Last updated: 2020-12-28
All verses are in the NRSV unless otherwise noted. Familiarize yourself with kal va-homer here: http://www.yashanet.com/studies/revstudy/hillel.htm
Was Paul Disparaging the Old Covenant?
Let start with some context. When the elders said to Paul “Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law” (Acts 21:24) What this says (if you read the context) is the following:
1 Paul was not telling Jews to forsake the mosaic law
2 He was showing he was not doing this by his personal example of following the law
3 Paul himself observes and guards the law
It can be inferred from this that Paul thought the law was still valuable at least for Jews. What we have Paul say in 2 Corinthians 3 cannot contradict that. In addition Paul says that “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (Romans 2:25) “we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31) “having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (Romans 2:20) “I delight in the law of God” (Rom 7:22) Paul connects sinning with being lawless and needing forgiveness: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered” (Romans 4:7) To say the law is no longer relevant or truthful or defines what sin is at the time of Paul’s writing is to make Paul contradict himself.
Paul also says a covenant cannot be annulled and he often uses “law” as synonymous with “Sinai law” as he does in the following:
15 Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20 Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22 But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Gal 3:15-22)
However many people state that Paul declared an “end to the law.” This is a misconception that Jason Staples corrects in a comment on his blog referencing Romans 10:4. His response will give us context for interpreting 2 Corinthians 3:
Good question. This is a very difficult and controversial verse, as the word telos can mean a range of things, including “goal,” “end,” “culmination,” “climax,” etc.
I think the verse is best translated “For Christ is the culmination of the law for righteousness in everyone who trusts.”
What Paul’s referring to here is that Christ’s death and subsequent sending of the spirit has enabled righteousness in those who put their trust in Jesus, facilitating the righteousness the prophets had promised God would grant to Israel (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31–34, Ezek 36:24, Deut 30:1–10). That’s why he proceeds to explain that Jesus is the “one who does these things” and thereby lived by them—the resurrection is the proof that Jesus is the righteous one of the Torah, and it’s why he then quotes Deut 30 to explain that those who believed Israel needed to be sufficiently righteous to bring the messiah had things backwards—it’s not that Israel’s righteousness would bring the messiah, it’s that the messiah came to make Israel righteous.https://www.jasonstaples.com/bible/paul-never-says-by-faith-alone/
Paul often uses the idea that the law brings death and knowledge of sin which allows Israel to accept grace and life under the new covenant. Paul seems to apply this idea to individuals in these passages using crucifixion as analogous with death and life in the new covenant as analogous with Israel’s and our righteousness/justification by faith. Essentially our failure to keep the law (similar to Israel) makes aware of our need for grace and allows us to be humble and accept it–we have faith in God and his grace and practice the law in thankfulness for being saved, rather than rely on the law itself:
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; (Gal 2:19)
21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22 But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal 3:21-26)
For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. (Romans 4:15)
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)
12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:12-23)
4 In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Romans 7:4-12)
Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we?
I think David Guzik said it well on enduringword.com:
a. Epistles of commendation: Such letters were common and necessary in the early church. A false prophet or apostle could travel from city to city and easily say, “Paul sent me, so you should support me.” To help guard against problems like this, letters of recommendation were often sent with Christians as they traveled.
Moving on to the next verses:
2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 3 and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared 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. 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
3 . . . you are a letter of Christ: Letters of commendation are good but we having living commendations: you! (kal-vahomer)
5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God: We do not rely on ourselves for commendation just as we do not rely on ourselves to keep the letter of law (Sinai) to save us. We rely on Christ for commendation just as we rely on Christ to make Israel able to keep the law. Paul is using this an analogy to “works of the law” (an Essene teaching of purity and that keeping certain works distinguishes and saves you) compared with a soteriology of grace: the law simply makes you aware that you need to be saved so that you do works out of thankfulness to God for his grace.
