Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

2 Corinthians 3:1-6



In 1:12 – 2:4, Paul defended his personal integrity against charges by his enemies that he had failed to live up to his promise to visit them earlier.

In 2:5-11, he told the Corinthian Christians that his enemy had caused pain for them, perhaps even more so than for him. He counseled forgiveness for the offender, just as he had forgiven him, “that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan.”

In 2:12-17, he spoke of his visit to Troas (a seaport city on the northwest coast of Asia Minor––modern day Turkey). “When a door opened to (him) in the Lord,” he went to Macedonia (a region to the north of Greece). He closed that section by again defending his ministry, saying, “For we are not as so many, peddling the word of God. But as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God, we speak in Christ.”


1 Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as do some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 being revealed that you are a letter of Christ, served by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in tablets that are hearts of flesh.

“Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as do some, letters of commendation to you or from you?” (v. 1). Paul is sensitive to any charge that he is guilty of self-promotion. His consistent purpose has been the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ Jesus––not self-serving.

Paul and his coworkers have no need to commend themselves to the Corinthians––or to seek a letter of recommendation from someone else to establish their credentials with them. The Corinthians know them personally because of their earlier visit to Corinth

“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men” (v. 2). The Corinthian Christians are themselves Paul’s letter of recommendation. It is because of his ministry that they came to know Christ. Anyone who knows the Corinthians and their earlier relationship to Paul can have no doubts about the substance of Paul’s ministry.

“being revealed that you are a letter of Christ, served (Greek: diakoneo) by us” (v. 3a). The Corinthians serve as Paul’s letter of recommendation, a letter written by Christ, served (diakoneo) by Paul and his colleagues.

Note the similarity between the Greek word diakoneo and our English word deacon. Those words have to do with service, such as waiting on a table or serving another person’s needs.

Paul and his colleagues have gone to great lengths to serve the religious needs of the Corinthians, living among them and interacting with them on a daily basis. As they traveled elsewhere, they maintained an ongoing correspondence with the Corinthian church.

“written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God” (v. 3b). Paul exercised his ministry among the Corinthians by the power of the Holy Spirit, so the Corinthians can credit their faith journey to the work of the Spirit.

“not in tablets of stone, but in tablets that are hearts of flesh” (v. 3c). Paul evokes the memory of Moses receiving the tablets of stone containing the law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20)––tablets which Moses smashed when he came to the foot of the mountain and found the Israelites worshiping a golden calf of their own making (Exodus 32:15-19).

The letter that speaks of the work of Paul and his colleagues is written instead on hearts of flesh––the hearts of the Corinthian Christians.


4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God; 5 not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; 6 who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

“Such confidence (Greek: popoitheseos) we have through Christ toward God” (v. 4). The Greek word popoitheseos means trust or confidence or conviction. To read about Paul’s experiences as he traveled widely proclaiming the Gospel is to see a determination that could spring only from his conviction that the message he was proclaiming was the source of life to all who would hear and believe.

“not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God” (v. 5). Paul’s confidence is not self-confidence, but is instead confidence in the God whom he serves and who enables him for the task to which he has been called.

“who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant” (v. 6a). The term “new covenant” is significant. The first covenant was established by God with Noah, and promised that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 6:18; 9:9-15).

The next covenant was established between God and Abram. God required of Abram that he leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. In return, God promised to make of Abram a great nation and to bless him and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). While the word covenant was not used in that transaction, it bears the marks of a covenant, because God outlined what Abram would have to do and what God would do for Abram. Later, God covenanted to give the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates to Abram (Genesis 15:18). Still later, God covenanted with Abram to make him the father of many nations, even though Abram was old and had no children other than Ishmael, his son by a slave woman. As part of the covenant, God promised to give Abram the land of Canaan. God required Abram to observe circumcision for himself and for all his male progeny and members of his household, including slaves (Genesis 17:1-14).

God renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 19-24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).

These covenants were all preliminary to the covenant established by Jesus (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Jeremiah prophesied the coming of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This prophesy was fulfilled at the Last Supper, where Jesus said, “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28; see also Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 8:8-12; 9:19-20; 10:16).

This new covenant is based on Jesus’ death and resurrection, which break the bonds of death for those who believe in Jesus and accept his as Lord.

“not of the letter (Greek: gramma), but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6b). A gramma is something written, such as a letter of the alphabet or a book or an epistle.

Paul contrasts the written law (presumably meaning the Torah) with the Spirit (see also Romans 2:29; 7:6ff).

  • The written law is external to the person, and is rigidly prescribed. It requires almost infinite study and interpretation to determine how it applies in every circumstance. It always has the potential to calcify––to harden into a substance that no longer exhibits the characteristics of life. It has, in fact, the power to kill, even as a calcified aortic artery has the power to kill.
  • The Spirit, on the other hand, dwells within the person, guiding the person through the almost infinite ethical decisions that life requires us to make. Divinely driven, it is dependable, and fits all circumstances. It gives life as it steers the person through the potholes and treacheries that threaten to undo us.


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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan