The surpassing glory of Christ
2 Corinthians 3:4-18
We are continuing to set our minds upon the surpassing glory of Christ and the New Covenant. We are going continue to look at how Paul contrasts the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant.
And as we do this I want to make sure we understand how centrally important this is in our lives and thinking now and into the eternity. I think many of us do not truly grasp just how significant the New Covenant in Christ is in every part of who we are and how we think about ourselves before God and in this world. It change everything.
Unfortunately, I think there are many Christians who see the gospel mainly (or maybe even exclusively) in terms of how one ‘gets saved’ and since they have ‘gotten saved’ the gospel is a given, but not anything that would consume much of their thoughts now. The gospel they think is what should be presented to unbelievers, but we believers should go on to other things. The gospel is about how you go to heaven, not about how you walk and live and grow today or in the future.
This could not be more wrong. It is as we behold the glory of Christ as He comes to us in the good news through the New Covenant that we are transformed and built up and kept for the day of His appearing. I think C.J. Mahaney expresses it well when he writes,
“The gospel isn’t one class among many that you’ll attend during your life as a Christian – the gospel is the whole building that all the classes take place in! Rightly approached, all the topics you’ll study and focus on as a believer will be offered to you ‘within the walls’ of the glorious gospel” (The Cross Centered Life).
“Never be content with your current grasp of the gospel. The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe changing truth… Its depths man will never exhaust” (The Cross Centered Life).
As members of the New Covenant in Christ the terms of our relationship with God are gospel terms. When we enter the New Covenant we are entering a new world of gospel realities. Everything changes. How God relates to us radically changes and in consequence how we relate to Him, the world, other people, and ourself radically changes.
Last time we began considering the contrast Paul was making between the Mosaic Covenant given at Sinai which was the ministry of death carved in letters on stone and the New Covenant which the Ministry of the Spirit and gives life. This week we will continue thinking about these things.
Again Paul is countering false teaching that has come into the Corinthian church which was threatening to undermine the perfection and completion of the gospel. This false teaching failed to see that the New Covenant is super-abundantly all we need. The glory of what has come, though not seen with these eyes, is a glory beyond comparison and needs no addition – and to think it does is to fail to see it for what it is. This morning we are going to camp out on verses 9-11 as Paul describes what the Mosaic Covenant did and contrasts it with what the New Covenant does.
Now there are two contrasts here that we need to take note of and bank our lives on. They are found in verse 9 and in verse 11. The first contrasted found in verse 9 is between condemnation and righteousness and the second found in verse 11 is between what was being brought to an end and what is permanent. Let’s consider that first contrast in verse 9.
Paul clearly says that the Mosaic Covenant was the ministry of death in verse 7 and here in verse 9 we are told more clearly how that covenant accomplished that killing ministry. It was through condemnation. It was the ministry of condemnation.
What is condemnation? Condemnation is the act of pronouncing someone guilty in a criminal case. So the Mosaic Covenant’s ministry for the people of God was to pronounce them guilty in the Divine courtroom. As we said last week, the law was designed to stop every mouth and to demonstrate that everyone who stands before God by works of law will be found guilty. So the Old Covenant was the ministry of condemnation resulting in death.
Now, let’s be clear, none of us were ever and will never be under the Mosaic Covenant; it was given to a specific people at a specific time with blessings and cursing applicable only to them and it has passed away, but because we have been grafted into the nourishing root of Christ (Romans 11:19) and are now included in God’s people with Abraham as the father of us all (Romans 4:16), the Mosaic Covenant is every bit as much our heritage as it is the heritage of the ethnic Jew and that Covenant is intended to teach us about the reality of our own moral bankruptcy.
The Mosaic Covenant was intended to serve the people of God then and it is intended to serve us now by demonstrating without a shadow of a doubt that all people are morally bankrupt and cannot achieve by works what God’s glorious character requires. There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).
Now the reason I am lingering here again this week is because I am convinced that we need to let Paul’s words sink into our minds and shape our hearts. We need this language to be part of the fabric of who we are as a local church – we need these realities vibrant in our hearts. The Law Covenant is the ministry of condemnation and death.
Yes, even for us who know and love the gospel, we need constant reminding of these things. In fact, I believe the reason so many of us walk around so often discouraged and frustrated and racked with fear and guilt is because we have failed to learn from the ministry of the Old Covenant and we have failed to behold the glory of the New. In other words, we have not yet truly despaired of ourselves and our ability and our potential to meet the requirements of God’s holy character and we have not yet grasped the perfection of our Savior and what our Savior has done for us.