6 . . . To be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life: The ministration of the law would bring death on its own since Israel broke Sinai just like a works of the law soteriology. However, Christ enables us to achieve the blessings of Sinai–life–by enabling Israel to keep the law by writing it on our hearts through the holy spirit (a down-payment of the coming fullness of the promises of Abraham)–a soteriology of grace. In fact, in the dead sea scrolls the “new covenant” refers to “the exact interpretation of the law” of the law. ( see: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199592104.001.0001/acprof-9780199592104-chapter-4 )
To quote from the book:
The oldest reference to the new covenant (CD 6:19) occurs in a document that is essentially a list of precepts (CD 6:19) occurs in a document that is essentially a list of precepts (CD 6:11-7:4) followed by a hortatory epilogue (CD 7:4-8:3). The way in which a number of the precepts are formulated indicates that their function was to server a reminders of points in a more detailed body of legal material, namely, the laws contained in CD 9-16. Thus, for example, the admonition ‘Keep the sabbath day according to its exact rules’ (CD 6:18) is meaningless without the precise legislation of CD 10:14-11-18. This legislation mentions two other covenants, the ‘covenant of Abraham’ (CD 12:11) and the ‘covenant which Moses concluded with Israel’ (CD 15:8-9). The relationship between these two covenants need not detain us here; it has been discussed thoroughly by R. F. Collins. What is important is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.
The context of the allusion to the Mosaic covenant furnishes a partial answer:
Likewise is the ruling during the whole epoch of wickedness with regard to everyone who turns from his corrupt way. On the day that he speaks to the overseer of the Many, they shall muster him with the oath of the covenant which Moses concluded with Israel, namely, the covenant to return to the Law of Moses with all his heart and all his soul. (CD 15:6-10)page 55 Keys to Second Corinthians Jerome Murphy-O’Connor https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199592104.001.0001/acprof-9780199592104)
It is evidently a question of the reception of a new member into the Essene community, an interpretation that is confirmed by the renntetion of the central element in the recption ceremony at Qumran:
When they join the community, let whoever comes to the council of the community enter into the covenant of God in the presence of all the volunteers, and let him undertake by oath of the obligation to be converted to the Law of Moses according to all of his commands with all his heart and all his soul (1QS 5:7-9)
. . .
In essence the new covenant was but a renewal of the Mosaic covenant revitalized by the exploitation of its virtualities (cf. CD 5:8-11).
The intimate connection of the Essene new covenant with the law is confirmed by the other reference in the later stratum of CD:
All who entered the new covenant in the land of Damascus and who returned, and who acted treacherously and departed from the well of living water, shall not be reckoned in the council of the people and shall not be written in their records from the time the Teacher is gathered in until the arrival of the Messiah from Aaron and from Israel. (CD 19:33-5)
The shall receive the same judgment as their companions who turned back with the men scoffing, for they spoke heresy against the ordinance of righteousness and rejected the covenant and bond which they affirmed in the land of Damascus, that is, the new covenant. (CD 20:11-12)
(page 56 Keys to Second Corinthians Jerome Murphy-O’Connor https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199592104.001.0001/acprof-9780199592104)
It should be noted however that the “The new covenant in CD is not thought of as the fulfillment of prophecy of Jer 31:31, and it is doubtful that it had any eschatological connotation in pre-Qumran usage.” (pg 55 ibid)
This makes sense since the new covenant will teach all men the law through Christ and write it on their heart so that they will not even need to teach each other. It has to be teaching more than just the words of the law if they are not teaching each other–since just knowing the words they would still need to interpret and teach the exact interpretation of those words.
Here we start seeing that it is talking about the “ministry” of the new and old covenants and not the covenants themselves:
7 Now if the ministry of death, [chiseled] (just means “impressed”) in letters on stone [tablets], came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! 10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory! (2 Cor 3 NRSV with my modifications)
7 . . . came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside: I thought for a while that “came in glory” (in verse 7) and “came through glory” (in verse 11) might be making a distinction. Maybe one is talking about the covenant and the other is talking about the ministry of the covenant. However, I think that would be too confusing even for Paul. I think the subject is the ministry of the covenants throughout 2 Corinthians 3:3-13.
The fact is that the “ministration” (διακονία) of the old covenant is the subject here, not the covenant itself and this is referring to the same thing that is spoken of in 2 Cor 3:7-10 since Paul does vary his prepositions to express the same relation and it would be at variance with the context. Even Christian commentators have agreed with this, such as Meyer’s N.T. Commentary which also says that this cannot refer to the “mosaic religion in general”
τὸ καταργούμενον] that which is in the act of passing away. This the reader was to apply to the διακονία of Moses spoken of in 2 Corinthians 3:7-10, in so far, namely, as this ministry is in the course of its abolition through the preaching of the gospel by means of the διακονία τῆς δικαιοσύνης. . . .
