When you apply for a job you supply your resume—it’s that collection of information that tells why you are qualified for a particular position. Until not too long ago, a very important thing to have when going to a new area was a letter of recommendation. We still use them occasionally. When Pastor Gideon visited us last year I had to provide a letter of invitation for him to use in order to get a visa.
In Paul’s day, letters of recommendation were commonly used by Christian preachers as they went about ministering. It would get them a place to stay, food, and a chance to teach at the local church.
As Paul begins to really lay into the false apostles that had infiltrated Corinth, he suggests that they had somehow come with letters of recommendation and once installed at Corinth, began to bad-mouth Paul in part of his lack of such letters.
So the Apostle uses it as a way to show that the real power of ministry comes not in letters or programs but in the work of growth that occurs in the heart. We humans so much concentrate on that which we can count—so many people attending, so much in the budget, so much size of our building project. But the real important growth factor doesn’t happen there, but in the hearts of individuals.
Paul then goes on to show how when we focus on such things we end up like the Jews who looked to Moses, rather to what Moses preached—the coming Messiah. Apparently these false teachers were relying on Moses as a role model for spirituality, so Paul knocks that one down pretty strongly.
1 – 3
In verse 1 Paul is saying that, unlike the false teachers that had come into town, he did not need to defend himself to the church that he himself founded. It seems as if the false apostles had brought letters of recommendation with them, forged or real, and that made the Corinthians question whether Paul had such letters.
So in verse 2 he says “we don’t need a letter written in paper, we have all the letter we need—penned by the Holy Spirit through a changed character in your lives.” It is “written on our hearts” suggesting the intertwining of Paul and the Corinthians. It is “Christ’s” letter—Jesus is doing the work, but “produced by us” in that Paul and his co-workers were the agents of Jesus’ work in the believer’s heart.
In verse three Paul introduces what will be a major topic of this chapter—the superiority of this kind of writing (the Spirit internally in the heart) over the kind of writing typified by the Law (on stone tablets-external).
This idea was first introduced by Ezekiel in chapter 36:
Ezekiel 36:26-28 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.
The false teachers were confident in their human-based commendation. Paul says his confidence towards this work of God in the hearts of the Corinthians comes from another source.
4 – 6
The false teachers relied on human traits like wisdom, great speaking ability, their letters of recommendation, even their ancestry, to prove they were superior to Paul. Paul smartly doesn’t take them on (though he could easily win on all counts) but says “we are not competent for this work, only God is, and it is His work through us that makes us able to do this.”
This is so key to success in ministry and life for the believer. As humans we naturally want to rely on and flaunt those things that make us feel more important: our wisdom, our degrees, our power, our position, our abilities to communicate, our physical prowess. Even Christians do this, but (John 15:5-6 )
“… you can do nothing without Me.” And again: Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” NKJV
So measure success by the subtle changes of life you see in the lives of others.
Even as God made Paul competent to be a minister of this new covenant, so too He has made you able to minister for him. How does that happen? Mainly it is through the same process he outlines here: the Holy Spirit writes God’s character on our hearts and changes us into people that think, speak, and act like Jesus. This becomes the “scent” of Christ to the world around us—that double edged sword that for those who respond means life and to those who reject means death.
Yes, we should learn God’s Word, we should seek to be presentable to people and not a “put off”, but those are merely icing on the cake of the Spirit’s work deep inside and empowering us on the outside.
The phrase “the letter kills but the Spirit produces life” is one of those foundational ideas that separate the old and new covenants. As Paul will speak more of later in the chapter, the writing of the Law on stone tablets only resulted in 1) acknowledgement that we have sinned and fallen short and 2) condemnation for the evil endemic in the human soul. The Law cannot save. Following an external list of dos and don’ts cannot change you on the inside; it can only lead to frustration and ultimately death. So too, reliance on human ability and recognition and worldly ways of commendation will only lead to frustration and reliance on the external, rather than the internal Spirit.
As I mentioned, it seems the false teachers held up Moses as the ministry model, and following the Ten Commandments as the focus of the Christian, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit, so next he compares the two.
