*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

2 Corinthians 3:4-6 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:4
  • 2 Corinthians 3:5
  • 2 Corinthians 3:6

Paul’s confidence is in God through Christ. Any adequacy he may have is from God. He introduces the new covenant of the Spirit, who gives life.

In the previous section, Paul asserted that he did not need letters of commendation from men, because the changed hearts and lives of the Corinthian believers are ample evidence of his legitimacy as a minister. Christ changed their hearts, and Paul cared for them, helping them grow. Therefore, Paul asserted great confidence that his authority should be unchallenged.

He begins this section by saying Such confidence we have through Christ toward God (v 4). As he declared that the Corinthians were his letter (2 Corinthians 3:2), he was also quick to say that they were “a letter of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

He is reaffirming what he wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 9:

“If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 9:2)

He did not need “letters of commendation” (2 Corinthians 3:1); the Corinthian believers themselves were his letter and no one could take that away from him. They were living letters, letters of the Spirit, letters of the new covenant.

Paul’s confidence was through Christ toward God. He was not boasting or commending himself, but declaring his dependence on Christ through His Holy Spirit as a minister or apostle of the new covenant.

Paul is confident, but his confidence is not self-generated. He says Not that we are adequate in ourselves as to consider anything as coming from ourselves but our adequacy is from God (v 5).

Paul asked the question in 2 Corinthians 2:16, “And who is adequate for these things?” Now, he basically answers his own question as he uses the Greek word “hikanos” three times in the next sentence, in adjective, noun, and verb form, translated as adequate and adequacy.

  •  Not that we are adequate in ourselves, uses the adjective form, in the negative. Paul is a not-adequate person in and of himself.
  • but our adequacy is from God, uses the noun form. Paul has ample adequacy because he has it from God.
  • It is through God and the power of His Spirit that Paul was also made adequate as servants of a new covenant. This uses the verb form, where Paul is actively adequate to live as a servant of a new covenant which the Spirit wrote on his heart.

The Greek word translated adequate as used in the New Testament carries the meaning of being fit, appropriate, competent, qualified, able, or worthy. John the Baptizer uses the word in Matthew 3:11,

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit [adequate] to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Thus, the word adequate as used here points to the inadequacy or insufficiency of our own strength or capability, but our adequacy is from God.

Paul has said to the Corinthians, “you are a letter of Christ,” but you are also “cared for by us” (2 Corinthians 3:3). This is not coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God. It is God who gives us our credentials as servants of a new covenant.

The word translated servants comes from the Greek word “diakonous” or in the verb form, “diakonia.” It is the word from which “deacon” is derived, among others. It literally means to “wait on tables” but as it was used in the gospels and the epistles of the New Testament, it was expanded to express a service in response to and as the expression of the love of Christ.

The word “diakonia” is translated as “ministry” in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 5:18. In 2 Corinthians 3:7 the “ministry” referred to is that of death, which comes through the Law. In 2 Corinthians 5:18, the servants (“diakanous”) of a new covenant are also called to the “ministry” (“diakonian”) of reconciliation.

And what is this new covenant? Paul explains, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (v 6).

As we learn in the next verse, the letter in the phrase not of the letter seems to refer to the “letters engraved on stones” in verse 7, which are the letters on the tablets of the Mosaic Law given in Exodus 20. Now, Paul says that the letter kills. Paul is speaking of the letter of the Law. The reason the letter kills is because the Law cannot change the heart of man. We can live according to the Spirit as a “new creature” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Paul is not condemning the Law as given to Moses by God, as described in Exodus 31:18. As Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). The Law is good, the problem is that we are not. We cannot keep the Law, so it makes us aware of sin, and it is sin that kills us (Romans 7:9-10). However, we can be made alive in Christ. We can fulfill the Law through walking in the Spirit (Romans 8:4).

Paul asserts in his letter to the Romans that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). This tells us that we cannot out-sin God; His grace covers all our sins. Some may use this reality to justify sin, saying that it has no negative effect upon us. However, Paul argues exhaustively that although God’s grace does indeed cover all sins, as all sins were nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14), sin still has consequences. As Paul asserts:

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?”
(Romans 6:15-16)

Paul also notes in Romans 1 that the wrath of God pours out on sin by Him giving us over to our own desires, which in time leads to addiction and loss of mental health (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).

James calls the Law the “law of liberty” (James 2:12). The Law reflects God’s perfect design, and the ways of life that free us from the bondage of sin. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

The problem with the Law is that while it spells out God’s design, it does not give us power over sin to live in God’s design. We gain power to fulfill the Law when we walk according to the Spirit:

“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
(Romans 8:3-4)

As Paul describes, the Spirit has written God’s law on our hearts. But the Spirit gives not only the knowledge of what to do, but also the power.

So we might summarize Paul’s points regarding epistles/letters as follows:

  • God writes the letter of His ways on the hearts of all who believe through the Spirit. Unlike the Law on stone, this letter written on the heart by the Spirit gives believers knowledge and power to overcome the presence of sin in their daily lives.
  • The life of a faithful believer writes a letter on the hearts of those who observe them (all men) and are influenced by them.
  • Every believer is a letter of Christ.
  • The testimony of the life lived by Paul’s disciples are his ministry résumé, he does not need a letter from a human authority. It is written on the hearts of the Corinthians.

