Imagine Saul the Pharisee on the Damascus road, blissfully unaware of how his life is about to be turned upside-down. Like a religious vigilante, he is a persecutor of those who dare to follow Jesus — a false messiah! — and is full of self-righteous zeal. But there on the road, the risen Lord blinds Saul with heavenly light and bluntly hands him his apostolic commission: I’m Jesus; get up, go into the city, and wait for instructions.
It is unimaginable to me how such an experience must have shattered his previously confident worldview. But surely the memory of that experience was central to how he subsequently understood his new vocation and defended it before his detractors. All the things he had counted on before, all the characteristics that made him a model “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” were now but “sewer trash” compared to knowing Jesus as his Lord (Phil 3:5, 8, CEB).
But that didn’t mean that Saul, renamed Paul, had no confidence left — at least, not once it had found a new basis.
As we’ve seen repeatedly, Paul’s qualifications as an apostle were a perennial point of contention between him and his opponents. There were polished teachers with impressive letters of reference in Corinth. Against that background, Paul’s defense of his own ministry must have sounded to many like empty self-promotion (indeed, the issue comes up again and again in 2 Corinthians).
But in response, Paul writes this:
This is the confidence that we have through Christ in the presence of God. It isn’t that we ourselves are qualified to claim that anything came from us. No, our qualification is from God. He has qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not based on what is written but on the Spirit, because what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3:4-6, CEB)
Earlier, in chapter 2, he had raised a rhetorical question: “Who is qualified for this kind of ministry?” (2 Cor 2:16, CEB). There, the answer was implied; here, it’s more explicit. Not even Paul can claim any competence in himself; it’s all from God.
Of course, it’s hard to claim that one is qualified when the work itself is new. It’s one thing to be confident in your Pharisaic training and legalistic righteousness when you’re persecuting people you presume to be heretics. But it’s another to realize that a new day has dawned. God, in Jesus, has instituted a new covenant, one that is no longer based on the impossible external requirement of having to be righteous by the letter of the law. Incredibly, the new covenant is based instead on the life-giving presence of the Spirit within.
Paul will have much, much more to say about the new covenant in the words that follow. But it’s worth reflecting whether our own conversion parallels Paul’s in one important respect.
We don’t need to have been persecutors of the church, nor struck blind on the road. The question, rather, is this: have we experienced a conversion of confidence? Do we trust more in our own qualifications or the work of his Spirit, in and through us, and in and through the others around us?