Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. – 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 ESV
This entire paragraph sounds like a riddle. To understand it, we must go back and look at the two verses that preceded it.
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 ESV
Paul had just brought up the topic of the new covenant. Now he is going to expand upon it, explaining the difference between it and the old covenant. He will provide seven different contrasts between the two. But before we look at those distinctions, it is important to understand just what he means by a “covenant”. The Greek word for covenant is diathēkē and it refers to a testament or agreement. It is where we get the Old and New Testaments of our Bible. It is a form of agreement between two parties, but it is unilateral, where only one party sets the conditions and the other party must either accept or reject it, much like a last will and testament. Paul is bringing up the differences between the agreement God had made with the Israelites found in the Old Testament with the agreement He has made with the church found in the New Testament. The first agreement was the Mosaic Law handed down to the Israelites from Mount Sinai and administered by Moses. The second agreement was the new covenant in Christ’s blood handed down at mount Calvary and administered by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus had held up the cup of wine at His last Passover meal with His disciples, just hours before His death, He said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:20 NLT).
In the closing of his letter to the Hebrews, the author provides the following benediction:
Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. – Hebrews 13:20-21 NLT
Paul refers to the old covenant as “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (2 Corinthians 3:7 ESV). The Mosaic Covenant revealed the will of God in the form of the law. It contained His commands regarding how the Israelites were to live their lives on this earth as His chosen people. It was intended to set them apart from all the other nations. The law contained plenty of “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s”. It required perfect obedience and it was accompanied with blessings and cursings. If the Israelites kept the law of God, they would be blessed. But if they failed to keep it, they would experience His punishment in the form of God-administered curses.
If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands…I will look favorably upon you, making you fertile and multiplying your people. And I will fulfill my covenant with you. – Leviticus 26:3, 9 NLT
However, if you do not listen to me or obey all these commands, and if you break my covenant by rejecting my decrees, treating my regulations with contempt, and refusing to obey my commands, I will punish you. – Leviticus 26:14-16 NLT
The old covenant was a “ministry of death” because the people could not keep it. It could do nothing but condemn them. It could expose their sin, but was not designed to help them have victory over sin. The law could tell them what to do or not to do, but was not capable of helping them obey. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:19-20 ESV). In his letter to the Galatians, he responds to the logical question, “If the law can’t help men live righteously, why did God give it?”
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
Paul refers to and incident when Moses came down off the mountain after having received the law from God. His face literally glowed. He exuded the glory of God and the people were awed by it. It was the only evidence that the tablets of the law he passed on to them had come from God. When the glory on his face began to fade, so did their respect for and obedience to the law. But when Christ died, ushering in the new covenant, it was accompanied by the glory of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. Rather than an external and temporary form of glory, it was to be an internal and eternal one.
The new covenant has replaced the old covenant – “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Corinthians 3:10 ESV). No longer do men need to try and live up to the righteous standards of God equipped with nothing more than their own determination and sin-weakened will. They now have the Spirit of God living within them, whose power makes it possible for them to live in obedience to the will of God. The author of Hebrews, quoting an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Jeremiah, explains the significance of this new covenant relationship with God made possible by the death of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But when God found fault with the people, he said: “The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt. They did not remain faithful to my covenant, so I turned my back on them, says the Lord. But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already. And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear. – Hebrews 8:7-13 NLT
The Corinthians were already recipients of this new covenant. They had received the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. But the day is coming when even the rebellious people of Israel will know what it is like to experience the grace of God and glory of His Spirit’s presence and power. Remember, Paul claimed his sufficiency came from God (2 Corinthians 3:5). Anything he accomplished was the result of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who made is possible for Paul to be a minister of the new covenant. It was the Spirit who equipped him for service. It was the Spirit who validated his ministry. The new covenant had provided Paul with new life, a new nature, a new ministry, a new perspective on life, new hope, new purpose and a new relationship with God that was based on grace not effort, mercy and not merit.