Being racked with guilt as a Christian may in fact mean that you have no yet grasped how sinful and guilty you really are! What? Why? Because if you are racked with guilt you haven’t left the foot of Sinai! If you live with a theology that leaves you at the foot of Sinai with lighting and thunder and the mountain wrapped in smoke and a constant dread that God is going to breakout against you, of course you are going to be racked with fear and guilt. The question is, why are you still at Sinai? Do you still think that some how, some way you will find a way to make yourself acceptable? Are you living under the delusion that if you can just clean up this or that area of your life than you will be acceptable?
It’s a lie. You can’t. You never will.
Let Moses have his ministry in your life and acknowledge before God and man that you are a sinner, and utterly needy – an utter failure. You have failed and will always fail to measure up to God’s standard on your own. You are condemned and will always be condemned if your standing depends on your law keeping.
Brothers and sisters, the sickness of the human condition is very deep. Sin is a malignant cancer and it has spread throughout every part of who we are. We are ruined and the law is intended to point this out. The ministry of condemnation. It is intended to bring you to the end of yourself.
So why do we so often hang out at the foot of Sinai? I fear it is because we have not yet beheld the glory of Christ! Or we are living in spiritual amnesia and fail to remember His glory and so we fail to live upon the glory of Jesus Christ who’s ministry Paul calls the ministry of righteousness. Moses had the ministry of condemnation and death by the letter. Jesus has the ministry of righteousness leads to life by the Spirit.
What is righteousness? Righteousness is the legal status of having fully satisfied the moral requirements of God’s character. In the weeks to come we will talk about the transforming power of the Spirit within us – the New Covenant comes with transforming power, but this morning I do not want to run past the glory of Christ’s declaring ministry – His justifying ministry. The ministry of condemnation has given way to the glory of the ministry of righteousness. What does this mean?
It means that to approach the one true and holy God through Sinai meant a verdict of guilty. For we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But to approach the one true and holy God through the cross means a verdict of perfectly righteous, perfectly accepted. A verdict that declares that you have fully satisfied the moral requirements of God’s character. His perfect righteousness is counted to you.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Do you believe this?! Have you beheld the glory of Christ as He serves you with the ministry of righteousness? Do you live as if this is true – that when you come to God through Christ that you are counted righteous in His sight?
To believe this is the battle of faith. To believe that there is nothing more you need to do, nothing more you need to achieved, nothing more you can add, that Christ has fully satisfied God Almighty for you. This is what Satan does not want you to believe. Satan wants you trembling at the foot of Sinai desperately trying to keep the requirements of the law so that some how some way you might achieve God’s approval. But Christ is calling us to a new covenant, a new and living way, to come to Him and rest in Him.
How you understand the terms of your relationship to God changes everything.
Do you believe that God is boiling in heaven with His eyes aflame ready to break out against you?
Do you believe that God is fickle, waffling in heaven, impressed with you one day, disappointed with you the next; smiling and eager to help you one day, frowning and making your life miserable the next?
What is the basis for how God views you? Is it your performance? Is it your current maturity level?
What are the terms of your relationship with God?
Are they New Covenant Terms?
Paul is calling us to consider the glorious terms of the New Covenant.
If you are not in Christ – not in the New Covenant, God is indeed more terribly against you than we can possibly imagine. But if you are in Christ, His wrath as been fully satisfied in Christ. If you are in Christ, God is not waffling in heaven because your performance is not the basis of his assessment towards you – Christ is! Christ is the basis of how God has tried your case. Christ – the glorious Son of God in perfect blazing holiness is what God sees when He looks at you – without regard to your performance, maturity level, or earthly status. Do you believe the gospel?
I’d like you to notice the second contrasts in verse 11. There Paul tells us that the Mosaic Covenant was temporary. Paul calls it that which was being brought to an end. And he contrasts that covenant with that which is permanent, the New Covenant. The Ministry of condemnation and death was designed to come in for a brief time in redemptive history, though its ministry continues as we learn from that covenant, but the New Covenant is designed to come and never fail and never pass away. It is permanent.
Hebrews 9:11-12 and 24-28
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption… 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The New Covenant that deals with the true realities has come and He has secured eternal redemption. I ask you again: what are the terms of your relationship with God? And if they are the terms of the New Covenant, is that where you live? Are these the things that you set your mind upon?
Criticism, Praise, and Pain
As I said, in the weeks to come we will look closely at the transforming power of the New Covenant, but even this morning I want to tease out how embracing the glory of Christ by faith and believing the terms of the New Covenant changes everything. Faith in Christ changes how you view God and yourself and the world.
Take criticism for example. Let’s say you are living at the foot of Sinai and someone comes along and points out a failure. This is a big deal – fear, guilt, frustration are all appropriate responses to criticism when you live at the foot of the smoking mountain. But, as appropriate as those responses would be those responses usually only come as stabs in the heart but are quickly covered over. Instead of honest acknowledgement of failure you start justifying yourselves – you start defending you what you have thought or said or done and you look for someone else to blame. And your start comparing yourself too others rather than to God. If you are going to live at the foot of Sinai you are either going to be living in moral dread and fear and condemnation all the time or you are going to fool yourself that you really are righteous and blame everyone else for your failures – because to look your sin in the face and call it what it is, is not bearable. So criticism at Sinai means you will be living in despair or denial.
