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The Letter & the Spirit

2Corinthians: Paul Most Underappreciated Epistle

Jun 3, 2018


by: Jack Lash Series: 2Corinthians: Paul Most Underappreciated Epistle | Category: NT books | Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:3–3:3, 2 Corinthians 3:6–3:11
  1. Introduction
    A. Read 2Corinthians 3:3, 6–11 
     B. I urge you to listen or read last week’s sermon on the website. It will make this rather difficult section much easier for you to understand. 
      1. Old covenant: Moses at Sinai: 10 commandments
       a. New covenant (NC): Christ 
      2. Turns out, it seems Paul’s opponents in Corinth were Judaizers. That’s why, right in the middle of is response to the charges of is opponents, Paul begins to contrast the old and new covenants.
      3. The Judaizers were trying to fit Jesus into an old covenant mold, and Paul is objecting.
      4. So, Paul, it seems, highlights the contrast in order to expose their falseness.
      5. So Paul contrasts the old covenant and the new, to show what’s deficient about the old, and why it must be abandoned. He mentions three distinctions. We will focus on one each week.
      6. Today we focus on how the old covenant was a covenant of letter, and a ministry of death. The new covenant, on the other hand, is a covenant of the Spirit, and a ministry of righteousness.
     C. We see this several times here in the passage: 
      1. Verse 3 talks about a letter written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts
      2. In verse 6 Paul says that the new covenant is not a covenant of the letter but of the Spirit. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 
      3. Verse 7 refers to the old covenant as the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone.
      4. In verse 8, Paul refers to the new covenant as the ministry of the Spirit. 
      5. And then in v.9, he contrasts the old & new covenants as the ministry of condemnation and the ministry of righteousness. 
     D. So, we see the old covenant characterized by the law written on tablets of stone, leading to death, and the new covenant characterized by the law written on human hearts by the Spirit, bringing life and righteousness.  
     E. Heb.8:8-13 (Cf. Heb.10:18)
      1. Contracting old and new covenants
      2. Declaring the old obsolete
      3. New characterized by law written on the minds and hearts of God’s people
    II. The old covenant: a ministry of death 
     A. He calls the old covenant a ministry of death in letters carved on stone. He goes on to refer to it as "the ministry of condemnation" (v.9). The stone nature of the tablets symbolized their hearts.
      1. Why does he speak this way of the covenant God established with Israel through Moses? 
     B. The point is that the law by itself, when given to sinners, accomplishes only condemnation. 
      1. In a number of places, Paul argues the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant, saying that the old is powerless to save but only brings condemnation and death. 
       a. Romans 4:15 For the law brings wrath.
       b. In Romans 7:10–14, he explains why: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it [that is, through the commandment] killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good [that is, the law].”
      2. If the covenant is merely about God handing sinners the 2 tablets of His law, and that’s it, then that’s a formula which always results in death.
       a. The law of God is good. But it is useless by itself. 
       b. If God is uninvolved except as law-giver, there is no hope. There is only condemnation. 
       c. If the Bible is here merely to tell me what to do and how to be (as opposed to telling me the great things God has done), all we end up with is moralism.
       d. Because of sin, a righteousness built on keeping rules is a false, dead righteousness. 
    III. But the new covenant is a ministry of righteousness, it goes beyond just the law given to sinners.
     A. Listen to Romans 7:5–6 “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
     B. And Romans 8:1–4 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
     C. God added so many things in the new covenant. But Paul summarizes them here by referring to the Holy Spirit. So, what are some of the things the Spirit did which makes the new covenant a ministry of righteousness and new life? 
      1. The coming of Jesus 
       a. Jesus is the One who is not just man, but man and Spirit. 
       b. Is.11:2
       c. This is why He is conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is why the first thing which happens when He begins His ministry is that at His baptism, the Holy Spirit comes upon Him to empower Him. 
       d. Messiah = Christ = anointed one; anointed with what? With the Holy Spirit. From days of old, one was promised to come and redeem who would be full of the Spirit.
      2. Pentecost: Spirit poured out upon His people
       a. Eyes opened to the reality of Jesus 
       b.  Souls reborn of the Spirit
       c. Applying the grace of Christ’s atonement to our lives and hearts
      3. Law written on our hearts: the Spirit changes us and gives us a love for God’s word and law, and empowers us to do it, not perfectly (far from it), but truly and significantly.
    IV. Questions
     A. Why is Paul being so critical of something God Himself instituted? 
      1. It is something past its time. It was useful in its time, but now it is to be discarded, like scaffolding after the building project is completed, like diapers after potty-training, like training wheels after you’ve learned to ride a bike, like medicine after you’ve recovered from the illness. 
      2. Addiction? I heard the story of a man whose wife was in prison. She had been a nurse at a local hospital and was given pain-killers after surgery. 
      3. A pastor friend of mine was put on painkillers after surgery. But later he became addicted.
      4. At one point in your life, something may be medicine you need to live. But later on, the same medicine might be destructive, enslaving, even fatal.
     B. Why would God set up a ministry of death, as Paul here He did in the days of Moses? 
