Progressive Dispensationalism’s use of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon, Acts 2:14-36

In the latter 1980s and early 1990s, a few scholars and theologians began to move away from the historical dispensational position (also called “Classical,” “Normative” or “Essential” Dispensationalism).[1] They developed an approach to understanding God’s program for the Church and Israel that differed significantly from that of historical dispensationalism. They called this new approach “Progressive Dispensationalism.” The features that distinguish progressive dispensationalism from historical dispensationalism are: 1) A greater focus on the continuity between the peoples of God of different ages; 2) An insistence that Jesus has already begun (at least to a degree) a fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant; and 3) Adoption of a distinctive hermeneutic called a “complementary hermeneutic.”[2] To many normative dispensationalists, the view that the church is fulfilling the Davidic Covenant blurrs the distinction between Israel and the Church. Such a position would significantly weaken the argument for a pretribulational rapture. It must be acknowledged at this time, however, that progressive dispensationalist Craig Blaising affirms a pretribulational rapture position, albeit in relatively weak terms: “This deliverance, or rapture, would appear to coincide with the inception or coming of the Day of the Lord, since that is the focus in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4.”[3] As of this writing, progressive dispensationalists have not written much specifically addressing the issue of the timing of the rapture. To my knowledge, none has claimed a position other than the pretribulational one. However, their theological system moves in the direction of covenant premillennialism, whose adherents have traditionally held to a posttribulational rapture. Only time will tell what the disciples of the first generation of progressive dispensationalists will do with the rapture issue.

Today, progressive dispensationalism is becoming an increasingly popular position among the faculty at many colleges and seminaries that previously held to the historical form of dispensational premillennialism and a pretribulational rapture of the church. Because progressive dispensationalism takes positions that remove some of the strongest arguments in favor of a pretribulational rapture of the church and of a purpose for God’s future restoration of Israel, this position has concerned many normative dispensationalists.

Significance of the Sermon

Progressive dispensationalists have argued that at Christ’s ascension He started to fulfill the Davidic Covenant by being seated on David’s throne. Whether this can actually be seen as a “reigning” seems to be a point of debate among progressive dispensationalists. Darrell Bock frequently uses the terms “rule” or “reign” in reference to Christ’s present fulfilling of the Davidic Covenant. [4] Craig Blaising, however, seems to prefer the term “enthronement” as opposed to “rule” or “reign.”[5] Nevertheless, Blaising uses terminology that clearly attributes to Christ’s present ministry a Davidic “rule” or “reign.” For example, he refers to

the preeminence of His kingdom over all rule and authority on earth as seen in the language in Psalm 89:27: ‘I also shall make Him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth’ As we have seen, New Testament theology portrays the ‘raising up’ of Jesus to the Davidic kingship as taking place in His resurrection from the dead. Consequently, Colossians 1:18 declares Him to be the ruler.[6]

Blaising further states, “The Messiah has been raised up, seated (enthroned) at the right hand of God, all things, specifically all rule and authority, have been subjected to Him….”[7] On the other hand, Robert Saucy, while affirming that Christ’s present position at God’s right hand is essentially an enthronement on the Davidic throne, nevertheless rejects the view that Christ’s current status is one of “reigning.”[8] But Saucy’s position still attributes to the present dispensation a partial fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant, and thus a blurring of the Biblical distinction between Israel and the Church.

This is a noteworthy contrast to what dispensationalists have historically held. A significant tenet of dispensationalism has historically been that Christ’s Davidic rule will not begin until his second coming when He is seated on the throne of David in Jerusalem during the millennium. In an effort to find support for the progressive dispensationalist’s position, Darrell Bock has insisted that Peter, in his Acts 2 sermon, established an exegetical “link” between Psalm 110’s  “sit” (110:1) and Psalm 132’s “set” (or “seat,” 132:11), thus placing the seating of Christ on David’s throne at the time of the ascension.[9]

The progressive dispensationalists’ view has two major problems: It requires a non-literal interpretation of Psalm 110; and it involves a faulty exegesis of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. The interpretation of Psalm 110 has been dealt with in detail elsewhere.[10] Here, I would like to focus attention on the exegesis of Peter’s sermon.

Setting of the Sermon

This sermon certainly has significance being the first sermon preached in the church age. However, it must also be recognized that this sermon was preached in the church’s infancy and immaturity. F. F. Bruce noted that this sermon has

… marks of [an] early date, such as the hope expressed that ‘all the house of Israel’, to whom the proclamation is first made, may repent as a nation, that the Messianic Age may be inaugurated at once (cf. ii.36; iii.19 ff.).[11]

Bruce notes further,

In this and other sermons in the earlier part of Ac. we should observe the absence of the Pauline emphasis on the pre-existence of Jesus, on His unique relation to the Father, on His sin-bearing, on justification (contrast Paul’s own words in xiii.39), on the moral and spiritual power of the Resurrection, on the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. What we do find is Christian preaching of an obviously primitive character, against the background of Jewish Messianic expectation.[12]

On the Day of Pentecost, no Gentiles had yet come into the church. In fact, Peter and the other apostles had not yet fully grasped that Jesus’ redemptive work would extend in a significant way to the Gentiles. Before the crucifixion, they had thought that Jesus had come to assume the Davidic throne and rule over Israel (Mt 19:28; 20:21). The crucifixion had dashed those hopes and had left the disciples disappointed and dismayed (Lk 24:21). However, following the resurrection, the disciples’ anticipation that Jesus would immediately establish the kingdom was revived (Ac 1:6). It is noteworthy that Jesus did not correct this anticipation. He did not tell them that a long period would precede the establishment of the kingdom. He did not tell them that Jewish involvement in the church would wane or that increasing numbers of Gentiles would come into the church. He said nothing about the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile being broken down (Eph 2:14) so that there would no longer be a Jewish distinctiveness to the way God would work in the world.[13] He only told them that it was not for them to know about the times or the seasons (Ac 1:7). And, though Jesus may have indicated in some of His teachings that there would be some delay (e.g., such parables as that of the minas, Luke 19:11ff, and the story of the widow not to lose heart over the delay, Luke. 18), Acts 1 clearly shows that the disciples were not expecting any more delay after the post-resurrection events.

In their early teaching and preaching, the apostles did not comprehend that a lengthy church age reaching out to masses of Gentiles would intervene between the ascension and establishment of the kingdom. Note the difficulty with which Peter was persuaded to take the gospel to the God fearing Gentile Cornelius (Ac 10:9-22). Thus, it is no surprise to see Peter on the Day of Pentecost anticipating Jesus being seated on David’s (earthly) throne. This requires neither that Jesus was already so seated, nor that He must be so seated soon. It is only to say that from the perspective of the early Jewish Christians their anticipation was that Jesus would soon be seated on David’s throne, reigning from Jerusalem over Israel as Messiah and King.

Summary Statement of the Sermon

Those who hold to a literal hermeneutic place a high value on what is known as authorial intent. A proper interpretation of Peter’s sermon will need to focus on how Peter himself understood his own words. In verse 36, Peter sums up his message in these words: “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Messiah.” Most English translations use the word “Christ” instead of “Messiah.” The English reader needs to remember, however, that the word “Christ” is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” The verb “made” is from the Greek poieo which, according to the authoritative lexicon by Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, Bauer, in a structure like this (taking a double accusative) takes a meaning like, “Claim that someone is someth[ing].”[14] Thus, Acts 2:36 means, “God has proclaimed Him to be both Lord and Messiah.”

Later in this chapter, when we consider the structure of the sermon, it will be seen that the words “both Lord and Messiah” refer back to two distinct sections of Peter’s sermon. But for now, let us consider the meaning of these two terms and how they relate to each other.

Messiah. Usually rendered “Christ” in the NT, this term means “anointed.” Both the Old Testament Hebrew term (Mashiach from which we get “Messiah”) and the New Testament Greek term (Christos from which we get “Christ”) mean “anointed.” Earlier Christian interpreters frequently explained that the Messiah fulfilled the three anointed offices of the Old Testament – prophet, priest and king.[15] However, of these three, only two (priest and king) can truly be considered as “anointed” offices. The only prophet in the Old Testament supposedly connected with a rite of anointing is Elisha (1Ki 19:16[16]) and even he was not actually anointed, but merely had Elijah’s mantle cast over him (1Ki 19:19).

In the first century, the term “Messiah” was understood as denoting the King who will arise in the latter days to fulfill the covenant God had made with David (2 Sam 7:12-16). There were some, especially the Qumran sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, who held to a belief in two eschatological Messiahs – a kingly Messiah (from David) and a priestly Messiah (from Zadok)[17], but this appears to have been a minority position, based in part on Zechariah’s prophecy concerning Joshua (Zech 6:9-15). It is possible that the brief reign of the Hasmonean priest/kings over Israel (ca. 142 to 63 B.C.) produced a reaction by the majority Israelite population in focusing on the Davidic aspect of Messiah, while minimizing the priestly aspect. “It is … reasonable to suppose that when Aristobulus I and his heirs became kings the Bible-based belief in a Messiah of the dynasty of David was intensified.”[18] The idea of the kingly Messiah from the house of David is reflected in the 14th benediction of the Palestinian recension of the Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions,

In thy great mercy O Yahweh our God, have pity on Israel thy people, and on Jerusalem thy city, and on Zion the habitation of thy glory, and on thy temple, and on thy dwelling, and on the monarchy of the house of David, the Messiah of thy righteousness.[19]

The identification of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah was made from the very earliest of the birth narratives (Lk 1:32-33, 69; 2:11; Mt 1:1). The earliest New Testament references to Jesus as the “Christ” are intended to identify him as the Davidic Messiah, the One who will rule from the throne of David as the eschatological King. Later, as the Gentile influence became more prominent within the church, references tend to use the term “Christ” not as a descriptive title, but as a name, not necessarily carrying a Davidic implication. Longenecker observes:

In the twelve instances in Acts where the word “Christ” appears singly (2:31, 36; 3:18; 4:26; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3a; 26:23; and in 3:20; 5:42; 18:5, 28, where “Christ is in apposition to “Jesus” but still “used” singly), it is used as a title – usually articular in form (except here [2:36] and at 3:20) – but not as a name. And in every instance where it appears as a title, it is in an address to a Jewish audience (only 8:5 and 26:23 are possible exceptions, though both the Samaritans and Agrippa II possessed something of a Jewish background and understanding)…. Apparently, therefore, the messiahship of Jesus was the distinctive feature of the church’s witness within Jewish circles, signifying, as it does, his fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and his culmination of God’s redemptive purposes.[20]

Thus, in asserting that God has made Jesus to be “Messiah,” Peter is affirming the Davidic kingly role of Jesus.

Lord. The Greek word Kurios, translated here “Lord,” was the normal word used in the Septuagint to translate the Name of God. Though it could be used to refer to concepts other than deity (as in John 4:11, 15, 19), the New Testament regularly does use this term to refer to Jesus’ deity (e.g. Rom 10:9; Phil 2:10). This was precisely Jesus’ point in His encounter with the Pharisees recorded in Matthew 22:41-46 (also in Mk 12:35-37 and Lk 20:41-44).

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Messiah, whose son is He?” They said to Him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ [Kurios] saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Until I put Thine enemies beneath Thy feet’”? “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ [Kurios] how is He his son?”

In quoting from Psalm 110:1, Jesus is attempting to get the Pharisees to understand that the Messiah is more than merely the son of David. In fact, he is nothing less than Yahweh, the God of Israel. Both the New Testament and the Septuagint use the word Kurios to translate both occurrences of “Lord” in Psalm 110:1.

With reference to Peter’s use of Kurios in Acts 2:36 Longenecker says, “The title ‘Lord’ was also proclaimed christologically in Jewish circles, with evident intent to apply to Jesus all that was said of God in the Old Testament (cf. the Christological use of Isa 45:23 in Phil 2:10).”[21] Thus, in asserting that God has made Jesus to be “Lord,” Peter is affirming the deity of Jesus.

A related question is whether Psalm 110 may be taken as relating to the Davidic Covenant. Jesus’ interpretation of the Psalm in the Mark 12 passage is informative. One significant point of Jesus’ question to the Pharisees has been lost in most modern translations. The King James Version translates Mark 12:37 as, “David therefore himself calleth him Lord: and whence is he then his son?” The New King James Version and the New International Version, on the other hand, conform the translation to that of the other synoptic gospels (“how is he then his son?”[22]), losing the original force of the Greek word pothen, unique to Mark’s account.[23] Jesus’ question to the Scribes, the Jewish interpreters, is, “Whence” (“from where,” i.e. from what passage) is the Messiah the son of David? Pothen is used here with the sense of “from what source of authority.”[24] This usage is illustrated, for example, in Mark 6:1-2. When Jesus came into Nazareth and began to teach the people, they responded with amazement at his teaching and asked the question, “Whence are these things?” (Pothen touto tauta); in other words, “What is the source of his authority?” Another example of this usage, though from a different perspective, is seen in Luke 20:7 where Jesus challenges the chief priests, scribes and elders with the question, “The baptism of John: was it from heaven [ex ouranou] or from men [ex anthropou]?” (verse 4). Realizing their perilous position (verses 5-6), they replied, “We don’t know from where [me eidenai pothen,]” (v.7). Here pothen is clearly the semantic answer to the prepositional phrases with ek, denoting the source of authority for John’s baptism (viz., “heaven” [=God] or “men”).

Mark’s version of Jesus’ response to the Scribes’ teaching about the Messiah being David’s Son in 12:35-37 focuses on the source of authority for making such a claim; this is the force of Mark’s use of pothen. The Scribes appear to have used Psalm 110:1 as a proof text for their point. Jesus does not deny that Messiah is to be a descendent of David’s, but he does take issue with the Scribes’ interpretation of Psalm 110. We might paraphrase Jesus’ response as follows: “You say that Messiah is David’s Son? Fine, but on what authority (pothen) do you make that assertion? Psalm 110? Impossible! For in that Psalm David addresses Messiah as his Lord, not his son.”

The implication is that Jesus knew their literal understanding of Psalm 110 could not allow them to see the Psalm as referring to the Davidic covenant. For them to justify their belief that the Messiah must be a son of David they would have to provide another passage. This passage, on the other hand, promoted something else. Their understanding of the Messiah needed to be expanded to include the Messiah as being more than just a future Davidic King. Jesus says that Psalm 110 puts the Messiah on a plane higher than David or any mere human descendant of his. This Messiah is on an equal footing with Yahweh. His opponents understood well his arguments and because they could not agree with his conclusions nor refute them, they preferred to remain silent.

Relationship between “Lord” and “Messiah.”

1. The Two-fold Confession.

Peter concludes his sermon in verse 36 by claiming that God has made Jesus to be both deity and Davidic Kingly Messiah. This two-fold confession is seen a number of times in the New Testament and appears to be perhaps the earliest Christian confession of faith. According to Matthew 16:16, Peter himself was among the first to recognize this twofold nature of Jesus’ identity. At that time, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was. Peter, receiving information from God the Father, replied:

“You are the Messiah,

The Son of the Living God.”

