2 Corinthians 3:12
Today we look at a third fruit of hope, namely, boldness. The first fruit of hope which we looked at two weeks ago was joy (Romans 12:12). The second was love (Colossians 1:4–5). The fourth and final fruit of hope next week will be endurance.
Understanding 2 Corinthians 3:12
The text for this morning's message is 2 Corinthians 3:12, "Since we have such a hope, we are very bold." You can see immediately why I think that boldness is a fruit of hope. Paul says that because of his hope, he is very bold. Christian hope is the cause of boldness in the Christian life.
If you are not bold in your witness, if you are not courageous and risk-taking in your ventures of righteousness, if you are not open and straightforward in your speech, it may be that your hope is defective. Perhaps you are hoping in the wrong things to make your future happy. Perhaps you have never really thought seriously about the relationship between the strength of your hope and the boldness of your service to Christ. But Paul says there is a very close relationship: "Since we have such a hope, we are very bold."
This verse (v. 12) comes in the middle of a perplexing chapter that leaves many readers in a great fog. But we need to ask, "Just what is the hope Paul is talking about here in verse 12?" And, "Just what is this boldness he is talking about?" And to answer these two questions we need to get through at least some of the fog of confusion that surrounds this chapter.
So what I propose to do is, first, to glance at the OT background. Then, second, we will take a quick walk through the first 12 verses of this chapter. We won't explain every detail, and we won't have time to discuss the last paragraph of the chapter (vv. 13–18); but we will try to understand enough to be sure what Paul has in mind when he says, "Since we have such a hope, we are very bold." So the third thing to do will be to make as clear as we can what Paul has in mind here when he speaks about hope and boldness. Then, finally, we can ponder the relationship between these two and look at some biblical illustrations that God may use to stir us up to have stronger hope and greater boldness in his service.
1. The Old Testament Background
Before we can understand this chapter, we have to go back and get some OT promises before us. They are Jeremiah 31:31–33 and Ezekiel 36:26–27.
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31–33)
A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
In other words, the OT promised that God would make a new covenant with his people some day. It would be better than the old one that he made at Mount Sinai when he gave the law. But it would be better not so much because there would be new commandments, but because the same old commandments would now be written on the heart instead of just being written on tablets of stone.
Another way of saying this is that the old covenant was not accompanied with an outpouring of God's Spirit to change the hearts of very many of the Israelites. By and large they had hearts of stone and did not keep the covenant commandments. But in the new covenant God would put his Spirit in his people and cause them to walk in his commandments. In other words, God would write his commandments on their hearts. In the old covenant God wrote his commandments on tablets of stone. In the new covenant he writes them on the human heart. So the old covenant came in a written code, or in "letter" (as Paul says), but the new covenant comes in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The result was that the old covenant, the Mosaic law, resulted for most Israelites in condemnation and death, because it met with rebellion in the heart. For when the command of God meets with a rebellious unrepentant heart, it sentences destruction. But the new covenant results in justification and life, because it meets with submissive hearts of faith. Jeremiah and Ezekiel looked forward to the day when the Holy Spirit would take out the heart of stone and put in the heart of flesh.
Now we can begin to make sense out of Paul's description of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 3, because he sees himself as a minister or a servant of this new covenant. God is now fulfilling the promises of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and he is doing it through the preaching of the gospel in the mouth of Paul. Paul sees the work of the Spirit in his own ministry as the stamp of his apostolic authenticity. That's what he is talking about as he begins chapter 3.
2. An Overview of 2 Corinthians 3
So let's turn, secondly, to the wider context of 2 Corinthians 3 and walk through the first twelve verses together.
The Writing of the Law on the Hearts of Believers
First, verses 1–3:
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 your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered [literally: ministered] by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
You can see from his language that he sees the fulfillment of the new covenant promises happening in his own ministry. God is writing the law on the hearts of believers under Paul's ministry and they are then becoming living letters of recommendation for him.
The Letter Versus the Spirit
Now verses 4–6:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our sufficiency is from God, who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Here Paul explains why he has such an amazing confidence that he is actually an instrument of God in the great fulfillment of the new covenant promises. His confidence is not based on anything that comes from himself. Instead he says it is all of God, and the evidence is that he is not merely handing on written laws or traditions like the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, he is preaching Christ in the ministry and power of the Spirit. And the result is new life. This new life is the authentication of Paul's authority as a minister of the new covenant.
So verses 1–6 end with the contrast between the written code (or the letter) which kills and the Spirit which gives life. When the problem of the world is that human beings are dead in trespasses and sins, the solution is not old covenant prescriptions. The solution is new covenant power to give life. Once there is life, there can be obedience. The law can be written on the heart. But while there is only spiritual death, the law can only condemn and destroy.
The Old Covenant Versus the New Covenant
This contrast is picked up in verses 7–11:
7) Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses' face because of its brightness, fading as it was,
That refers to the old covenant, the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. It was a spectacular event, but it did not create spiritual life. The law means death where the Spirit does not awaken hearts.
8) will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?
Notice that the opposite of the dispensation of death is the dispensation of the Spirit, because the Spirit gives life—as verse 6 said. Paul believes that this dispensation, or time, of the Spirit has begun, and that it is a glorious work of God, and will some day be consummated with the conversion of all Israel, and the ingathering of the full number of the Gentiles—Romans 11:26–27—and the establishment of the kingdom of God. More glory will come as a result of the new covenant fulfillment than came as a result of the old covenant preparation.
9) For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. 10) Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. 11) For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.
Notice first that the new covenant is called a dispensation of righteousness but the old covenant is not called a dispensation of unrighteousness (v. 9). The law is not unrighteous; it is holy, just, and good—Romans 7:12. The contrast is between the dispensation of righteousness and the dispensation of condemnation. The point of the contrast is that when the Spirit comes and changes people's hearts, they believe and receive the righteousness of God as a gift. But before the Spirit changes a person's heart, there is only rebellion and the result is that the law brings condemnation.