But if you are living at the foot of the cross and someone comes along and points out a failure how does this affect you? Well, if you are living there you have already acknowledged and live acknowledging that you are a sinner and that your sin was so serious that to pay for it the Lord of Glory had to be crucified. Someone living at the foot of the cross has already received the most cutting and deep criticism possible. And yet, the person living there is no longer setting their hope on themselves. They are living by faith in the Son of God whose righteousness is counted as their own. So when someone points out a failure to a person living upon Christ they have no fear of condemnation; they can look at their failures honestly as what they are without having to shade or twist or justify themselves or compare themselves to others; they are free to own it and give it to Jesus; they are free from all their sin and can take criticism and assess it in the light of God’s holiness and humbly acknowledge the truth.
On the flip side. Let’s say you are living at the foot of Sinai and someone comes along and praises you. Well, this is a big deal – the guilt is quieted, the fear turns to hope, and the sun starts shining in your life. It feels so good to hear well done because all your hope and identity and peace is wrapped in that being true. You begin to crave this kind of approval. If you can get enough voices in your life saying you are so great and so wonderful than maybe your that nagging conscience will be silences. So you live and act to impress and be seen by others. Criticism you dismiss, but praise you crave.
But if you are living at the foot of the cross and someone comes along and praise you, well, that’s nice, but the Lord of Glory was still beaten and blooded and hung on a cross because of you. But there is something more. At the cross you have exchanged your filthy rags for spotless ones that cannot be stained. You are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Your hope and identity and peace are not wrapped up in your performance or goodness or gifts but in Christ. You know that you have nothing but what was freely given as a gift.
Where you live matters. That is, what you believe matters. The terms of your relationship to God matters.
I’d like to point out just one more area that living at the foot of the cross radically changes. And that is the area of pain. At Sinai God entered into a covenant with Israel where there were wonderful earthly blessings and comforts promised for obedience. God’s blessing came to the obedient and those blessings were things like rain and good harvests and peace and safety and cattle and sheep and goats and homes and children. And devastation, famine, and exile for disobedience.
But we are not living under that covenant – thank God! We are living under a far better one. Because of Christ’s obedience we have God’s blessing eternally secured, but we are mistaken if we then think that means we should be getting earthly blessings and comforts like food and homes and peace in this world. In the New Covenant those things are simply not promised to come now – and certainly not because you have obeyed.
In fact the New Covenant does result in everlasting comfort and peace and safety and blessing of which we have a spiritual taste now, by faith. But the New Testament makes it plain that this we are not to expect pain free lives as sojourners and exiles on the earth. And in fact we are told again and again and again that Christians will experience death, and sickness, and persecutions, and imprisonments, and groanings just as their Lord did on earth – but that all these will work together for our good and will give way to an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. These are the terms of the New Covenant! Do you believe them?
So if you live at the foot of Sinai and bad things happen you say, “what did I do now? God is against me!”
But if you live at the foot of the cross and bad things happen you say, “My loving heavenly Father has abundantly demonstrated His love for me in Christ and has told me pain would come, so I will trust the sovereign hand of my Lord and Savior who has promised to work even this to His glory and my good.”
Where you live matters. That is, what you believe matters. The terms of your relationship to God matter.
Preaching These Things To Ourselves
Being a Christian does not mean we will automatically have a full understanding or appreciation for the glory of Christ. We are called to set our minds upon it, to walk by the Spirit of Christ, to encourage one another with these things. We need to sit ourselves down at the feet of Jesus and preach the gospel to ourselves every hour and learn of Christ. Why do Christians struggle with guilt and fear and frustration? Because they are not beholding and learning of Christ.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne a pastor who lived in the 1800s who died at the age of 29 gave this excellent advice:
“Learn much of your own heart; and when you have learned all you can, remember you have seen but a few yards into a pit that is unfathomable. ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). Learn much more of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinner, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in His beams. Feel His all-seeing eyes settle on you in love, and repose in His almighty arms. Cry after divine knowledge, and lift up your voice for understanding. Seek her as sliver, and search for her as for hidden treasure, according to the word from Proverbs 2:4… Let wisdom enter into your hearts, and knowledge be pleasant to thy soul; so you will be delivered from the snare… Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him. Let the Holy Spirit fill every chamber of your heart; so there will be no room for folly, or the world, or Satan, or the flesh.”
What are you filling your mind with? The glory of Christ and the terms of the New Covenant or something else?