This two-fold confession acknowledged first, that Jesus was the one sent by God to rule from David’s throne (“the Messiah”); and second, that Jesus was no less than deity (“the Son of the Living God”). Though it is possible to view the term “Son” as being synonymous with the term Messiah, based on the use of the term “Son” along with Messianic terms (“anointed” and “king”) in Psalm 2, nevertheless, a comparison of the New Testament passages citing the twofold confession appears to connect the term “Son of (the Living) God” with the term “Lord,” an affirmation of deity. Note the following New Testament references to this twofold confession:

Davidic Kingship Deity
Matthew 16:16 Messiah Son of the Living God
Matthew 26:63 Messiah Son of God
Mark 1:1 Messiah Son of God
John 1:49 King of Israel Son of God
John 11:27 Messiah Son of God
John 20:31 Messiah Son of God
Acts 2:36 Messiah Lord
Romans 1:3-4 The seed of David Son of God
1 John 4:15; 5:1 Messiah Son of God

2. The Grammatical Correlative Relationship.

Progressive dispensationalists agree that the title “Christ” identifies Jesus as the promised Davidic King.[25] However, they differ from historical dispensationalists by insisting that Jesus began his Davidic reign at the ascension. Darrell Bock explains as follows:

Peter argues in Acts 2:22-36 that David predicted in Psalm 16 that this descendant would be raised up from the dead, incorruptible, and in this way, He would be seated upon His throne (Acts 2:30-31). He then argues that this enthronement has taken place upon the entrance of Jesus into heaven in keeping with the language of Psalm 110:1 that describes the seating of David’s son at God’s right hand.[26]

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. Under “The Structure of the Sermon” below, I will discuss the problem with the way Bock has tried to link Psalm 110:1 with Psalm 132:11. For now, however, I want to stay with Peter’s statement in Acts 2:36 a little longer. Peter joins the two terms “Lord” and “Messiah” in the form of a “both – and” correlative structure. Grammarians refer to the correlative conjunctions as those that occur in pairs to join two items together in a relationship (“both … and,” “not only … but also,” “not … but,” “either … or,” “neither … nor,” “whether … or,” “as … as,” etc.). The kind of relationship expressed can emphasize either identity (connective), similarity (comparative) or contrast (adversative). The correlative structure in Acts 2:36 uses the repeated Greek conjunction kai before each term. According to the standard New Testament Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker this correlative relationship typically denotes a contrast, rather than an identity, between the two terms joined: “not only. . . , but also … Introducing contrasts: although. . . yet.”[27] According to Blass, DeBrunner and Funk’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament it is used, “to sharpen the distinction between the two…”[28] and may be translated, “‘on the one hand … on the other.'”[29] Bock’s exegesis does everything it can to link together the seating on David’s throne (connected to the title “Messiah”) with the seating at God’s right hand (connected to the title “Lord”), but the correlative conjunctions used here suggest the idea of contrast, more than connection.[30] Peter could have used a different way of joining the two terms if he had wanted to emphasize their identity more strongly. For example, he could have expressed either an epexegetical or an appositional relationship.[31] Instead, he chose a construction that would emphasize contrast. Though this observation by itself does not absolutely prove Bock’s interpretation to be wrong, when taken with observations that will be made about the structure of the sermon itself, it provides important confirmation that Christ’s seating on the throne of David is seen in contrast to His seating at the right hand of God.

3. The Chronological Relationship Between the Two Seatings.

The faithful in Israel had been awaiting the coming of the Messiah for many generations. When John the Baptist began his ministry, he identified Jesus as the Messiah (Jn 1:24-27), but merely identifying Him as Messiah, did not mean that the Davidic reign had begun. In fact, John testified that there would be a period of judgment preceding Messiah’s reign, a period of winnowing, separating and burning:

As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.  (Matthew 3:11-12)

Frequently referred to as the “Tribulation Period,” this time of judgment is identified by the Old Testament prophets as the “Day of the Lord” and, in Daniel, the seventieth “week,” which culminates in the arrival of the Messiah to rule from David’s throne. Joel 2:30-3:1 sets forth the order of events:

I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls. For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem.

Malachi very clearly reveals that the messenger introduces a time of judgment that precedes the Messianic rule:

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.  “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts….  “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” (Mal 3:1-5; 4:1-2)

As was the case with John the Baptist, one can identify or proclaim Jesus as Messiah before it is time for Him to reign as Messiah, and this is what Peter does in His sermon. Peter, in affirming that God had proclaimed Jesus both “Lord” and “Messiah,” (Acts 2:36) appealed to two Old Testament references: Psalm 132:11-12 and Psalm 110:1. Psalm 132 is Messianic and refers to the seating of David’s descendant on his throne. But Psalm 110 is set in the context of the Tribulation Period preceding the Davidic reign (see especially vv. 5-7). The Lord of Psalm 110 is not the Son of David. He is David’s Lord (see Mt 22:41-46). Though we know that it is the same Person, it is nevertheless true that there are two distinct roles in view, and that the role of the judging Lord comes before the role of the reigning Son of David. Peter is saying, “This Jesus, whom you crucified, is both the Lord, who is coming in tribulational judgment, and Messiah, who will then reign on the throne of David.”


Structure of the Sermon

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 shows a very definite order and structure. Two features in particular mark out discourse and topic boundaries in the sermon. First, the sermon is divided into 3 sections by the repeated vocatives: v. 14 “Judean Men” (Andres Ioudaioi), v. 22 “Israelite Men” (Andres Israelitai), v. 29 “Men, Brothers” (Andres Adelphoi). These three sections may be outlined as follows:

  1. Verses 14-21, Apologetic for Speaking in Tongues
  2. Verses 22-28, Significance of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus
  3. Verses 29-36, Identification of Jesus’ status

Each of these divisions is artfully introduced by a careful transition from what immediately precedes it.

The first division is introduced by a transition from the crowd’s response to the tongues phenomenon (both a question: “What does this mean?” verse 12, and a criticism: “They are full of new wine,” verse 13). Peter insists that this is not the effect of wine, but of the Holy Spirit, just as Joel described.

The conclusion of the Joel quote (“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”) introduces the second division, in which Peter clearly lays out the two essential features of the gospel: the death (verses 22-23) and the resurrection (24-28).[32]

The conclusion of the division on the death and resurrection introduces the third division. The quote from Psalm 16:8-11 in the second division raised the question of just who this risen One is in relation to David. As will be seen in the following paragraphs, Peter gives a twofold answer to this question, and then summarizes his conclusion.

The second feature marking discourse boundaries and topic divisions is seen in this third division. The third division is subdivided by the threefold occurrence of the Greek conjunction oun which introduces verses 30, 33, 36. The significance of this word here is heightened by the fact that oun, a fairly common Greek word in the NT (499x; 61x in Acts), occurs nowhere else in Peter’s sermon. This threefold subdivision yeilds the following refinement to the third part of the outline:

III. Verses 29-36, Identification of Jesus’ status

  • Verse 29 – Transition: The risen One is not David himself
  1. Verses 30-32 – Resurrection tied to the Davidic promise and reigning
  2. Verses 33-35 – Ascension tied to Melchizedekian priesthood and gifting
  3. Verses 36 – Conclusion: Jesus is both (Melchizedekian) Lord and (Davidic) Messiah.

In the first subdivision, Peter identifies the risen One as David’s descendant Who will be seated on David’s throne. To support the idea of David’s descendant being seated on the Davidic throne, Peter quotes Psalm 132:11.

In the second subdivision, Peter notes that Jesus was not only raised to the earth so He could sit on David’s throne, but He was also exalted to the right hand of God in order to fulfill the role of the Melchizedekian priest who pours out gifts on His people. To support the idea of this Melchizedekian priestly role, Peter quotes Psalm 110:1.

Psalms 132 and 110 in Peter’s Sermon.

Darrell Bock insists that Peter, in Acts 2:30, purposely substituted the word kathizo for the LXX’s tithemi (Ps 132:11) in order to establish an exegetical “link” with Psalm 110’s kathou (cited in Acts 2:34), thus establishing an interpretation for Psalm 110 which sees its fulfillment in terms of the Davidic Covenant. Bock strings together verses and concepts in an amazingly intricate fashion. He argues as follows:

The crucial linking allusion appears at this point. Peter notes that David was … the conscious beneficiary of an oath God had made to him that one “of the fruit of his [David’s] loins” (KJV) would sit on his throne (Acts 2:30). The key term is kathisai (to sit), which is reintroduced in the citation of Psalm 110 (note kathou, “sit,” in v. 34). The allusion in verse 30 is to Psalm 132:11, a psalm which is strongly Israelitish and national in tone (see vv. 12-18). The psalm in turn is a reflection of the promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7, especially verse 12. This 2 Samuel passage is better known as the Davidic covenant. What is crucial is that David’s awareness of this covenant promise is immediately linked to his understanding of the resurrection promise in Psalm 16, which in turn is immediately tied to the resurrection proof text of Psalm 110 (vv. 31-35). Being seated on David’s throne is linked to being seated at God’s right hand. In other words, Jesus’ resurrection-ascension to God’s right hand is put forward by Peter as a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant…. To say that Peter is only interested to argue that Messiah must be raised misses the point of connection in these verses and ignores entirely the allusion to Psalm 132 and the Davidic covenant.[33]

In another publication, where this same basic argument is put forth, Bock elucidates upon his understanding of the hermeneutics at this point.

One of the ways Jews showed fulfillment of an OT passage was to cite the language in alluding to a second passage, thus linking the two texts conceptually. So by his use of the verb “to sit” (Acts 2:30, 34) Peter links Psalm 132:11 (cited in 2:30) with Psalm 110 (cited in 2:34).[34]

Crucial to Bock’s argument is identifying Peter’s reason for changing tithemi to kathizo. He believes he has found the reason in a Jewish method of establishing a link. However, there are some problems with Bock’s imagined “link.”

First, kathizo (Peter’s “substitution” in Acts 2:30) and kathemai[35] though cognate are in fact different words that are not entirely synonymous. While kathizo can be either transitive (“to seat someone”) or intransitive (“to sit”), kathemai is only intransitive (“to sit”). Had Peter wanted to establish an unquestionable “link” between the two citations by changing the wording of the LXX he could have used the same verb in both citations. Either one of two methods might have been employed for this purpose: (a) He might have phrased verse 30 in such a way as to use kathemai (e.g., poieso auton kathesthai epi ton thronon autou), or (b) he could have quoted Ps 110 with a form of kathizo, which is frequently done by other NT authors both in quotations and in allusions to Ps 110:1 (cf. Heb 1:3; 8:1; 12:2; Mk 12:36 [where the form of kathizo is likely the better supported text]; Eph 1:20; Rev 3:21). Either of these approaches would have made such a proposed exegetical “link” much more likely, but Peter did not do so. Instead, he used two different words in citing the two texts. In light of this, it is risky at best to insist that Peter is necessarily establishing an exegetical “link” between Psalms 110 and 132.

But even more damaging to Bock’s interpretation is the fact that, after all, Peter did not change any wording at all. Bock’s explanation of why Peter changed tithemi to kathizo is more complicated than it needs to be. Peter in fact did not take any terminology out of Psalm 110 to use in his citation from Psalm 132; rather, he merely combined verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 132, where verse 12 refers to David’s descendants (ultimately referring to the Messiah). Note carefully the terms used in these two verses:

Psalm 132:11-12, The LORD has sworn to David, A truth from which He will not turn back; “Of the fruit of your body I will set [Heb. ‘asit, LXX thesomai (from tithemi)] upon your throne. 12 If your sons will keep My covenant, and My testimony which I will teach them, their sons also shall sit [Heb. yeshvu, LXX kathiountai (from kathizo)] upon your throne forever.”

In verse 12, referring to David’s descendants who will sit upon David’s throne, the LXX translators used the verb kathizo. Peter did not import any words at all from Psalm 110 (which refers to the ascension) into his citation of Psalm 132. He merely combined the wording from verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 132. Psalm 132 looks forward to the seating of the Messiah in the kingdom, but does not make any reference to the ascension.

As an illustration of the ambiguity involved in attempting to read rabbinic interpretive methods into the apostles’ OT citations, note that Kilgallen, in his monograph on Peter’s sermon, appeals to the exact same rabbinic method as does Bock, only Kilgallen argues for a link between Ps 110 and Joel 2 in Peter’s sermon, based on the repetition of the word “Lord”:

The correct manner of arguing that Jesus is Lord is, as far as the Jewish Peter is concerned before his Jewish audience, to find the text which fits properly with the text of Joel; that is, Peter should bring together the text of Joel regarding Lord and another text, using the title Lord, a text which clearly can be associated with Jesus of Nazareth. Peter uses here what is elsewhere a known Rabbinic practice of interpreting one of God’s Words (that of Joel) by another text of God’s Word.

To argue successfully that Jesus is Lord and thus to be called on for salvation, Peter draws upon the authoritative Old Testament Ps 110: ‘The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord…’[36]

In Peter’s sermon, he is simply citing various Old Testament passages to substantiate the points of his message. The citations from Ps 110 and 132 support different points of his message. Peter cites Psalm 132:11-12 in Acts 2:30 in support of Jesus’ resurrection, as a part of the subsection in verses 30-32 proving His Davidic messiahship. In verse 33, Peter introduces another subsection with the particle oun, describing Jesus’ Melchizedekian ministry, supporting it by referring to Psalm 110:1.[37]


A mojor tenet of many progressive dispensationalists is the belief that Jesus began His Davidic reign at the ascension. This position unnecessarily and unscripturally mingles God’s program for Israel with God’s program for the church and thus weakens the argument for a pretribulational rapture. If proponents of progressive dispensationalism are correct, so be it. Exegesis should determine doctrine, not vice versa. If the Davidic reign has already begun, the pretribulational rapture must stand or fall on other arguments. However, a major argument many progressive dispensationalists give in support of Jesus’ present Davidic reign suffers from significant problems. This argument comes from an attempted exegesis of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. A close look at the way Peter carefully crafted his sermon, however, has shown that Peter did not signify that Jesus’ Davidic reign began at the ascension. Rather, Peter distinguished between two different roles of Jesus: 1) The Davidic reign, made possible by the resurrection, but which will not begin until the second coming; and 2) the Melchizedekian priestly ministry which began at the ascension and will come to completion at the end of the tribulation period, thus ushering in the Davidic reign.

[1] On Nov. 20, 1986, the Dispensational Study Group met at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in AtlantaGeorgia. Apparently an outgrowth of a previous informal meeting of about two dozen dispensationalists held at Talbot Theological Seminary in 1985 (Grace Theological Journal 10:2, Fall 1989, p.123) the group has continued to meet in conjunction with the annual ETS meeting. It was from the meetings of the Dispensational Study Group that progressive dispensationalism began to have its first wide spread appeal. Some of the early progressive dispensationalist scholars included Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising and Robert Saucy.

[2] For an analysis of progressive dispensationalist hermeneutics, see Robert Thomas, “A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics” in When the Trumpet Sounds, Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, edd. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995) 413-425.

[3] Craig Blaising, “The Kingdom of God in the New Testament” in Progressive Dispensationalism, Craig A. Blaising and Darrell Bock (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993) 264.

[4] Darrell L. Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, C.A. Blaising and D. L. Bock, edd. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 37-67.

[5] See his chapters in Progressive Dispensationalism, Craig A. Blaising and Darrell Bock (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993).

[6] Progressive Dispensationalism, 178-79.

[7] Progressive Dispensationalism, 259.

[8] Robert L. Saucy The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993) 72-73, 75.

[9] Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ” 49. Darrell L. Bock, “Evidence From Acts” in A Case for Premillennialism, D.K. Campbell and J.L. Townsend edd. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992) 194.

[10] See the paper I coauthored with Jerry Neuman at In this paper, we argue that Ps 110 does not have the Davidic Covenant in view. Rather, it is a description of Christ’s ministry during the Tribulation Period as a holy war king/priest who is like Melchizedek. In this role, Christ awaits the triumphal outcome of the holy war conflict of the Tribulation Period. Only after the triumph does his role change from that of Melchizedekian king/priest to that of Davidic king. See also G. Gunn and J. Neuman, “Psalm 110” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1996) 326-329.

[11] F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text With Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951) 19.

[12] Bruce, Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text 96.

[13] I suppose that if Jesus had revealed all this to His very Jewish disciples, they would never have gotten very excited about proclaiming the gospel in the first place!

[14] W. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, F. W. Danker, & W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) poieo I.1.b.i, page 681.

[15] For example, Joseph Addison Alexander, The Gospel According to Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980 [reprint of orig. 1860 ed., Charles Scribner and Co.]) 435.