7 – 11
We find this story in Exodus 34:29-35 . Let’s take a look at it. Essentially, Moses’ face shone with the glory of God after being in God’s presence. Though the account doesn’t record this, Paul interprets Moses’ action of putting a veil over this face as diverting attention away from the fading of the glory to the Law that God was communicating through Moses.
He’s not trying to put down Moses, but show that the old covenant of the Law is only temporary, like the glory on Moses’ face. The Spirit in our lives is not temporary but permanent. We don’t need to go back into God’s presence to get a fresh “glory shine” because the Spirit lives in our hearts constantly giving us glory on the inside. In fact, in the next chapter Paul will talk about that glory in jars of clay. Unlike with Moses, the glory is hidden but shines out through our changed character.
You can’t “glory” in the Law because you are only one mistake away from ruining your obedience, but we can be bold in the gospel of Jesus, which promises so much more than the Law could ever do!
12 – 16
The Law holds no hope for ultimate salvation or change. Not that it is bad, no; it is wonderful because it reveals the stark difference between the character of a good God and the evil of sin and our flesh.
But God did not deliver the Law as a final product, or we would be hopeless. Moses even knew this.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. 16 This is what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, 'Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!' 17 Then the Lord said to me, 'They have spoken well. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to My words that he speaks in My name.
This is Jesus, who said: You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me. (John 5:39-40 )
For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, because he wrote about Me. 47 But if you don't believe his writings, how will you believe My words?" (John 5:46-47 )
In verse 14 he says “their minds were closed.” The veil that hid Moses’ face represents a lack of seeing the truth—that the old covenant was passing away to something better. This led the Jewish leaders to have Jesus executed. And it is the same veil that keeps the Jews from coming to their Messiah.
The understanding of what God was really doing—providing salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus—is only revealed in the gospel and praise God, when someone sincerely seeks to understand, that veil is lifted, as we have seen, even in very conservative Jews!
17 – 18
Just as in Christ the veil is lifted, so too in Christ our bondage to the Law is lifted as well. No longer do we earn favor with God by how we obey, but we have favor with God through Jesus’ obedience. Now, don’t get me wrong, the aim is to actually write the Law in our hearts so I’m not suggesting that we just go do anything we want. But freedom in Christ means I can choose to the right thing every time. In the flesh we simply don’t have that freedom, we are in bondage to the flesh to follow its desires (see Romans 7 ).
In Christ the veil is removed and we shine out the glory of the Spirit changing our lives as we are “transformed” which is the same word used for the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:2 and in Romans 12:2 . It is metamorphosis—an internal transformation rather than an external molding.
Notice that it says “glory to glory”. The transformation of the Christian is gradual. We can impede or enhance this transformation the more we 1) get to know God through His Word, through worship, through prayer, and through interacting with other disciples and 2) the more we trust and rely on Him no matter what happens in our external circumstances.
When do we rely on Moses rather than the Spirit, and what happens as a result?
We do that when we begin to hold the principals of the Law above the person of the Messiah. This happens very subtly in the life of a Christian. The Law represents the character of God and a stark contrast to the evil of humanity. Our goal is to follow the Law - but it can never happen through our efforts. Jesus fulfilled ALL of the Law – ceremonial and moral. When we start feeling good about the changes Jesus makes in our life and we begin to become more like the person the Law envisions, we can subtly start to take control – “I’ve got it from here God.” That’s a grave error – you are only good by the work inside of you done by the Holy Spirit. We become legalistic about ourselves and judgmental of others.
You can’t rely on human commendation for your worth or position – rely on God’s commendation and purpose
You can’t rely on human competence for ministry – rely on the Holy Spirit in you to be what you need.
You can’t rely on the human mind to understand God – rely on the gospel to do remove the veil.
You can’t rely on human efforts to obey or please God – rely on Jesus to do that for and in you.
I would contrast the two ideas as legalism and loveism. Legalism is what we do or don’t do – loveism is who you are. Legalism leads to pride and humiliation at failure – loveism leads to self-sacrifice and humbleness.