The Lord Is the Spirit: Dealing with 2 Corinthians 3

One of the most confusing passages in the New Testament epistles has got to be 2 Corinthians 3. This is one of the chapters that seems to say that Yeshua changed the Torah, and it has recently gotten attention in Biblical Unitarian circles with the statement that “The Lord is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Some BU scholars have argued from 1 Corinthians 15:45 that Yeshua is the Holy Spirit. The argument is that the old covenant, “carved in letters on stone”, is superseded by the ministry of the Spirit (that is, Yeshua)—to the effect that the Torah is no longer relevant to the lives of believers because we have a better covenant which is through the Messiah rather than obedience to the Law of God. I intend to express an alternate understanding of this perspective. As usual, my base translation is the ESV.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Messiah delivered by us, written not with ink but with spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
—2 Corinthians 3:1-3

Here we get the first juxtaposition of tablets of stone versus tablets of human hearts. This isn't speaking about the Torah, but we'll get to that. Paul is speaking on behalf of himself and his fellow laborers, a theme which continues from 2 Cor. 2:17. “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Messiah.” He can confirm in his heart that the believers in Corinth are proof of his ministry.

Such is the confidence that we have through the Messiah toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit. For letter kills, but spirit gives life.
—2 Corinthians 3:4-6

The first thing to note about this passage is that I have removed the Trinitarian insertions made by the ESV translators. They added “the” before “spirit” and capitalized the S in order to evoke thoughts of the “third person of the Godhead”.

So what does Paul mean in contrasting the new covenant “of spirit” with the old covenant “of letter”? Since he already evoked the imagery of tablets of stone versus tablets of human heart, it is easy to see what he had in mind. We must turn to the premier text on the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Behold, the days are coming, declares Yehovah, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares Yehovah. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yehovah: I will put my Torah within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know Yehovah,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares Yehovah. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

The key distinction of the new covenant is the location of the Torah, not a change in its contents. In the original covenant made at Sinai, God gave the Torah to Israel on tablets of stone. He commissioned a hierarchy of teachers to communicate it from generation to generation: the priests during Sukkot (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), then the Levites (Deut. 33:8-11), then elders (1 Timothy 5:17-20), then parents (Deut. 6:7). Really, parents are where the teaching begins, but they cannot know the Torah if it isn't communicated by the priests and Levites. And whenever a question of interpretation arises, it is the duty of the elders to determine the correct understanding (Exodus 18:13-26), which becomes binding (cf. Matthew 16:19).

As such, the Torah had to be faithfully communicated with each generation, lest it be forgotten and the people fall into sin and idolatry. The bulk of the Bible contains stories of this very thing happening. One need look no further than the Book of Judges to see what happens when people are without a king to enforce the Torah—and even then, we are only as good as our king.

The promise of the new covenant is that we will have the Torah written in our hearts and no longer need to teach each other to obey God. We will be perfect, no longer at war with our flesh. So when Paul contrasted the covenant of letter with the covenant of spirit, he was speaking of the spiritual restoration we will have in the new covenant—which will be inaugurated at the resurrection. This is perhaps most powerfully communicated in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. We were created as beings of flesh; we are animals. But in his resurrection, Yeshua became a creature of spirit like the elohim (Luke 20:34-38). And we will be like him at the resurrection. We will be born again of water and spirit (John 3:5-8), no longer at war with our flesh. There is no change in the Torah; the change is in us.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of spirit1 have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
—2 Corinthians 3:7-11

Much ado is made by antinomian Biblical Unitarians of the “ministry of death” and its fading glory, but how should we understand this? Is the Torah a ministry of death? Far from it! Keeping the commandments of God is a blessing, as we read in Deuteronomy 30:15-20, notably verse 16. “If you obey the commandments of Yehovah your God that I command you today, by loving Yehovah your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and Yehovah your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” And consider Leviticus 18:5, which says, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yehovah.” So if we keep God's commandments, we will live; however no amount of perfect obedience can overcome the fact that we are mortal creatures of flesh. The Torah cannot produce eternal life (cf. Galatians 3:21).

So what is Paul talking about in speaking of the glory of Moses' face? We know when Yeshua was revealed as our high priest (Matthew 17:1-9), the disciples present saw him as he would become at the resurrection. While Trinitarians throw around the term “God-man” while having no idea what this means or how someone can be “fully God and fully man”, it is completely biblical to say that Yeshua has become a divine man. This was achieved at his resurrection. Although keeping Torah doesn't save us from death, it qualified Yeshua to be raised as God's firstborn son (Hebrews 1:5) who is seated at his right hand (Heb. 1:8-9, 13) and bears his name (Philippians 2:9-11).

And yet, this glory revealed at the Transfiguration was only temporary, since Yeshua was at the time merely a man of flesh. And that is what Moses was when he received the Torah in glory (2 Cor. 3:7). The glory he received when being in God's presence to receive the Torah caused him to transform into a being of spirit, albeit temporarily. (This will happen to those of us who are alive and remain when Yeshua returns; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:17.) His face glowed with the same glory that the Messiah bore on the mountain on that Yom Kippur, but it faded because he was a creature of flesh. When he left the presence of God, his mortal flesh overcame him once more and the glory faded. The Torah is holy, but it is a ministry of condemnation to our flesh because we desire to sin (cf. Romans 7:7-25). But to beings of spirit, it is a ministry of righteousness.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Messiah is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:12-18

The big controversy is over the identity of “the Lord” in this section. Is this referring to Yeshua, in contrast to Moses? If so, this sets up an expectation of something replacing the Torah, which is the dominant position among evangelical Christianity—Trinitarian and Biblical Unitarian alike. Note that in this passage, I have left “Spirit” capitalized. This is because my position is that “the Lord” ought to be read as the Divine Name, not as speaking of Yeshua. Throughout most of 2 Corinthians, the context is clear whether it is referring to Yehovah or the Lord Yeshua. In the instances where it isn't clear, I interpret “the Lord” to refer to God, since Paul uses “the Lord Yeshua” and “the Messiah” when that is who he is intending to mean. Of course, the argument can go both ways; this is an inherent downside to the Apostolic Scriptures being written in Greek.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Messiah is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to Yehovah, the veil is removed. Now Yehovah is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of Yehovah is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of Yehovah, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from Yehovah who is the Spirit.

The argument, then, is not that Yeshua reveals a better glory than the Torah. Rather, through the Messiah we are able to see God clearly by understanding the Torah. Through Yeshua, we have the spirit of Yehovah which lifts the veil so we can freely behold the glory of Yehovah, into whose image we are being transformed. “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). We are awaiting the day when God himself appears so we will be transformed to be like him. This is accomplished in us through the ministry of the Messiah. He is the one who lifts the veil from our hearts when we read Moses, in order that we may perceive God clearly and be transformed into his image. This will be fulfilled at the resurrection, when we are born again.

It is not always possible to know for certain the identity of “the Lord” in 2 Corinthians, but in chapter 3, it seems clear that it must refer to Yehovah. To say that it is the Lord Yeshua puts us in the position of contrasting the Torah with the spirit—when in fact it is the Torah as revealed through Yeshua that points us to Adonai Yehovah.

  1. In Greek, this says “the ministry of the spirit”, but earlier in the verse it refers to “the ministry of the death”. Because this expression doesn't carry over into English well, I have removed the article from both “death” and “spirit”. The ESV left in the article only before “spirit”, which gives the false impression of speaking about the “Holy Spirit” in the Trinitarian context.

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