[16] The poetic reference in 1Chr 16:22 is to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

[17] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 9, edd. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976) 512.

[18] D. Flusser, Society and Religion in the Second Temple Period, edd. Michael Avi-Yonah and Zvi Baras (Jerusalem: Masada Publishing Ltd., 1977) 30.

[19] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 9, 521.

[20] Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles in “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary” Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981) 281.

[21] Longenecker, 281.

[22] The NASB has “in what sense.”

[23] Compare the Vulgate, unde “from where, whence; from whom, from which.” Both Mt 22:45 and Lk 20:44 have the Greek pos “how?”

[24] Cf. Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, Bauer, s.v. pothen, 2; H. Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament, 7th edition (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1874) I, 403.

[25] Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993) 176-77.

[26] Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 177.

[27] W. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, F. W. Danker, & W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) kai I.6, page 393.

[28] F. Blass, A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) §444.3.

[29] F. Blass, A. Debrunner, §444.3.

[30] John Kilgallen in his monograph on Peter’s sermon also argues for a strong distinction between the terms “Lord” and “Messiah,” John J. Kilgallen, “‘With many other words’ (Acts 2,40): Theological Assumptions in Peter’s Pentecost Speech” Biblica 83 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2002), 75-76.

[31] See, e.g., “epexegetical kai” in Blass, Debrunner, §444.9, or the ascensive use of kai in Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996) 670-671.

[32] For the twofold nature of the NT gospel message, see 1Co 15:3-8, Death, vv. 3-4a; Resurrection, vv. 4b-8. The death is proved by the burial; the resurrection is proved by the sightings. See also 2Co 5:15; 1Th 4:14; etc.

[33] Darrell L. Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ,” 49, emphasis his.

[34] Darrell L. Bock, “Evidence From Acts” 194.

[35] The aor. impv. kathou is used in both the LXX of Ps 109:1 (= 110:1 Heb. and Eng. texts) and Peter’s quotation in Ac 2:34.

[36] Kilgallen, 76.

[37] This second subsection is also resumptive of verses 14-21 and addresses the question of the tongues phenomenon. For resumptive use of oun cf. BAGD s.v. oun 2.b.; BDF §451(1). Peter’s point is that these gifts are poured out from on high because Jesus has assumed authority as the Melchizedekian King/Priest (Cf. Eph 4:7-10).


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2 Corinthians 3:6 and The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant

George Gunn, Shasta Bible College

Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics

Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, PA, September 23-24, 2009

Who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant,

not of the letter but of the Spirit;

for the letter kills,

but the Spirit gives life.

(2 Corinthians 3:6 NASB 1995 Update)

One of the topics of last year’s Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics was: “Why do we (traditional dispensationalists) struggle to agree on the fulfillment of the new covenant and its relationship to the Church?” Dr. Decker’s paper introduced a very interesting discussion that focused at length, as I recall, on ancient near eastern covenant structure. Though the new covenant was discussed, the particular “why” question posed did not really receive much attention.[i] As dispensationalists we regard the distinction between Israel and the church to be of fundamental importance. Likewise, the question of how the church relates to Israel’s covenants must be fundamentally important. If there is “overlap” between Israel and the church in the area of Israel’s covenants, then perhaps dispensationalism is built on a faulty foundation. I do think that this is a crucial issue, not a peripheral one. I agree with Dr. Decker that we must “do our exegetical-theological homework.” May our conference this year lead us further toward the light.

Purpose of This Paper

This paper’s purpose is to investigate the hermeneutical issues involved in the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:6 in light of how the church is related to the new covenant and to stimulate discussion of these hermeneutical issues. Obviously there is a broader theological discussion that must take into consideration numerous other Biblical references, but my purpose will be more limited in scope. My principal goal is to focus on the matter of authorial intent and how the initial audience (the first century Corinthian congregation) may have been expected to understand 2 Corinthians 3:6.[ii]


The relationship of the church to the new covenant has long been a point of considerable theological discussion among dispensationalists.[iii] God’s program for Israel’s future on the millennial earth is rooted in the four unconditional, eternal covenants:[iv] Abrahamic, Land (a.k.a. “Palestinian”[v]), Davidic, and New. These covenants, made between God and national Israel, describe God’s administrative/dispensational program for Israel’s millennial existence. Traditional dispensationalists believe that God has a separate and distinct administrative/dispensational program for the church. These distinct programs for Israel and the church have led dispensationalists historically to reject covenant theology’s view that the church has become the new replacement party to these covenants. Nevertheless, because the New Testament Scriptures make multiple references to the new covenant, both covenant theologians and many dispensationalists have argued for some degree of participation by the church in the new covenant.

Theological Issues

5 Views of the Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant can be defined:[vi]

  1. Replacement Theology: Replacement – The church is entirely fulfilling the new covenant. National Israel has been superseded by the church, the true, or spiritual, Israel. The church’s ministers, by fulfilling the Great Commission, function as ministers of the new covenant.
  2. Dispensational View #1: Partial Fulfillment – The church, by fulfilling the Great Commission, is accomplishing a partial fulfillment of the new covenant, but complete fulfillment awaits the spiritual renewal of national Israel in the millennium.
  3. Dispensational View #2: Participation – The church, by fulfilling the Great Commission, does not partially fulfill the new covenant, but does participate in some of the blessings of the new covenant.
  4. Dispensational View #3: Two New Covenants – The church has its own “new covenant” with God that is distinct and separate from Israel’s new covenant of Jeremiah 31.
  5. Dispensational View #4: No Relationship – The church is not directly related to the new covenant in any way. The church is related to the Mediator of the new covenant and to the blood of that covenant, but is not a participant in the covenant itself.

Obviously, these 5 views could be grouped together as suggested above in the following way:

The view of Covenant Theology (view #1)

The views of Dispensational Theology (views #2-5)

However, it is also possible to group these views in another way:

The Church has some participation in the new covenant (views #1-4)

The Church has no participation in the new covenant (view #5)

In the remainder of this paper, I will refer to these views by the names, “Replacement View,” “Partial Fulfillment View,” “Participation View,” “Two Covenants View,” and “No Relationship View.”

Darby, often held to be the first systematizer of dispensationalism,[vii] held to the No Relationship View; the church is related to the blood of the covenant, but not to the covenant itself.[viii] Chafer, Ryrie and Walvoord early popularized the Two Covenants View,[ix] but both Ryrie and Walvoord appear to have moved more in the direction of the Participation View.[x] Most dispensationalists today seem to prefer either the Partial Fulfillment View (notably, progressive dispensationalists[xi]) or the Participation View.[xii] I will state up front, that my preference is for the No Relationship View. I think that this is the only view that avoids theological confusion and maintains a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church. As I see it theologically, the church has no more place in this age participating in the new covenant, than it does in the Davidic covenant. However, the question must ultimately be settled on exegetical grounds rather than theological preference.

The Significance of 2 Corinthians 3:6

In 1994, John Master contributed a chapter entitled, “The New Covenant” to the book Issues in Dispensationalism.[xiii] In that chapter, Master argued cogently that the vast majority of NT references to the new covenant are set in an eschatological[xiv] context and need not be interpreted in terms of a present realization. The notable exception among these NT references is 2 Corinthians 3:6. Having commented on the references to the new covenant in the Gospels and the Pauline epistles,[xv] Master states:

To this point, the passages that refer to the new covenant of Jeremiah follow a common thread. All refer to a time when the messianic kingdom is introduced and the people of God are glorifying God through their obedience, brought about by a sovereign work of God.  Only if one asserts that 2 Corinthians 3:6 teaches the fulfillment of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 by the church (which this author doubts), does the future fulfillment of the new covenant for national Israel come into question.[xvi]

I do not intend here to reproduce Master’s arguments for the other NT references. Instead, the scope of this paper will be to grant his arguments for the other NT references, but to look in greater depth at how 2 Corinthians 3:6 is to be interpreted.

Furthermore, progressive dispensationalism, which prefers the Partial Fulfillment view, places great significance on this verse. Paul Thorsell, for example, speaking of the significance of this passage for proving a present realization of the new covenant to the church, wrote:

Traditional dispensationalists have usually argued, however, that Paul’s ministry is related to the predicted new covenant only peripherally or analogically. There is no present fulfillment or inauguration of the new covenant at all. In contradistinction to this thesis of traditional dispensationalism, 2 Corinthians 3 presents formidable reasons to regard the new covenant as partially fulfilled or inaugurated in the gospel-proclaiming ministry of Paul.[xvii]

Is Thorsell correct in claiming “formidable reasons” supporting a partial fulfillment or inauguration of the new covenant based on 2 Corinthians 3? To answer this question, a careful exegetical study of how Paul referred to the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3 is needed.

Hermeneutical Issues

Several questions of a hermeneutical/exegetical nature arise when we seek to understand how Paul envisioned the church’s relationship to the new covenant when he addressed the Corinthians as he did in 2 Corinthians 3:6. These questions include the following:

  1. Is διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης an objective genitive or a genitive of description?
  2. What is the referent to ἡμᾶς?
  3. What is the context of this statement?
  4. Is there significance to the fact that διαθήκης is anarthrous?
  5. What was the state of theological development when Paul wrote 2 Corinthians? How well developed was Paul’s concept of the church as an entity separate and distinct from Israel?
  6. Why would Paul be referring to a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures when addressing a largely Gentile Christian church?

1. Is διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης an objective genitive or a genitive of description?

This is probably the most fundamental hermeneutical question in this discussion. In fact, it is a syntactical way of stating the essential problem. If this is an objective genitive,[xviii] then we may paraphrase, “those who minister (or ‘administer’) the new covenant.” In other words, Paul would be referring to the new covenant as the content of his ministry. For example, Hafemann comments, “… he is a minister of the new covenant (i.e., his function). As a minister, he mediates the Spirit in establishing the church… The content of Paul’s activity as a minister is the ‘new covenant.”[xix]

On the other hand, if this were a genitive of description, an appropriate paraphrase might be, “‘new covenant-like’ ministers.” As a genitive of description, the new covenant does not necessarily point to the content of Paul’s ministry, but rather provides a helpful description of the kind of ministry in which he was engaged – in other words, how Paul conducted himself in carrying out the ministry.

I find it interesting that the closest parallel construction using διάκονος with a genitive in 2 Corinthians occurs in 11:15, διάκονοι δικαιοσύνης, “ministers of righteousness” which is almost certainly a genitive of description,[xx] not an objective genitive (see in context the parallel ἄγγελον φωτός). Although the parallel is suggestive, by itself, this observation is not sufficient proof of the use of the genitive in 3:6, and, on the face of it, both syntactical options are possible in 3:6 and make decent sense. The deciding factors must hinge on other exegetical considerations.

2. What is the referent to ἡμᾶς?

When Paul wrote, “… who also has made us sufficient as ministers,” to whom was he referring? A popular way of looking at this verse might be to see the “us” as referring to all Christians, so that Paul was referring generally to Christian ministry in the carrying out of the Great Commission. Christians, whose responsibility it is to carry out the Great Commission, are made sufficient for such a task by the enablement of God.[xxi] Such a view would correspond well with taking καινῆς διαθήκης as an objective genitive.

The hermeneutical issue here is: Who is to be included in the reference to the 1st Person Plural? There are several possibilities:

Paul alone. “The editorial ‘we’ (also known as the epistolary plural) is the use of the first person plural by an author when he is in reality referring only to himself.”[xxii] In this sense, Paul would be seen as addressing the Corinthian congregation regarding criticisms that had been leveled against his own ministry. It is generally recognized among commentators that Paul’s defense of his ministry is a major theme of 2 Corinthians.

Paul and Timothy (and Titus?). Paul and Timothy are mentioned in 1:1 as the co-authors of the epistle.[xxiii] Titus may also be considered as part of the “team” (2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:5, 16, 23; 12:17). In this sense, the meaning would be similar to the former possibility, the editorial “we,” assuming that Paul’s detractors in Corinth would have leveled the same charges against the other members of Paul’s ministry team.

Paul and the Corinthian Christians. In this sense, Paul would be addressing the Corinthian congregation as fellow-laborers with him. As such, he would be describing the gospel ministry in which they were all involved.

The apostles. Though less likely, it is possible that Paul was describing the ministry of the apostles in a limited sense, perhaps in inaugurating the new covenant ministry.

All believers. In this sense, Paul would be issuing a general statement describing how all believers fulfill the Great Commission as a ministry of the new covenant.

Paul’s use of 1st person deictic indicators in chapters 1-3 is quite interesting. He switches often between the singular (“I/me”) and the plural (“we/us”). A personal deixis analysis[xxiv] of these chapters reveals some helpful and interesting observations. Such an analysis[xxv] can be summarized as follows:


Plural – In this section, verse 4, “who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God,” makes it obvious that Paul is distinguishing himself (along with Timothy[xxvi] and Titus?) from the Corinthians (“us” as opposed to “those who”).


Singular – Verse 13 has an interesting change from the plural to the singular: “For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end.” It is likely that up to this point, Paul has been speaking in the plural in order to include Timothy, and possibly Titus, in his remarks. His switch to the singular makes the comment of 13b a bit more personal and direct, since, after all, Paul was really the focal point of the criticisms emanating from Corinth, and Timothy and Titus were merely “along for the ride.”


Plural – Verse 14 can be considered as a return to the default plural that Paul has been using since verse 1, with the lone exception of 13b.


Singular – In this brief section, Paul’s switch to the singular accompanies a switch also to the past tense as Paul makes reference to his past plans to visit Corinth and his subsequent cancellation of those plans. To this point the plural has been the default, and switches to the singular have been the notable exceptions. From 1:15 – 2:13 the singular will become the predominant and default 1st person reference, with plurals constituting the notable exceptions.


Plural – A return, once again to the plural. An interesting note: Paul specifies the plural as a reference to Paul, Silas and Timothy.


Singular – As with vv. 15-17, Paul’s use of the singular here accompanies a past time reference to his previous plans to visit Corinth and his subsequent cancellation of those plans.


Plural – A return to the plural accompanies a departure from past tense to a gnomic present time frame (κυριεύομεν, ἐσμεν, ἑστήκατε) as Paul expresses a timeless generality.


Singular – Once again, Paul’s use of the singular here accompanies a past time reference to his previous plans to visit Corinth and his subsequent cancellation of those plans.


Plural – The plural is used here to make a general statement that is applicable to all.


Singular – This can be considered a return to what has been the default while Paul discusses his past plans.

2:14 – 3:6,

Plural – With this verse, Paul brings his discussion of past plans to an end and begins an extended section in which he uses a series of metaphors to describe the nature of his ministry. There is a different reason for his switch to the plural here than there was in 2:11. This can be seen by the observation that in this section (3:3) the 1st person plural is contrasted with the 2nd person plural; whereas, no such contrast is seen in 2:11.[xxvii] Paul’s use of the plural in this series of metaphors[xxviii] is intended to depict the ministry as conducted by himself, Timothy and Titus, as distinguished from others (his critics) whose ministry takes on a different character. This would tend to support the view that καῖνης διαθήκης is a genitive of description.

3. What is the context of this statement?

There are two contextual issues that affect the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:6. The first addresses the literary style of the section in which the verse occurs. The second addresses the topic Paul is discussing.

