Epistles: Paul and the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:7-11)

The new contrasted with the old covenant

Paul has already mentioned “tablets of stone,” and then the “new covenant.” He then builds the contrast between the new and the old. His authenticity as an apostle of Christ is not built upon the old covenant, but upon the new — not on the letters engraved in stone, but in the Spirit of God.

Let’s see how he develops the contrast: “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, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (verses 7-8).

Let’s pause to be sure we know what Paul is talking about. He is talking about something written on stone, at a time when Moses’ face shone with glory. He is talking about the Ten Commandments. This is what was written on stone. Paul is calling the Ten Commandments a “ministry that brought death.” Paul was not a minister of the letter (the Ten Commandments), but of the Spirit.

Notice that he does not say, like some people want him to, that he was a minister of “the spirit of the law.” Instead of combining law and spirit, Paul equated the law with the letter, and he made a contrast between the Law and the Spirit of God.

Of course, it was God who gave the Law. Nevertheless, Paul saw a fundamental contrast between the Law and the Spirit, between the old and the new. There is continuity, of course, for both old and new are covenants of the same God. But even though God does not change, and his underlying principles do not change, his covenants do.

Paul explains some differences in the next verses: “If the ministry that brought condemnation is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” (verse 9). The Ten Commandments were a ministry that condemned people. They had some glory, but not nearly as much as the new covenant. The Ten Commandments cannot bring righteousness, but the new covenant does.

“For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (verse 10). The Ten Commandments have no glory now, Paul is saying, in comparison to the new covenant, which brings life and righteousness.

“And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” What was fading away? Moses’ face was fading, but Paul is not talking about Moses’ face any more — he is talking about “the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone.” That is what “came with glory” (verse 7). That is what was fading away.

The Ten Commandments, Paul is saying, came with glory, but they were temporary, just as surely as the glory of Moses’ face was temporary. The new covenant not only has much greater glory, but it also “lasts.” The Ten Commandments, Paul implies, do not last forever. They were designed as a temporary “ministry of condemnation,” designed to lead people to Christ.

Notice the contrasts Paul has made:

The Ten Commandments The New Covenant
written on tablets of stone (v. 4) written on the heart
the letter that kills (v. 6) the Spirit that gives life
a ministry that brought death (v. 7) a ministry that brings life
engraved in letters on stone (v. 7) ministry of the Spirit
came with glory (v. 7) even more glorious
the ministry that condemns (v. 9) the ministry that brings righteousness
no glory now in comparison (v. 10) the surpassing glory
it came with glory (v. 11) much greater glory
it is transitory (v. 11) the ministry that lasts

Paul says that the Ten Commandments, although good, are temporary and fading. What has faded away concerning the Ten Commandments? Some people try to say that the Ten Commandments, instead of fading, are actually more binding on people today than ever before. They want to expand the Ten instead of letting them fade.

But Paul is saying that there is a fundamental change in the way people relate to God. The old way is a written law that condemns people to death. The new way is the Holy Spirit, which brings forgiveness and life. The Spirit leads us to obey God, but it is a fundamentally different relationship, a different basis of relating to God.

There is some basic continuity between the old covenant and the new. Most of the Ten Commandments are quoted with approval in the New Testament. Those commands reflect aspects of God’s law that were in effect long before Sinai—from the beginning. One is not — the Sabbath command. It was a ceremonial law, instituted for a temporary time period.

Author: Michael Morrison, 1999, 2013

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