But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. (2 Corinthians 1:18)
The opening verses of this chapter are, I think, a bit ironical. The apostle Paul had been used of God for the conversion of these Corinthians. Into that godless city—one of the vilest cities in the ancient world—Paul came, preached the glorious Gospel of the grace of God, determined, as he says, “not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). And that old Gospel worked, as it always works when it is presented in the power of the Holy Ghost. There is no other message needed to change men and women, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. Under Paul’s ministry for a year and a half, a number of them were converted. You remember he cites a great list of sins of which he says no one given to these things shall inherit the kingdom of God. Then he adds, “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Having been saved, they were brought together as a Christian company, a Christian ecclesia, a Christian church. They were a wonderful church in many ways. They came behind in no gift; all sorts of spiritual gifts and graces were manifested among them, so much so that eventually a spirit of envy and jealousy came in, and teacher was set against teacher, preacher against preacher, and exhorter against exhorter; and by and by, parties came into the church. Some said, “I am of Paul; I like one who gives deep teaching.” Others said, “I am of Peter; I like one who can stir up our pure minds, a real exhorter.” Others said, “I am of Apollos—the eloquent man, one mighty in the Scriptures, a real evangelist.” So, they were dividing into groups according to their appreciation of the ministry God had given, and Paul rebuked them for that.
Then there came among them certain men from Judea who tried to undermine Paul’s influence over them. These brethren hated the plain, simple Gospel of the grace of God, so they undertook to try to destroy the confidence of the saints in the one who had led them to Christ in order that they might turn them away from the liberty of grace to the bondage of law. You have a good idea of how that kind would come in. I can imagine a couple coming from Jerusalem to see a few of the brethren. Perhaps, it was prayer-meeting night, so there might only be a few. They would say “We are very pleased to see you, brethren. So, you are Christians? We are Christians too.”
“Oh, where do you come from?”
“We come from the center of everything, from Jerusalem.”
“Do you indeed?”
“Yes, and you know, we are just out ministering the Word as the Lord opens doors, and we thought we would have some meetings with you, if you like.”
“How were you converted?”
“We were converted through the apostle Paul.”
“You mean Paul of Tarsus? Not an apostle, exactly, you understand; he was not an apostle, not one of the twelve. He never attended the Apostolic College in Jerusalem. He is a freelance. A very nice brother, of course, and very helpful for pioneer work, but the trouble is with dear Paul, he is not able to lead you saints on as he should. Did he tell you anything about the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, the ordinance of Circumcision?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“He didn’t? That’s just like dear Paul. He dwells on the simple things and leaves out the deep truths. Did he tell you anything about clean and unclean meats?”
“He didn’t explain the difference? Well, that’s too bad. Fortunately, the Lord has sent us to you. If you care to announce a meeting or two, we will give you some addresses and lead you on to these deeper things.”
I don’t know that it happened that way, but I’m pretty sure it did. It always happens that way nowadays. In a little while, they were winning the affections of these Corinthians, who were so taken up with the new teaching that they went out of the meeting saying, “That was great, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it deep? I have never heard anything as deep as that. Paul never went into anything like that. This is great truth and wonderful teaching.” Soon, they began to think they knew more than their old teacher, more than the man who had brought them to Christ. In fact, they said, “If Paul comes back, it is a question of whether we can receive him or not. It’s just a pity he doesn’t have a better understanding of things.”
Paul hears about this and says, “I’m coming back all right. I’ll be there, and I will know the speech of those who speak, whether in words or in power; I will be ready to face these false teachers in your presence. Then I’ll make them show what they really are.” And so, he says to these Corinthians, “I intend to come. Do we need letters of commendation to you? Had I better write off to Peter or James and see if we can get a letter, ‘We commend to your fellowship Paul of Tarsus.’ Do we need letters? When we go to other places, should we have a letter from you? Maybe you should send a letter to say, ‘We are happy to commend as an evangelist, not a teacher, our brother Paul.’”
Oh, you know the absurdity of it is manifest! Letter! “Why, you are our letter,” he exclaims, “What were you when we came to you? Poor, lost sinners of the Gentiles, sunk down in the depths of sin. Did these false teachers come with the Gospel of the grace of God and lift you out of sin and uncertainty? They did not. Oh, no! They waited until people were converted and formed into churches, and then they came. You are our Epistle. We found you in your sins; we preached Christ to you, and through the Gospel we preached, a tremendous change was brought about. Our message, our commendation, is written not on tablets of stone, but in fleshly tablets of the heart.”
He says, as it were, “If anybody asks, ‘What is the proof that you are called of God to preach, we shall reply, ‘Go over to Corinth and see that church. Go to Thessalonica and see the church there. Go to Philippi—all the places where we have made known the Gospel—then you will find what the Gospel can do. There you will see clearly enough how God has set His seal on our testimony.’”
