OT Readings: Ex.24:1-
One of the questions that caused considerable difficulty to the NT church in the first century was how did this new era relate to all that had gone before. In the preceding centuries God had undeniably spoken to his chosen people at many times and in many ways by the prophets.
The Jews could (and did) trace their origin as a nation back to the LORD's calling of Abraham. By means of a covenant God pledged himself to Abraham. And this covenant was subsequently reaffirmed with several of Abraham's descendants.
As the history of this people developed their circumstances changed too and the LORD added a further covenant in which he told his people through Moses how he expected them to live as his people. The terms of this covenant were outlined in the Ten Commandments with further details being given in what we commonly refer to as the Law of Moses. We read earlier some of what the Bible has to say about the inauguration of this Mosaic covenant. The descriptions we have been given demonstrate the importance of this covenant and the wonder of it. It is to this covenant that Paul refers in 2Cor.3.
Paul has already described himself as a minister of "a new covenant" in v.6 where he began to compare the new with what had gone before. Paul began by distinguishing between these two orders: on the one hand there was the letter that brought about death and on the other there was the Spirit who gives life. Now in vv.7-
Two Different Ministries
The two ministries that Paul wants to compare and contrast are very different the one from the other but there is nevertheless a very important similarity that Paul is also at pains to highlight.
This is how Paul describes the two ministries:
Ministry N°1 is:
The ministry of death
The ministry of condemnation
Temporary and thus designed to pass away
Ministry N°2 is:
The ministry of the Spirit
The ministry of righteousness
Both ministries had their origin in God and neither could therefore be rubbished. In fact Paul had not the slightest desire to denigrate all that had gone before – there was a glory about all that God had done and the old covenant came with a real and impressive glory. Indeed Paul wants his readers to appreciate the true worth and value of the old so that the new will be properly understood and valued too.
Glory is an important theme here for the apostle: twenty times in this letter Paul uses a "glory" word and 10 of those occurrences are found in this short section of five verses!
Basically Paul declares that the old was glorious but the new is more so, much more so.
Let's look at this more closely.
As Paul describes this first ministry it is immediately clear that he is referring to the Mosaic covenant. He refers to "letters carved in stone" and he speaks about Moses face that shone as a result of entering the LORD's presence.
What were the circumstances that prevailed as this covenant was established?
Well you'll remember that the LORD had just delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and was in the process of leading them towards the Promised Land. Right at the outset of that journey the LORD led the people to Mt. Sinai and called Moses up the mountain so that he might instruct the people how they should live – this is the time for the Ten Commandments to be given to Moses.
The event was an impressive one revealing something of the LORD's holiness if you remember. There were thunders and flashes of lightening. A loud trumpet sounded and the people trembled. The mountain was enveloped in smoke as the LORD descended on it in fire and the entire mountain trembled too. The trumpet sounded ever louder and God spoke to Moses.
The leaders of the nation were summoned to worship and they too had an extraordinary experience – they saw the God of Israel and were safe even being able to eat and drink in his presence!
Moses was summoned further up the mountain and was accompanied only by Joshua. The LORD was to give him the tablets of stone with his laws inscribed on them and again the scene is stunning:
Even after the appalling response of the people in turning to idol worship when Moses delayed on the mountain the LORD continued to act in a way that revealed his glory.
Moses, who had broken the first set of tablets in his horror at discovering what the people had done, was called again to receive a second copy of the Law. When he left the LORD's presence his face shone with the reflected glory of the LORD upon him. He was unaware of this but it was evident to those who saw him.
And this was all done for the inauguration of a covenant whose effects would lead to death!
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with this covenant nor could there be for it contained the holy, pure and wholesome law of a just and holy God after all. But this Law remained outside of men written on tablets of stone, it told them what God's standards were and how wonderfully clear and concise that Law is as it is expressed in the Ten Commandments. But the Law did not provide men with the ability to keep the law and made no provision for definitively restoring the lawbreaker when he failed to meet the law's high demands.
And so this ministry brought death! And it did so because the wages of sin is death and without the law there would be no knowledge of sin. In leading inevitably to death, it should be clear that this was a ministry of condemnation in that it showed men and women to be guilty and deserving of judgment, deserving of death.
The tablets of this law would subsequently be placed in the Ark of the Tabernacle in the Holy of Holies where the High Priest could only enter once a year. When he did he so enter he needed to offer an animal sacrifice – the ministry of this covenant was death and it was marked by death over and over again.
Now a ministry that reveals, upholds and applies the perfect standards of divine justice can in no way be a bad thing. Indeed it is a glorious thing – who in their right mind wants an unjust or corrupt judge to sit on the divine judgment seat?
But however glorious the ministry of this covenant was in the process of being replaced. Paul returns to this three times:
v.7 "which was being brought to an end"
v.10 "what once had glory has come to have no glory at all,"
v.11 "what was being brought to an end"
The reason why this ministry was coming to an end was that it was never meant to be permanent, it had been designed as a preparatory ministry. The plan had always been that it be replaced, once it had done its work. It would be replaced by something better, better by far.
