In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul contrasts the letter and the Spirit as he argues for the legitimacy of his apostleship. At the end of the section, he characterizes all who believe in Jesus as having an “unveiled face”: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV). The significance of having an unveiled face is unveiled as the chapter unfolds.
Paul explains that the Corinthians themselves are Paul and Timothy’s letter of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:2). Their new life and fruitfulness are evidence of the veracity of the ministry of Paul and Timothy. The letters sent to the Corinthians were not written with ink or on stone but were written by Christ and by the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:3). Their having an “unveiled face” was evidence of that (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul and Timothy had confidence in God and recognized that their adequacy came from God (2 Corinthians 3:4). They knew that the fruit borne in the Corinthians’ lives was from God and that the ministry God had entrusted them with was reliable.
God had made Paul and Timothy servants or ministers of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). It is important to note that Paul never suggested that the New Covenant was being fulfilled in the church or among the Corinthians—that covenant was made exclusively with Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 31:31). If God keeps His word, then He would have to keep that commitment with ethnic Israel and Judah in a literal sense. Paul explained elsewhere that he thought his ministry was important in part because God’s message of salvation would ultimately make Israel jealous for their Messiah, and they would one day call upon Him and be saved (Romans 11:11–12). When that happens, the New Covenant will be fulfilled. Paul’s proclaiming of the gospel to the Gentiles (which many of the Corinthians were) was all part of that plan to ultimately bring the fulfillment of God’s word and His New Covenant. That the Corinthians had unveiled faces was important for them and also for the big picture of Paul’s ministry.
Paul contrasts the letter and the Spirit, observing that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6b). When referring to the letter, Paul was talking about the Mosaic Law, which did not bring life but rather was a ministry to expose death (2 Corinthians 3:7). Paul notes that, if the messenger of that ministry (Moses) had glory or a face that shone (2 Corinthians 3:7), how much more the ministry of the Spirit would be associated with glory (2 Corinthians 3:8). Paul compares the glory of the two ministries (death and life, and the two covenants for Israel) and asserts that the ministry of the Spirit comes with greater and lasting glory, while the glory associated with the Law of Moses faded away. Paul reminds his readers that Moses wore a veil not to cover the glory that shone on his face but to cover the fading of that glory (2 Corinthians 3:13). Paul adds that those original hearers of the Mosaic Law had a similar veil over their hearts and had hardened minds so as not to acknowledge their need for God’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:14–15). But when a person turns to the Lord, that veil is lifted, and Paul describes believers as having an unveiled face (2 Corinthians 3:16–18).
Paul rounds out the contrast by making it clear that the letter referred to the Mosaic Law and the Spirit referred to Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17). Jesus has a superior and everlasting ministry, bringing life, while the Law of Moses was designed to expose sin and death and direct a person to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Because Paul and Timothy were able to serve such a great ministry, they had confidence and would not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:1). Because believers in Christ all have unveiled faces, we can likewise take heart. We can have confidence in the One who renews us and will raise us up with Christ one day (2 Corinthians 3:14–18).