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2 Corinthians 3: 5-18

A Bible Reading at the Kilkeel conference in May 1995


The setting of these verses in 2 Corinthians is very important. In the first epistle the apostle had to deal with moral breakdown and disorder and many things had to be corrected. When he wrote the second epistle he was writing to an assembly that was repentant and self-judged and many of the matters referred to in 1 Corinthians had been dealt with. Nevertheless, there did remain an outstanding difficulty which is going to come to light in chapter 10. His authority was being challenged. Against this background the matter of letters of commendation really set his own position clearly before the Corinthians and others, in contrast with these opposing judaising teachers. I think it is important to see how he dealt with these opposers because it is the Spirit's way at all times. He is able to speak positively of the blessings that belong to his ministry. He is able to speak of all the promises of God which are in Christ, yea and Amen (ch. 1), of the ministry of the New Covenant (ch. 3), and of the ministry of reconciliation (ch. 5). But all the time he is proceeding on positive lines to show what is real in contrast to what was brought in by these opposers. This helps in understanding the contrasts between the Old and the New Covenants which come out so powerfully in the parenthesis.

Liberty comes in at the end of the chapter and judaising teachers or teaching would tend to lead them into bondage. We should keep in mind that the giving of the law which is referred to in this chapter was the second occasion on which the tables were given. They came in with mention of God's mercy to thousands, not clearing the guilty, but with mercy for those that love God (Ex. 34: 4-7). We might think of it as a mixture of grace and law and there are countless thousands of believers who really think it is right to have this mixture. They have started all right with Christ but they want the law to help them along a little. Now in spite of that the apostle still speaks about it as a ministration of death and a ministration of condemnation. There is no liberty along that line and I think this chapter has that relevance today with regard to those that would teach an admixture of the two things.

The second epistle to the Corinthians is much more difficult to grasp in its contents and bearing than the first. The first deals more with outward questions whereas the second epistle acknowledges that the aim of the first has in a measure been reached. But there was this problem of the non-acknowledgement of the authority of Paul still lingering among the Corinthians. That is why the first seven chapters of this epistle deal with the ministry of Paul. He explains it and strives by any means to touch the hearts of his beloved Corinthians to bring them to acknowledge that he was a loving servant for them and not a hard patron. All the chapters, from one to seven, approach this subject from different angles and one of them is to set forth the difference between the Old Covenant, the law, and the ministry, as he calls himself and others ministers, of the New Covenant. He names the New Covenant in verse 6, and the Old Covenant or Old Testament in verse 14. The reading of the Old Testament means, in the first place, not the whole of the Old Testament as we understand it today, but in the first place it exclusively means the law, the five books of Moses, and that is what the Jew understood by it. New Testament ministry is in contrast with what was presented in the law. He says this in the short statements of verse 6, that He has made us competent as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter (and the letter is the law) but of Spirit. This verse has been widely misunderstood as if adhering to the letter of the Bible would bring death while adhering to the spirit of what the Bible says would be life giving. But that is very contrary to what is said here because the letter in this verse is the law. The law was these letters engraven in stone whereas the spirit is the dispensation of grace which is characterised by the Spirit. It is not the sense here that by following the letter there would be a negative consequence but just the opposite.

The Old Covenant was introduced in glory. This refers to the introduction of the law at Sinai. God put His seal upon that which is holy, just and good.

