Are you ready?
2 Corinthians 3:4-18
To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge is what we are after this morning. Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at the nature of the New Covenant into which we have graciously been included! There is no more wonderful thing to set our minds and hearts upon than this – the nature of our relationship to God in Christ Jesus! Oh, that God’s love and grace and mercy and wisdom and strength in Christ Jesus might be known in this place! That we would love Him more because of His great love with which He has loved even us.
Why Paul Penned This Section
Now, this section is packed with riches, but it hangs together in Paul’s thinking. We will be in these verses for a few weeks, but what Paul is doing here in this rich passage is contrasting the glory of what we now have in Christ in the New Covenant with what came before in the Old Covenant. And the reason he is doing this is because the Corinthian believers were being tempted to go back. They were tempted and drawn toward a form of religion that would not save them, but would in fact kill them.
Those who were trying to undermine Paul in Corinth (those Paul calls “super-apostles” 11:5 and later “false apostles” 11:13, probably the same group he calls “peddlers of God’s word” 2:17 and the “some” who needed letters of recommendation 3:1), had not only called Paul’s character into question but had also called his teaching into question. These men had brought in false doctrine and were undermining the gospel Paul had announced and in which the Corinthian believers had been rooted. These false teachers had come in misrepresenting the gospel and the New Covenant in Christ and the church was being led astray.
There really is no greater danger than this in the church. We can get a lot of things wrong as a church, but if we get this wrong and accept a different gospel and are led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ we lose everything. Oh, may we be diligent to understand the things of Christ.
The false teaching that had come into Corinth was a teaching that misunderstood or rejected the seismic shift that had taken place with the coming of the Messiah. They had radically misunderstood the dawning of the New Covenant. When we speak of covenant we are talking about the terms of a relationship. When we talk about the biblical covenants we are talking about the terms of relationship between God and people – terms that God sets up.
One of the great difficulties in the early church was a failure by the ethnic and religious Jewish community to understand or accept that the coming of Christ was the coming of radically new and far better terms of relationship. Truly they misunderstood that the covenants of promise were looking forward to this glorious New Covenant. They misunderstood how the Mosaic Covenant was intended to function for the people of God – how it was intended to serve them and us.
So when Christ came and by His blood He established the New Covenant He was fulfilling the covenants of promise and making the Mosaic Covenant obsolete, which has now vanished away, but many of the Jews didn’t get it. And what kept creeping into the church was a mixture of old and new – symbol and substance – ritual and reality. And the danger, which is ever present to this day is that we will miss and diminish the perfection and sufficiency of Christ and the New Covenant and run around adding to Christ’s perfect work. May the Lord guard us from such error.
Now Paul’s response to this dangerous teaching is to show the people of God again the glory and perfection of Christ and the glorious and complete and perfect nature of the New Covenant He establish.
So what we will do this morning is begin looking at the first contrast that Paul makes between the Mosaic Law Covenant and the New Covenant in Christ. And my hope this morning is that as we begin to unpack this contrast we will be moved with joy and filled with hope and leave this place rejoicing in Christ afresh with His finished work as our souls nourishment and His name as our banner and His fame as our mission. That His love for us would stir in us such a love for Him that we might delight to be a fragrance of Him everywhere we go.
Let’s narrow in on verses 7 and 8 this morning and be listening for the stark contrast that Paul is making.
2 Corinthians 3:7-8
7. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses ‘face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8. will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Obviously Paul’s point here is that the New Covenant far exceeds the glory of what came before, but let’s tease out how.
In verse 7 Paul refers to the Mosaic Covenant as the ministry of death and it is clear that it is the Mosaic Covenant he is referring to because he says it was carved in letters on stone and Moses is explicitly mentioned. He is talking about the stone tablets given through Moses on Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel which represents the Mosaic Covenant. So Paul wants us to see the stark difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant in Christ.
430 Years Later
But, we need to back up for just a moment because God meeting with Moses on Sinai is not some isolated event in biblical history and it is not the first event in biblical history. Truly what we have in the bible is the unfolding of God’s plan to perfectly redeem a people from sin and death and to restore them by His grace through Jesus Christ. The bible is the history of redemption and Moses at Sinai and the giving of the Law Covenant contributes to God’s plan of redemption in specific ways.
To understand Sinai we must understand what came before Sinai. The book of Genesis gives us the beginnings and serves as the essential context for Exodus and the giving of the Law Covenant to the people of Israel.
