Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 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 3:17-18).
Paul is masterfully demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant to the old to those Corinthians who have begun to harbor doubts about Paul and his message (2 Corinthians 3:1-16). Through the image of the veil and the contrast between the letter of the Law and the ministry of the Spirit, Paul has declared the surpassing glory of God in Christ and the salvation wrought for all mankind.
These concepts are powerfully brought together in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is liberty. Believers behold the image of the glory of the Lord without needing a veil and are being transformed into that image from the Lord the Spirit.
Paul’s declaration that the Lord is the Spirit is quite challenging. What does he mean by it? Is he saying that Jesus and the Spirit are the same? And yet there are plenty of passages that differentiate the two (Matthew 3:16-17, John 14:15-17, 15:26-27, 1 Peter 1:2). Should we understand Lord, Greek kurios, in terms of YHWH in the Old Testament, and thus Paul is declaring that the Holy Spirit is YHWH? Scripture does demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is part of YHWH (cf. Leviticus 26:12/Isaiah 52:11/2 Corinthians 6:16-18, 2 Peter 1:21), and it is possible that Paul is still evoking the imagery of Exodus 34:33-35 and thus considers Lord in terms of YHWH. Yet the use of Lord in the near context clearly points to Jesus Christ: turning to the Lord in 2 Corinthians 3:16, and the image of conformity to the image of the Lord is consistent with Romans 8:29. The best sense of the words in context is that Paul is indeed identifying the Lord Jesus and the Spirit together.
While we should not assume that Paul’s identification here means that Jesus is the Spirit and the Spirit is Jesus, it does show the close relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are Three Persons in One being; they share in intimate relationship, unified in being, nature, purpose, will, character, and so forth. Whereas Christ and the Spirit are different Persons within the Godhead, and they have their different roles that they fulfill, Paul is making it clear that we should not separate them when it comes to their purpose and the end result. There is no contrast here between Christ and the Spirit; the Lord is the Spirit, and the ministry of the Spirit is designed to glorify God in Christ.
The presence of the Spirit means that there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17). It is far too easy in modern America to lift this verse out of context and turn this concept into something it was never meant to be. What does Paul mean when he says that there is liberty where the Spirit of the Lord is?
We get an idea from the final verse of this chapter and this section. Whereas the Israelites received God’s Law through the intermediary Moses, whose face they refused to see unveiled, believers through Christ receive God’s message directly through the revelation of the Spirit. Through the Spirit believers are able without any veil in the way to perceive the glory of the Lord as if looking in a mirror. We see the message of God manifest in Christ; the Corinthians heard it through Paul, and we see it through Scripture. That “beholding” is to lead to transformation into the same image, so that the glory of the Lord that we behold in the mirror may also be the reflected glory of God that we exhibit to the world. This can only be accomplished through the work of the Spirit in revelation and sanctification (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 Peter 1:2).
The Law of Moses declared right from wrong; the Spirit allows for transformation to the image of God in Christ. The Law of Moses was read and heard with a veil over the heart of the Israelites; the message from the Spirit is to be heard without hindrance, seen, with spiritual eyes, without any hindrance or covering. Through Christ we can understand God’s redemptive plan and purpose for the creation; through the Spirit we learn of Christ and His message. And this is true freedom: freedom to understand without hindrance, freedom from the veil and the letter which kills. But it cannot be freedom as license to do as we please; that is inconsistent with the image provided throughout Scripture of the believer as being the humble servant of Christ seeking above all things to conform to the image of Jesus, who did not live to please Himself, but to serve the best interests of others (cf. Romans 6:17-23, 8:29, 12:1-2, 15:1-3, Philippians 2:1-11, 1 John 2:3-6). We have been set free from the law and sin and death so that we can become transformed creatures, servants of God, glorifying Him in all we do.
Little wonder, then, that Paul would treasure this hope and thus speak boldly (2 Corinthians 3:12). The Spirit made known to him the work of God in Christ, and thus we can learn of it as well. We can come to a better appreciation of the freedom which we have obtained through the Lord and the Spirit so that we can go through the transformative process of becoming like the Son in all things. Let us praise God and give Him the glory for what He has done!
Ethan R. Longhenry