  1. a.    Literary Style. A major theme of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his ministry in the face of numerous criticisms.[xxix] These criticisms seem to have stemmed initially from Paul’s failure to visit Corinth as he had planned (1:15–2:2). Interpreted as vacillation on Paul’s part (1:17), this seems to have spawned numerous other criticisms about Paul’s conduct as well. Beginning in 2:14 and extending at least through 5:5, Paul employs a series of 8 metaphors to explain why he conducted himself the way that he did. Most of the metaphors are based on OT imagery, including the new covenant.[xxx] They may, quite possibly, all have been drawn from chapters 30-31 of Jeremiah.
    1. The Triumphal Procession, 2:14a
    2. The Odor of Life and Death, 2:14b-16a
    3. Letters Written on Stone vs. Written on the Heart, 3:2-3
    4. New Covenant Ministers, 3:6
    5. The Veil Removed, 3:14-18; 4:3-4
    6. The Light of Creation, 4:6
    7. Earthen Vessels, 4:7
    8. Earthly House vs. Heavenly House, 5:1-4

Metaphors #3-8 appear to be drawn from Jeremiah 32-33.[xxxi] The 3rd and 4th metaphors are clearly drawn from the Jeremiah 31 new covenant passage (as well as Ezk 11:19; 36:26). The 5th and 6th metaphors are suggested by the same new covenant language in that the new covenant’s replacing of the Mosaic law calls to mind the veil that blocked the light of God’s glory reflected in Moses’ face (Ex 34:29-35). The 7th metaphor may also have been suggested by the same general section of Jeremiah, since the “clay jar” symbolism may well have come from Jeremiah 32:10-14. The 8th metaphor, though more difficult to relate to specific language in Jeremiah, could conceivably be taken from the notion of houses destroyed by the Babylonians and later rebuilt under the new covenant (32:29, 42-44).

Throughout this passage, the language is metaphorical. For example, when Paul writes, “You are our letter, written in our hearts” (3:2-3), he is formulating a classical metaphor. By using Jeremiah’s new covenant passage as a metaphor for his own ministry, Paul is not using the language of “fulfillment”; that is, he is not saying that his ministry is a realization of what was promised in Jeremiah, but rather that what Jeremiah was describing provides a suitable figure to describe his ministry. Consider how Paul uses the passages from Jeremiah: A letter written on the heart is reminiscent of the new covenant’s provision of God’s law written on Israel/Judah’s heart (Jer 31:33). The Corinthian believers are likened to God’s law written on Israel’s heart, but this is not to say that the Corinthian believers are a fulfillment of this element of the new covenant. In the fulfillment of the new covenant, God’s law is God’s law, not God’s people! Similarly, the inability of some to discern the glory of the gospel ministry is likened to the veil that covered Moses’ face (3:14-18; 4:3-4; cf. Ex 34:29-35), but clearly this does not mean that the veil is somehow fulfilled by the unbelief of Paul’s opponents. The new covenant ministry in 3:6 likewise needs to be understood as a metaphor and does not necessarily mean that there is some kind of fulfillment or realization of the new covenant. Rather, the new covenant provides a suitable Scriptural figure to describe Paul’s ministry in such a way as to respond to the specific criticisms that had been raised against him. In order to understand the point Paul is trying to make with these metaphors, it is necessary to focus on the topic of the passage. This we do in the next section.

b. Topic. Who are Paul’s opponents? What is the essence of his defense? Why does he argue the way that he does? The identity of Paul’s opponents may affect the way we view the meaning of 3:6.

Several writers have attempted to argue on the basis of the context surrounding 3:6 that Paul’s point was to contrast the new covenant with the old covenant, and that therefore he was arguing that the new covenant was now in force.[xxxii] However in considering the context, the discourse boundaries should not be limited to chapter 3. The passage really needs to be seen in light of the broader discourse boundaries of 2:14 – 5:5 and the series of 8 metaphors Paul employed in this section. This broader context shows that Paul’s point had to do with the character of his ministry, rather than with the content of his ministry. Thorsell recognizes this when he notes about the first four metaphors, “In 2:14–17 the nature of his ministry (as a weak, on-the-way-to-death captive) is compared with a Roman triumphal procession…. Paul continued to develop the theme of adequacy in 3:1-6.” [xxxiii]

Some believe that Paul’s opponents were “Judaizers.”[xxxiv]  This “opponents” = “Judaizers” formula makes it easy to say that in 3:6 Paul is answering critics who are seeking to enforce Mosaic legislation.[xxxv] If this were the case, Paul’s reply would be to say that we are now administering the new covenant, as a replacement for the Mosaic covenant. Such a view would favor the objective genitive. However, identifying Paul’s opponents is not quite as simple as claiming that they are “Judaizers.” [xxxvi] Harris has found at least 19 different identifications of Paul’s opponents in the history of the interpretation of 2 Corinthians![xxxvii]

There are, in fact, two groups of critics whom Paul answered in this epistle. In chapters 1-9 Paul addressed criticisms that were being directed against him by the Corinthian congregation. In chapters 10-13, he addressed criticisms made by the false apostles (ψευδαδέλφοι).[xxxviii] While the false apostles may indeed have been “Judaizers” (though I have my doubts on this) the general makeup of the Corinthian congregation seems to have been of a more Greek or pagan worldview. If the opponents of chapter 3 were of a Greek philosophical worldview, the issue might more likely be one of the teacher’s lifestyle and conduct[xxxix] (which favors the genitive of description). This issue is complicated because of the two distinct sources for criticism of Paul. There may have been some intermingling of ideas between these two groups, but they also represent separate sets of criticisms. Chapter 3 falls within the section of the epistle that represents the criticisms of the Corinthian congregation. The outsiders’ criticisms are not dealt with until chapters 11-13.

Evidence suggesting a Judaizing background for the second group of critics would include 2 Corinthians 11:4 (εὐαγγέλιον ἕτερον and the parallel in Galatians 1:6) as well as 11:22 (Ἑβραῖοί εἰσιν; κἀγώ. Ἰσραηλῖταί εἰσιν; κἀγώ.). But these references only suggest a Jewish origin, not necessarily a Judaizing origin.[xl] 2 Corinthians 10:2-3 is interesting in this respect. Paul’s use of prepositions is precise here. In v. 2b he refers to some (τινάς) who regard Paul as walking κατὰ σάρκα (“according to the flesh”), where κατά gives a standard of measurement. It is not so much that his critics accuse him of walking according to the flesh, but rather that they use the flesh as their own standard of measurement for Paul’s walk. Using this standard of measurement, they judge Paul as coming up short (he is poor, he is sick, he is not eloquent, etc.). In verse 3, Paul admits that he walks ἐν σαρκί (“in the flesh”), where ἐν indicates the sphere. Though he does not conduct himself according to the flesh, he admits that he walks in the sphere of the flesh. Rather, the standard of his conduct (or “warfare”) is according to (κατά) a different standard of measurement, i.e., the Spirit. Garland notes with regard to the first group of critics: “They understand him only in part (1:14) because they still evaluate things from the perspective of the flesh.”[xli] Apparently the same could be said of this second group of critics as well. So it is entirely possible that the second group of critics is not to be characterized as Judaizers, but could be of (diaspora?) Jewish origin and simply reflecting a more pagan philosophical perspective. Missing from 2 Corinthians are the specific references to Judaizing teaching found in other epistles of Paul’s (e.g., references to circumcision, Jewish dietary restrictions, or observance of special Jewish days).[xlii]

Regardless of the identity of the second group of Paul’s critics, chapter 3 represents Paul’s response to the first group of critics. These appear to have very Greek notions of how a successful teacher should be characterized. They criticized Paul for the following reasons:

  • He had failed to visit Corinth as he had planned (1:15–2:2).
  • He was not a skilled orator (1:12; 10:10; 11:6).
  • He was physically weak in presence (10:10).
  • He had not been financially successful, and didn’t charge an acceptable philosopher’s fee (2:17; 6:10; 11:7; cf. 8:9; 12:13).
  • He had been in numerous hardships and even jail (1:4-10; 6:4-5, 8-10).

These criticisms have to do with conduct of life, not content of message. As Garland observes:

Today, we may revere Paul for his determined hard work for the gospel that endured the suffering of imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, poverty, and fatigue to further its reach into the world. These things did not sap his love for God or his commitment to the cause of Christ. Rather, they only whetted his zeal to do more. Some Corinthians apparently did not share the same appreciation for this selfless suffering. To them Paul cut a shabby figure. Religion, in their mind, is supposed to lift people up, not weigh them down with suffering. They may well have asked how someone so frail, so afflicted, so stumbling in his speech and visibly afflicted with a thorn in the flesh could be a sufficient agent for the power of God’s glorious gospel. Paul writes an impressive letter, but his physical presence is disappointingly unimpressive. He is too reticent to boast and to act forcefully. His refusal to accept their financial support and allowing himself to be demeaned as a poor laborer reflected badly on them as well. Such unconventional behavior betrays a lack of dignity appropriate for an apostle.[xliii]

The five criticisms above reflect a very Greek worldview of what should be expected of a successful philosopher (physical stature, good oratorical skills, evidence of a healthful, wholesome life free of trouble, teaching that is worth a good philosopher’s fee). Harris notes on 10:10,

In the ancient rhetorical handbooks ὑπόκρισις denoted an orator’s “delivery,” which included not only his verbal and elocutionary skills but also his bodily “presence,” the impression made by his physical appearance, his dress, and his general demeanor. The dual allegation of Paul’s adversaries reflects these two aspects of ὑπόκρισις.[xliv]

This is basically a “fleshly” view, a focus on the outward man. Paul’s reply to such criticisms is to describe the character of his ministry as spiritual not fleshly:

  • 2 Corinthians 1:12 For our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you, with God-given sincerity and purity, not by fleshly wisdom but by God’s grace.
  • 2 Corinthians 1:17 So when I planned this, was I irresponsible? Or what I plan, do I plan according to the flesh so that I say “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?
  • 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 Now the One who confirms us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, is God; 22 He has also sealed us and given us the Spirit as a down payment in our hearts.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:3 since it is plain that you are Christ’s letter, produced by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God; not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:6 He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:8 how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?
  • 2 Corinthians 3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to be proud of us, so that you may have a reply for those who take pride in the outward appearance (τοὺς ἐν προσώπῳ) not in the heart.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16 From now on, then, we do not know anyone according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we no longer know Him like that.
  • 2 Corinthians 6:6 by purity, by knowledge, by patience, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love,
  • 2 Corinthians 10:2-6 I beg you that when I am present I will not need to be bold with the confidence by which I plan to challenge certain people who think we are walking in a fleshly way. 3 For although we are walking in the flesh, we do not wage war in a fleshly way, 4 since the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments 5 and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. 6 And we are ready to punish any disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
  • 2 Corinthians 11:18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I will also boast.

This “Greek” worldview of Paul’s critics fits in well with what we know of Corinthian society[xlv] and would suggest that in 3:6 Paul was responding not to criticism about the content of his message, but to his conduct. This fits best with understanding our genitive as a genitive of description. Paul’s point is not that he is administering the new covenant, but rather that his conduct is determined by a Spirit-based standard, not a fleshly standard, or as Master put it, “In 2 Corinthians 3:6, the contrast between ‘letter’ and ‘Spirit’ is a contrast between a ministry based on works and self-effort and a ministry dependent upon the Spirit of God.”[xlvi] If Paul were to look in the Hebrew Scriptures for support of this idea, Jeremiah’s new covenant provides one of the few suitable metaphors to describe such a phenomenon.

c. Putting it all together. When we look at this section (2:14 – 5:5) as: (1) a series of metaphors intended not as fulfillment of OT promises, but as descriptions based on Scriptural language, and (2) Paul’s answer to his detractors’ criticisms of his conduct based on a Greek worldview, we may understand the metaphors in something like the following way:

  1. The Triumphal Procession, 2:14a

Weakness in physical appearance may not meet up with the fleshly standards of cultured Greek society, but it is precisely what characterized the children of Israel who were led in triumphal procession by the Babylonians into captivity. Both the godly and the ungodly alike were led away in weakness; thus weakness in physical appearance is no sign of ungodliness.

  1. The Odor of Life and Death, 2:14b-16a

As the presentation of the captive Israelites was accompanied by the offering of incense sacrifices to the pagan gods of their captors, the smell signified death for some, but life for others. Likewise, though Paul appeared no better physically than those ancient captives, yet his message was a powerful one, bringing both life for those who believe, and death for those who rejected it.

  1. Letters Written on Stone vs. Written on the Heart, 3:2-3

Paul’s detractors put great confidence in outward fleshly commendation in the form of commendatory letters. But just as the new covenant points to the superiority of the internal affairs of the heart over an outward written code, Paul’s commendation comes from the very transformation that had taken place in the lives of the Corinthians. It was a spiritual commendation, not a fleshly one.

  1. New Covenant Ministers, 3:6

The old covenant focused on fleshly matters of outward conformation to a legalistic standard, but Paul’s conduct was more like the new covenant, directed by the Spirit. Thus, his failure to keep his “written itinerary” (planned visit to Corinth, parallel to the written law) was due to the fact that he was sensitive to the Spirit’s leading (cf. Ac 16:6-10) and God’s sovereign, providential direction.

  1. The Veil Removed, 3:14-18; 4:3-4

After Moses spent time in God’s presence, he reflected God’s glory. The Israelites were unwilling to look at that glory; they would rather see Moses than God, so they requested that Moses put a veil over his face. Similarly, Paul’s detractors were focused on man – what he looked like, how he sounded, how financially successful he was – but Paul desired to conduct himself as one with an unveiled face, so that those who saw him would not focus on his personal appearance, but would see the glory of God.

  1. The Light of Creation, 4:6

“Glory,” “light,” “appearance”: these are the things that pertain to God, not to the creation. The creation exists to glorify God. Paul, as part of God’s creation, exists not to be noticed for his physical appearance or oratorical skill, but “to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

  1. Earthen Vessels, 4:7

On the very eve of the Babylonian captivity Jeremiah purchased the field in Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel and placed the deed of purchase in a clay jar. The clay jar need not be ornamental nor costly; the treasure was what was inside. Paul’s outward appearance was like that jar – unimpressive, and not very costly, but inside was a precious treasure – a message of hope.

  1. Earthly House vs. Heavenly House, 5:1-4

The coming of the Babylonians would be accompanied by the destruction of the cities and houses of Judah, but just as surely as God had promised the destruction of those cities, He had also promised the rebuilding of new cities and new houses when He would bring to fulfillment the new covenant. Similarly, though Paul’s body may be wasting away and an embarrassment to the cultured Corinthians, it was symbolic of a future glorified body in the resurrection.[xlvii]

When viewed in this way, the context argues strongly for Paul’s referring to the conduct of his ministry, not the content of his ministry. Thus, the context would suggest the genitive of description in 3:6, rather than the objective genitive.

4. Is there significance to the fact that διαθήκης is anarthrous?

The anarthrous Greek text is represented in most English translations with the indefinite article (“a new covenant”);[xlviii] although a few translations make it definite by adding the English definite article (“the new covenant”).[xlix] Master suggested that, “the anarthrous construction [was used] possibly stressing ‘quality’ more than ‘identity.’”[l] If Master’s suggestion is correct, then clearly the anarthrous construction is what we would expect to correspond with a genitive of description, as opposed to the objective genitive which might favor a more definite construction (e.g. διακόνους τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης, or διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης αὐτοῦ[li]). Pettegrew, who sees some church participation in the new covenant, counters this by claiming that the anarthrous construction is the most accurate way to represent Jeremiah’s Hebrew original: “Interestingly, by leaving out the article, Paul follows Jeremiah’s prophecy precisely: ‘I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah’ (Jer 31:31).”[lii] Pettegrew may be pressing his point a bit further than is warranted. In fact, twice in the New Testament, Jeremiah’s new covenant is referred to using the articular construction (ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη in both Lk 22:20 and 1Co 11:25). If Pettegrew is correct, and the anarthrous is more accurate, then one might reasonably ask why Paul used the articular construction in his first epistle to the Corinthians. And the logical question to follow is, why did he change to the anarthrous construction in his second epistle? However, we should not dismiss Pettegrew’s point altogether, since the anarthrous construction is used in the other three NT references to Jeremiah’s new covenant (Heb 8:8[liii]; 9:15; 12:24). More to the point is probably Decker’s observation that, “This would seem to be placing too much weight on the lack of an article, particularly when the phrase in question could well be treated as a proper name and consequently definite whether articular or anarthrous.”[liv]

It would appear that the most we can say about the anarthrous vs. articular construction is probably that, had the articular construction been used, Paul would not have been referring to the quality of the ministry. The anarthrous construction certainly allows for, but does not require our understanding Paul as referring to the quality of the ministry. So the anarthrous construction may be irrelevant to the issue under discussion.