There is nothing that proves the truth of the Gospel and the power of the Cross of Christ like the lives of changed men and women. The Gospel proves its Divine origin by what it does for those who believe it.
Notice that Paul does not say, “Ye are the Epistles of Christ.” He uses, not the plural, but the singular, “Ye are the Epistle of Christ. The whole Church is the Epistle, and every individual is just a word in that Epistle. Some of us are very little words, “oh” and “and,” and words like that, but all part of the Epistle telling the story of the grace of God. Paul says, “I don’t think I need any other letter of commendation than yourselves. You will speak up when the test comes, won’t you, and you will be willing to say it was my message that brought you to Christ.”
. . . not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
He did not mean the little book we call the New Testament, which was not written at that time, but the new covenant as a whole. “We are able ministers of the new covenant,” not the letter (which refers to the old Covenant engraved on tablets of stone), but the Spirit (the new covenant that was sealed by the blood of Jesus and confirmed by the coming of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost). It is the Spirit of God who makes the new covenant a real thing in the lives of redeemed men and women.
Then he goes on to contrast the two covenants and says what the old one could not do, the new does. “But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious” (v. 7); the ministration of death, what was that? It was the law given on Sinai. It said, “The man that doeth these things shall live in them,” but “cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them.” The law could only condemn men to death because of their failures and sins. Yet, there was a glory about it. It was the most marvelous revelation in the world when God came down in power on Sinai and gave Moses that Covenant. It was glorious “so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away” (v. 7). He refers to the second giving of the law, when Moses went up as Mediator, after the incident of the golden calf, and was in the mount forty days, and God gave him the law the second time, and tempered justice with mercy; it was then that Moses came down with a shining face because he had been looking ahead at the manifestation of the glory yet to be revealed when He, who would fulfil all the types of the law, should come into this scene. He would magnify the law and make it honorable. When Moses came down, the people could not look at him. So, he put a veil over his face while he talked to them. We generally think he did that to save the eyesight of the people. Here it says it was because “that glory was to be done away,” and Moses did not want them to see the glory of that covenant fade away, as it must do, because of man’s inability to meet its requirements.
“[I]f the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory” (v. 9). Why does he call the Gospel the ministration of righteousness? Because it is in the Gospel that God’s righteousness is revealed.
‘Tis in the Cross of Christ we trace
His righteousness, yet wondrous grace . . .
But in the Cross of Christ, we see
How God can save, yet righteous be.
The sinner who believes is free,
Can say, “The Saviour died for me”
Can point to that atoning blood,
And say, “That made my peace with God.”
(Albert Midlane, 1825-1909)
The question of righteousness is taken care of in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and so God’s grace can be extended to every believing sinner. “For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.” All the glory of the old Covenant had derived it from the new. It was like the moon shining in the heavens—it has no glory of its own, it gets it from the sun. All the glory of the old Covenant was reflected from that to which the Spirit of God was pointing when the Lord Jesus was to fulfil on our behalf all that was written in the law. Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech” (v. 12). Even though we live in the glorious dispensation of the ministration of righteousness, some people look back to the law as a means of salvation still. Some who know we cannot be justified by it are trying to be sanctified by keeping the law. They make rules and regulations as if there were not enough in the Old Testament to regulate their lives. That is not the way.
The apostle Paul tells us the ministration of condemnation could tell men what they should do but couldn’t put the desire within them to do the right thing. But the ministration of grace not only shows men how they should behave but puts within them a delight in the things of God, so they love to glorify Him above everything else.
Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: and not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: but their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:12-14)
Here it is that I believe we have the deepest secret of holiness. Holiness is the result of heart occupation with the Lord Jesus Christ. I grant you, there are steps leading up to it. No one will enter into the blessing of a Spirit-filled life as long as he tampers with sin. When he comes to the place where he is ready to judge anything in his life that is hindering his spiritual growth, put it away, and settle with God, no matter what it may mean; when he recognizes the fact that the Holy Spirit of God who dwells in all believers is come to dwell in him, not merely as a guest, but to take control of the whole man, then he enters more fully into the blessed life.
When you have surrendered to Him, you have said to Him, “Lord, by Thy Spirit, take full control. Henceforth, let me be for Thyself alone. I would live only for Thy glory.” Make this book [the Bible] your counsel. Live in it. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom. As this blessed Book is opened up to you, Christ Himself will loom large before the eyes of your soul, and as you are occupied with Him, you will be transfigured into the same image, from glory to glory. Do not think you will be like Christ all at once, for you will not. No one of us can claim to have reached the complete ideal yet. But it is always before us, being changed day by day, growing in grace in the knowledge of Christ, changed by beholding.
(This is an extract of Harry Ironside’s book, Changed by Beholding.)
(photo from bigstockphoto.com; used with permission)