You are hereII Corinthians, Part II.
II Corinthians, Part II.
by Samuel Frost
Our last post certainly engendered some good conversations. Some of it had to do with the “context” and “meaning” of a text. I am perplexed to know how one can get “meaning” from a text without evaluating the particles, phrases and words! This appears to be impossible, and if anyone can know the “meaning” of a context part from syntax, I would really love to know! Is it by osmosis? Does one just sleep with the Bible underneath their pillow hoping that its “meaning” will just be absorbed by the mind? I digress.Our last post certainly engendered some good conversations. Some of it had to do with the “context” and “meaning” of a text. I am perplexed to know how one can get “meaning” from a text without evaluating the particles, phrases and words! This appears to be impossible, and if anyone can know the “meaning” of a context part from syntax, I would really love to know! Is it by osmosis? Does one just sleep with the Bible underneath their pillow hoping that its “meaning” will just be absorbed by the mind? I digress.As stated before, I am accepting of the general consensus of commentators when I say that 2.14-6.13 forms a unitary section. Thus, the context of 5.1-10 is embedded within that section and is, thus, to be interpreted as such.
Now, we will, in this second part, outline the sub-units of this section and see if a rhetorical pattern helps our understanding of the overall context:
This sub-unit speaks of the apostles’ ministry (along with their fellow-laborers). It is “through us” that God spreads the “fragrance of the knowledge of him” (2.14). That is, the apostles preached the gospel of Christ, and it was to them that the keys of the kingdom were given. They are the “foundation” of the church (Eph. 3.1-ff).
2.15 gives us a glimpse as to how Paul saw the effect of their ministry on others. The two verbs (participles) used by Paul are most telling. Paul sees the world divided into two groups: “those being saved” and “those who are perishing.” The present passive forms of these two verbs note the transitional period of time in which Paul lived.
For those perishing, Paul’s gospel was a “smell of from death to death” (ek thanatou eis thanaton). To those being saved, having the knowledge of Jesus was working “from life to life” (ek zoes eis zoen) These are two key phrases in that Paul will speak of the process of being saved in terms of “being transformed in to his likeness from glory to glory” (apo doxes eis doxan - 3.18). “From life to life” and “from glory to glory” are equal phrases. Likewise, “being saved” and “being transformed” are both speaking of the same salvation process in Christ. When one heard Paul’s gospel, one began to enter into a transformation; that is, one was “being saved” and was a “sweet aroma” to God. This process is from glory to its eschatological end in glory. As we shall see in a later article, this was a bodily transformation; i.e., the transformation took place as one resided in the body of Christ.
That Paul saw his ministry as directly from God himself is because he saw the time he lived in as “the fullness of the time.” That meant that the new covenant had arrived, according to the prophets. Paul’s descriptive phrases for the new covenant and, in contrast, the old, are most revealing for the rest of passages before us.
Already, Paul has divided two classes, two peoples, and as we shall soon see, two covenants. This dualistic schema in Paul’s letters is found throughout. Flesh/Spirit; natural/spiritual; old/new; life/death; perishing/being saved all designate Paul’s understanding of the times. They are covenantal expressions.
For our framework, the “perishing” of the old covenant (Hebrews 8.13) marked the “end” of this transition from “life to life” and “death to death.” Those who were in process of “being saved” were coming to “the life” of the new aeon. Those who were “perishing” were those who refused “life” in coming aeon. The “present evil age” was quickly coming to an end, and those who failed to come to the Gospel would “perish” (a common NT word).
In 3.2-6 our thesis becomes plainly seen. “our letter ye are, having been written in our hearts, known and read by all men, 3 manifested that ye are a letter of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in the tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart, 4 and such trust we have through the Christ toward God, 5 not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, 6 who also made us sufficient to be ministrants of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter doth kill, and the spirit doth make alive” (Young’s Literal). The phrases “been written on our hearts;” “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God;” “tablets of stone” “fleshly tablets of the heart” are nothing more that new covenant terms of the dawning new aeon. In Jeremiah 31.33 and Ezekiel 36.26,27 the same phraseology is found.
Further, Paul explicitly mentions in this context the “new covenant” (Jeremiah 31.31). It is here that Paul, again, makes a dualistic distinction: “the letter” and “the spirit.” He has done this previously in Romans 7.6. Regardless of what letter one reads from Paul, his theology is always the same.
Finally, on this passage, the same transitory aspects are seen where the tenses of the verbs “kills” and “make alive” are present. For Paul, the “letter” (the law of Moses) was presently “killing.” Alternately, Paul’s Gospel, when believed, was “making alive.” This is, for Paul, resurrection language rooted in the coming new aeon. “Making alive;” “from life to life; “being saved;” and “making alive” have all the same reference to the resurrection of the dead. The old age was coming to a close, and the new age of resurrection life, eternal life, was coming “soon.” Indeed, it was already present. The process had begun. The beginning of the end had arrived, and the end was “at hand.”
Ben Witherington III, professor of biblical and Weslyan studies at Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio, will close this article out. He wrote, “The issue here is not the Old Testament but the Old Covenant, specifically the Mosaic covenant…the ministry of the letter, that is, the Law, kills fallen people (cf. Romans 6-7), while the ministry of the Spirit gives them life” (Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1995), 379. It is precisely this dualistic covenantal framework (found in Romans as well) that scholars are starting to see. However, if this is the case, then “life” and “death” cannot mean physical life and death. This, as we shall see, will not “fit” the concept found here. For Paul “life” was “in Christ” and “death” was “separation from God.” When one was put “outside the city” for having defiled the Law, they were covenantally “unclean” and “cut off.” Paul’s whole opening argument here is to show that his Jewish antagonizers (which the larger subject matter of the letter), under Law, are in fact “cut off” from God and defiled precisely because they keep the “letter” and have not the “spirit.” They have circumcision “according to the flesh” but not “according to the Spirit” of the new covenant. God was inviting Israel, and through Israel, the world to be “reconciled” (II Cor 5.17-ff). By showing Himself righteous through keeping his promise to Israel, God was making a “new creation” people (II Cor 5.18), a “new Israel” that included both Jew and Gentile. This “one new man” (Eph 2.9) was being “made alive” from reign of the death and the sin. The transition from “death” to “life” would “soon” be consummated and “finished.” Those who joined with the new covenant people of God would come to “fullness of the life” whereas those who failed to join would “perish.” “Perish” here obviously cannot mean “physical death.” Quite simply, if that were the case, then everyone “perishes” since everyone physically dies! These are terms of status before God. One was either “alive” before God or was “perishing.” Yet, we know that empirically, if one were to look at Paul or look at a pagan, one could not physically distinguish them. These are spiritual designations. We will take this up in the next article.