5. What was the state of theological development when Paul wrote 2 Corinthians? How well developed was Paul’s concept of the church as an entity separate and distinct from Israel?

Perhaps one of the most challenging hermeneutical tasks we face is that of stepping out of our world and into the world of the ancient writers we study. This requires not only diligent study of the history and sociology surrounding the first century Greco-Roman world, but also an attempt to adjust our own mindset as we read the words of Scripture. It requires not only the mind of the historian, but also the soul of the artist. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians there was a great deal of shared knowledge between author and recipients of which we may be ignorant.[lv] For example, as with the discussion above, we may not know precisely who Paul’s opponents were, but we can be pretty certain that both Paul and the Corinthian congregation knew exactly who they were. Likewise, with regard to the subject of the new covenant and its fulfillment, we may ask just how did a first century believer in Jesus think about it? Our tendency may be to look at this from our 20th/21st century perspective. We see the millennial fulfillment of the new covenant with Israel as something that has now been postponed for nearly two millennia. As such, if the church is not participating in the covenant, it may seem a bit awkward, maybe even absurd, to use new covenant language to describe anything relevant to the church of today. The apostolic church, however, likely saw the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles as a very brief interlude before the second coming, and thus the millennial fulfillment of the new covenant was anticipated as something quite near. Clearly, the disciples in the upper room did not have anything like the church of our past 2,000 years in mind when Christ uttered His Eucharistic words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). They would have thought, instead, of the millennial fulfillment of the new covenant and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Even for the later apostolic church, the fulfillment of the new covenant was likely viewed as something to come about very shortly (cf. Ac 1:6; 15:14-17; Gal 6:16; 2 Thess 1:6-10). So perhaps it should not be too surprising if Paul were to use the new covenant metaphorically, as somehow loosely descriptive of his gospel ministry. The new covenant, though not yet operative, would nevertheless have been something very much on the minds of those early believers. As time progressed, however, the metaphor might become less apropos – even, say, for the later epistles of Paul. And perhaps for us this is part of the difficulty we have in accepting “new covenant language” as something merely metaphorical. We want to make it more highly realized.

If in my mind’s eye I transport myself back in time to the upper room, without having any other New Testament revelation, I would find no reason to read into Christ’s words at the Last Supper any idea of a realization of the new covenant in the church. He is simply speaking of the new covenant’s fulfillment in terms of national Israel in the Messianic Kingdom. If I then move forward in time to Paul’s use of those same words in 1 Corinthians 11, I only see him quoting the words from the upper room. I am not compelled to understand a church realization of the new covenant itself. A church realization may be a possibility in 1 Corinthians 11, but not a necessity. I would need much more evidence to make it a necessity. If I then move on in my mind’s journey to 2 Corinthians 3, I am still not convinced of any church realization of the new covenant. Taken in its context as I have described above, I can easily see Paul’s referring to the new covenant as an apt description of the spiritual standard by which his conduct should be judged, but I am not compelled to come to the conclusion that the church is participating as a party to the new covenant. It remains to be seen how I would view the Hebrews passages in this mind’s eye journey, but I will leave that task to others who have been assigned to that job.

Another issue concerning hermeneutical perspective: Have we been unwittingly influenced by the use of the expression “New Testament” to refer to the Christian Scriptures? For example, Walvoord argued,

From the very fact that the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament, or the Old covenant and the New covenant, it is clear that Christianity fundamentally is based on a New covenant brought in by Jesus Christ.[lvi]

The expression, “New Testament,” as a title for the Christian canon, appears first to have been used either by Tertullian or Origen in the third century. Prior to this the Christian canon was not referred to as the “New Testament.” By the third century already assumptions of a replacement theology were beginning to influence Gentile Christian thought significantly.[lvii] But such would not necessarily have been the case either for Paul or for the first century Corinthian congregation (or any other first century Christians, for that matter). Their view of the church was not preconditioned by the title “Novum Testamentum” or Η ΚΑΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ appearing at the beginning of their Christian Scriptures! I don’t know whether we have been unwittingly preconditioned by the use of this title or not, but I wonder about it. When we come to 2 Corinthians 3:6 and read the words “ministers of the new covenant,” do we have a psychological attachment to those words? Do we feel that the “new covenant” and the “New Testament” are ours, while the “old covenant” and the “Old Testament” are the Jews’? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

6. Why would Paul be referring to a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures when addressing a largely Gentile Christian church?

As has already been observed, other NT references to the new covenant occur in Jewish (Jerusalem upper room) or Hebrew Christian contexts. 2 Corinthians, however, is addressed to a largely Gentile church. Does this observation have any influence on how we might view Paul’s use of the Old Testament?

Though it is frequently stated that the church at Corinth was largely “Gentile,” this may be overstating the case. According to Acts 18:1-8, the core of early believers in Corinth actually came out of the synagogue. These initial believers would have consisted of both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, both of whom would have been well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus it is not surprising that Paul would use OT language when referring to church truth, even if doing so metaphorically.

Paul actually makes quite frequent use of the OT in both 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. However, the way Paul used the OT in 1 Corinthians can be contrasted with the way he used it in 2 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians he tends to cite the OT as authoritative Scripture to prove his point, using such introductory formulae 12 times,[lviii] as follows:

γέγραπται γὰρ (1:18; 3:19)

καθὼς γέγραπται (1:31; 2:9)

γάρ (2:16; 6:16; 14:27)

ἐν γὰρ τᾦ Μωϋσέως νόμῳ γέγραπται (9:9)

ὥσπερ γέγραπται (10:7)

ἐν τᾦ νόμῳ γέγραπται ὅτι (14:21)

οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται (15:45)

τότε γενήσεται ὁ λόγος ὁ γεγραμμένος (15:54)

On the other hand, in 2 Corinthians, Paul tends to quote and allude to OT Scripture much less formally,[lix] using introductory formulae only 5 times, as follows:

κατὰ τὸ γεγραμμένον (4:13)

λέγει γάρ (6:2)

καθὼς εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς ὅτι (6:16)

καθὼς γέγραπται (8:15; 9:19)

This less formal use of the OT corresponds with what we would expect for a metaphorical use of OT language that refers not to a fulfillment or realization of the OT promise, but rather to a broad, loose description.


With reference to the new covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:6 may be viewed in two possible ways. The expression “new covenant” expresses either the content of Paul’s message, or it expresses the manner in which Paul conducted his ministry. Having examined various exegetical/hermeneutical issues, it is my studied opinion that Paul was not describing the content of his message, but rather the manner in which he conducted his ministry. Ultimately, the chief exegetical/hermeneutical issue questions whether the expression διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης represents an objective genitive or a genitive of description. A consideration of the referent of ἡμᾶς, the context of the statement, the use/non-use of the article, the theological viewpoint of author and recipients and the way in which Paul refers to the OT lead, I believe, to the conclusion that Paul’s point was that his ministry is a “new-covenant-like-ministry,” not that he was administering the new covenant. Reference was to the style of his ministry, rather than to the doctrinal content of the new covenant. Thus, this verse does not support any kind of a realized eschatology, or church participation in the new covenant. Of the New Testament references to the new covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the only one that is set in neither an overtly eschatological nor Hebrew-Christian context. As such, it is something of a crux interpretum for those who wish to see some sort of a present realization of the new covenant. According to Jeremiah 31:31, the parties to the new covenant are God and the houses of Israel and Judah. Though Christ’s blood has been shed for the ratification of the new covenant, the realization of its blessings awaits that time when God brings Israel and Judah into the covenant. Until that time, others (viz. the Church) may be benefitting from the same blood that ratified the new covenant, but there seems to be no exegetical necessity for seeing the Church as having been brought in as a new party to the covenant. At least, 2 Corinthians 3:6 does not require that we see the church as having been brought into the new covenant.

Appendix 1

2 Corinthians 1:1-3:6

Personal Deixis Analysis

1st Person 2nd Person 3rd Person
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia: “our”Paul only?Paul + Timothy?Paul +Corinthians?
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  “our” “you”
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, “our”
4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. “us”1ppl clearly refers to Paul/Tim in distinction from the Corinthians beginning here“our”“we”

“we ourselves”

5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. “ours”“our”
6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; “we” “your”
7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. “our” “you”
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; “we”“our”“us” “you”
9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; “we”“ourselves” “God”“who”
10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, “us”“we”“our” “who”“he”“whom”
11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many. “us”“our” “you”“your” “many persons”“many”
12 For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you. “our”“we”“ourselves” “you” “the world”
13 For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end; “we”“I” Interesting use of the 1ps. “you”
14 just as you also partially did understand us, that we are your reason to be proud as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus. “we”“ours” “you”“your”
15 In this confidence I intended at first to come to you, so that you might twice receive a blessing; “I” In this instance, the singular accompanies a switch to the past tense as Paul makes ref. to his past plans to visit Corinth “you”
16 that is, to pass your way into Macedonia, and again from Macedonia to come to you, and by you to be helped on my journey to Judea. “my” “your”“you”
17 Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or what I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, so that with me there will be yes, yes and no, no at the same time? “I”“me”
18 But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no. “our” “you”
19 For the Son of God, Christ Jesus, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silvanus and Timothy—was not yes and no, but is yes in Him. “us” Here Paul specifies the identitiy: Paul+Silas+Timothy “you” “Son of God”“Him”
20 For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us. “our”“us” “God”“Him”
21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, “us” “you” “He” = God“Christ”“God”
22 who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge. “us”“our”
23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. “I” Another switch to the 1ps.“my” “you”
24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but are [ἐσμεν] workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. “we” The pl. marks a departure from the past tense as Paul expresses a timeless generality. “your”“you”
2:1 But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. “I”“my” “you”
2 For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? “I” “you”
3 This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all. “I”“my” “you” “those who” = members of the Corinthian congreg. that were not happy with Paul “painful visit”
4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. “I” “you”
5 But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. “me” “you” “any”“he” a member of the Corinthian congr. (?) who had brought sorrow to the rest of the congreg.
6 Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, “such a one” “he” of v. 5.“the majority” The Corinthian congreg.
7 so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. “you” “him”“such a one”
8 Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. “I” “you” “him”
9 For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. “I” “you”
10 But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, “I” “you”“your” “one whom”
11 so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. “us” note Paul’s switch to the pl. when moving to a general statement applicable to all. “Satan”“his”
12 Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, “I”“me”
13 I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia. “I”“my” “Titus”“them” = brothers in Troas (v. 12)
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. “us” Question: does the switch to the pl. in this ver. indicate the same as in v. 11? This v. begins the series of metaphors. Observation: 1ppl is contrasted with 2ppl in 3:3. No such contr. in v. 11.
15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; “we” “those who are being saved”“those who are perishing”
16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?
17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. “we” “many”
3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for 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. “we”“our”“us” “you” “some” – are these the false apostles of ch. 11? Poss. written in anticipation of the argument Paul will raise there.
4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. “we”
5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, “we”“ourselves”“our”
6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. “us”

Appendix 2

Paul’s Use of Metaphor in 2 Cor 2:14 – 3:18: (the section goes all the way to 7:3)

In defending the legitimacy of his ministry in the face of criticism from his opponents, Paul uses highly metaphorical language in this section to describe his ministry as one that relates to spiritual values, not temporal ones. It appears that his critics had attempted to demean his ministry because it did not focus on temporal well-being, either for himself or for those to whom he ministered. Paul’s frequent imprisonments, relative poverty, beatings, and even physical illness, appeared to those of a Greek philosophical and religious background to be proof that his message was illegitimate. Paul’s detractors wanted something more tangible, more worldly, more fleshly. In addition, the detractors were likely critical of Paul’s plainness of speech in condemning the sinfulness of the Corinthians in his previous letter. Paul defends his use of such plainness (3:12).

1. The Triumphal Procession2:14a But thanks be to God,  who always puts us on display  in Christ…
Reality Symbol OT ref
“us” = Paul? Paul and Timothy (1:1)? Paul and Christians in general? (prob. 2nd) A Roman general (Christ?) leading conquered captives (Paul and Timothy?) in a triumphal procession. Ps 68:18 Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led  captive Thy captives;
This may be an allusion to Psa 68:18 (see Eph 4:8), although the verb θριαμβεύω does not occur there in the LXX (67:19).
2. The odor of life and of death2:14b-16a … and spreads through us in every place the scent of knowing Him. 15 For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  16 To some we are a scent of death leading to death, but to others, a scent of life leading to life.
Reality Symbol OT ref
“us” = as in 14a“every place” = Paul’s missionary journeys“God”“those who are being saved”

“those who are perishing”

“scent” εὐωδία/ὀσμή Burnt offerings to the Lord are freq. depicted this way, e.g., Gen 8:21; Ex 29:18; Ezk 20:41; however, the figure seems to be used differently here.
3. Letters written on stone vs. on the heart3:2-3 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, recognized and read by everyone,  3 since it is plain that you are Christ’s letter,  produced  by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God;  not on stone tablets  but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.
Reality Symbol OT ref
“You yourselves” = Corinthian believers“everyone” = believers? non-believers? both? “Christ’s letter written by us”“written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”“written not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh” Jer 31:33 I will place My law within them and write it on their hearts.Ezk 11:19 And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.Ezk 36:26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
In the OT passages, God’s (millennial) law is written on believing Israel’s heart. But in Paul’s passage it is believing Corinthian Christians that are written on Paul’s heart!
4. New covenant ministers3:6 He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.
Reality Symbol OT ref
He = Godus = Paul and Timothy “ministers of a new covenant” Jer 31:31 Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.
Question: is καινῆς διαθήκης an objective gen. or a gen. of description. Obj. gen. fits better with the view that the church is fulfilling the NC. But gen. of descr. fits better with the view that the NC simply serves as a metaphor for a kind of ministry that characterized Paul’s spiritual ministry.
5. The veil removed3:14-18; 14:3-4 For to this day, at the reading of the old covenant, the same veil remains; it is not lifted, because it is set aside only in Christ.  15 However, to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, 16 but whenever a person turns  to the Lord, the veil is removed.  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 We all, with unveiled faces, are reflecting   the glory of the Lord  and are being transformed  into the same image  from glory to glory;  this is from the Lord who is the Spirit… 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Reality Symbol OT ref
old covenant = mosaic cov. veil = inability to understand? inability to see God’s glory? Ex 34:29-35 It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. 30     So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31     Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. 32     Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded them to do everything that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33     When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34     But whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would take off the veil until he came out; and whenever he came out and spoke to the sons of Israel what he had been commanded, 35     the sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him.
6. The Light of Creation4:6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Reality Symbol OT ref
Genesis 1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
7. Earthen Vessels4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
Reality Symbol OT ref
we = Paul and Timothytreasure = ministry? perception of God’s glory? vessel Jeremiah 32:10-14 I recorded it on a scroll, sealed it, called in witnesses, and weighed out the silver on a scale. 11I took the purchase agreement—the sealed copy with its terms and conditions and the open copy— 12and gave the purchase agreement to Baruch son of Neriah, son of Mahseiah. ⌊I did this⌋ in the sight of my cousin Hanamel, the witnesses who were signing the purchase agreement, and all the Judeans sitting in the guard’s courtyard. 13“I instructed Baruch in their sight, 14‘This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: Take these scrolls—this purchase agreement with the sealed copy and this open copy—and put them in an earthen storage jar (בִּכְלִי־חָ֑רֶשׂ LXX 39:14 ἀγγεῖον ὀστράκινον) so they will last a long time.
Because of the focus on light in this context, some commentators have suggested that the “earthen vessels” in this metaphor are the small pottery lamps, cheap and fragile, that could be bought in the shops of Corinth. However, Hughes thinks that, “It may well be … that Paul had in mind earthenware vases or urns rather than lamps. It was not unusual for the most precious treasures to be concealed in mean and valueless containers. In Roman triumphal processions, also, it was customary for gold and silver to be carried in earthen vessels. Thus Plutarch describes how, at the celebration of the Macedonian victory of Aemilius Paulus in 167 B.C., three thousand men followed the wagons carrying silver coin in seven hundred and fifty earthen vessles, each containing three talents and borne by four men.”[lx]But Paul’s figure may have come from Jer 32 in which Jeremiah purchases a plot of land while the Babylonian destruction is imminent. The deed of purchase, stored up in a clay jar, is a treasure, but only in light of God’s fulfilling of the land provisions of the new covenant. If Paul is indeed referring to Jeremiah 32 (LXX ch. 39) he does not quote the LXX directly, for he uses σκεύος rather than ἀγγεῖον. This is not too surprising, however, since ἁγγεῖον occurs only once in the NT (Mt 25:4); whereas, σκεύος is quite common (23x).
8. Earthly house vs. heavenly house2 Corinthians 5:1-4 1For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 3inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. 4For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.
Reality Symbol OT ref
mortal bodiesresurrection bodies earthly house/tentbuilding from God/eternal house not made with hands Jer 32:29, 42-44?
If Paul was continuing his line of thought through Jer 31-32, it is possible that the “house” motif comes from the idea of houses destroyed by the Babylonians and later rebuilt under the new covenant (Jer 32:29, 42-44)

[i] Dr. Decker admitted in his paper, “‘Why’ questions are always tricky. I make no pretense of offering an ‘intentional/phsychological’ [sic] reason. My comments relate strictly to biblical-theological issues. In essence my answer to the why question is that we have not done our exegetical-theological homework in some areas, and I may be as guilty as you on that score!” Rodney J. Decker, “Why Do Dispensationalists Have Such a Hard Time Agreeing on the New Covenant?” paper submitted to the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, September 2008, Clarks Summit, PA, p. 1 n. 1.

