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 Knocking 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.
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/
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.
Letters of commendation are good but we having living commendations: you!
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.
How much better are living commendations! (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 law to save us. We rely on Christ for commendation just as we rely on Christ to make Israel able to keep the law.
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.
The law would bring death on it’s own since Israel broke Sinai. 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)
7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled 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?
Sinai was accompanied by glory and it brought death, how much more glorious is the new covenant that will bring life? Notice that the glory is “set aside” not Sinai itself.
9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!
If Sinai was awesome the new covenant will be even better. Kal va-homer!
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!
The glory of Moses’s face faded after he talked with God but in the new covenant everyone will have direct access to God through the holy spirit and their glory will never fade!
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 law like Moses did but preach the correct understanding of it boldly! This is because the new covenant brings us closer to God unlike the old covenant which only had the letter and not the spirit. 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 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.
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 60 about 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+60&version=NRSV
To see this more clearly observe these parallels noted here: https://kingdomofgodcommunes.org/2019/07/07/paul-parallels-originally-apostle-to-gentiles-or-to-israel/
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. 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,
This is a quote from Psalm 116:10 which is a theme 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:
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.
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 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 the new covenant with Sinai (specifically its curses) as an analogy for faith and works of law.
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:
1. “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.
2. “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” refers to the curses of Sinai (Sinai had blessings too)
3. 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 proper understanding of the law–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.
4. 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://kingdomofgodcommunes.org/2018/11/04/the-two-covenants-of-galatians-4/
5. “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.
6. As we have already discussed the language of “set aside” is used it Ephesians and Colossians to talk about human teachings being set aside.
7. 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.