God Opens the Door through a New Covenant

Title slide showing a picture of a chicory in bloom

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
July 9, 2023
2 Corinthians 3 

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Thursday, July 6, 2023

At the beginning of worship: 

We don’t like to talk about election, do we? When I say thist, many of you agree. We’re tired of our nation’s election cycles. Right? They seem to go on continually, no breaks. But as important as our elections are, I’m talking about the other kind of election. This is the only one that matters for eternity. God voting for us!

I’ve been rereading Lesslie Newbigin’s book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It’s been in preparation for a presentation next week in Pittsburgh at a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar group of which I’m a partAfter spending forty years as a missionary in India, Newbegin came back to the United Kingdom where he critiqued the western church. Near the middle of book, steeped in theology and philosophy, he writes about election. Let me quote a short piece: 

The doctrine of election is central to any true exposition of the Bible. From the very beginning God chooses, calls, and sends particular people. God is always the initiator. The words of Jesus to his disciples, “You did not choose me; I chose you,” are in line with everything in the Bible from beginning to end.[1]

We can’t forget that God is in charge. And because of God’s love for the world, we should rejoice, be at peace, and do what we can to aid God’s mission in the world. 

Before the reading of Scripture:

I chose our Old Testament readings this morning because Paul essentially uses both in his reflections from the third chapter of Second Corinthians.[2] Paul uses the Jeremiah prophecy of God writing his law in our hearts in the first half of this chapter. Then Paul reflects on Moses coming off the mountain, establishing the Old Covenant. Paul may have used one of his old synagogue sermons in this part of the letter, some suggests. [3] Of course, Paul flips its meaning to emphasize the New Covenant.  

Here, as in other places, Paul is clear about the two covenants, the covenant of the law which leads to death (because we can’t keep the law), and the covenant of grace, the new covenant, established in the ministry of Jesus Christ, which offers us life. 

Paul continues along the same personal theme as we heard last week.[4] Some in Corinth appear unhappy with Paul. They question Paul’s credentials. Paul defends himself, but mostly deflects such attacks by pointing out that he’s doing God’s work. God, through Christ, has instituted a new covenant of grace. 

Read 2 Corinthians 3

A 22-year-old in Japan

When I was a senior in college, my parents along with my younger brother moved to Japan. Unable to attend my graduation, they gave me a trip to Japan. This was my first time out of the country. I spent nearly 3 weeks in the land of the rising sun. While most of the time I stayed with my parents, I took a trip without them to the historic and beautiful city of Kyoto. A neighbor of my parents, Mr. Nakamora, who owned several travel agencies, arranged the trip.  

I was excited. It was a chance to ride the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, which covered the 300 miles in less than 3 hours and that included a few stops. I also got to see one of the few cities not destroyed during the war. Kyoto is an ancient capital city, so there were lots of interesting temples and palaces to explore. 

I packed light and when I arrived, made my way from the station to the Hotel Kyoto, where I checked in for the night. I was surprised to find a letter waiting for me at the desk. Who knew I was even going to be in Kyoto. I opened the letter. It was from the hotel manager, welcoming me to his city and expressing disappointment that he was away on business, but hoped we could meet when he returned. That’s nice, I thought and didn’t think anything more about it. I assumed all guests received such a note. 

A letter of recommendation

The next day, I left the hotel early and came back after dinner. There’s a lot to see. When I stepped into the lobby, one of the receptionists ran over and handed me another note. It, too, was from the manager, inviting me to dinner. Of course, it was well after dinner. I now realized this wasn’t normal, I was being singled out.

The attendant called the manager. We arranged to meet the next morning at breakfast. This was something that never happened to me in the States. We had a pleasant breakfast. He was very curious as to what I thought of the hotel, which was probably the nicest hotel I’d stayed in up to this point in my life. And afterwards he insisted on hiring a cab for me. My plan was to see the Kyoto Castle, before taking the train back to my parents, and it was only a mile walk. But at his insistence, I rode in a cab.