      1. The law of Moses, in all its perfections, was a ministry of death because the Spirit was not given along with it. And man cannot attain to the law of God apart from God’s empowering Spirit.
       a. And that’s why God set it up — to show again that man cannot be righteous in himself, to show again that it is "not by might nor by power but by My Spirit." (Zech.4:6) 
       b. You see, man is not only a sinner, he’s a proud sinner. He doesn’t admit his sin and flee to God for mercy.
       c. The lesson of history is that because of sin man cannot make it on his own, he does not have it in him to achieve the righteousness of God.
       d. The HS was primarily for enabling when it came to Christ. 
       e. But the HS is not primarily for enabling, when it comes to sinners, though He does have a ministry of enabling in our lives.
        (1) Faith: born again
        (2) Eyes and heart open to Jesus 
      2. Another reason God set up His law in the time of Moses as a ministry of death was to initiate the ministry of life. 
       a. You see, the law provided a setting in which the Christ could finally come and – by the power of the Spirit – fulfill the laws demands. 
       b. He kept the law for us.
       c. It was a ministry of death for sinners, but not for Jesus. He was perfectly righteous and therefore able to perfectly keep the law. 
      3. It also prepared for us to put our faith in Christ instead of in our own strength.
     C. Weren’t some people in Israel saved during the days of Moses? How can someone be saved by "a ministry of death" and "condemnation"? 
      1. The point in this passage is that by-and-large the law was a ministry of death, because by-and-large the Israelites did not have it in them to follow it. 
      2. But this doesn’t mean NO ONE was given grace by the Spirit at this time. We know that Moses had this grace, along with Joshua and Caleb and others. And the basis of their salvation was the same as ours – it was by faith in the redemption of God and the God of redemption – by the power of the Holy Spirit.
      3. But overall the whole situation was characterized by men not having it in them to walk in the way of God. That is why Paul refers to it as a "ministry of death." 
     D. Does this mean we’re throwing out the law? Absolutely not!
      1. The law has undergone some adjustments, but for those who are in Christ, for those who embrace His atoning work on the cross, to those who rely on His works instead of their own, the law is...
      2. "the perfect law that gives freedom" James 1:25 
      3. "the law of liberty" James 2:12 
      4. Far from being a cause of death, it is for us a cause of liberty, guidance and freedom! The law of Christ has been written on our hearts! It is our joy & our delight! 
      5. This is why Paul says that he is “under the law of Christ” (1Cor. 9:21)
      6. But the law is not our means of salvation.
    V. Application/conclusion 
     A. If your relationship with God isn’t more than trying to do the things you know God wants you to do, then Paul says you’re in danger of being “an old covenant Christian.”
     B. Old covenant Christianity is more than a minor doctrinal mistake. It’s more than one narrow heresy which the Judaizers taught in the first century. 
      1. This is one manifestation of a disease which has plagued the Christian church down through the ages. A fatal disease.
      2. There are two very different systems, two very different mindsets.
      3. The old way of thinking: You get saved by being good. 
      4. And this is contrasted with the way of Christ, the way of faith, the way of grace. 
      5. One is all about what man does and the other is all about what God does. 
      6. One is a way of divine promise and one is a way of human effort. 
     C. And there are many varieties of the old mindset. 
      1. There is a Buddhist version and a Hindu version, a Muslim version and a Jewish version. 
      2. There is a Mormon version and a Jehovah’s Witnesses version. 
      3. There is a Roman Catholic version and an Eastern Orthodox version.
      4. There is a Baptist version, a Methodist version, an Episcopalian version and a Lutheran version. 
      5. There are Pentecostal and charismatic versions.
      6. There are non-denominational, independent versions. 
      7. And there is a presbyterian and reformed version. 
     D. It is duty-centered, fear-centered, rule-centered religion. 
      1. It is living as though God’s approval is based on what we do in the flesh, as if the only way God can love us is when we reform our lives and begin obeying His law, as if trying harder is the key.
      2. But in Christ we’ve come to know His great love for us based not on performance — well, based not on our performance but on Christ’s performance which He graciously counts for us. 
     E. We are exhorted again & again to avoid the trap of old covenant Christianity. This implies that we’ll be tempted to do just that.
      1. It isn’t easy giving up old ways and moving on with the new.
      2. There’s a strong tendency to slip back into the OT ways of thinking. 
      3. In a number of ways, it is more natural, more instinctual, more according to what people were familiar with and could handle, and more gratifying to the flesh. And it’s so Biblical! And so conservative.
      4. The new covenant way is more dependant on the Spirit, more dependant on what we can’t see. And that makes us nervous. But now in the NC we’re called to live by the Spirit, not by nature. 
      5. We’re called to walk by faith and not by sight, but it’s much easier to walk by sight.
       a. 2Corinthians 4:18 “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
     F. All through church history and into the present time, this strong tendency has caused many Christians, many churches, and many denominations to adopt varieties of OT Christianity. 
      1. There are many warnings about it in the NT. (E.g. Luke 5:36-39; Romans 8:15; Galatians 1:6-7; 4:9-11; 5:1; the whole book of Hebrews)
      2. The early church slipped back so quickly, not by rejecting Jesus but by adapting Jesus to the old ways and old instincts and old structures, making Jesus the champion of old covenant religion.