Paul and the New Covenant – 2 Corinthians 3

Paul begins this chapter by pointing out that he, the
apostle Christ used to begin the Corinthian church, did not need a “letter of
recommendation” from anybody: “Are we
beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters
of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on
our hearts, known and read by everyone” (verses 1-2).

The people themselves served as authenticating proof that
Paul was an apostle of Christ: “You
show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not
with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets
of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ before God” (verses

Paul then explains that God is the real source of his
authority: “Not that we are competent
in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from
God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the
letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”
(verses 5-6).

The new contrasted with the old covenant

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Paul has already mentioned “tablets of stone,” and then the “new
covenant.” He then builds the contrast between the new and the old. His
authenticity as an apostle of Christ is not built upon the old covenant, but
upon the new — not on the letters engraved in stone, but in the Spirit of God.

Let’s see how he develops the contrast: “Now if the ministry that brought death,
which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites
could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory
though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?”
(verses 7-8).

Let’s pause to be sure we know what Paul is talking about.
He is talking about something written on stone, at a time when Moses’ face
shone with glory. He is talking about the Ten Commandments. This is what was
written on stone. Paul is calling the Ten Commandments a “ministry that brought
death.” Paul was not a minister of the letter (the Ten Commandments), but of
the Spirit.

Notice that he does not say, like some people want him to,
that he was a minister of “the spirit of the law.” Instead of combining law and
spirit, Paul equated the law with the letter, and he made a contrast between
the Law and the Spirit of God.

Of course, it was God who gave the Law. Nevertheless, Paul
saw a fundamental contrast between the Law and the Spirit, between the old and
the new. There is continuity, of course, for both old and new are covenants of
the same God. But even though God does not change, and his underlying
principles do not change, his covenants do.

Paul explains some differences in the next verses: “If the ministry that brought condemnation is
glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!”
(verse 9). The Ten Commandments were a ministry that condemned people. They had
some glory, but not nearly as much as the new covenant. The Ten Commandments
cannot bring righteousness, but the new covenant does.

“For what was
glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (verse
10). The Ten Commandments have no glory now, Paul is saying, in comparison to
the new covenant, which brings life and righteousness.

“And if what was transitory
came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” What
was fading away? Moses’ face was fading, but Paul is not talking about Moses’
face any more — he is talking about “the ministry that brought death, which was
engraved in letters on stone.” That is what “came with glory” (verse 7). That
is what was fading away.

The Ten Commandments, Paul is saying, came with glory, but
they were temporary, just as surely as the glory of Moses’ face was temporary.
The new covenant not only has much greater glory, but it also “lasts.” The Ten
Commandments, Paul implies, do not last forever. They were designed as a
temporary “ministry of condemnation,” designed to lead people to Christ.

the contrasts Paul has made:

The Ten Commandments

The New Covenant

written on tablets of stone (v. 4)

written on the heart

the letter that kills (v. 6)

the Spirit that gives life

a ministry that brought death (v. 7)

a ministry that brings life

engraved in letters on stone (v. 7)

ministry of the Spirit

came with glory (v. 7)

even more glorious

the ministry that condemns (v. 9)

the ministry that brings righteousness

no glory now in comparison (v. 10)

the surpassing glory

it came with glory (v. 11)

much greater glory

it is transitory (v. 11)

the ministry that lasts

Paul says that the Ten Commandments, although good, are
temporary and fading. What has faded away concerning the Ten Commandments? Some
people try to say that the Ten Commandments, instead of fading, are actually
more binding on people today than ever before. They want to expand the Ten
instead of letting them fade.

But Paul is saying that there is a fundamental change in the
way people relate to God. The old way is a written law that condemns people to
death. The new way is the Holy Spirit, which brings forgiveness and life. The
Spirit leads us to obey God, but it is a fundamentally different relationship,
a different basis of relating to God.

There is some basic continuity between the old covenant and
the new. Most of the Ten Commandments are quoted with approval in the New
Testament. Those commands reflect aspects of God’s law that were in effect long
before Sinai—from the beginning. One is not — the Sabbath command. It was a
ceremonial law, instituted for a temporary time period.

Paul’s boldness in Christ

Once Paul understood the change, he was strengthened and
encouraged: “Therefore, since we have
such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over
his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away”
(verses 12-13).

Paul did not hide. He was bold in preaching the new way —
salvation through the crucified Christ. But despite his boldness, and the
clarity of the message, many people did not accept the gospel:

“But their minds
were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is
read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to
this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts” (verses 14-15).

Many people today, Jewish or not, do not seem to understand.
They keep reading the Bible with old covenant eyes. The only solution is
Christ. Only in him can the “veil” be removed. “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (verse

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

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This article was written by in 1999 and updated in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

The basis of our relationship with God

What does it mean to “turn to the Lord”? It means to see
Jesus as the basis of our relationship with God. It means seeing our identity
in him, not in the Law of Moses. Christ becomes central. We obey his law, the
law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). When we put him first in our identity, he will
help us see the covenantal change more clearly.

“The Lord is the
Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (verse
17). We have freedom in Christ — but what kind of freedom? Certainly, we still
obey — Paul makes that clear in Romans 6. But in this context of 2 Corinthians,
what kind of freedom is he talking about? It is freedom from the ministry that
brought death — freedom from the old covenant. There is a lot of continuity,
but there is some important change as well.

An unfading glory

Not only do the covenants change from old and temporary to
new and permanent, Christians themselves are changing: “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being
transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the
Lord, who is the Spirit” (verse 18).

had only a fading glory, and his covenant had only a fading glory. It could
give only temporary blessings. But we, with the eternal Spirit living within
us, are being changed into a permanent glory — a glory that does not need to
hide, a glory that looks to the heart instead of the stone tablets.

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