3Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 3and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared 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.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. 5Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the ministry of death, chiselled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! 10Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!
12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Here Paul plays with the whole idea of letters. He picks up custom of letters of recommendation, imagining that he’s been challenged as to the authenticity of his status as apostle. He doesn’t need such a thing for the Corinthians are themselves that letter: their lives prove him to be a true apostle of Christ. But more than that, they are themselves a letter of Christ, a living proof of the marks of the Holy Spirit on human character. Paul contrasts this human witness to the new covenant with the witness to the old covenant carved in letters of stone or written on a scroll.
Greatly daring he calls the Torah the “ministry of death” warning that the letter kills but the spirit gives life. This is in line with his assertion elsewhere, that the old covenant, the Torah does not give life. Its job is to condemn evil. The real glory of the old covenant –its being a preparation for the new-is concealed from those who reject the new, a concealment symbolised by the protective veil on Moses’ face. When believers turn to Christ, this “veil” is removed, and they see God’s glory reflected in each other’s faces. Paul’s theology teaches the true beauty God gives to human beings.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
To those who say that lust (the desire to use someone for sexual pleasure) is natural, Jesus says it’s the root of infidelity and must be cut off. The almost comic violence of the language expresses Jesus robust rejection of using anyone in this way. Nor, in his view, can infidelity be justified by an easily- manufactured divorce. This is simply a way of getting rid of someone a man no longer wants to use.
One of the sad comedies of Christian history is the way that this teaching was used by the Christian church to demonise sexual activity as such and women as the sexual temptresses of men. All manner of indecent propaganda against women by the monastic movement, along with the cult of virginity in the mainstream church, led in our time not only to the wholesale rejection of traditional Christian teaching on marriage but also to the lack of any genuinely Christian sexual ethic. Jesus’ teaching is brief but clear and should inform the minds and hearts of believers. Doubtless it goes against the grain of contemporary practice, but it’s all the better for that.
The straightforwardness Jesus advocates in sexual behaviour is summed up in his opposition to using oaths to cement agreements or affirm promises. These like the rules of divorce are a concession to dishonesty. Living by our word creates interpersonal trust as God’s faithfulness to his word creates human trust in him.