Paul's assessment of the older ministry was an extremely positive one. He did not argue (and had no reason to) that the old covenant was deficient – it was excellent and glorious -
I guess most of you will have a TV at home – probably a colour set with a large flat screen giving you a sharp crisp detailed picture. Back in 2007 the average screen size in the UK was just over 30". I doubt if many of you would want to swap what you have for a post war 12"b&w model. Or which of you motorists would like to give up on the reliability and refinements of your modern car for an uncomfortable, unreliable and heaterless model from the 1950s?
Those items were ok in their day – they were impressive in their day but you wouldn't really want to go back would you? And this is the way for us to view a good deal of the progression that we discover in the Bible: it is not progression from error to truth but from truth to greater truth, from one marvel to a greater marvel!
Now let us turn to see how Paul describes the covenant of which he has been made a minister.
Moses descended Mt. Sinai with the Law written on tablets of stone but this new ministry was not like that. This new ministry is specifically the ministry of the Spirit. Whereas those letters written on stone led to condemnation the ministry of the Spirit is so very different – it is a ministry of righteousness, that is, it leads not to condemnation but to justification.
Yes, the Spirit was at work in OT days but his work was restricted and limited. He gave gifts to certain individuals and he anointed a limited number of important individuals such as prophets and kings but he seemed to come upon them and rest on then just for a time so that they might be equipped to carry out specific tasks. And there was a longing under the old dispensation for a time when the Spirit to spread his work more widely and to pursue his work in a more deeply personal and internal manner:
Moses longed for a time when all of God's people would be prophets under the influence of the Spirit:
Num.11:29 "Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"
Jeremiah prophesied of a time when a new covenant would be brought in and where the characteristics of that new covenant would involve the law of God being written on the heart by the Spirit:
Ezekiel also spoke about a time when spiritual reality would be experienced as a heart transformation took place:
Joel too looked ahead and saw the day when instead of the Spirit's activity being limited to a handful of important leaders he would deal intimately with all of God's people. If the Spirit's involvement had been restricted under the old covenant how different it would be under the new!
And this is precisely what came about as a result of Jesus' coming into the world and doing what men and women had never been able to do. He kept the law! His life of perfect spotless righteousness was then laid down as a sacrifice – the new covenant was established in his blood. The old covenant spoke of death and was brought to an end by the death of Christ who simply could not stay dead but rose victoriously to life. Ascended to the place of glory at the right hand of the Father he poured out the gift of the promised Holy Spirit and life flooded a dead and otherwise dying world.
Jesus died just the once – he never needs ever to die again, his death dealt with the problem of sin and death for ever and a day. And the wonders of this new order of things are multiple.
Every Christian is indwellt by the Holy Spirit having been given new birth from on high and made a new creation. He works in the world convicting of sin, righteousness and judgment preparing and drawing men and women to receive the Saviour – he quickens faith, strengthens for service, enables patient perseverance, comforts in sorrow, delights with thoughts of heaven and holiness, generates love. In fact he works within the Christian to produce the kind of life that the law of Moses could only shout at him from the outside to do.
Life is better than death and if the ministry that brought death was glorious how much more glorious must that ministry be that brings life, life in all its fullness, eternal life!
Permanency is better than whatever is temporary. That which is temporary will one day wear out and need to be replaced – as circumstances change the temporary becomes irrelevant. Ah but that which is permanent will go on and on – never tired and worn and weary always fresh and relevant and full of vitality. It is the quality of God himself – it is the quality of our Lord Jesus Christ who lives now in the power of an indestructible life: "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday today and forever"(Heb.13:8). It is the quality of the word of God and the word of Jesus – "heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away." (Mt.13:31).
The old covenant was a glorious covenant but since it was designed to prepare for the coming of the new it follows that the new must be more significant than the old, more important than the old, more glorious than the old in every way conceivable. The herald who goes before to announce the coming of a King does an important thing but the herald's ministry fades away and is eclipsed when the King comes! The light of a candle that seems so bright when it burns in gloomy darkness disappears when the sun rises and shines in all its strength.
Look at how Paul emphasises the superiority of this new ministry of the Spirit over the old ministry of death:
v.8 "even more glory"
v.9 "must far exceed it in glory"
v.10 "the glory that surpasses it"
v.11 "much more will what is permanent have glory"
This is the constant message in the NT – there aren't several alternative ways of salvation, just the one. The old covenant didn't provide a way of salvation but it did prepare the way for the unique way of salvation that is to be found Jesus Christ and which is accessed only through repentance and faith.
How foolish it would be to go back from these glorious, internal realities of the new for the more visible externalities of the old that was even then passing away. Paul tackled this same question when he wrote to the Galatians tempted as they were to try to mix and match the two having begun in the Spirit to go on by works of the law.
This was the question that the writer to the Hebrews also took up as he was faced with Jewish believers who were seriously tempted to return to all the old order of impressively familiar things such as angels, priests and sacrifices. There the writer contrasted the two approaches in this manner:
No wonder the apostle Paul was eager to press on forgetting what lay behind. No wonder he was concerned lest his friends in Corinth be tempted to slip back into old ways. This gospel he had to proclaim was glorious and it had saved the Corinthian believers out of the sordid depraved Corinthian way of life.
Let us in our turn hold firmly to this glorious new covenant of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and of life in the Spirit!