When we read through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, an overarching theme throughout is a covenant/treaty between God and man. This covenant/treaty is initially established with Adam and Eve when they were created by God, giving humans dominion over the earth, to reign over it in harmony with Him, nature, and one another:

 “God said to them [Adam and Eve], ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
(Genesis 1:28)

Psalm 8 marvels that God chose humans, who are lower than angels, to reign over the earth (Psalm 8:3-6). Unfortunately, humans broke their covenant with God, choosing to follow their own ways rather than those of God. As a result, death entered the world (Genesis 3:6). It is inferred that Satan then gained rulership of the earth, since Jesus called him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31).

God promised redemption immediately after the Fall (Genesis 3:15). God chose to fulfill that promised redemption through the seed of Abraham. God made Abraham a promise that he would be blessed if he would obey God and leave his home and family and move to a new land. God promised that part of this blessing would be that all nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3).

After Abraham had fully obeyed, God made a covenant with Abraham and granted the land to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 15:18). In Genesis 17, God tells Abram (Abraham) that His covenant with him and his descendants is everlasting:

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”
(Genesis 17:7)

Abraham’s descendants eventually became a great nation while serving as slaves in Egypt. After God delivered His people from Egypt, He told Moses on Mt. Sinai that He would greatly bless them if they would follow His ways—ways that lead to life rather than death:

“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
(Exodus 19:5-6)

The core proposition of this covenant with the nation of Israel is similar to the one God made with Adam and Eve; if they followed God’s ways they would be blessed, and if they refused they would experience great loss. When Moses prepared the second generation to cross over the Jordan and enter the Promised Land he set forth the basic proposition as a choice between life and death, just as God had presented to Adam and Eve (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

The form of agreement God used with Israel was one familiar to the era, a form historians call a “Suzerain-Vassal” treaty structure. It promises blessings for obedience to the terms of the agreement, and cursings for rebellion against the terms. God spelled out both quite clearly (Deuteronomy 28).

We refer to the marriage union as the covenant of marriage, and God’s covenant/treaty with Israel is properly viewed as a marriage. In the book of Hosea, God uses the image of an adulterous wife to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him in breaking their vow to honor the treaty (Exodus 19:8).

It seems that on our own, we as humans are incapable of following a path that is in our actual best interest. Into this hopeless situation came a shining light of redemption. Hebrews 2 quotes Psalm 8, noting that God gave to humans the “glory and honor” of having dominion over the earth, but that is not the current state of things (Hebrews 2:5-8). However, Jesus has restored the “glory and honor” of having the right to reign over the earth (Hebrews 2:9, Matthew 28:18, Philippians 2:9-10).

Through the “suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9), Jesus accomplished this restoration of the right to reign. Consistent with the Suzerain-Vassal treaty structure, Jesus was given the reward of being a “Son” or Firstborn, and with it the right to reign over the earth (Hebrews 1:5, 8, 13). But Jesus desires to bring “many sons to glory,” meaning He desires to share His reign with those who follow Him in the “suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:10, Romans 8:17b, Revelation 3:21). In this, Jesus restores the original design God had for humanity.

To learn more about Suzerain-Vassal Treaties, see our article by clicking here. 

This complete restoration of human design is possible because of the new covenant that was sealed with the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20). The new covenant is written on the heart by the Spirit, rather than on stone tablets (as at Mt. Sinai). When we follow the Spirit, we can gain the great blessing of experiencing life. What the world and the flesh offers is death (Galatians 6:8).

Since God’s covenant with Abraham was everlasting, God passed through the halved carcasses (a traditional act for a “blood covenant”) representing both Himself and Abraham. God likely represented Abraham’s seed by the vision of a torch (Genesis 15:17). Abraham’s seed, Jesus, is the light of the world. He is the human that kept the covenant God made with humanity and Israel and paved the way for the full restoration of the world.

Because of His death, resurrection, and ascension, each person can participate in the new covenant by faith, being born anew in the Spirit (John 3:14-15). Because of His obedience until death, each believer can be fully restored to God’s original design, which was for us to serve together in harmony with God to reign over the earth (Hebrews 2:10; Revelation 3:21).

Just as God represented Abraham in His covenant with Abraham, Jesus represents us in the new covenant. He paid the price to redeem us from our sins, dying in our place. God’s covenant with humanity has always had the same basic proposition, where we are instructed how to choose life rather than death. Now, however, what is new is that God gives us the Holy Spirit of Christ that will enable us to fulfill the Law, or covenant, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:17.

As Paul wrote here, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Specifically, it is sin that kills, as Paul asserts in Romans 7:11. Sin (making choices to live outside God’s design) brings death. The Spirit, on the other hand, gives life. The letter of the Law kills because the letter shows us our sin, and makes us accountable for our sin, but cannot change our heart. But the Spirit can and does change our heart. To walk in the Spirit fulfills the Law (Romans 8:4). God’s Law reflects His (good) design, therefore when we fulfill the Law we sow to life rather than death (Galatians 6:8).

Biblical text

4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

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