These false teachers were confident because of the letters of rec, the commendation they received from others. But that wasn’t the only source of their confidence. Not only are the false teachers being recommended by other false teachers, it’s a situation of the blind leading the blind, but also there was an issue of competence.
2 Cor 3
4 We have this kind of confidence toward God through Christ. 5 It is not that we are competent in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our competence is from God.
The false teachers were confident 1) because of the letters of rec and 2) because of their competence. Their competence led to a spirit of self-sufficiency. Our confidence often is directly linked with our competence. If you are smart and you are competent in school, you feel self-sufficient. If you have high EQ and you are competent in dealing with people, you feel self-sufficient. Our competence often leads to self-sufficiency.
More to the point, what are these false teachers specifically competent in? It goes back to Jewish tradition. They grew up their entire lives with these Jewish practices. It was familiar to them. It was comfortable. They were competent at observing certain practices. And this competence in human tradition was the source of their confidence.
Again, we have to be careful of human tradition. Any tradition from God should directly point us to Jesus Christ, not to a person, not to a leader, not to a cultural practice, not to a quirky church tradition unique to one tiny local church. If the tradition does not point to Christ, then we have to get rid of it because we risk losing Christ if certain traditions are allowed to harden into “truth.” To be Christian, you have to do things this way and not that way. Worse yet, traditions can often denigrate into salvation by works because you feel like you have to do certain things in order to be accepted by God.
Other than the Lord’s Supper and baptism, we have to be careful of all other traditions because unbeknownst to the leadership, we may be taking on traditions that are unique to us and elevating those things almost to the level of the gospel itself so that we treat adhering or not adhering to these traditions as salvation issues.
In contrast to these Judaizers, Paul didn’t have any credentials. He didn’t have a letter of recommendation from anybody. There was no accredited seminary to offer him an M.Div. degree. He was not even one of the original disciples. The Corinthians had only Paul’s word that he was in good standing with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. There was no phone or email so it was hard to validate or verify such claims. His only course was to reiterate that the risen Lord had called him to be an apostle and to point to his sacrificial lifestyle as legitimizing that call.
Also, he points to one last thing–to the Corinthians themselves. It is one thing to possess the appropriate ordination documents or to frame a university degree and put it on the wall of your study, but these are not living letters. The confirmation of one’s ministry lies in the effects of that ministry in human lives. This will depend upon having ministered a pure, undiluted gospel.
These letters carried the names of persons from their own faction, making the false apostles at Corinth essentially their own source of commendation. Paul had a letter of recommendation–the Christians at Corinth. They were saved through the pure gospel Paul preached. And, unlike the false apostles who lacked a higher commending authority, Paul has a higher authority before whom he appears for recommendation–Jesus Christ.
2 Cor 3
3 It is clear that YOU are CHRIST’S letter, produced by us [by Paul and his co-laborers] not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God—not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.
You are a letter FROM Christ. The false teachers wanted to discredit Paul because of his message. His message was too much of a departure from the old. The new was good, but they wanted to roll it into the old. It’s like if you are a homeowner, you may have 2 mortgages. This happens like in our case when we didn’t have enough money to put a 20% down payment. So you put 5% down and then the first mortgage is 80% of the value of the home and the second mortgage is the other 15%. If you have more equity in the home over time or you pay off some of the second mortgage, then you can refinance and combine the two mortgages into one.
These false teachers treated the old covenant like it was the larger first mortgage and Jesus and the new covenant was the much smaller second mortgage. They didn’t deny the new covenant. They just wanted to roll Jesus into their Jewish old covenant so that the net result would be a very Jewish-centric Christian faith. The false teachers probably claimed that Moses was equal, or even superior, to Christ and that Christ was merely part of the covenant of Moses.
It’s hard enough for a church of 10-20 years to shed all of the traditions that were built up during its short history. We get so easily impressed with our little spiritual lineage and what we can accomplish as a church, or even a denomination that has been around for 100 or 200 years.
Think about how hard it would have been been for Jewish Christians in the first century to put aside Jewish traditions that began close to 2000 years before Christ. We look at them and wonder, what’s their problem? Yet, even in America, where our history spans a meager 200 years compared to 5,000 years of Chinese history, consider how hard it is to detach yourself from seeing the world through the eyes of an upper middle class Westerner. From our own experience, we shouldn’t be so surprised that Jewish Christians in Paul’s day had such a hard time accepting the new covenant.
Tradition and culture must bow the knee to Jesus Christ. If not, our tradition and our culture will enslave us and make us judgmental toward people who are different from us. The false apostles were confident because of their tradition and their culture. Those things made them feel competent as spiritual leaders. They felt self-sufficient in their spirituality, superior to others, to such an extent that they could pronounce judgment on Paul.
On the other hand, Paul does not base his confidence nor his competence on his tradition, or his lineage, or his culture, or his abilities, or based on how he measures up compared with other leaders. v4-5 – Paul is supremely confident because his confidence and his competence is from God through Christ.