Was this the treatment every 22-year-old American received in Kyoto? Not hardly. The reason the manager of this large hotel reached out to me was because my parent’s neighbor. Mr. Nakamara, who was in the travel business, had sent him a note introducing me and encouraging him to reach out.  

Opening doors

A letter of recommendation can open doors (or in my case, buy a breakfast and cab ride). Paul knows the importance of recommendations. Obviously, there were some in Corinth who wondered about Paul. He was not above claiming his credentials,[5] but not to the Corinthians. After all, they know him. They have seen his work and its fruit. He shouldn’t need a recommendation.

You know, a letter of recommendation will open doors. But that’s it. It’s kind of like a diploma. It might get you a job, but then you must prove yourself. In Paul’s case, he doesn’t need to be introduced to the Corinthian congregation. They know him. They have seen his work. He introduced them to Jesus. They are qualified enough that they could write Paul a letter of recommendation. In Paul’s eyes, such paper isn’t important. What’s important, is what’s in our hearts and the fruits of our labor. 

A one-sided conversatio

As I’ve mentioned throughout my sermons on this epistle, we only hear one side of a conversation. This letter is one of several Paul sent to the Corinthians. These letters were often in response to the news Paul received about what was going on in the city. Perhaps Paul’s detractors in Corinth had recommendations which caused Paul to bring this up. So, Paul appeals to the work he’s already done with the Corinthians. 

Whose work is it?

Notice, it’s not really Paul’s work, but the work God has done through him. In fact, Paul’s credentials ultimately come from God who freely reached out and chose him for his mission. It wasn’t Paul’s idea to become a missionary. He’d had a much easier life if he had settled down and sewed tents for herders and awnings for storefronts. But God has other ideas for his life. 

God’s letter written on our hearts

In this opening part of the chapter, Paul draws on the Prophet Jeremiah, who speaks of the day when instead of God writing laws on a tablet, God will write his word in our hearts. Essentially, Paul says this prophecy has been fulfilled. A new covenant has been established by God that continues beyond the covenant with the Jews. This covenant is with the entire human race. Paul is one of the main missionaries, spreading the good news to the gentiles. 

The two covenants

The second half of our reading contrasts the new covenant with the old. The covenant God established with Moses on Sinai, is one of death. We, as a race of people, are unable to keep the terms of the covenant. As Paul explains, our hearts are hardened. While Paul is proud of his Jewish heritage, he also understands the limitations of the law. “All have sinned,” Paul tells the Romans.[6] The old covenant required a veil to hide the glory that quickly faded, but that veil was removed by Jesus who allows us to see the face of God.[7] And we, as Paul says in verse 18, are to be transformed by the Spirit into that glory.

The work of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

In this chapter, Paul gives us an understanding into God’s work which began in Jesus and continues with the work of the Spirit in us. Paul, as an ambassador for Jesus to the gentiles, has nothing of which to be ashamed. He’s doing the work for which he’s been called.

While it is nice to have a letter of recommendation, Paul knows what’s important isn’t what others think of us, but God knowing us. If God knows you, that’s all that matters. And in this new covenant, God is reaching out to the world in open arms, inviting us into his presence. It’s up to us to accept the invitation and to step forward, allowing God to sanctify your life. It may not make our lives any easier here on earth, but you’ll be on the right side of history.  And eternally, that’s all that matters.  Amen. 

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 80.

[2] Exodus 34:29-34 and Jeremiah 31:31-35.

[3] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 1973), 110.

[4] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/07/02/willingness-to-forgive/

[5] See Paul’s defense speech in Acts 22 (especially verse 3). 

[6] Romans 3:23. 

[7] Jesus removing the veil is seen at his crucifixion when the temple curtain ripped in half, Matthew 27:51. Also see John 14:9

Blue flowers of Chicory
Chicory growing at the edge of a field