We learn in Genesis that God created all things very good and set Man as His image bearer to have dominion over creation to honor and glorify God his Maker and God set him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. God told man that he could eat of any of the trees of the garden except the tree in the midst of the garden, for in the day he ate from that tree he would surely die. And through the temptation of the Devil man rebelled against God, fell into sin, and ate of the tree. Man was cast out and barred from the sanctuary of God. And death reigned.
But God is rich in mercy. Generations later God entered into a covenant of promise with a man named Abram, later called Abraham. God promised this man countless offspring and a good land and that He would be his shield and very great reward and through him all the families of the earth would be blessed and God promised to make Abraham exceedingly fruitful and God would establish his covenant of blessing not only to Abraham, but to Abraham’s offspring for an everlasting covenant and He would be their God (Genesis 12,15,17).
And it is crucial to recognize that these incredible promises had no condition attached to them. God committed Himself to do these things without any conditions. God promised unconditionally and God does not break His word.
Fast forward 430 years and we are at the foot of Sinai. God enters now into another covenant with the people of Israel. But Paul in Galatians is careful to point out, that this covenant at Sinai does not annul or make void God’s covenant of promise made to Abraham. Instead, we need to understand that God is adding this Law Covenant to serve the people of God in a very specific way.
The Abrahamic Covenant was an unconditional covenant of promise.
The Mosaic Covenant was brought in 430 years later to serve God’s people in a specific way.
The Ministry of Death
Again Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:7,
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone…
So Paul tells us that the Mosaic Covenant was the ministry (the service) of death. God added this Covenant to – kill.
Is this the way you think about the 10 commandments and the Mosaic Covenant in which those commandments came? As the ministry of death? A killing ministry?
A Crushing Sinai
I wonder how many of us when we read Exodus and come to Sinai and beyond in biblical history, really understand what was going on there. I think many of us have a shallow notion about the story of Israel at Sinai and the giving the Old Covenant through Moses. Many of us have the handsome and bold Charlton Heston standing there dramatically with the stone tablets in hand and we sort of see the Israelites like silly children and we chuckle as we read about their rascally behavior – they can’t seem to go a day without complaining and getting into trouble. But what is so often missing in our understanding of the Old Covenant is the crushing holiness of God – when in fact the crushing holiness of God is the central feature of the entire covenant.
For some reason we like to put the ten commandments in prominent places without any explanation. We seem to think that the ten commandments are self evidently the essence of true religion. In fact, I think it is fair to say that when most people think about what Christianity is one of the first things that comes to mind is the 10 commandments and yet Paul refers to these letters written on stone as the ministry of death. The very intention of those Ten Commandments written on stone and the Covenant in which they came was to serve (they were a ministry after all), but they served by killing.
When you read through the Exodus account of the giving of the Law it is clear that Israel was in a very dangerous spot. They were entering into a relationship that would kill them. In Exodus 19, just before the ten commandments are spoken the Lord set limits for the people all around saying, “take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edges of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death [because God is holy and you are not!]” (Exodus 19:12) and the people were to consecrate themselves. And on the appointed day there was thunder and lightening and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that the people trembled (Exodus 19:16). Then the mountain was wrapped in smoke because God had descended on it in fire and the whole mountain trembled (19:18) and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder and Moses spoke and the Lord answered him in thunder (19:19) and the Lord called Moses to come up and said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish.” and again, “…do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them” (19:21 and 24).
So it is in this context that the Lord gives the Ten Commandments. And the next verse after the giving of these commandments we read,
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die (Exodus 20:18-19).
As we read a bit later “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on top of the Mountain in the sight of all the people of Israel” (Exodus 24:17). Israel was in a dangerous spot because God is holy and they were not.
And let us not forget the terms of this Law Covenant were very clear: “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Of course the Old Covenant was more than just the Ten Commandments. Israel was given many just laws recorded in Exodus and Leviticus. And then also in Deuteronomy there is a rededication to the Law Covenant (they had to rededicate because an entire generation sinned and were rejected – including Moses!) – but always the condition was, if you obey, if you walk in His statutes and observe His commandments to do them, then earthly blessings would abound, but if you will not listen to God and will not do all His commands, if you spurn His statures and if your soul abhors His rule so that you will not do all His commandments then He will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it… and God will scatter you among the nations (see Leviticus 26).
These were not 10 suggestions. Indeed the hundreds of laws given in that covenant came with incredible blessings for obedience, but they also came with devastating curses for disobedience.
And we know Israel’s history. When an infinitely holy God dwells in the midst of a sinful people and the terms of their relationship are that the sinful people must keep all the commandments in order to receive blessing it does not go well.
