaching the gospel for Christ’s sake, for the glory of God and not for personal gain. Yes, there is a personal blessing when the lost are saved, but we must never preach out of selfish ambition (see Philippians 1:15-17).
God is sovereign in the salvation of men. At his best, Elijah could not convert the nation Israel. At his worst, Jonah could not prevent the conversion of the entire population of Nineveh. The God who gave us the Great Commission is the same God who called forth light in the midst of the darkness. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He is the One who has declared that the “light will shine out of darkness.” We are lights shining in a dark place, and God will use our light to bring others out of the darkness into the kingdom of light. He who causes others to see the light is He who has shone in our hearts and revealed His glory to us in the face of Christ.
In the Bible, over and over we are urged to recognize the distinction between appearance and reality, between outward appearances and the heart. We are to live this life not by sight (appearances), but by faith in the realities which God declares in His Word. The Jews, not unlike others, are guilty of judging on the basis of appearance rather than on reality (see Matthew 23:25-26; Luke 16:15). By appearance, Paul is a miserable failure. He is not wealthy. He has no multitude of followers. He does not dress like a successful man. He has no home to call his own, and he suffers greatly at the hands of men, of nature, and even by means of a satanic adversary. To some, it appears that Paul’s life is a failure and his ministry a flop. In reality, Paul is deeply aware that he is greatly privileged to be a minister of the gospel. His is a ministry of great glory, in his own lifetime and for all eternity. This reality gives him great boldness and encourages him as he speaks the gospel in simplicity and clarity, knowing that no one (humanly speaking) can or will believe.
Who among us has tasted anything of the resistance, the persecution, the weight of responsibility that Paul experienced? We wither at the raising of an eyebrow in response to our sharing the gospel. In the midst of our ministry, we feel like failures and long for a sense of success and status. You and I do not need an improved self-image, my friend; we need a clearer grasp of the glory which is ours as servants of the new covenant. As ministers of the new covenant, we are greatly privileged, even when distressed, even when opposed, or rejected, or persecuted. We must never lose heart and succumb to the pressure put upon us to tone down the message of the gospel or to jazz up its presentation to attract converts. Ours is an impossible task, but it is not dependent upon our own strengths and abilities. We are not adequate to be ministers of the new covenant, but God is, and He has given us all we need. He does not need our strengths so much as He overcomes and uses our weaknesses. Our problem may be that we are too good, too strong, too convincing, in the power of the flesh. God is sovereign in salvation. He will bring glory to Himself through the faithful proclamation of the gospel. He will be glorified by those He draws to Himself in salvation. And He will be glorified by those who reject His grace. Our calling is not to please men with our message, but to please God by proclaiming His message, using methods which honor Him. What a glorious privilege is ours to have a part in the proclamation of the gospel to the glory of God!
Our text serves as a word of caution to those waving the “seeker-friendly church” banners. Certainly there is no need or merit in being offensive in some non-critical area. Paul tells us he happily surrenders his rights when this enhances the gospel (1 Corinthians 9). But he is never willing to compromise the gospel to make it more appealing to the lost. Some disturbing tendencies exist in the “seeker-friendly” approach. The first is the assumption that there are “seekers” who might be won if only we remove some of the barriers to their belief. The Bible tells us that there are no seekers after God (Romans 3:10-11). Those who come to God are drawn to God by the Father, through the Spirit, to faith in the Son (John 6:37, 44; 8:43-47). None whom the Father chooses will fail to trust in Him. None whom the Father has rejected will come to Him. The seeker-friendly church places far too much emphasis on man’s role in salvation and far too little on the sovereignty of God in salvation. Second, the “seeker-friendly” approach places too much emphasis on pleasing the unbeliever, as a kind of potential customer, rather than on pleasing God. I am not saying that this movement has nothing to commend it, but there is much we should question and challenge.
What a word of encouragement to parents who agonize, like Paul, over the spiritual well-being of their children. Are your children now out of the nest, away from you and your supervision? Have you come to realize that you cannot force your children to trust in Christ, to desire His Word, or to live a godly life? Then you are seeing life as it really is. Let me ask you this question: When you are desperately concerned about others, and you are not in control of their response to the Word of God, who is adequate for these things? By the power of God, through Jesus Christ, we are. It is His Word, empowered and illuminated by His Spirit, that changes lives. Our task is to faithfully proclaim the Word of God, and then to pray, beseeching God to do that which we could never do in the first place—remove the veil of blindness from men’s eyes, bring them to a saving knowledge through faith in Christ, and lead them to godliness, so that they are an epistle of Christ to a lost and dying world.
17 I am not alone in my understanding of this text. Philip E. Hughes writes, “The Apostle remembers how unfailingly he has been led in a progress of triumph at all times, and how the savour of the knowledge of Christ has been made manifest through him in every place … This means that he did not neglect to pass through the door that the Lord had opened for him there—that the suspense of those days did not succeed in inhibiting him from proclaiming the message of life with which he had been entrusted. That was indeed a triumph!” Philip. E. Hughes, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 77.
18 “… a huckster or peddlar, common in all stages of Greek for huckstering or trading. It is curious how hucksters were suspected of corrupting by putting the best fruit on top of the basket. Note Paul’s solemn view of his relation to God as a preacher (from God , in the sight of God , in Christ, ).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), IV, p. 219.
19 Can anyone dispute that Jonah believed the Jews deserved God’s blessings and the Gentiles deserved His wrath? Note the self-righteousness and spiritual pride in his “prayer” in the second chapter of Jonah.
22 We need to be very careful here about abuses of the biblical term “discipling” and the secular term “mentoring.” The work of the Spirit in the lives of those to whom we minister is not evidenced by the fact that they look and act just like us, but that they look and act like Christ.