The other contrast to notice is that the new dispensation is permanent (v. 11) and so has far more glory than the old dispensation, whose glory is virtually nothing by comparison and is fading away.
Now comes our text in verse 12:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.
3. The Meaning of Hope and Boldness
Now we should be able to see what the hope is that Paul has in mind. It is the hope of the new covenant promise. It is the confidence that the sovereign Spirit of God is at work in his ministry to change hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and to give life (v. 6) and righteousness (v. 9) and permanence (v. 11) to all God's people. God is at work! Not simply to tell them on tablets of stone what they must do but to do it in them!
Paul's hope is that God has now undertaken to fulfill his ancient promise to take out the heart of stone, to write his law on soft hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31:33) and put his Spirit within them and cause them to walk in his statutes (Ezekiel 36:27). The age of fulfillment has begun! And the victory of God's purpose is certain because his Spirit is sovereign. He will create new hearts wherever he pleases. He will cause the obedience he requires. He will preserve permanently all that he calls. And the glory of his work will be great beyond anything the Old Testament ever knew.
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.
It is the hope of a victorious gospel—the good news that God the Father chose his people, God the Son died for their sins, and God the Holy Spirit will bring them to faith and write God's law on their hearts! The gospel will accomplish all that it is sent to do. It will not come back empty any more than the Word of God can fall to the ground. Paul is utterly confident that the Spirit of God will conquer and justify and preserve for glory all whom God has chosen for himself. His missionary labors cannot fail. By the almighty power of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel, everyone appointed unto eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). And all the people of God, ransomed from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, will be gathered to the Lamb and will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Since Paul has such a hope, he is very bold.
If that is Paul's hope, we should ask now, "What is his boldness?" The word Paul uses here has three connotations. There are three aspects of boldness. You could probably come up with these yourself by asking what the opposite of boldness is.
- First, the opposite of boldness is fear or timidity. And so one aspect of boldness is the courage of fearlessness.
Example: 1 Thessalonians 2:2, "Though we had already suffered and been treated insolently at Philippi, as you know, we had courage [same word in Greek!] in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition." Boldness overcame the fear of suffering persecution.
- Second, the opposite of boldness is also shame. And so another aspect of boldness is the courage of being unashamed.
Example: Philippians 1:20, "It is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage [same word!] now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death." Boldness overcame the temptation to feel shame about the gospel.
- The third aspect of boldness (not so much in English, but definitely in this peculiar Greek word, parresia) comes out when you see that often in the NT the opposite of boldness is guarded speech and minced words and indirect, vague, obscure communication. So the third aspect of NT boldness is direct, open, frank, straightforward, forthright, plain speech concerning the things of God. When a bold person speaks, people know what he means; his cards are on the table; he doesn't seek to protect himself with obscurities or subtleties or euphemisms or generalities.
Example: John 10:24. The Jews say to Jesus, "If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." This word "plainly" is the same as the word for boldly in all these other places. So boldness overcomes the temptation to conceal the truth in vagueness. It is frank and plain and straightforward. It is not political and cagy and slippery
So when Paul says here in 2 Corinthians 3:12 that his great hope in the fulfillment of God's promises makes him very bold, I think he probably has in mind mainly this third aspect of plain and open speech (since the contrast is with the veiled ministry of Moses, vv. 13ff.). But since all three of these meanings are so closely tied together, I think it would be fair to say that what he means is this: since we have such a great hope, we are unafraid of what man can do to us, and we are unashamed of the gospel, and we are unwilling to cloak the Word of God in palatable generalities and euphemisms that obscure the clear and sharp contours of the truth. "Since we have such a hope, we are very bold!"
4. The Relationship Between Hope and Boldness
The main point of the text is that a great hope produces great boldness. "Since we have such a hope, we are very bold." What takes away Paul's fear and shame and fuzzy talk is the utter confidence that the new covenant has been inaugurated and that he is a part of it now and will be a part of it when it climaxes in great glory. He has utter confidence in the sovereign power of the Spirit of God to give life to the dead, to make hard hearts soft, and to justify the ungodly. And he knows that this work of salvation is permanent and glorious beyond all the works of God under the old covenant.
If we don't share Paul's boldness, it may be that we are ignorant of the greatness and certainty of the new covenant promises coming to fulfillment in our own day—the dispensation of the Spirit. Or it may be that we have known these things but have resisted setting our hope on them because they are too humbling.
The issue of pride is very closely related to the issue of hope and boldness. It comes out when we ask two final questions.
- Someone may ask, Aren't there people who are very bold who do not have hope? Aren't there mountain climbers who risk their lives on sheer rock cliffs not because they know the summit is guaranteed, but because it is not guaranteed and they want to make it? Isn't that more admirable than only being bold when there is someone at the top holding the rope?
- And the second question is, How do you keep boldness from becoming brash and boastful?
There is really one answer to both these questions. The answer to the first question is, Yes, it is more admirable to take courageous risks without any strong man holding you safe from the top of the cliff—IF your aim is to be admired yourself. But if your aim in climbing is to delight in and display the strength and skill of the strong man at the top, then you will make your dangerous moves of love and justice precisely because you know they will magnify his faithfulness and power not your heroism.
And that is the answer to the second question as well: How do you keep boldness from becoming brash and boastful? Answer: By only jumping over chasms where your Daddy has promised to catch you no matter what.
Since we have such a hope—and ONLY because we have such a hope—can we, and must we be very bold—fearless in righteousness, unashamed of the gospel, and forthright in all we say. May God perform it within us according to his new covenant promises.