Epistles: 2 Corinthians 3 – Paul and the New Covenant

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 3-4).

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

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.

Notice 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 16).

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).

Moses 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.

Author: Michael Morrison, 1999, 2013

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