διὰ δόξης] sc.ἐστι. διά expresses the situation, condition, and so is a circumlocution for the adjective. Stallbaum, ad Plat. Phileb. p. 192; Bernhardy, p. 235; Fritzsche, ad Rom. I. p. 138. ἐν δόξῃ (2 Corinthians 3:7) is not different in sense; but the supposition of Estius, Billroth, Olshausen, Osiander, Neander, Hofmann, that διά indicates only what is transient, and ἐν what is abiding, is mere fancy. Paul is fond of varying the prepositions in designating the same relation. Comp. Romans 3:30; Romans 5:10; Romans 15:2; Galatians 2:16; Philemon 1:5. Comp. also Kühner, II, p. 319.
 Not to the Mosaic religion in general, which ceases through Christ (Theodoret, Theophylact, and many others, including Emmerling and Flatt),—which is quite at variance with the context. See vv. 7–10.https://biblehub.com/commentaries/meyer/2_corinthians/3.htm
Interestingly the form of the word indicates the glory of Moses face is in the process of being set aside which means it’s not literally talking about Moses’s face but rather the ministry of death. Once Sinai brings death and makes Israel aware of it’s sin, Israel can then accept grace and humbly repent allowing the law to be written their hearts.
8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory: If the ministry of death was awesome the ministry of the new covenant will be even better because it redeems from death. Kal va-homer!
Note that it contrasts the ministry of death with the ministry of the Spirit. Thayer’s in fact defines the word “ministry” as:
1) service, ministering, esp. of those who execute the commands of othershttps://studybible.info/strongs/G1248
2) of those who by the command of God proclaim and promote religion among men
2a) of the office of Moses
2b) of the office of the apostles and its administration
. . .
The Spirit writes the law on our hearts but it is not the law itself. The ministry of death is the ministry of Sinai but is not Sinai itself. Sinai brings death because of transgression, yet it is not death itself: so the separation between the covenant and the ministry spoken of here is of two degrees: death not being Sinai, and the ministry not being death itself. Later Paul in fact parallels himself with Moses a minister of a covenant:
12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. (2 Cor 3:13)
So why does it refer to the “the ministry of death, [impressed] in letters on stone?” It might be referring to the giving of the law by mediators at mount Sinai of which Moses was one:
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20 Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. (Galatians 3:19-20)
2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, (Hebrews 2:2-3)
You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:53)
However, the word “chiseled” could be translated “impressed” (as the ABP) and the word “tablets” is supplied, so I think this language is not even referring to the giving of the law at Sinai but talking about the symbols used for the work of the ministry of Sinai as opposed to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in other places. The word “letters” has already been used by Paul in 2 Cor 3 to speak of the ministry of Sinai https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G1121 and it uses the same language to contrast the “stone” with the “Spirit” in Ezekiel:
19 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Even if it is really talking about the covenant and not the ministry we are left with the fact that Paul is using ministry of death as a symbol. If this is a symbol then Paul could be using the ministry of death as a symbol for the covenant’s effects or for works of law like he does in other places in Galatians and Romans. However, I have taken the ministry view since it is repeated consistently throughout 2 Corinthians 3:3,7,8,9a,9b, 2 Corinthians 4:1,2 and Corinthians 5:18 and Paul seems to be drawing attention to this qualifier to avoid talking about the covenants themselves.
9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!: The ministry of Sinai came in glory and it brought death, how much more glorious is the ministry of the new covenant that will bring life? Again this could be an analogy for comparing a soteriology of works of law to faith/grace which Paul does in his other writings. Notice, that the glory of that ministry is in the process of being “set aside” that is associated with the ministry of Sinai not the covenant of Sinai itself. It is set aside by the natural reason that Israel no longer needs to experience the curses of Sinai if they have been perfected under the new covenant and are following the law–instead they will achieve the blessings of Sinai–life–through the promises of Abraham and through the Moabite covenant. I talk about this in more detail here:
11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!: The glory of Moses’s face faded after he talked with God and his ministry (the ministry of the old covenant) will be set aside but in the new covenant everyone will have direct access to God through the holy spirit and the glory of the new covenant will never fade because that ministry is forever!
According to Galatians 3 and Romans 7 the old covenant curses must still apply–otherwise why do we need to be saved from it? In addition, we will see why the old covenant cannot be set aside because of Matthew’s statements and by what is implied by Paul in Ephesian 2 and Colossians 2. The fact is what is being “set aside” here is not the old covenant.