[ii] By referring to the way the initial audience may have been expected to understand the text, I do not intend to sanction the various reader-response theories of hermeneutics that seem to have gained much attention with a certain segment of modern scholarship. I merely mean that we need to attempt to understand the shared presupposition pool between original author and original audience. For one such reader-response theory approach, actually based on an interpretation of 2 Cor 3, see Richard B. Hays Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 122-125, 129 in which he refers to an “ecclesiocentric hermeneutic” and a “new covenant hermeneutic”; and a response by Robert B. Sloan, Jr., “2 Corinthians 2:14-4:6 and ‘New Covenant Hermeneutics’ A Response to Richard Hays” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995) 129-154.

[iii] Some more recent articles: R. Bruce Compton, “Dispensationalism, The Church, And the New Covenant,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 8 (Fall 2003); Richard Daniels, “How Does the Church Relate to the New Covenant? or, Whose New Covenant is It, Anyway,” Faith and Mission 16: 2, Spr 1999, 64-98; Rodney J. Decker, “The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant,” Part I, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 152. (July 1995), 290-305, Part II, (October 1995), 431-456; Homer A. Kent, Jr., “The New Covenant and the Church,” Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall 1985); John Master in chapter 5 (“The New Covenant”) of Issues in Dispensationalism, edited by Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master (Moody Press, 1994), 93-110; Russell L. Penney “The Relationship of the Church to the New Covenant,” Conservative Theological Journal 2:7, (December 1998) 457-477; Larry D. Pettegrew, “The New Covenant,” Master’s Seminary Journal 10:2 (Fall 1999) 251-270; Paul R. Thorsell, “The Spirit in the Present Age: Preliminary Fulfillment of the Predicted New Covenant According to Paul” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:3 (September 1998) 397-413.

[iv] Last year our council discussed Dr. Decker’s preference for the classifications “programmatic” and “administrative” for covenants, as opposed to “conditional” and “unconditional.” At this point, I’m not yet ready to adopt this alternative nomenclature/classification, although I must admit that I like the term “administrative” to describe an agreement that characterizes a dispensation (οἰκονομία).

[v] I have chosen to refrain from using the title “Palestinian Covenant.” While this title may have been acceptable in a bygone era, the abuse of the term “Palestinian” by today’s Arab claimants to territorial rights in Israel, makes continued use of that term unacceptable, in my opinion. The original application of the term Palaestina to Iudaea by the Roman emperor Hadrian as an insult to the Jews ought to have been sufficient reason for God-fearing Christians to reject the term in the beginning. However, such, unfortunately, was not the case.

[vi] Compton, pp. 5-9.

[vii] Charles C. Ryrie Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995) 67.

[viii] At least many dispensational theologians claim this to be Darby’s position (J. Dwight Pentecost Things to Come [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958] 121-122, John F. Walvoord The Millennial Kingdom [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959] 210, 218); however, I have read Darby both on Jeremiah, the Gospels, 2 Corinthians and Hebrews, and he is difficult to categorize. It might be possible to argue that he holds to the participation view. Both views are almost merged in this oft quoted excerpt: “The gospel is not a covenant, but the revelation of the salvation of God. It proclaims the great salvation. We enjoy indeed all the essential privileges of the new covenant, its foundation being laid on God’s part in the blood of Christ, but we do so in spirit, not according to the letter…. The new covenant will be established formally with Israel in the millennium.” (Darby, Synopsis V, 286, as cited in Pentecost Things to Come, ibid.). When all of Darby’s statements are examined, however, I suspect that the No Relationship view does, in fact, most closely represent his thinking.

[ix] Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948) VII:98-99; Charles C. Ryrie The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953) 117; Walvoord Millennial Kingdom 218-219.

[x] Charles C. Ryrie Dispensationalism, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995) 170-174; John F. Walvoord, “Does the Church Fulfill Israel’s Program?” Part 3 Bibliotheca Sacra 137/547 (July-Sept 1980) 220.

[xi] Bruce A. Ware, “The New Covenant and the People(s) of God” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church edd. C. Blaising and D. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 68-97.

[xii] Robert Thomas Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002) 249; Larry D. Pettegrew The New Covenant Ministry of the Holy Spirit, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001) 36-37; J. Dwight Pentecost Thy Kingdom Come (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1990) 175; David K. Lowery, “2 Corinthians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary” edd. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985) II:560; Compton 47-48.

[xiii] John R. Master, “The New Covenant” in Issues in Dispensationalism edd. Wesley R. Willis, John R. Master, Charles C. Ryrie (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), pp. 93-110.

[xiv] When I use the term “eschatological” I am not including any reference to a “realized eschatology” or “already-not-yet” scenario that views the present church age as “eschatological.”

[xv] Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Co 11:25. The Hebrews references are a slightly different matter, but the specific references are Heb 8:8, 13; 9:15; 10:16-17; 12:24.

[xvi] Master, 103.

[xvii]Paul Thorsell, “The Spirit in the Present Age” 406, emphasis mine. Thorsell also states: “2 Corinthians 3 is perhaps the most prominent reference to the new covenant in the Pauline corpus,” 400. Note also Bruce Ware’s estimation, “The most extensive treatment Paul gives of the transforming new-covenant work of the Spirit is found in 2 Corinthians 3” (Ware, 88).

[xviii] Thorsell, “The Spirit in the Present Age,” 407; Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians : A commentary on the Greek text. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 270. Curiously, Harris sees the roughly parallel διακονία τοῦ πνεύματος in verse 8 as “more probably adjectival … than objective … or subjective… (p. 286).

[xix] Scott J. Hafemann 2 Corinthians The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 129.

[xx] It could be considered a genitive of attribute, which is really only a sub-category of the genitive of description. Thorsell tries to argue for διάκονοι δικαιοσύνης in 11:15 being an objective genitive (“The Spirit in the Present Age,” 407, n. 32), but his interpretation here is strained, and does not take into consideration the parallel expression ἄγγελον φωτός. The other examples of διάκονος used with a genitive in 2 Cor. are all possessive genitives: θεοῦ διάκονοι “God’s servants” (6:4), διάκονοι αὐτοῦ “his servants” (11:15), διάκονοι Χριστοῦ “Christ’s servants” (11:23).

[xxi] E.g., Experiencing the Word New Testament (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2001) 408; G. Coleman Luck, Second Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959) 34; D. E. Garland The New American Commentary Vol. 29: 2 Corinthians (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999) 163.

[xxii]Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 394.

[xxiii] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937) 838-839.

[xxiv] Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 236.

[xxv] My analysis of the personal deictic indicators in 2 Cor 1:1 – 3:6 has been added to this paper as Appendix 1.

[xxvi] Lenski, 839.

[xxvii] In fact in 11:3, Paul entertains the possibility that Satan had in fact deceived the minds of some of the Corinthians!

[xxviii] The series of metaphors is discussed below.

[xxix] In any exposition of the book of 2 Cor I think it is important to point out that in defending his ministry and conduct, Paul’s ultimate motive is not to “get back” at those who were harming his reputation. Paul’s main concern in defending himself is that the Corinthians were adopting a faulty standard of judgment – a fleshly standard, not a spiritual one. In the end, Paul defends himself, not so much out of a concern for his own reputation, but in order to get the Corinthians to examine themselves (12:19-21; 13:5-6) so that they might be approved at the judgment seat of Christ (5:10).

[xxx] These metaphors are presented in diagrammatic fashion with comments as Appendix 2.

[xxxi] The problem of identifying the source of the first two metaphors has been discussed by various scholars. For example, Richard B. Hayes notes, “… 3:1 … introduces a new cluster of metaphors …. The difficult metaphors of 2:14-16a belong to an entirely different circle of images” Echoes of Scripture 216 n. 5. It is possible that the images of life and death in those metaphors come from Jer 30-31 and their discussion of the Babylonians leading the Israelites away to captivity, some would go away to death while others would live through the captivity in life in hope of a future restoration of Israel. But it is impossible to tell for sure whether this is what Paul had in mind, since there is no overt connection between Paul’s language and the language of Jer 30-31. Specifically, Jeremiah speaks neither of triumphal processions (θριαμβεύω) nor of odors (ὀσμή, εὐωδία). Quite possibly Paul is thinking of the Babylonian deportation but is speaking of it in terms of contemporary Roman victory processions (Hafemann, 106-108).

[xxxii] Decker, “The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant, Part 2” 450; Penney, “The Relationship of the Church to the New Covenant,” 467-468; Thorsell, “The Spirit in the Present Age,” 401. Thorsell, however acknowledges that, “The subject under discussion is not primarily the new covenant but the character of Paul’s ministry of proclaiming the gospel,” ibid.

[xxxiii] Thorsell, “The Spirit in the Present Age” 400.

[xxxiv] Robert Gromacki Stand Firm in the Faith (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2002) 162; Alfred Plummer A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915) 320; Harris, 76; William MacDonald and Arthur Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995) on 2 Cor 3:6; et al.

[xxxv] Rodney J. Decker, “New Covenant, Theology of the” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1996) 280.

[xxxvi] An excellent summary of the various views can be found in Harris, 67-87.

[xxxvii] Murray J. Harris The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005) 79-80.

[xxxviii] Another issue in the interpretation of 2 Corinthians is whether the ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι represent the same, or a different group than the ψευδαπόστολοι (Harris, 75-76). However that issue does not seem to be relevant to our discussion of 2 Cor 3:6.

[xxxix] See e.g., D. E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, New American Commentary, Vol 29 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999) 166.

[xl] Garland 464 n. 26.

[xli]Garland 32.

[xlii] See also Thorsell 400 n. 8.

[xliii] Garland, 31-32.

[xliv] Harris, 700. See also Garland, 446-449 on the physical and rhetorical expectations of a leader in Greek society.

[xlv] Though recently rebuilt and established as a Roman colony, Corinth continued to hold on to its Greek ethos, in contrast with Philippi, another Roman colony. See the review by J. Brian Tucker of Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches edd. Daniel Schowalter and Steven J. Friesen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) in JBL 6/1 (June 2006), 38-54, esp. pp. 41-42.

[xlvi] Master 101.

[xlvii] Both the Stoic and the Epicurean (Ac 17:18-32) Greek philosophical schools had serious problems with the doctrine of the resurrection (see W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson The Life and Epistles of St. Paul [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964] 284-285), and this attitude appears to have bled off into the Corinthian congregation (1Co 15:12-19).


[xlix] TEV, KJV, NKJV, and, surprisingly, Darby.

[l] Master 101, also Compton, 29.

[li] Note the rendering “his new covenant” in the New Living Translation, “his new agreement” in the Contemporary English Version, or “his new agreement to save them” in The Living Bible.

[lii] Pettegrew, 216 n. 45. Also Decker Premillennial Theology, 280.

[liii] Hebrews 8:13 should probably also be included here, but the noun διαθήκη does not occur here, only the adjective; nevertheless, the adjective is clearly referring back to the expression διαθήκην καινήν in verse 8.

[liv]Decker, “The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant, Part 1” 301, n. 35.

[lv] Cotterell and Turner Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation 90-97.

[lvi] Walvoord, “Does the Church Fulfill Israel’s Program” 218.

[lvii] Justin Martyr (100-165) in his Dialogue With Trypho the Jew represents one of the earliest examples of replacement theology.

[lviii] The UBS Greek New Testament 4th edition Index of Quotations has 17 OT quotes in 1 Corinthians and 91 OT allusions.

[lix] The UBS Greek New Testament 4th edition Index of Quotations has 11 OT quotes in 2 Corinthians and 44 OT allusions.

[lx] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962) pp. 135-136.

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2 Thessalonians 2:13, A Rapture Passage? George Gunn (Shasta Bible College, Redding, CA)

Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ κυρίου, ὅτι εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς ἀπαρχὴν εἰς σωτηρίαν ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας,

“But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you, a firstfruit, for deliverance by the sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”



2 Thessalonians 2:13, though frequently cited in theological works as a proof text for the soteriological doctrine of election, is probably best understood eschatologically as descriptive of God’s promise to deliver the church from the persecution and worldwide judgments of the Day of the Lord by means of a pretribulational rapture.



            Years ago as a college student, I, like many Christian college students, wrestled with the issue of God’s sovereign election vs. man’s free will. A study of the relevant Bible verses eventually led me to a strong conviction that God sovereignly and unconditionally elects to salvation. One of the verses that was very influential for me was 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Not only did this verse teach that God “chose” (aorist indicative), but that the object of this choosing was to “salvation” (contrary to the position of some Arminians that God’s election is of the believer either to sanctification or to glorification). Then, a few years ago, as I was preparing to teach a class in the exegesis of the Thessalonian epistles, I was stricken by the fact that this verse occurs in a context that is dealing with the Day of the Lord. The Apostle Paul had just referred to the followers of the man of lawlessness who will be subject to the judgment of God associated with that time of tribulation. In such a context, might it not be that Paul was actually expressing his thanks that, in contrast to the followers of the man of lawlessness, God had chosen to deliver the church from the judgments of the Day of the Lord? If such were the case, then 2 Thessalonians 2:13 was actually another verse supportive of a Pretribulational Rapture position.

Semantics and Theological Understanding

            As 21st century Christians, what goes through our minds when we read the words, “God has chosen you for salvation”? The term “salvation” is a fairly heavily loaded term in the semantics of modern conservative theology. At least from the time of the Reformation, the term has carried with it the connotation of quite a few distinct, though related, theological concepts, including: justification, forgiveness, regeneration, redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, etc. For example, the term “salvation” occurs over 400 times in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and is used quite broadly to refer to all that Christ has accomplished through His death and resurrection on behalf of the believer.[i] Similarly, in most Reformation and Post-Reformation conservative Christian writings, the term “salvation” carries with it this broad semantic weight. But are we safe in assuming that in the early days of the Christian church, when the Apostle Paul penned his two epistles to the Thessalonian believers, the term σωτηρία (soteria) carried the same semantic weight? A consideration of semantics, discourse structure and immediate context will show that Paul’s use of the term σωτηρία (soteria) was indeed a reference to the pretribulational rapture of the church.



