Come with me through the message of the Holy Scriptures to the time of the old covenant. God had made promises to Abraham, and after 400 years, the time arrived for some of those promises to be fulfilled. The Lord set his people free from cruel slavery in Egypt, and brought them to himself to make them his people. He spoke, the earth shook, and billowing clouds of glory covered the holy mountain! Everyone is terrified at the sight of God’s glory. When the tabernacle and later the temple are built, the glory of God filled both places. God made his shining splendor somewhat visible to them. The display of God’s glory is awesome, magnificent, amazing, and something to be wondered at. The people could go and look at the tent and see the cloud of glory! They could know that the living God was with them. This must have been truly exciting and awe-inspiring. Even the face of God’s servant Moses flashed with the glory of God.
Now let us journey on in the Scriptures. Picture a beat up man around my age. His life has been really rough. Listen as he describes his many troubles (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 11:23b-27). His opponents spoke of him this manner (10:10). Now I ask you, if you base your opinions on what the eye can see, who is more impressive—Moses or Paul? Which covenant has the greater glory—the old or the new? You see, this goes to the heart of our problems. How do we evaluate men and ministries? How can we know the presence of God? Those who live according to the flesh say, “That is simple. Just look for what looks glorious and seems impressive and successful.” And so they build their magnificent buildings, put on artistic spectacles, and after a quick head count they proclaim that God is with them. But is he? Where do you find the glory of God? Where can you find surpassing glory?
Paul contrasts the glory of the old and the new covenants to demonstrate the surpassing glory of the new. He uses three “from less to greater” arguments to do this.
I. The first contrast (3:7-8) – the result of each covenant
A. The law or old covenant was a ministry that brought death.
1. This must sounded totally shocking to any Jewish ears, since the common opinion was that the law was a ministry of life. There are many quotes from the old Rabbis to that end. Yet Paul boldly declares the truth about that ministry that was written on tablets of stone was a ministry of death or that brought death. Many Christians in our day still have the wrong view of the law, because they think that it is a rule of life or a way to holiness. The apostle wants us to understand what the old covenant, the Ten Commandments, meant for sinners.
2. The law or old covenant is a ministry of death, because it sets forth sin as transgression and so stimulates sin (Rm 7:8-9; 1 Cor 15:56b), and sin ends in death (1 Cor 15:56a; Rm 6:23; Gal 3:12). This is a deal-breaking problem for anyone who attempts to have a relationship with God that is based on law, because no sinner can keep it.
3. Yet Paul also says that the law came with glory. This seems paradoxical! How can a ministry of death be glorious? The law came with glory, because it was the message of the Holy God. So it came with visible manifestations of God’s glorious nature, presence, and power (cf. Ex 19; etc). When Moses would approach God to hear his commandments and regulations, the glory of God would shine from his face.
B. The new covenant is a ministry of the Spirit.
1. You might expect in this contrast that Paul would say that the new covenant is a ministry of life, but instead he says “of the Spirit”. Why is this? It is because the Holy Spirit is the great promise of the new. The new covenant is characterized by his presence, work, and gifts, as we said last week. (In response to a request, I have provided this list to you.)
2. Since the new covenant is a ministry of the Spirit, who is the Third Person of the Godhead, this ministry must be even more glorious! Simply contrast stone tablets with letters engraved on them with the Spirit of the living God, who is a glorious and mighty Person.
Apply: This is why the true Christian way of life is not a matter of form, but a relationship with the living God. And a gathering of Christians cannot be an institutional form, but must be a living relationship with God.
II. The second contrast (3:9-10) – the judicial sentence of each covenant
A. The law or old covenant condemned people.
1. Once again we must stress the holiness of the law. Its commands were “holy, righteous, and good” (Rm 7:12). The problem was in the people who were under the law, because all people are sinners.
2. All that the law could do was to condemn sinners for their disobedience or transgression of it. “Here is what God said to do, you did not do it, and therefore you are rightly condemned.”
B. The new covenant brings righteousness.
1. Righteousness in this context clearly has a forensic or legal sense, because of its contrast with condemnation (cf. Rm 5:12-21). It is talking about being declared right with God (justification). Paul will return to this idea when he talks about “the great exchange” (5:21).
2. This righteousness is possible in the new covenant because of the finished work of Jesus Christ in his sacrificial, substitutionary death and his glorious resurrection.
Apply: Where is your interest? Is it in a covenant that can only condemn sinners? Or is it in the crucified and risen Lord, who gave himself for us, so that we might share eternal glory with him?
III. The third contrast (3:11) – the endurance of each covenant
A. The law or old covenant was not permanent.
1. The law had a glory that was fading away, or perhaps better, a glory that was being abolished. Moses might come from the presence of God with glory, but it did not last.
2. What is especially striking is the glory of the law was like this from its very beginning. God never intended to bring his shining brilliance to people through its ministry. His plan was always for that glory to come through his Son (cf. 4:6, yes, we must pay attention to the whole context)! The law was a temporary ministry, pointing ahead to the better ministry of Christ. It lasted only until Jesus the Son of God came.
B. The new covenant is permanent.
1. It remains. Its glory lasts! Nothing will ever replace the new covenant, because it is an eternal covenant (Heb 13:20). The Spirit of glory now rests on us (1 Pt 4:14). Now we “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pt 1:8). We have a glorious inheritance in Christ (Eph 1:18). We will appear with Christ in glory (Col 3:4). Our proven faith will “result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Pt 1:7). God has called us “to his eternal glory in Christ” (1 Pt 5:10).
2. Not only does it last, but it is much greater! It is surpassing glory! It surpasses, because we are in Christ, the Lord of glory. It surpasses, because the Spirit Christ lives in us as God’s new temple. It surpasses, because we can go boldly to the throne of grace. It surpasses, because he has made us perfect forever (Heb 10:14). It surpasses, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts. It surpasses, because we have been given fullness in Christ (Col 2:10). We have surpassing glory in the Lord Jesus Christ!
Lessons: Stop evaluating things from a worldly point of view. Look where surpassing glory is found! How can we know the surpassing glory of the new covenant?
1. We can know by combining the word with faith. God has revealed these things in his word, so that we might know what he has for us in Christ. But we must see these things through the eyes of faith in Christ.
2. We can know because of the fact of Christ’s glorification. God’s proof is in the resurrection and ascension of his Son. Quote from “See the Lamb of God”.
3. We can know by the Holy Spirit. It is the power of the Spirit of God that enables us to know. Has the Spirit brought you to know the Lord Jesus Christ?