We will see the journey of Israel being used as an analogy for the journey individuals as we move on in 2 Cor 3. However, the analogies used here are more subtle than they are in Romans and Galatians:
12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.
We do not hide the glory of the ministry of the law like Moses did but preach the correct understanding of the law boldly! This is because the ministry of the new covenant brings us closer to God unlike the ministry of the old covenant which only had the letter and not the spirit. The ministry of the new covenant allows us to come more boldly to God and have confidence in our understanding of the law because of the holy spirit writing it on our hearts.
14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Only Christ through the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the new covenant allows you to break the barrier between the law and your heart (what the NRSV more accurately translates as “mind”) which is the hardness of our hearts so we can receive the law in our hearts.
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:1-18)
Christ allows us to keep the law and have freedom from the Curses of Sinai. The new covenant through the holy spirit makes us more into an image of Christ who fulfilled the law.
Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4
1 Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
We do not water down the gospel by saying (as some of Paul’s opponents have said) that works of the law are necessary along with Christ for salvation. To put your trust in keeping the law well enough or certain works of the law (like circumcision) well enough is to veil the gospel and make Christ useless.
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
The gospel can also be misunderstood just like the law and this will cause people to perish.
5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
This is a quote from Isaiah 9:2 in the context of the Millennial kingdom and the return of the lost tribes (both things that Christ started the process for with his sending of the holy spirit) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+9 the NKJV notes also include Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78 and 2 Peter 1:19 which I think have similar messianic themes. Meyer’s N.T. Commentary also includes Isaiah 60:1
 Ewald, following the reading λάμψει, supposes an allusion to Isaiah 60:1, Job 12:22, or to some lost passage.https://biblehub.com/commentaries/meyer/2_corinthians/4.htm
There are some parallels to observe with Isaiah 60 and Paul’s mission to Israel and the lost tribes here:
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
This same word for “clay jars” is used in Jeremiah 19:1,19:11,19:14. This is right after chapter 18 which speaks of the Israel as clay being shaped by a potter and evil being intended for Israel in the form of exile from the land and loss of nationhood:
6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.(Jeremiah 18:6-11)
Jeremiah 19 speaks of the breaking of these vessels, hence the exile of Israel and hence the lost tribes:
10 Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, 11 and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. In Topheth they shall bury until there is no more room to bury. 12 Thus will I do to this place, says the Lord, and to its inhabitants, making this city like Topheth. 13 And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah shall be defiled like the place of Topheth—all the houses upon whose roofs offerings have been made to the whole host of heaven, and libations have been poured out to other gods. (Jeremiah 19:10-13)
Likewise the same word for clay jars in 2 Corinthians 4:6 is used in Isaiah 30:14 and in Isaiah chapter 29 it speaks also of Israel as clay vessels:
13 The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
14 so I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.
15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:13-16)
Likewise Isaiah 30 speaks of the breaking of these vessels:
12 Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel:(Isaiah 30:12-14)
Because you reject this word,
and put your trust in oppression and deceit,
and rely on them;
13 therefore this iniquity shall become for you
like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,
whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant;
14 its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
that is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a sherd is found
for taking fire from the hearth,
or dipping water out of the cistern.
Similar language is used to refer to Israel in Hosea as vessels of wrath (Israel who was exiled) and vessels of mercy (Judah who stayed in the land) Paul uses this language also in Romans 9 to refer to the same thing.
What I think Paul is doing in 2 Cor 4:6-7 is talking about the light of Christ in the new covenant that would have been hidden in Israel if the lost tribes had not been exiled and suffered. It is only by the suffering and exile of the lost tribes that the clay vessels are broken and the light of Christ is revealed to all the nations:
6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.(2 Corinthians 4:6-7)
For more information on these symbols see:
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak,
It continues on talking about the suffering of Israel and the lost tribes. “I believe, and so I spoke” is a quote from Psalm 116:10 and Psalm 116 is about the millennial kingdom where all peoples will worship God:
It is a question of the praise of the Lord by all peoples. The second verse expresses the reason for the first verse: the goodness of the Lord has been experienced in the past, and his faithfulness will last forever. If we take into consideration the whole book of psalms, we see that this psalm comes to sum up and conclude all the psalms of the hallel, and even all the preceding psalms since Psalm 107, for they invite Israel and all nations to praise ‘Eternal.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalm_116
Psalm 116:10 specifically refers to speaking of the deliverance from death that was received in verse 8-9:
8 For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
9 I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
10 I kept my faith, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”; (Psalm 116:8-10)
Moving on in 2 Corinthians 3:14-15:
14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
The Resurrection of Israel in the millennial kingdom will be extended to more and more people from other nations with the deliverance from the ministry of death.
