Notes on 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

2 Corinthians 3:17‑18  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The central portion of the chapter, from verse 7, contains not only the remarkable allusion to Moses veiled and unveiled, but the contrast between the ministry of letter in the law with that of the Spirit. The parenthesis being closed, he forthwith recurs to that contrast of letter and spirit which preceded it. “Now the Lord is the spirit, but where the Spirit of the Lord [is, there is] liberty.” (Ver. 17.) Scarce any scripture shows more instructively than this the necessity of understanding the mind of God, in order even to present it correctly in form. For it is an utter mistake to give “the spirit” in the first clause a capital letter, which would imply the Holy Ghost to be meant; and whore would be the sense, where so much as the orthodoxy, of identifying the Lord with the Holy Ghost?1 To me the meaning, without doubt, is that the Lord Jesus constitutes the spirit of the forms and figures and other communications of the old covenant. These, if taken in the letter, killed; if in the spirit, quickened. “The Lord” was their real scope; and now this comes out into the fullest evidence. Faith sees in Him contrast with Adam, analogy with Abel; the light of which shines even on Cain and Lamech. Yet more manifestly do we see types of Him in Joseph and Moses, and in that vast system of sacrifice and priesthood which, coming in by Moses, furnished those shadows so abundantly. Unbelief never laid hold of the coming One, faith always did; though it might not apprehend the bearing of all, nor perhaps fully of anything, till He actually died and rose. But “the Lord is the spirit,” and the new testimony is so precise, that there is no excuse for misapprehending the old longer. “The true Light now shineth,” and “we who were once darkness are now light in the Lord.” In the light we walk, and we ought to walk as children of it; and an immense help it is to our souls intelligently to apprehend the Lord in every part of the word. It is this which gives the deepest interest, and truest solemnity, and living power, to every part of the Old Testament. Thus only have we communion with the mind of God with positive and growing blessing to our own souls. Now that He is revealed, all is plain.
But there is more than this, for “where the Spirit of the Lord [is, there is] liberty.” Here the truth requires that there should be a capital, for the apostle means not merely the true inner bearing of what was communicated of old, but the presence and power of the Holy Ghost now; and He is not a spirit of bondage unto fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind; not a spirit of bondage, but the Spirit of the Son, whom God had sent into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Hence the effect is liberty, not alone because it, is the Son that makes us free, but the Spirit of life in Him risen from the dead, after the mighty work in which God, sending Jesus in the likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh. Thus all was condemned that could be condemned, and we by grace are delivered—free indeed. “Where the Spirit of the Lord [is, there is] liberty,” as opposed to Gentile license as to Jewish bondage.
It is liberty to do the will of God, “for sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under law, but under grace.” Yet do we yield ourselves slaves for obedience; and having got our freedom from sin, and become slaves to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end eternal life. We are no longer in the flesh, and are clear from the law, so that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in oldness of letter. “Where the Spirit of the Lord [is, there2 is] liberty.” It is not yet the liberty of the glory of the children of God; it is the liberty of grace before glory dawns at Christ's coming.
But we are creatures, though a new creation in Christ, and we need an object that we may be kept and grow, and be formed and fashioned spiritually according to God, while here below. Without the cross of Christ all this were vain; yet are we not called simply to be at the foot of the cross, or to behold no object but Jesus Christ crucified, as men misuse the passage. Not so; “but we all beholding3 the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from [the] Lord [the] Spirit.” Such is the present business, we may say, of the Christian. It is alike the duty and the privilege of all Christians, not the perquisite of a favored few who attain to it. It is not a state reached in a moment by an act of faith, but a gradual process, which ought to characterize every Christian all the way through. At the coming of Christ we shall be conformed to His image—that of the Son, the First-born among many brethren. Meanwhile thus does “the Lord the Spirit” (for such, I suppose, is the meaning in the last clause) work in us from glory to glory, as all that Christ is glorified on high becomes more familiar and real to our souls by faith. We need, most assuredly, the lowly grace which came down as a servant, obeying to the uttermost, even to the death of the cross, if we would have the mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus. But, blessed and indispensable as it is thus to know His love, faith in the Christian does not rest there, nor ought it, but, holding all this fast, to look on the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, and thus be changed, according to the same image, from glory to glory. For the Spirit, though Lord equally with the Father and the Son, does not work independently of Christ, but by presenting Him to us, from first to last.
It is scarcely needful to add, that one rejects the translation of the closing phrase, which pleases Olahausen, De Wette, Meyer, &c., “Lord of the Spirit,” as being clearly against the truth of scripture—a serious fault in a subject of this kind. So Macknight, who paraphrases it, “the Lord of the covenant of the Spirit!” but those who expect either spiritual intelligence or sound scholarship from that divine, must be bitterly disappointed, if not deceived. Dr. Thomas F. Middleton, in his able “Doctrine of the Greek Article,” mistakes the margin of the Authorized Version, which agrees with my view, against its own text. So Luther, Beza, &c., had rendered it. The reader may compare ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρός (Gal. 1:22And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: (Galatians 1:2); Eph. 6:2323Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 6:23)), and analogous phrases in many other passages.