With the rise of false preachers and deceitful messengers, the church in Jerusalem (which was the base for all missionary journeys) started issuing letters of recommendation to all its patrons about the ministers they would send to them. Paul himself would use such letters to introduce his associates when he would send them to a certain region.
Phoebe, Mark, Timothy and Titus are a few of the people, for whom Paul wrote such introductory letters and even spoke highly about them when he would send them to a new congregation. Apparently, Paul’s opposers also had such letters of recommendation from the church in Jerusalem seemingly validating their legitimacy. They challenged Paul to produce his own letters of recommendation from the elders at Jerusalem and when Paul refused they poisoned the church against him.
Letters Written on Hearts
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.2 Corinthians 3:2-3 (NIV)
Paul believed that the lives of the believers in Corinth he had impacted established his claim over them rather than any stamp of authority from the headquarters at Jerusalem. His deep bond with the believers in Corinth made him feel that he did not need any letter to prove his legitimacy and that the works of God in the lives of the people spoke for themselves.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (NIV)
For the Israelites, the letter meant the law of Moses. They read it as an instruction manual of do’s and don’ts, they foolishly thought that it was possible to follow all the commandments. The letter only shows our guilt and makes us worthy of condemnation but the spirit gives us the power to carry out God’s will for our lives. Those who depend on the letter are dying day by day as they are getting separated from God because of their so-called piousness. But those who acknowledge that they are powerless and depend on the Spirit are renewed day by day till they are transformed in the image of Christ.
In the context of the letters of recommendation, those who depended simply on those letters will be led on the path to death by satan, but those who are able to discern the will of God for their lives will find comfort and assurance in Him. Even in our present-day ministerial work, people look for preachers with a doctorate or at least a degree in theology before accepting their message. This is no different from what Paul was going through as anyone can have a degree but the works of their ministry speak volumes about their legitimacy. The crowds don’t validate any mission but the hearts that have been turned to the true light are what matters. Paul knew that and did not see it necessary to have letters of recommendation when the hearts of the people were being transformed day by day.
Ministry of Death
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?2 Corinthians 3:7-8 (NIV)
When Moses returned from mount Sinai with the two stone tablets on which God had told him to write the Ten Commandments, unbeknownst to him, his face was radiant as he had just interacted with the God of Heaven and the Earth. The Israelites did not know what to think of this transfiguration and were afraid to come near Moses. This would repeat every time Moses returned from the Lord’s presence. So Moses covered his face with a veil after he returned with fresh instructions from the Lord. He would keep his face covered till the time the glory that caused his face to glow faded away (Exodus 34:29-35).
If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!2 Corinthians 3:9 (NIV)
Moses’ ministry brought the covenant of the laws to the people of Israel. The intent was not condemnation rather it was meant to be an acknowledgement that we are dependent on God even more. It turned out to have the opposite effect as the people took the laws as a means of self-reliance. Their lack of self-awareness made them believe that they could follow all the six hundred plus laws and that by following them they remained in charge of their own destiny. They started lying to themselves and even to God claiming to be the righteous people that they were nowhere close to being. They covered their hearts with a figurative veil to hide their true self from their Maker. This continued throughout the rule of the judges, the kings and even during the second temple writings of the prophets. Only when Jesus died for our sins were we given a path to righteousness and the veil of our hearts was torn away.
A Permanent Veil
The two testaments go hand in hand as one without the other is incomplete. For those who focus only on the Gospel and the letters of the apostles, they are missing out on the experience of the people of God who tried to carve out their own way to righteousness and failed miserably on the way. Going through their account makes us realise the level of our despair and appreciate the sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross. For the ones who are still holding on to the law, they have not fully grasped the concept of Jesus dying on the cross for us sinners and not the righteous.
Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.2 Corinthians 3:15 (NIV)
Like the veil of Moses comforted his onlookers as they did not have to stare at his radiant face. Likewise, the old covenant comforts the believers albeit it keeps them ignorant of the depth of their salvation. People want a semblance of control over their future. They take out loans to go to colleges that secure their professional careers. They take out insurance for all their belongings and loved ones to secure their future. Similarly, the believers who are dependent on the laws want to secure their eternal lives by following the letter. On the contrary, they are made dull by their ignorance as they have not been exposed to the glory of the Son and the light that shine on us through Him.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV)
God resides in our hearts, and we don’t have to go to a mountain top to seek Him. However, even with the closeness, we share with God, our faces do not turn radiant when we commune with our Creator. We must realise that the light that shines within us is much brighter than the radiance that Moses experienced. Every day that we walk with Jesus, we are being transformed in his image. Anyone who we interact with by the leading of God is impacted by this light.
We do not have to cover our faces with a veil to protect the people around us but live among them uplifting them through our prayers. But still, there are some who have covered their faces from the world and continue living two separate lives, one on Sundays and one on weekdays. Let not a veil cover our hearts that we may not understand the wondrous work God is doing in our lives, nor should we put a veil over our faces that conceal His glory from shining on the people we interact with every day.
- 3:6 – How does the Letter kill?
- 3:9 – How did Moses’ ministry bring only condemnation without righteousness?
- 3:14 – Why does a veil remain on those who read the old covenant?
- 3:18 – Why do our faces not glow when we spend time with God who does not reside on a mountain but in our hearts?