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:1-18)
This present life is temporary and is a forshadowing of life with God since we are saved through the new covenant enabling Israel to keep the law and by having the law written on our hearts.
Paul compares Moab to Sinai in Romans 10 and the Abrahamic Covenant to Sinai in Galatians 3–as an analogy for faith and works of law. In 2 Corinthians 3 I believe he is comparing Sinai (specifically its curses) to the new covenant an analogy of works of law verses faith .
What is Set Aside?
Ephesians 2:15 uses the same language for “set aside” as in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 2 Corinthians 3:11, and 2 Corinthians 3:13. Ephesians cannot be referring to the law being “set aside” because it has a parallel in Colossians 2:14 which specifically talks about human philosophy and elemental spirits not law. Therefore the language of “set aside” must refer to something human there and I believe it does refer to that in 2 Cor 3 too: salvation by works of the law.
If the law is καταργήσας [in Eph 2:14] then it is no longer in effect at all–it is not just surpressed. This is because the “law of commands and ordinances” is referred to as the “hostility between us” and it says that he has “broken down” or “loosed” the hostility between us:
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15)
This is the same word used in Matthew 5:19, 6:19
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (matthew 16:19)
It can’t use the same word to describe what has been done to the law that it uses to say in Matthew 5:19 will never be done to the law. Therefore, in Ephesians 2:14-15 it can’t be referring to the law and if you look at the parallel in Colossians 2 this is evident since it refers to proto-gnostic human teachings:
Paul described the heresy in Colossae as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world” (Col. 2:8 cf. Col. 2:4, 18). Gnostics believed that they alone had wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnōsis). Paul stated, however, that true wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3).
A pre-gnostic or syncretistic heresy was also being taught in the church at Ephesus. Paul addressed aspects of this heresy in his letters to Timothy. Timothy was caring for the church at Ephesus at that time.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.
So to sum up 2 Corinthians 3 I believe it is talking about an understanding of the law. Just as a true understanding of the law can be veiled and misunderstood so can a true understanding of the gospel and hence salvation. Observe the following:
- 2 Cor 3 is referring to the ministry of the covenants and not the covenants themselves.
- . “NOT OF THE LETTER but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” The letter without the work of the spirit will bring death since we cannot keep the law without the holy spirit writing it on our hearts.
- “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” refers to the curses of Sinai (Sinai had blessings too)
- 2 Cor 3 merely refers back to the new covenant which is simply the law being written on our hearts and in the Dead Sea Scrolls is used to refer to ‘the exact interpretation of the law’ (see: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199592104.001.0001/acprof-9780199592104-chapter-4 )–which the new covenant brings us through it being put on our hearts by the holy spirit. So even if the letters of the Sinai covenant pass away it has no semantic effect since the same law is written on our hearts anyway.
- Paul uses the Sinai covenant as an analogy to compare a soteriology based on works of law (since that understanding would lead to death since Israel broke the Sinai covenant and needed redemption from it’s curses) to a soteriology based on faith (since Christ would enable Israel to be righteous under the Sinai covenant through the holy spirit writing the law on our hearts) I talk about some of these ideas here: https://hebrewroots.intentionalcommunities.world/2018/11/04/the-two-covenants-of-galatians-4/
- “the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside” Notice it is the glory that is “set aside” not the old covenant itself since through the work of the holy spirit Israel will attain the blessings of the old covenant.
- As we have already discussed the language of “set aside” is used in Ephesians and Colossians to talk about human teachings being set aside.
- For a kal va-homer argument to work the thing you are comparing needs to be good already. I can’t say that my living room is well-lit because “my basement has no lights how much brighter is my living room?” The argument is meaningless. Maybe my living room is brighter than my basement but it doesn’t mean my living room well-lit because there is literally no light in my basement. For the new covenant to be great the old covenant has to be good at least and not something that is just set aside.