The question might arise, "Is the New Covenant in regard to Christians because it is mentioned in the Christian writings in the New Testament?" A covenant is a contract which puts responsibilities on the two parties who make this contract, and the Old Covenant was a contract that God made with His people Israel. "If you follow My commandments I will bless you," were the stipulations of this covenant. It was a covenant given by God and therefore it was, in itself, perfect. But the imperfection came in because of the sinfulness of the people who were unable to fulfil their part of the covenant, so that God in turn could not fulfil His part. That is why God will make a New Covenant with the same people. I don't think that we can draw any other conclusion from the Bible than that the New Covenant will be made with the same people, with Israel. There it is a covenant where there are the same stipulations to be fulfilled by one party and blessing by another, only now the perfect Man has already fulfilled all the stipulations God could put on man. The Lord Jesus has done this on the cross of Calvary and therefore He says, "This is My blood, that of the New Covenant." The stipulations have been fulfilled by the Lord so that only God's side remains: blessing in abundance. The question then arises, "Why is the New Covenant mentioned with regard to Christians who do not belong to the people of Israel?" The answer is that the foundation work which is at the basis of the New Covenant, namely the work of Calvary, the same work, the same blood, was given for us. And although the covenant will not be concluded with Christians, we are in a much closer relationship with God, nevertheless the basis of our relationship is the same. That is why the New Covenant can be mentioned here. They were ministers of the New Covenant and this is a very special expression. Paul and others ministered the truth of this New Covenant without being members of this covenant. The pivotal point is the work and the Person of the Lord.

There are those that read Jeremiah 31 and they say that the New Covenant is made with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. Then they read 2 Corinthians 3 and they say, Paul is speaking to Christians here so therefore Christians, the church, must be a continuation of Israel today. We know from Ephesians 3 that that cannot be true because we see there that the church is founded upon entirely different principles. We come into the blessings of the New Covenant in a spiritual way but it will be fulfilled in a literal sense at a future day. Lower down it says that "When it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away" so that there is a future for Israel even seen in this chapter. Those same people that make the church a continuation of Israel see the New Covenant as the sum and substance of all our spiritual blessings. Our blessings are of New Covenant character, based on the blood of Christ, but there are other aspects of Paul's doctrine.

When he says, "Not of the letter, but of the spirit," I take it he is referring to Christ. He is the spirit of it. He says lower down, "Now the Lord is that spirit." I am reminded of the verse which says, "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."

Looking again at verse 17 the King James and Mr. Darby's translations put a capital "S." Mr. Kelly puts a small "s" and if you read his ministry and that of Mr. Darby you find that they confirm what has been said, that the spirit of the New Covenant is Christ. In other words Christ is seen in all that Old Testament system and if you read a small "s" in verse 17 I think it overcomes a great number of difficulties.

The word "Spirit" comes into verse 8 and Mr. Darby has there a capital "S" and I would say that is right, "the ministration of the Spirit." One of the essential features and characteristics of what we have today is that there has been a ministration of the Spirit. Not what the Spirit ministers but there has been the Spirit ministered to us. The Spirit of God is ministered to us as power.

Could we summarise by saying:

verse 6, "not of the letter, but of the spirit... (small "s"),"

"for the letter killeth, but the Spirit... (capital "S"),"

verse 8, "How shall not the ministration of the Spirit... (capital "S"),"

verse 17, "the Lord is that spirit... (small "s")",

"and where the Spirit (capital "S") of the Lord is there is liberty."

It is wonderful to see that this Old Covenant, the law, which was from the beginning destined to end in failure, nevertheless began in glory, as it came from God. Paul calls it here "the ministry of death." The people to whom it was given could not fulfil the laws of God and therefore the end was death and judgment upon everybody. That is why it is called "the ministry of death, in letters." The letter is always here the commandment written or engraved in stone. I think that even in verse 6 in both cases it is meant that the letter is the commandment. We read about the light and holiness of God which so encompassed the mountain that not even an animal was allowed to approach when the law was given. It all began in glory by God's presence yet still it was a ministry of death, not from God's side but because man failed. Moses, when he was in the presence of God, was so influenced by this glory that his face shone, and he had to put on a covering because the children of Israel could not fix their eyes on his face. But this was something which was not lasting. It was only in the beginning of this Old Covenant that this glory of God shone in the face of Moses and we don't read of any other servant whose face shone. We know that later on in Ezekiel this glory, even the presence of God, withdrew from the temple, and that ultimately everything ended in death. But it began in glory because it came from God. Then Paul says that if this covenant which ended in death, in misery and in failure, began in glory, "how shall not rather the ministry of the Spirit subsist in glory?" His argument is from the lesser to the greater. If we look to Calvary I dare say for the human eye there was no glory but still He was glorified on the cross more than in any other occasion on this earth. And this glory will continue and we will end, not in death, but on the contrary, we will end up in glory in the presence of God and in the presence of the Lord Jesus. It is in Him the glory of God shines, as he says later on in chapter 4 verse 6, "Because it is the God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

