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What does “The Lord is the Spirit” mean in 2 Corinthians 3:17

One of the great passages in the Bible relating to the study of biblical interpretation is the third chapter of 2 Corinthians. While the passage itself has broad implications for biblical interpretation, it also provides an opportunity to remind ourselves to keep biblical statements in their context in order to understand them correctly. The statement, “The Lord is the Spirit” is often used to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is divine. This, however, proves to be an erroneous application of the statement when viewed in its context. There are many other passages that prove the deity of the Holy Spirit. This passage, though, is about something altogether different.

Paul was a Pharisee, trained at the feet of the great rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). The idea of scripture having a literal sense and a spiritual sense was not strange to him. In Paul’s epistles he sometimes speaks of the literal sense of the Hebrew Scriptures as “the letter” and the full or spiritual meaning of the Hebrew text as “the Spirit.” An example outside of 2 Corinthians is in Romans 2:28-29 where Paul says, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Notice that the literal understanding of circumcision gained from Genesis 17 and other passages in the law is called “the letter.” The spiritual understanding of circumcision is called “the spirit” in contrast to “the letter.”

A very similar use of the terms is found in 2 Corinthians. Paul begins his comparisons and contrasts when he says that the Corinthian Christians are “an epistle of Christ, not written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh,” (2 Corinthians 3:3). Next, Paul says that God “made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Here, “the letter” seems to correspond to the old covenant while “the spirit” corresponds to the new covenant of which Paul is a minister. In the verses that follow, “the letter” is called “the ministration of death,” the “ministration of condemnation,” “the old covenant,” “Moses,” and “that which passeth away,” (2 Corinthians 3:7,9,11,14,15). In contrast, “the spirit” is not only called the “new covenant,” but “the ministration of the spirit,” “the ministration of righteousness,” and “that which remaineth,” (2 Corinthians 3:6,8,9,11). The old covenant which God made with his people is that which he made at Sinai with Israel (Exodus 19:5-6). It is that covenant which Israel broke (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The old covenant involved the literal reading and keeping of the law with its commands, precepts, and its examples of how God deals with man.

As Paul’s discussion proceeds, it is clear to see that he is talking about how one reads the Torah, the Law, the Pentateuch. By implication, we might even infer that he includes all of the Hebrew Scriptures, but he certainly includes the books of Moses. Notice that he centers in on what happens “at the reading of the old covenant” or “whenever Moses is read,” (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). Paul says “we,” meaning the ministers of the new covenant, are “not as Moses,” (2 Corinthians 2:13). The way in which we are not like Moses is the fact that we do not have a veil over our faces like Moses did. Paul explains that for people who cannot see Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures, “their minds are hardened: for until this very day, at the reading of the old covenant, the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ,” (2 Corinthians 3:14). The phrase “it is done away in Christ” refers to the veil. This becomes clear in the following verses where Paul explains that when “Moses is read, a veil lies upon their hearts,” (2 Corinthians 3:15). This veil is not a literal veil, like the one Moses put over his face, but a spiritual veil that keeps these people from seeing the spiritual meaning of the old covenant. Then, Paul says “whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away,” (2 Corinthians 3:16). A better translation of this would be “whensoever he shall turn to the Lord.” Paul is talking about the person under discussion who reads Moses with a veil over his/her heart. When that person turns to the Lord Jesus, the veil is taken away so that he/she no longer looks at the Hebrew Scriptures in the same way. Through the Lord Jesus, one is able to see many things one never saw before in those ancient Hebrew texts.

Because of Jesus, we can see more than a roasted lamb in the words “a bone of it shall not be broken,” (Exodus 12:46). We can see more than bulls and goats on an altar. We also see the eternal sacrifice of Christ. We can see more than Aaron in his priestly garments. We can see Christ our High Priest who has passed through the heavens. We no longer see just literal circumcision, but also the circumcision of our hearts. These kinds of spiritual interpretations are common in the New Testament. The risen Christ is the source of these interpretations. He explained the spiritual meaning of the “Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” when he “opened their minds that they might understand the Scriptures” and said “thus it is written…,” (Luke 24:44-47).

