Servants of the New Covenant, 3:1-6
In our passage for study Paul encourages the members of the Corinthian church to recognize him as a divinely appointed minister of the new covenant, a minister, not of law, but of grace.
v1. It is always difficult, when defending our character, not to end up being charged with self-praise. Up to this point in his letter, Paul has spent time defending his integrity and so now asks a rhetorical question, "are we beginning to commend ourselves again?" He has obviously faced this criticism, so he seeks to expose it. As Goudge puts it, "self-defense is almost impossible without self-commendation. Paul's opponents at Corinth made the former necessary, and then blamed him for the latter." Paul then asks another rhetorical question. Do the Corinthians actually require Paul to supply commendatory letters (presumably from the Jerusalem church) to support his apostleship? One hopes not, but obviously their behavior implies that they do.
v2. Of course, Paul can easily produce an evidence of his authority. "The Corinthian church does not make Paul an apostle, and his apostleship does not depend on them, but their existence is a visible sign of his apostleship", C.K. Barrett. The existence of the Christian fellowship at Corinth is a commendatory letter of Paul's apostleship for all believers to witness, and is one which has a special place in his deepest emotions.
v3. Paul now extends the image of a commendatory letter. The Corinthian church itself is such a letter from Christ to the world. The existence of the church demonstrates the reality of the gospel - of God's purpose to gather a people to himself in Christ. This, in turn, validates Paul's apostolic ministry. Going on in v3b, Paul makes the point that "what is written is now no longer a commendatory letter, but the gospel which stands over against the law, and is written in men's hearts through the Spirit", Lietzmann. So, ultimately the gospel and its effects are his authorization. And more than this, there is a sense where the Corinthian church itself replaces the "tablets of stone" (Ezek.10:19, 36:26 - the tables of the law) as a witness to the new covenant.
v4. So, the Corinthians lives have been dramatically renewed and it is this renewal which gives Paul confidence that he is a minister of the new covenant.
v5. Paul goes on to categorically state that he does not regard himself as responsible for the effects of the gospel. The capacity of the apostolic team to understand and proclaim the gospel and to reap its harvest, comes from God.
v6. Only God can take mere mortals and empower them as ministers of the gospel, "ministers", says Paul, of "a new covenant." The covenant idea springs from v3 where Paul speaks of the gospel written on "human hearts." The prophet Jeremiah, in his new covenant prophecy, speaks of the day when the law will be written on the heart rather than on stone, 31:31-34. The fulfilment of God's covenant promises, his agreed promises, is the substance of the gospel message. The agreement promises a renewed relationship with God, and in Christ that promise is realized. To hear and believe is to have the reality of this relationship inscribed in our hearts, in our inner beings, through the Holy Spirit. It is this life-giving message ("of the Spirit") which Paul and his apostolic team proclaim. They do not proclaim a message "of the letter", ie. a legalistic Christianity which assumes that a believers relationship with God is progressed by obedience to the law.
Ministers of the new covenant
In our passage for study we see the apostle Paul defending his apostolic authority. In doing so, he gives us an insight into ministry. Although he is defining the authenticity of his own ministry, what he says applies to all Christian ministers, and in a sense, that means all believers. The Bible teaches "the priesthood of all believers" in the sense that we are all ministers of the gospel, although we all minister in different ways.
Paul claims for himself, and his apostolic team, the title of "ministers of the new covenant", communicators of God's agreement with mankind now realized in Christ. The agreement is the gospel: the free offer of inclusion into God's community of friends for all who ask Jesus for membership. Our task, as ministers of the new covenant, is to make this truth a reality in our lives, in the lives of our family and friends, our fellow believers, and lost humanity. We do this by applying our resources of time, talent and tinkle to the business of nurture and evangelism, and so we serve as ministers of the covenant and fulfill our Lord's command to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.
Paul goes on to make three observations about ministry which should encourage us in this "raison detre", this reason for our day-to-day existence:
i] Our ministry is commended by the Lord and needs no commendation by others;
ii] We may be confident of the effectiveness of our ministry for such is Christ's work and not ours;
iii] The competence of our ministry is of Christ's making, not ours.
So, like Paul, let us confidently support the business of gospel communication, at home and aboard.
Identify a range of different lay ministries that exist to further the work of nurture and evangelism.
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