            We have alluded to the semantic weight carried by the English term “salvation” in modern times, but what of the semantic weight borne by the Greek term σωτηρία that Paul employed in 2 Thessalonians 2:13? Can we in the 21st century come to an understanding of what this term meant to Paul and his Thessalonian disciples? In the following paragraphs diachronic considerations, conceptual considerations and synchronic considerations will be brought to bear on the answer to this question.

            1. Diachronic Considerations. An overview of how the word σωτηρία was used throughout the history of literary Greek may be of some help. The term appears in Classical Greek as early as Herodotus (V BC), and means consistently throughout the Classical era either, (1) deliverance from some peril, (2) preservation in a state of safety or security, (3) a way or means of safety, (4) a safe return from a voyage, (5) safe keeping or preservation of a thing, (6) a guarantee or security for the safe keeping of a thing (7) security against anxiety, or (8) bodily health or well-being.[ii] TDNT summarizes some of the kinds of peril from which deliverance is wrought by use of the word σωτηρία in the classical era:

[In Classical Greek] σῴζω and σωτηρία mean first “to save” and “salvation” in the sense of an acutely dynamic act in which gods or men snatch others by force from serious peril. In this use, found from Hom. to the latest period, σῴζω corresponds to Hbr. ישׁע ….  Among the dangers war … and sea-voyages … always play a special part. Things are similar with σωτηρία…  σῴζω also denotes “deliverance” from judicial condemnation, …. The sense “to save from an illness,” hence “to cure,” occurs… In relation to the gen. perils of battle and sailing σῴζω may have more of the sense “to keep” or “to protect.”[iii]

            More relevant to New Testament studies may be the use of σωτηρία in the Septuagint. Here we find that the vast majority of uses refer to deliverance from some sort of temporal peril, not too different from its use in Classical Greek. The Hebrew word יְשׁוּעָה (yeshu‘ah) most frequently lies behind the Septuagint’s use of σωτηρία. Of the 78 occurrences of יְשׁוּעָה in the Old Testament, the following kinds of deliverance are typical:

  • Deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian army by crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 14:13; 15:12; Ps. 78:22)
  • Deliverance of Hannah from her enemies (1 Sa. 2:1)
  • Deliverance of Israel from various Gentile enemies
    • the Philistines (1 Sa. 14:45; Is. 12:2)
    • the Syrians (2 Sa. 10:11)
    • the Ammonites (2 Sa. 10:11; 2 Chr. 20:17; Is 12:2)
    • the Moabites (2 Chr. 20:17; Ps. 80:2, 6; Is. 12:2; 25:9, 10)
    • the Edomites (2 Chr. 20:17; Ps. 80:2, 6; Is. 12:2)
    • the Assyrians (Is. 33:2, 6)
    • unspecified Gentile enemies (1 Chr. 16:23; Ps. 44:2-3; 53:6; 98:2-3; 118:14, 15, 21; 149:4, 8; Is 26:1, 18)
  • Deliverance of Israel from poverty (Ps. 106:4-5)
  • Deliverance of David from the hand of Saul (2 Sa. 22:51)
  • Deliverance of the Psalmist (frequently David) from various enemies, such as the evil man, the ungodly man, the fool, the one who digs a pit, etc. (Ps. 3:2, 7-8; 9:13-14; 13:4-5; 14:1, 4, 7; 18:48-50; 21:1, 5, 8-12; 28:3, 8; 35:3, 7-9; 42:3-5, 10-11; 43:1-5; 62:1-6; 68:19-21; 69:29; 70:2-4; 74:12; 89:26; 91:16; 119:123, 161-166; 140:1, 7)
  • Deliverance of the Psalmist from physical illness or death (Ps. 88:1; 116:13; 119:155, 174-175)
  • Deliverance of Christ from the cross (Ps. 22:1)
  • Deliverance of Jonah from the fish (Jonah 2:9)

In Job, יְשׁוּעָה occurs two times. Deliverance is more personal and perhaps spiritual (13:16), but it cannot be separated from the idea of deliverance from his physical maladies, financial and familial ruin and personal enemies (30:15 “My welfare [יְשׁוּעָה i.e. prosperity] is passed away as a cloud.”).

TDNT sums up the Septuagint’s use of σωτηρία as follows:

Deliverance, help and salvation come in favour of persons in situations which are often brought about by the hostile intent of other persons.… Human acts of deliverance are expected from military heroes, judges, and Nazirites (Ju 13:5)… Deliverance is also sought from the protecting power; this is for vassals the positive aspect of suzerainty, cf. 2 K. 16:7, Hos. 14:4. Above all, giving help and dispensing justice is one of the tasks of the king (cf. 2 S. 14:4; 2 K. 6:26) which is regarded as laid on him by God and whose discharge secures a happy and prosperous life for the people (Ps. 72:2 f., 12).[iv]

In the prophets, especially Isaiah, salvation is frequently seen in the context of the eschatological reign of the Messiah. This salvation is often presented simply in terms of Israel’s experiencing deliverance from her enemies (Ps. 89:26; Is 12:2-3; 25:9; 52:7, 10; 60:18). But at times, this eschatological salvation involves redemptive elements related to the righteousness and regeneration associated with the new covenant (Is. 49:6, 8; 51:6, 8; 56:1; 59:11; 62:1). In several of the references to spiritual salvation, there is still reference to deliverance from physical enemies (Is. 59:11, 17).

The intertestamental period sees a usage very similar to that of the Old Testament prophets. For example, in 1 Enoch, “… the idea of being saved occurs in reference to the flood. But the idea occurs most frequently in statements to the effect that the ungodly have no salvation or hope of salvation.”[v] And in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, “salvation is applied to the individual in both temporal deliverance … and eternal salvation.”[vi] When salvation is seen as eschatological in the intertestamental literature, it is typically a salvation that involves the deliverance of God’s people from threat of warfare and hatred on the earth. However, on occasion, salvation is viewed as “the eternal salvation” which stands opposed to “eternal punishment, in which the wicked are cast into the fire. The godly individual attains salvation by his prayers and piety and by God’s help.”[vii]

            In the literature of Qumran, personal salvation is frequently seen in terms of God’s deliverance of the godly man either from ungodly men or from the perils and distresses of this life:

The Hymns testify to the experiences enjoyed by the one who trusts in the help of God: “Thou hast saved me from the zeal of lying interpreters, and from the congregation of those who seek smooth things” (1QH 2:32). “I will praise Him when distress is unleashed and will magnify Him also because of His salvation” (1QS 10:17; cf.; 1QH 5:11 f.; 11:23 f.).[viii]

When salvation is spoken of eschatologically in the Qumranic literature, it is in terms of national salvation for Israel and is coupled with the destruction of the nations of wickedness.[ix]

            Coming a bit closer to the New Testament era, Moulton and Milligan’s review of the papyri reveals that “σωτηρία is common … in the general sense of ‘bodily health,’ ‘well-being,’ ‘safety.’”[x] This usage in the papyri is seen to be reflected in only a limited number of New Testament verses (e.g., Ac. 27:34; Heb. 11:7). Moulton and Milligan note that the sense of σωτηρία in the papyri forms a marked contrast with its normal use in the New Testament: “As a rule, however, σωτηρία in the NT, following its OT application … came to denote Messianic and spiritual salvation, either as a present possession (Lk 1:77 al.), or as to be realized fully hereafter (Rom 13:11 al.).”[xi]

            In the New Testament itself σωτηρία is used in two ways: [xii] (1) deliverance from danger or impending death (Ac. 7: 25; 27:34; Heb. 11:7; Lk. 1:71), or (2) spiritual salvation of the soul by virtue of the atonement of Christ (Phil. 1:28, 2 Cor. 7:10; 1 Pe. 1:9; 2:2; Eph. 1:13; Ac. 13:26; 16:17). “σωτηρία is plainly expected to be fully culminated w. the second coming of the Lord Ro 13:11; Hb 9:28; 1 Pt 1:5.”[xiii]

            2. Conceptual Considerations. As has been shown from the preceding survey of the historical usage, σωτηρία can bear the meaning of “deliverance” in two distinct senses: (1) deliverance from temporal danger (enemies, sickness, poverty, physical danger, war, etc.) and (2) deliverance from spiritual danger (deliverance of one’s soul from hell, deliverance from the present dark age into the eschatological age of Messiah’s rule, deliverance into the new covenant and a state involving God’s righteousness, etc.). Though it may run the risk of being overly simplistic, let us refer to these two senses as: temporal salvation and spiritual salvation. In the Old Testament, clearly the vast majority of occurrences of σωτηρία are in reference to temporal salvation, with relatively few references to spiritual salvation. In the New Testament we find just the opposite – the majority of references are to spiritual salvation, with relatively few references to temporal salvation.[xiv] In both Testaments there are some references that combine both concepts; i.e., the spiritual salvation involves some form of deliverance from either enemies or some form of physical/temporal danger. An example of this combination can be seen in descriptions of Israel’s salvation in the Millennium where she experiences both God’s righteousness and a state of peace and freedom from her enemies. A pretribulational rapture, likewise, would involve such a combination “salvation” in which the culmination of our salvation at the rapture would also result in our being delivered from the persecution and worldwide judgments of the Day of the Lord. As such, there would be nothing inconsistent about σωτηρία in 2 Thessalonian 2:13 referring to a pretribulational rapture, neither would this rule out a partial reference to spiritual salvation.[xv]

3. Synchronic Considerations. The New Testament was written over a period of almost 60 years and at the hands of at least eight different human authors. The precise sense of a given word can vary significantly over the span of such a time and from author to author.[xvi] Those who are over 60 years of age can doubtless think of a good many English words that bear a different sense today than they did 50 or 60 years ago. All languages undergo such changes, and there is no reason to believe that ancient Greek was any different. Thus it is incumbent upon us to focus our attention on the use of σωτηρία during the time in which Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Furthermore, one author may tend to use a word with a certain emphasis or shade of meaning that another author will not use. Thus, our focus needs to be not only on the time of the writing of 2 Thessalonians, but on the usage of this term by Paul. The apostle Paul wrote his New Testament epistles over a period of roughly 20 years. Even 20 years is long enough a period of time not only for the meaning of a word to change (Think of how some English words were used 20 years ago as contrasted with today!) but for that meaning to change even as used by the same author. Not all words will undergo such a change in meaning or emphasis, but some will. I believe that the word σωτηρία underwent just such a change in emphasis within the vocabulary of Paul over the 20 year span of his New Testament writings.

2 Thessalonians falls into a group of epistles sometimes referred to as the “early Pauline epistles”: Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Galatians was likely written shortly after Paul’s first missionary journey (ca. AD 48), 1 & 2 Thessalonians were written from Corinth during his second missionary journey (ca. AD 51). In his early epistles Paul does not appear to use the noun σωτηρία to express the concept of spiritual “salvation” — i.e. the positional work of God that takes place in a believer at the point of belief in Jesus. He probably uses the cognate verb σώζω once in this sense (1 Thess. 2:16), and once likely in reference to deliverance from the wrath of the Day of the Lord (2 Thess. 2:10). [N.B. There are also no occurrences of σωτηρία in the book of James, the only other New Testament book likely written in the same era as the early Pauline epistles.] Rather, to express the concept of spiritual salvation in his early epistles, Paul uses the following 24 terms and expressions:


  1. καλέω (kaleo) call, Gal. 1:6, 15; 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; 2 Thess. 2:14
  2. δικαιόω (dikaio-oe) justify, Gal. 2:16, 17; 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4
  3. δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) righteousness, Gal. 2:21; 3:21; 5:5
  4. ἐξαγοράζω (exagorazo) redeem, Gal. 3:13; 4:5
  5. γνῶναι θεόν (gnonai theon) to know God, Gal. 4:9; 2 Thess. 1:8
  6. γνωσθῆναι ὑπὸ θεοῦ (gnosthenai hupo Theou) to be known by God, Gal. 4:9
  7. ἐξαιρέω (exaire-oe) rescue, Gal. 1:4
  8. λαβεῖν τὸ Πνεῦμα (labein to Pneuma) to receive the Spirit, Gal. 3:2
  9. λογίσασθαι εἰς δικαιοσύνην (logisasthai eis dikaiosune) to be reckoned unto righteousness, Gal. 3:6
  10. εἶναι υἱὸς Ἀβραάμ (einai huios Abra-am) to be a son of Abraham, Gal. 3:7
  11.  [ἔχειν τὸ] κληρονομίαν (echein to kleronomian) [to have the] inheritance, Gal. 3:18
  12. ζῳοποιῆσαι (zoe-opoiesai) to give life, Gal. 3:21
  13. εἶναι υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ (einai huion tou Theou) to be a son of God, Gal. 3:26
  14. βαπτισθήναι εἰς Χριστὸν (baptisthenai eis Christon) to be baptized into Christ, Gal. 3:27
  15. ἀπολαβεῖν τὴν υἱοθεσίαν (apolabein ten huithesian) to receive the adoption, Gal. 4:5
  16. εἶναι τέκνον ἐπαγγελίας (einai teknon epangelias) to be a child of promise, Gal. 4:28
  17. ἐλευθερόω (eleuthero-oe) to set free, Gal. 5:1
  18. κληρονομήσαι βασιλείαν θεοῦ (kleronomesai basileian Theou) to inherit [the] kingdom of God, Gal. 5:21
  19. ζῆν (zen) to live, Gal. 5:25
  20. ἐκλογή (ekloge) election, 1 Thess. 1:4
  21. ἐξεστρέψας πρὸς τὸν θεόν (exestrepsas pros ton Theon) to turn to God, 1 Thess. 1:9
  22. σωθῆναι (sothenai) to be saved, 1 Thess. 2:16
  23. δέξασθαι λόγον θεοῦ (dexasthai logon Theou) to receive the Word of God, 1 Thess. 2:13
  24. πιστεύσαι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ (pisteusai te aletheia) to believe the truth, 2 Thess. 2:12

σωτηρία does not occur even once in the book of Galatians, and occurs only twice in 1 Thessalonians. Both occurrences in 1 Thessalonians (5:8, 9) probably refer to the temporal salvation that results from a pretribulational rapture, i.e., deliverance from the wrath of the Day of the Lord. The only occurrence of σωτηρία in 2 Thessalonians is in the verse we are examining. The similarity of language between 1 Thessalonians 5:9 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13 is somewhat striking:

1 Thessalonians 5:9

ἔθετο ἡμᾶς ὁ θεὸς … εἰς περιποίησιν σωτηρίας
God appointed us … unto an obtaining of deliverance [from the Day of the Lord]

2 Thessalonians 2:13

εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς … εἰς σωτηρίαν
God chose you … unto deliverance [from the Day of the Lord]

Thus, in view of the history of Paul’s usage of σωτηρία up to this point in his extant letters, it would not seem likely that he is referring to the soteriological ideas of justification, forgiveness, etc.

Of the three early Pauline epistles (Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians), the one that has a distinctive soteriological theme is the very one that does not use the term σωτηρία! The Thessalonian epistles, on the other hand, clearly have a different theme. Almost all expositors agree that the primary theme of the Thessalonian epistles is eschatological.[xvii] Every chapter in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians has at least one reference to the return of Christ, and both books have extended discourses on eschatological themes (the Rapture in 1 Thess. 4:13-18, the Day of the Lord in 1 Thess. 5 and 2 Thess. 2). So, when we encounter the term σωτηρία in 2 Thessalonians, we would expect to understand it in a way that corresponds with the prevailing eschatological theme of the epistle, rather than presuming a soteriological theme.