This was in fact the ministry of the Old Covenant. The Law Covenant was the ministry of death. It served the people of God by killing them – as Paul says in Romans 3 “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. [Be Quiet! You have no excuse! You have no grounds for boasting! You are not holy and not worthy! You are a sinner!] For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” God knew the Israelites would not and could not keep the terms of the Old Covenant. God knew what the end of the Law Covenant would be – it would be death. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, the letter kills.
The entire history of Israel under the Old Covenant is a demonstration that if the blazingly holy God is going to keep His promises to Abraham and dwell with and bless Abraham’s offspring it must be by terms other than by works of the law. The Old Covenant’s ministry was intended to contribute to redemption – not by being a means of dwelling with God, but by leaving no doubt that by works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight.
Promise of a New Covenant
But God keeps His promises. He would make a way to keep His promises by means of a new covenant. After years and years if Israel’s rebellion and failure God finally did bring the curses of the Law upon that people. They were led away as captives and barred by God from the land. But God did not abandon His promises to Abraham. In Jeremiah we read,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, ’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
God had a plan from before the foundations of the earth. He had planned a far better covenant. One were sin would not just be made known, but one where sin would actually be fully dealt with, remembered no more, iniquity would be forgiven. God would be for them – their great reward – they would be His people, each member of this new covenant would know the Lord and have the law, not out here, crushing them, but in here – written on the heart. As Ezekiel says, God would gather His people from the nations and cleanse them and give them a new heart and put His own Spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:24-27)!
How would God keep His promises to Abraham, by this new Covenant.
Death and Life
Now Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians is that this far better covenant has now come. The glory of what has now come far exceeds what came before. The ministry of death certainly came with glory. There was thunder and lightening and smoke and a trumpet and the glory of the Lord appeared like a devouring fire and the mountain trembled. Yes, the Old Covenant came with glory, but it was a crushing glory, the blazing holiness of God ready to break out against sinful people. And Paul says if that ministry came with glory, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Paul is calling us to consider the infinitely greater glory of the New Covenant in Christ. The New Covenant does not hold the glory of God over our heads with dark threats of death. The New Covenant makes a way for the glory of the Almighty to be for us our shield and very great reward and actually comes to dwell among us and wonder of wonders in us! The New Covenant is the ministry of life. It is the ministry of everlasting blessing. In 3:6 Paul says the New Covenant in Christ is of the Spirit and the Spirit gives life.
The covenant of which we are members is a covenant that does not result in death, but in life for all who enter it. Where there was only cold holy standard set upon us like a crushing weight and the constant threat of death and darkness and fear, now there is Holy Spirit written in us and the permanent gift of life and light and joy.
The Work of Our Lord
Brothers and sisters what Jesus Christ did for us some 2000 years ago was not republish the Law. He came to fulfill the righteous requirement for us. He himself kept the Law and He fulfilled all righteousness. He alone obeyed God’s voice and kept perfectly the true intention of the Law – the thing the Law was really pointing to:to honor the Lord God, to love the Lord His God with all His heart and soul and mind and strength and to love His neighbor as Himself even to death. But He didn’t do it for Himself. He did it for those who come to God through Him. And not only did he fulfill all righteousness, He also bore in His own body the full weight of the curse. Not for Himself but for those who come to God through Him.
How will the God of blinding holiness be for sinners their shield and very great reward and bless them everlastingly and not curse them and give them life everlasting and not death and secure for them a home forever and not cast them into outer darkness and give them abundant and lasting fruitfulness and not desolation? He has done it through the person and work of Christ Jesus.
We have only just scratched the surface of these things. But in the weeks to come we will continue to unpack the glory and nature of the New Covenant. What came before had quite a lot of external glory, but it was a crushing glory. What we have Paul calls here the ministry of the Spirit – not a lot of external glory (yet), but glory of what we have so exceeds the glory of what came before that what came before has come to have no glory at all.
Paul is going to unpack what this New Covenant means for us as members in it and as minister of it, but I want us to leave this morning with this thought: when you think about becoming right with God and having life and blessing in His presence secured (and I am not just talking to unbelievers, I am talking to me! and I am talking to each one who confessed to trust the Lord Jesus… when you think about being right with God and having life and blessing in His presence secure), do not run to Moses and the Law. Run to Jesus and believe upon Him.
In Him there is provided for you life and life to the full. You need nothing else. If you want darkness and gloom and curse and death relate to God through your own works of the law, but if you want joy and perfect peace and light and blessing and life rest in God’s provision through Jesus Christ. In the New Covenant you will find all your heart desires.