So in our parenthesis we have these contrasts and I think this is the thrust of our reading today. There is death (verse 7) and condemnation (verse 9). That is one side of the picture. Then there is life (verse 6) and righteousness (verse 9). I think that gives an introduction to the contrasts between the two covenants.

This section suggests that we are the recipients of four principal New Covenant blessings. There is life, power to accomplish God's will, righteousness and lastly the glory that excelleth. The glory that excelleth is the knowledge of God in its fulness Then we might even get a fifth blessing which is liberty or freedom and which includes the thought of deliverance.

Four times we get the word 'annulled' or 'done away' in this section (verses 7, 11, 13, 14. In verse 13 the K.J.V. has 'abolished') and that system of things has been put away. But what remains not only subsists in glory but it is surpassing in glory and it all shines in the face of the Lord Jesus. I think it helps to fasten on the word 'hope' in verse 12 where the apostle says, "Having therefore such hope, we use much boldness..." This hope looks forward to the day when the New Covenant will be implemented for Israel and when what is good to faith inwardly now will come into manifestation. The verse really crystallises the position of the Christian who looks forward to that final moment when this glory will be manifested.

That was exactly my thought. We find here that a certain glory was ascribed to the law system. It was from the beginning meant to have an end yet we have to do with something which is eternal. The logical consequence is, if the ending thing began with glory and had a certain glory, how much more this eternal thing with which we are connected. But this glory is not yet visible. We possess it only in faith and therefore hope is introduced here. "Having therefore such hope, we use much boldness: and not according as Moses..." Why did Moses cover his face? He didn't cover it when he came into the presence of God but when he came into the presence of the people. The people found the glory too overwhelming. But now Paul turns it round and says we do not cover our faces when we enter into the presence of God because we can look on the glory of God with unveiled face. The fact that the people did not want to see the glory of God reflected in the face of Moses was something which judged themselves. That is why God said as it were, "Now I will judge you and will take from you the possibility of seeing any of the glory because you did not want to see it." Israel did not want to see the glory in the Old Covenant and that is why God says, "You cannot see it in the New Covenant."

That is what he says in verse 13. Paul was able to use great plainness of speech, and not as Moses. The children of Israel could not steadfastly look to what was the real end of the law, which is Christ. I connect this with the expression in Romans 10: 4, "For Christ is the end (in view) of the law for righteousness..." Israel will discern the end in that day when the New Covenant takes effect.

Meanwhile there is a transformation going on in the saints so that we are being formed for His presence already. This is accomplished by occupation with Christ in glory in the power of the Spirit.

The word "changed" is the same word as in the account of the transfiguration and in the 12th of Romans: "transfigured." In our case it is a real inward moral change that is seen outwardly.

There is a sequence of change for the believer that begins with the work of the Spirit of God when new birth and quickening are effected. That is the initial work. Then there is the change that will take place in relation to the body at the coming of the Lord and that will be the final change. But in between there is this on-going change, a change from glory to glory.

Could one say that by gazing at the glory of the Lord at the right hand of God we, as still on earth, are not being transformed into His glorious image but into His image as He was here on earth.

Is not Stephen an example of that? He was gazing steadfastly up into heaven and as a result when he was stoned he manifested attributes of the Lord Jesus in His death.

Young people might ask, "What do you mean by gazing upon Christ and looking upon Him. How do I arrive at that in day by day experience?" You have to come back to the matters of reading the Word and dependence upon the Lord and communion. Those are the things that really get right down to the basic matter of looking upon the glory of the Lord.