The next extant letter of Paul’s written after 2 Thessalonians was probably 1 Corinthians, written 3-4 years later. During this intervening period Paul had stopped briefly in Ephesus, gone to Jerusalem, then begun his 3rd missionary journey and was making an extended stay in Ephesus while he wrote his first epistle to Corinth. The term σωτηρία does not occur at all in 1 Corinthians.

2 Corinthians, written shortly after 1 Corinthians, uses the term σωτηρία three times (1:6; 6:2; 7:10). It is here that we probably find Paul’s first use of the noun σωτηρία in the sense of spiritual salvation. It is possible that it was during Paul’s extended teaching ministry at Ephesus that the term σωτηρία began to take on added semantic weight in the vocabulary of Paul. In Romans, written in about AD 57-58, σωτηρία is used five times (1:16; 10:1, 10; 11:11; 13:11), each time as a reference to spiritual salvation.

Thus it appears that in the early Pauline epistles, we should expect σωτηρία to reflect the kind of “salvation” that is more akin to the Old Testament sense of deliverance from some temporal peril than to a later Christian understanding of broader redemptive themes.


Discourse Structure of 2 Thessalonians 2

            Up to this point, we have been considering the meaning of a single term, σωτηρία. We have seen that it is both possible and likely that when Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, he would have used the term with a greater emphasis on temporal salvation than on spiritual salvation. However, this is by no means a necessary conclusion based on semantics alone. Words have genuine meaning only in a context. Crucial to the question of whether σωτηρία in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 is a reference to the rapture is the related question of whether verses 13-17 are a continuation of verses 1-12 or the beginning of a new topic.

Some commentators have taken the words: Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ κυρίου, ὅτι … (“But we ought to give thanks to God always for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because …”) in 2:13 to introduce a new discourse, i.e., a significant change in topic. Two discourse features could suggest a shift in topic: (1) the conjunction δὲ (“now” or “but”), and (2) the insertion of the vocative ἀδελφοὶ (“brothers”). There are two compelling reasons, however, to see verses 1-17 as one entire discourse without a major division: (1) Paul’s use of an inclusio in verses 2 and 15, and (2) the chiastic structure of the discourse.

1. Paul’s Inclusio, verses 2 & 15

We find in verse 15 what appears to be the second half of an inclusio that ties the last verses of chapter 2 with the earlier portion of the chapter.

2:2             μήτε διὰ πνεύματος μήτε διὰ λόγου μήτε δι᾽ ἐπιστολῆς ὡς δι᾽ ἡμῶν
                  “whether by spirit or by word or by letter as from us”

2:15           εἴτε διὰ λόγου εἴτε δι᾽ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμῶν
                  “whether by word or by our letter”

Thus, 2:15 is still a part of the discourse that was begun in 2:1. The δέ and ἀδελφοὶ of 2:13 do not indicate that Paul has moved on to a new subject. 2:15-17, introduced by ἄρα οὖν (“therefore,” the only occurrence of οὖν in 2 Thess), makes a fitting conclusion to this discussion of the troubling times of the Day of the Lord.

Note also, if we see the passage as extending all the way through verse 17, the similarity between how Paul ends his rapture passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with how he ends this eschatological passage:



1 Thessalonians 4:18

2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

Ὥστε παρακαλεῖτε ἀλλήλους ἐν τοῖς λόγοις τούτοις.

Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς καὶ [ὁ] θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν … 17 παρακαλέσαι ὑμῶν τὰς καρδίας … ἐν παντὶ … λόγῳ ἀγαθῷ..

So then, comfort one another with these words.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father … comfort your hearts … in every good word.



2. Chiastic Structure:

Charles Powell has written about the chiastic structure of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-15.[xviii] According to Powell, the section can be analyzed as follows:


A                     Warning (vv. 1-3a)

            B                     The apostasy (v. 3b)

                        C                     The revelation of the man of lawlessness (vv. 3c-5)

                                    D                     The restrainer (vv. 5-7)

                        C′                    The revelation and annihilation of the lawless one (vv. 8-9)

            B′                    The leading astray of unbelievers (vv. 10-12)

A′                    Thanksgiving and exhortation (vv. 13-15)


If Powell’s chiasm is correct, it suggests two observations relevant to our discussion: (1) Verse 13 does not begin a new discourse, but continues the discussion begun in verse 1; thus, the “salvation” of verse 13 should be understood in the context of 2:1-12. This corresponds with what we have been saying about the inclusio διὰ λόγου εἴτε δι᾽ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμῶν (“through word or through our letter”). (2) More specifically, the language of verses 13-15 should find some explicit parallel to the language of verses 1-3a. A comparison of these two sections demonstrates that such is indeed the case:




2 Thess 2:1-3a

2 Thess 2:13-15

  1. Ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί,
  2. ὑπὲρ τῆς παρουσίας τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ ἡμῶν ἐπισυναγωγῆς ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν
  3. 2 εἰς τὸ μὴ ταχέως σαλευθῆναι ὑμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ νοὸς μηδὲ θροεῖσθαι,
  4. μήτε διὰ πνεύματος μήτε διὰ λόγου μήτε δι᾽ ἐπιστολῆς ὡς δι᾽ ἡμῶν,
  1. Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοὶ …
  2. … σωτηρίαν … περιποίησιν δόξης τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.
  3. 15 … στήκετε, καὶ κρατεῖτε τὰς παραδόσεις ἃς ἐδιδάχθητε
  4. εἴτε διὰ λόγου εἴτε δι᾽ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμῶν.
  1. We ask you, brothers
  2. The coming of our Lord Jesus, and our gathering together to Him
  3. Be not soon shaken in your mind nor troubled
  4. Whether by spirit or by word or by letter as from us
  1. We give thanks to God for you, brothers
  2. … deliverance … the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ
  3. Stand fast and hold the teachings which you were taught
  4. Whether by word or by our letter


            An examination of the discourse structure of 2 Thessalonians 2 suggests that verses 13-17 form a conclusion to verses 1-12, not a new and separate topic. As such, these verses are designed to give words of comfort to the Thessalonian believers in the face of the disturbing descriptions of the reign of the man of lawlessness and of the judgments of God poured out on his followers. Such comfort comes from Paul’s assurance that the Thessalonian believers have been chosen for deliverance from that distressing period of time.


Immediate Context of 2 Thessalonians 2:13

The preceding section on “Discourse Structure” considered the context of the entire chapter. Now I would like to focus on the more immediate context of the wording of verses 13 and 14. In particular, two expressions occurring in this immediate context help us to determine the sense of the term σωτηρία: (1) the word εἵλατο (“chosen”), and (2) the phrase εἰς περιποίησιν δόξης τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“unto the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”). A third item from the immediate context also needs some explanation, (3) the expression ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας (“by sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth”).

1. εἵλατο (“chosen”), v. 13. This word may in fact be the biggest stumbling block for many to see σωτηρία as a reference to the rapture. Particularly for someone from a Calvinistic persuasion, the word “chosen” suggests a theme of spiritual salvation. “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14); “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (Jn. 15:16); “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4); “He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14); “Knowing, brothers beloved by God, His choice of you” (1Thess. 1:4). 

However, we should not be too hasty in basing our decision on the English translation. In fact, apart from 2 Thessalonians 2:13, every verse in the New Testament that refers to God’s sovereign choice of believers to spiritual salvation uses a different Greek word than the one used in this verse. The Greek words used elsewhere of God’s choice to spiritual salvation are κλητός (kletos, Matt. 22:14), ἐκλέγομαι (eklegomai, Jn. 15:16; Eph 1:4); ἐκλεκτός (eklektos, Rev. 17:14); and ἐκλογή (ekloge, 1Thess. 1:4). Of the words in this list, perhaps the most significant is that which occurs in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. If Paul were to refer to God’s choice to spiritual salvation in 2 Thessalonians, we might expect him to use the same word he had used in 1 Thessalonians. But the term εἵλατο from 2 Thessalonians 2:13 (aor. midd. of αἱρέω) is not in any way cognate to the term ἐκλογή in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. In fact, the only other New Testament occurrences of this word (only two other times in the NT) have nothing to do with election to spiritual salvation:

Philippians 1:22 “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.”

Hebrews 11:25 “[Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter]choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

So, instead of the word “chosen” leading us to think of God’s sovereign election to spiritual salvation, we find that the very Greek word used by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 is not  the word we would have expected him to use in reference to spiritual salvation. If, on the other hand, Paul had meant to refer to God’s choice to deliver the Thessalonians from the Day of the Lord, it would make sense for him to use a different word than the one he had used in 1 Thessalonians 1:4, and that, in fact, is just what he did.

2. εἰς περιποίησιν δόξης τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“unto the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ ”), v. 14. The end of this deliverance (σωτηρία) is explicitly stated to be “The obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This appears prima face not to be a reference to our positional justification, but to our future glorification, which will occur at the rapture. It is at the rapture that Paul says, “We will be changed … corruption must put on incorruption … mortality must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51, 53). It is at the rapture that Paul says, “He will transform the body of our humility conformed to the body of His glory” (Phil 3:21). If this phrase in verse 14 is not a reference to the rapture, then I don’t know to what it does refer![xix] And if it is a reference to the rapture, then I should not be surprised to find that the deliverance to which Paul refers in verse 13 should also be a reference to the rapture.

      3. ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας (“by sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth”). This expression might also lead one to the conclusion that this verse has a soteriological theme, and that, therefore, the term σωτηρία ought to be understood in terms of spiritual salvation. This would come from seeing “sanctification of the Spirit” as referring to positional sanctification, and “belief of the truth” as referring to faith in the message of the Gospel. Let us consider the two parts of this expression separately:

a) Sanctification of the Spirit. The preposition ἐν most likely relates this phrase as an expression of means to εἵλατο (“chosen”).[xx] So the expositor must explain how the sanctification of the spirit brings about salvation. In soteriological terms, it is more usual to see things the other way around – to understand salvation being the means of sanctification. But it all depends on whether it is positional sanctification or experiential sanctification that is in view. If one understands the choosing in this verse to be God’s election to spiritual salvation in eternity past, then one is forced to the same conclusion as Ryrie, “On God’s part, being saved involves the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying or setting apart the believer. This is a reference to that sanctification of the position which every Christian has the moment he believes (1 Cor. 6:11, ASV).”[xxi]

However, if the choosing is for deliverance from the judgments of the Tribulation Period, there are two possible explanations: (1) The sanctification of the Spirit might refer to a setting apart of the believer from the Day of the Lord. This would be a nice explanation in keeping with the position taken in this paper. Unfortunately, the meaning of ἁγιασμός probably cannot be pressed into referring to a physical separation. Despite the fact that this noun is cognate to a word that means “to set apart, to separate,” (ἁγιάζω) in both classical and Hellenistic Greek the term exclusively means “holiness, consecration, sanctification.”[xxii] (2) The other explanation is to see simply an example of the combination type of salvation that was seen earlier in our survey of the OT prophets. In other words, spiritual salvation includes a deliverance from earthly disasters. In this sense, the sanctification of the Spirit could still refer to positional sanctification. Paul would simply be saying, “Those who will be delivered from the Tribulation Period are only those who have been sanctified (positionally) by the Spirit.”

b) Belief of the truth. This expression may in fact mean “belief in the gospel,”[xxiii] but in this context, it also includes something more. As Lightfoot notes, the acceptance of the truth here is “in contrast to οἱ  μὴ πιστεύσαντες τῇ ἀληθείᾳ [‘those who did not believe the truth’] ver. 12.”[xxiv] Eadie makes essentially the same observation, “… there being an implied contrast to the previous πιστεῦσαι τῷ ψεύδει [‘to believe the lie’ verse 11]”[xxv]

2:11 And because of this, God sends them a working of deception so that they believe the lie,

2:12 In order that they might all be judged who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness.

In other words, the belief Paul is describing in verse 13 is in contrast to what the followers of the man of lawlessness believe in verses 11 and 12. Belief in the lie results in suffering the judgments of the Tribulation Period; whereas, belief in the truth results in salvation from the judgments of the Tribulation Period. One cannot believe the gospel and also accept the lie of the antichrist. The gospel offers Jesus as the Savior; the lie offers the antichrist as the savior.



            In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul had just concluded his prophetic description of the career of the man of lawlessness during the Day of the Lord. This included not only a description of the activities of this wicked man (vv. 4-10), but a pronouncement of God’s judgment on his followers (vv. 11-12). It is at this point that Paul expresses his thanks to God for God’s having chosen the Thessalonian believers to σωτηρία (“salvation/deliverance”). A study of 2 Thessalonians 2:13 in the light of semantics, discourse structure and the immediate context has demonstrated that σωτηρία here refers to the promise of deliverance from the persecution and worldwide judgments of the Day of the Lord that is implicit in the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture of the church. Such a view is consistent with what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, also dealing with the Day of the Lord, and is consistent with what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 regarding the comfort offered by the doctrine of the rapture.

In light of these findings, 2 Thessalonians 2:13 may be paraphrased as follows:

“We ought to thank God always for you, brothers, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you, a firstfruit of the European mission, for deliverance by means of the rapture from the judgments that shall befall those who follow the man of lawlessness in the Tribulation Period. God made this choice by setting you who believe the truth apart from those who will believe the antichrist’s lie.”


[i] As, for example, in his “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” Calvin states: “Before God there remains nothing of which we can glory save only his mercy, by which, without any merit of our own, we are admitted to the hope of eternal salvation (lat. salvi).” By way of contrast, the Institutes refers to “justification” about 200 times, “forgiveness” 188 times, “redemption” 91 times, “propitiation” 76 times and “reconciliation” 43 times.

[ii] Liddell, Scott, Jones, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940) s.v. σωτηρία.

[iii]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976). 7:966. Emphasis mine.

[iv]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 7:973-974.

[v] The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) Vol. III:209-210.

[vi] NIDNTT, 210.

[vii] NIDNTT, 210.

[viii] NIDNTT, 210.

[ix] NIDNTT, 210-11.

[x] J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1930), 622.

[xi] Moulton and Milligan, 622.

[xii]W. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, F. W. Danker, & W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). 801.

[xiii] Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, Bauer, 801.

[xiv] Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, Bauer, 801. “quite predom[inantly] salvation, which the true religion bestows.

[xv] Such a conception may also lie behind the otherwise difficult passage in 2 Thess 1:5-10. This passage is taken by posttribulational rapturists as supportive of their position, but it need not be seen that way. The rapture delivers the godly over to rest, but delivers the ungodly over to a period of judgment that will culminate in the personal return of Christ.

[xvi] P. Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 26.

[xvii] Mal Couch, The Hope of Christ’s Return (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2001) 17-18; John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians (London: Mac Millan & Co., 1877) 53-54; J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (Hendrickson Publishers, 3rd printing 1995) 16-17; Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians NICNT rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 11; Charles C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959) 7; Robert L. Thomas, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 7-8.

[xviii] Charles E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1997) 154:615, pp. 322-28.

[xix] For an example of the kind of confusion that results from eisegesis by those whose theology predisposes them to a soteriological view, rather than an eschatological view, see Eadie’s comment on this expression in v. 14, “The clause is … perhaps not a mere exact specification of εἰς σωτηρίαν, or a giving of the final aspect and consummation of σωτηρία.” Eadie, 205.

[xx] Couch, The Hope of Christ’s Return, 233; Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, 120; Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians, 116. On the other hand, Thomas explains ἐν as expressing “a locative instead of an instrumental force … because the clause names an act in eternity past…. ἐν indicates the spiritual state in which God chose them to salvation,” EBC, 103.

[xxi] Ryrie 116 emphasis mine.

[xxii] BAGD 9; Liddell, Scott, Jones 9.

[xxiii] Couch 233; Eadie 204; Ryrie 116.

[xxiv] Lightfoot 120.

[xxv] Eadie 204.

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