This brings us to the verse in question. After saying that the veil is removed from the heart of the person who turns to the Lord Jesus, Paul says, “Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I have chosen not to capitalize the word “spirit” pneuma, in 2 Corinthians 3:17 because the context shows that Paul is not talking about the Holy Spirit. He is talking about “the spirit” as contrasted with “the letter.” In this passage “the spirit” is the spiritual meaning of the old covenant as seen through Jesus Christ. It is what we are able to see when Moses is read and the veil is removed from our hearts. We are able to see Christ. When Paul said in verse 16 that when one turns to “the Lord” the veil is taken away, he was talking about the Lord Jesus. He goes on a few verse later to talk about how the gospel is “veiled among them that perish” so that the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them,” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). He then says, “we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord,” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The Lord in view in 2 Corinthians 3:17 is Christ. The passage says that Christ is the spirit. In other words, Jesus is the key to the spiritual meaning of the old covenant. Then Paul says, “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” He means that when you look at the old covenant through Jesus, you are freed from “the letter,” the literal reading of the law which cannot give life. The letter is the “ministration of condemnation” and can never bring righteousness. But “the spirit,” is “the ministration of righteousness” in which Christ, the lamb of God and our perfect high priest brings justification to us all.

After his statement about the Lord Jesus being “the spirit,” Paul says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the spirit,” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul means that as we who have turned to Christ read Moses, we see the glory of the Lord Jesus and we are transformed into the image of Christ. This was Paul’s goal with the Corinthians. He wanted them to see Jesus as the promised seed of Abraham, the lion of Judah, the lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, and the great High Priest. He wanted them to see the glory of Jesus and be transformed into his image. Jesus is the key to the spiritual understanding of the Old Testament. Without Jesus there is only the letter which kills, but through Christ there is the spirit that gives life.




  1. Yes … but. We seem to agree that interpreting Scripture based on capitalization and punctuation applied to the Greek text is presumptuous. Of course, contextual analysis is essential for correct exegesis. Regrettably, though, Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrews have bested me, rather than the other way around, so I’m forced to glean the truth from dictionaries and commentaries while prayerfully trying to avoid swallowing the error with the truth.

    God’s word must be understood and applied conservatively, at multiple levels, as his Spirit reveals it. Thus, restricting ones understanding of a passage such as 2 Corinthians 3:17 to one dimension may do violence to God’s intended meaning.

    Though I was raised a Trinitarian–Catholic, specifically–my own study of the doctrine’s “proof” passages leaves me unenthusiastic about it. Instead, in my uninspired, uneducated view, I see the eternal, self-existent One as pure spirit, expressing himself through his Word, who became his Son in the flesh with the name, “Jehovah is Salvation.” While the Word is the self-existent One’s expression, the Holy Spirit is his impression, or the means by which the material universe perceives him. To say that Father God, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but united, “persons” of the self-existent One is rather like saying each organ of my body is a distinct, but united, “person” of my body. While they do, at times, seem to have minds of their own, I assure you they function at the behest of my central nervous system.

    So, my bottom line is, “Yes … but.” My observations in no way define who or what God is, but simply give me some fallible conceptual grasp of that which is inconceivable.

  2. I disagree. You note that in verse 3, Paul contrasts the letter and the Spirit, and concede the capital, and rightly, as Paul says “The Spirit of the Living God.” However you drop the capital for the remainer of your exegesis, even though the definite article remains in all of the occurences of the word in the Greek, and so the capitalization should also remain in the English, and does in modern translations. Paul is teaching us that indeed, the new covenant is not of letter but of Spirit, and the Spirit of the covenant is the Spirit of the Living God, and that the Lord, Christ, is the Selfsame spirit, to the glory of God.

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