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Summary: This passage is the heart of the chapter, and it should be studied in connection with Exodus 24:29-35. Paul did not deny the glory of the Old Testament Law, because in the giving of the Law and the maintaining of the temple and tabernacle services . . . .

April 28, 2014

Tom Lowe

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

Lesson II.B.1.b: The Quality of His Ministry. (3:6-11)

2nd Corinthians 3:6-11 (NKJV)

6 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.

7 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, fading though it was,

8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?

9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!

10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.

11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

Introduction

Sometimes I must just stop and say, “Isn’t God wonderful!” This passage evokes such a statement. It is wonderful because it declares God’s glory, and I am blessed by it more than I can say. I pray that you too will be blessed as we study it together.

This passage is the heart of the chapter, and it should be studied in connection with Exodus 24:29-35{9].Paul did not deny the glory of the Old Testament Law, because in the giving of the Law and the maintaining of the temple and tabernacle services, there certainly was glory. What he affirmed, however, was that the glory of the new covenant of grace was far superior, and he gave several reasons to support his affirmation.

Commentary

6 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.

The word Paul uses for “new” when he speaks of the new covenant is the same as Jesus used and it is very significant. In Greek there are two words for new. First there is noes, which means new in point of time and that alone. Second there is kainos, which means not only new in point of time, but also new in quality. It is the word kainos that both Jesus and Paul use for the new covenant and the significance is that the new covenant is not only new in point of time; it is quite different in kind from the Old Covenant. It produces between men and God a relationship of a totally different kind.

We are “ministers of a new covenant.” We will see in this passage a contrast between the old covenant (the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the New Testament). Actually, they will be contrasted in several different ways.

When God called us into the Christian life and into His service as apostles, He made us competent and qualified to be ministers. His grace and gifts made us adequate for the demanding task (2 Co. 2:16{1]). The word ministers means, “those who serve God, or act for Him in response to His call. God’s call gave Paul authority to act, but the church did not have as yet a formal organization or a proven constitution. A covenant in the Bible was not an agreement between equals. It was an arrangement offered by God for the benefit of His people, who accepted it in gratitude and promised in return to fulfill their prescribed duties. It goes without saying that God would fulfill His promises, and that He had the right to reject or punish His people if they failed to fulfill their part. The very making of such a covenant was an expression of God’s gracious character; even behind the Law is the grace of God, just as God redeemed His people before He gave them the Law (Ex. 20:2{2]). But the “first covenant” (Heb. 9:18{3]) made with Israel through Moses (Ex. 24:3-8{4]) was not the full and final expression of God’s will and purpose. It was set down in a “written code” (RSV). For Paul the Old Testament is Scripture; he does not reject the written Scripture or its literal meaning. He is speaking rather of the written Law, in contrast with the transforming effect of the gospel message, through which the living power of the Spirit of God acts to bring redemption and newness of life (Rom. 6:4{5]) to those who believe.

Next Paul says, “Not of the letter but of the Spirit.” In the Old Testament, and specifically in the Law, the letter kills; the letter of the law actually condemns us. The Dictionary of Legal Terms gives this definition for “letter of the law”—“The strict and exact force of the language used in a statute, as distinguished from the spirit, general purpose, and policy of the statute.” In other words, when one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording. The Law says that you and I are guilty sinners. Those letters which were written on tablets of stone condemn man. The Mosaic Law never gave life. That is the contrast he is making here. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The Mosaic Law stated man’s duty and so made him answerable to God, but gave man no power to obey, and so, since man is wicked and in the grip of evil desires, it could only lead to spiritual ruin; it kills. But now God has replaced the legal system of the old covenant with a new covenant (Mk. 14:24{6]; 1 Co. 11:25{7]; Heb. 12:24{8]). It was effectively inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and brought home to men not primarily by the preaching of the apostles, though that was necessary, but by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, who gives life to believers.

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