For anyone aspiring to be a Christian leader, which I hope is every Christian in this room, this truth is so important. None of us can be confident before God, nor competent in ministry before others unless it is from God. We have to understand this. To get at this further, we have to turn back a chapter and read 2 Cor 2:15-17.
2 Cor 2
15 For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. 16 To some we are an aroma of death leading to death, but to others, an aroma of life leading to life. And who is competent for this? 17 For we are not like the many who market God’s message for profit. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God.
Who is competent for this? Who is competent to be a minister of the gospel? If your answer is, I am. I’m gifted. I have so much to offer. Look at how well I speak. Look at my spiritual gifts. Look at how many years I have been in the church. I think I can make a big impact. If this is your attitude, then you are no different from these false teachers who felt competent based on their traditions and culture and abilities. The answer to Paul’s question–who is competent for this–is a resounding, NO ONE! No one is competent to minister. Does anyone in this room have the competence or the ability to cause a sinner to repent? Or to create faith? Or to cause a dead man or woman to be born again of the Spirit? No one. None of us have the competence required to cause this kind of change in another person. It’s way outside of our pay grade. Yet, why do we take credit like it was our ability? Or why do we demand absolute loyalty or commitment from those we minister to as if we did anything?
In this next part, I want to compare and contrast the old and the new covenant. v1-3. The old covenant is written with ink on paper or on stone tablets, i.e. the Ten Commandments. The new covenant is written not with ink, but with the Spirit and it is written, not on stone tablets but on human hearts.
The next set of verses, v4-6 – we can talk about the old covenant. The old covenant is very human-oriented. The leader of the old covenant is Moses. Moses is the key leader to follow. You have the Law, a set of rules to obey. And thus, competence comes from our ability to obey these laws. And worst of all, if we try to return to the old covenant now, it will kill us spiritually. The letter kills. In contrast, you have the new covenant, where competence comes from God. He sends the Spirit and He produces the results deep in our hearts, ultimately, leading to spiritual life.
In v7-18, Paul speaks about the old covenant with Moses back in Exodus after the Israelites had been freed from slavery in Egypt and they were wandering in the desert. Moses spent time alone with God on top of Mt Sinai. And because he had spent time in the presence of God, Moses’ face was glorious, it shined radiantly so much so that the glow caused people to turn away. I guess after a while the Israelites were tired of turning away because of his radiance so they asked Moses to put on a veil to cover his face. Eventually, the glory would fade and his face would be back to normal.
Paul refers to this old covenant as glorious, but it is a fading glory while the new covenant of Jesus Christ is unfading, eternal, permanent glory. The point is, Moses and the old covenant is glorious, there’s no denying that, but it was only a pointer to Christ and when Christ showed up, by comparison, Moses is not so glorious.
It’s like if Jeremy Lin walked in here and we played a pickup game of hoops together, we’d think Jeremy is pretty glorious. He would be shooting over us and dunking over John Shen and no look passes. But if Lebron James walked in, Jeremy, I love you, but I’m sorry, Jeremy would not seem as glorious next to Lebron. How much more, when Christ comes, how can we even mention Moses in the same breath?
2 Cor 3
13 We are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not stare at the the end of what was fading away, 14 but their minds were closed. For to this day, at the reading of the old covenant, the same veil remains; it is not lifted, because it is set aside only in Christ.
Even back in Moses’ day, there was a literal veil and a spiritual veil. The literal veil was to prevent the glory from Moses’ face to blind the onlookers. The spiritual veil is referred to here as a closing of their minds. Even with the 10 Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt, there were some Israelites in the camp at the base of Mt Sinai whose minds and hearts were closed. Because they only saw the physical–I’m hungry, I’m sick of manna, why we are in a desert, I want to go back to Egypt–and these people missed the spiritual significance of what God was doing in history due to the spiritual veil over them. Likewise, the Judaizers of Paul’s day totally missed the spiritual significance of Jesus being a fulfillment of the Exodus account. Jesus ushered in a Second Exodus, not limited to a literal freedom for the Jews from slavery in Egypt, but spiritual freedom available to all from the slavery of sin.
Paul is implying that God did not allow some of the Israelites in Exodus to understand the spiritual dimension of the promises made under the Mosaic covenant which would eventually be fulfilled in Christ. They did not see the glory of the old covenant which pointed to something or someone far more glorious than Moses. The result is that though Jewish believers in Paul’s day would sit week after week in the synagogue and hear passages about Moses, a veil of ignorance prevented them from understanding the scriptures which were being read. Because of the spiritual veil, the mere reading of the old covenant will achieve nothing. The inward veil of which the outward veil was the symbol is still keeping hearts in darkness whenever the OT scriptures are read.
Only Jesus can remove the veil. Only Jesus can open closed minds and blind eyes and soften hardened hearts. Only Jesus can cause a sinner to repent and receive eternal life. This is the new covenant. There will never be a newer covenant, or the new covenant part two, or a third covenant. Jesus is it. Everything in the OT points to Jesus. Everything in the NT culminates with the coming of Jesus into our world and everything in human history will be wrapped up when Jesus returns.