The Quality of His Ministry Page 1 of 3 (series: Lessons on 2 Corinthians)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

April 28, 2014

Tom Lowe
The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

Lesson II.B.1.b: The Quality of His Ministry. (3:6-11)

2nd Corinthians 3:6-11 (NKJV)
6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 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, fading though it was,
8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?
9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!
10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.
11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!


Sometimes I must just stop and say, “Isn’t God wonderful!” This passage evokes such a statement. It is wonderful because it declares God’s glory, and I am blessed by it more than I can say. I pray that you too will be blessed as we study it together.

This passage is the heart of the chapter, and it should be studied in connection with Exodus 24:29-35{9]. Paul did not deny the glory of the Old Testament Law, because in the giving of the Law and the maintaining of the temple and tabernacle services, there certainly was glory. What he affirmed, however, was that the glory of the new covenant of grace was far superior, and he gave several reasons to support his affirmation.


6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The word Paul uses for “new” when he speaks of the new covenant is the same as Jesus used and it is very significant. In Greek, there are two words for new. First, there is noes, which means new in point of time and that alone. Second, there is kainos, which means not only new in point of time, but also new in quality. It is the word kainos that both Jesus and Paul use for the new covenant and the significance is that the new covenant is not only new in point of time; it is quite different in kind from the Old Covenant. It produces between men and God a relationship of a totally different kind.

We are “ministers of a new covenant.” We will see in this passage a contrast between the old covenant (the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the New Testament). Actually, they will be contrasted in several different ways.

When God called us into the Christian life and into His service as apostles, He made us competent and qualified to be ministers. His grace and gifts made us adequate for the demanding task (2 Co. 2:16{1]). The word ministers means, “those who serve God, or act for Him in response to His call. God’s call gave Paul authority to act, but the church did not have as yet a formal organization or a proven constitution. A covenant in the Bible was not an agreement between equals. It was an arrangement offered by God for the benefit of His people, who accepted it in gratitude and promised in return to fulfill their prescribed duties. It goes without saying that God would fulfill His promises, and that He had the right to reject or punish His people if they failed to fulfill their part. The very making of such a covenant was an expression of God’s gracious character; even behind the Law is the grace of God, just as God redeemed His people before He gave them the Law (Ex. 20:2{2]). But the “first covenant” (Heb. 9:18{3]) made with Israel through Moses (Ex. 24:3-8{4]) was not the full and final expression of God’s will and purpose. It was set down in a “written code” (RSV). For Paul the Old Testament is Scripture; he does not reject the written Scripture or its literal meaning. He is speaking rather of the written Law, in contrast with the transforming effect of the gospel message, through which the living power of the Spirit of God acts to bring redemption and newness of life (Rom. 6:4{5]) to those who believe.

Next, Paul says, “Not of the letter but of the Spirit.” In the Old Testament, and specifically in the Law, the letter kills; the letter of the law actually condemns us. The Dictionary of Legal Terms gives this definition for “letter of the law”—“The strict and exact force of the language used in a statute, as distinguished from the spirit, general purpose, and policy of the statute.” In other words, when one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering

to the literal wording. The Law says that you and I are guilty sinners. Those letters which were written on tablets of stone condemn man. The Mosaic Law never gave life. That is the contrast he is making here. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The Mosaic Law stated man’s duty and so made him answerable to God, but gave man no power to obey, and so, since man is wicked and in the grip of evil desires, it could only lead to spiritual ruin; it kills. But now God has replaced the legal system of the old covenant with a new covenant (Mk. 14:24{6]; 1 Co. 11:25{7]; Heb. 12:24{8]). It was effectively inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and brought home to men not primarily by the preaching of the apostles, though that was necessary, but by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, who gives life to believers.

Paul’s letter to the Romans unequivocally denied that following the Law can achieve salvation. Instead, the Law only makes people conscious of their sin, the sin which ultimately leads to death (Rom. 2:29{13]; 3:19-20{14]; 6:23{15]; 7:6{16]). No one but Jesus has ever fulfilled the Law perfectly: thus the whole world is condemned to death. The moral Law (the Ten Commandments) still points out sin and shows Christians how to obey God, but forgiveness comes through the grace and mercy of Christ. (See Romans 7:10-8:2).

I would challenge all those reading this to name somebody who was saved by the Law, but I don’t think anyone can, because no one has ever kept the Law; they can’t! Did you know that even Moses, the lawgiver, could not be saved by the Law? Do you know why not? He was a murderer! Also, David broke the Law even though he was a man after God’s own heart. Dear reader, you can’t be saved by keeping the Law. The Law kills you; the Law condemns you. The person who tries to live under the Law will find himself feeling more and more guilty, and this can produce a feeling of hopelessness and rejection.

7 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, fading though it was,

This passage shows how radical a break Paul made with Pharisaic Judaism when he became a Christian. Note that by the Law Paul does not merely mean the ceremonial features but the entire legal order of life established by the Pentateuch and embodied in Judaism.

Back of this passage is the story in Exodus 34:29-35{9], according to which the face of Moses shown when he came down from Mount Sinai, so that to avoid frightening the people he covered his face with a veil while he talked to them. This brightness soon faded from his face as the story implies and later Jewish tradition explicitly stated. In this fact, Paul sees a symbol of the truth that while the old covenant was indeed from God it has now been superseded by the greater and permanent order of the new covenant that Christ has established. The old had its own splendor, but nothing to compare with the glory{17] of the new, with its Spirit-led life of Christ’s people.

The contrast is set forth in three parts: verses 7-8; 9-10; 11. The “ministry,” that is, the dispensation{12] or orderly manner of life under the Law, is said to be one of death because, as verse 6 has said, a “written code” (the letter of the Law), without the power to produce in man vital faith and obedience, “kills.” The purity, majesty, and awe-inspiring holiness of God were regarded in both the Old Testament and New Testament to be expressed in brilliant, blinding, and “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16{10]). Angels were thought to possess this brightness, though to a lesser extent, and here Moses, who has talked with God, reflects that brightness on his face when he descends from Mount Sinai; hence the people, perhaps less from blind terror than from awe because they saw in the brightness evidence of the divine presence, could not look steadfastly at his face. The brightness indicates that the Law was really given to Moses, and so to Israel by God; it was a set of divinely established commands (orders, regulations, directives, etc.). Yet even as Moses spoke the brightness was fading{19] from his face—the process was going on even as he talked with Israel. Likewise, this legal dispensation was temporary and only had a fading splendor.

The old covenant, the Law, was a ministry of death, that is, it produced death. When it says it “was engraved in letters on stone,” we know he is talking about the Ten Commandments. It “came with glory.” It is the will of God, and it is good, even though it condemns me. There is nothing wrong with the Law. The problem is me. It shows me that I am a sinner. “So that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was.” That glory on Moses’ face slowly disappeared.

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