Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians


April 28, 2014

Tom Lowe

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians


II. Apology for Paul’s Ministry. (1:12–7:16)

B.     The Calling of Paul. (3:1-6:10)

1.      The superiority of his ministry. (3:1-11)                                                                 

               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 law giver, 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.



The old covenant was a deadly thing, because it produced a legal relationship between man and God. In effect it said, “If you wish to retain your relationship with God, you must keep these Laws.” It thereby set up a situation in which God was essentially a judge, and man was essentially a criminal, forever in default before the bar of God’s judgment. The old covenant was deadly because it killed certain things.

a)     It killed hope. There was never any hope that any man could keep it, human nature being what it is. It therefore could dispense nothing but frustration.

b)     It killed life. Under it a man could earn nothing but condemnation; and condemnation meant death.

c)      It killed strength. It was perfectly able to tell a man what to do, but it could not help him to do it.



The old covenant was based on a written document. We can see the story of its initiation in Exodus 24:1-8. Moses took the book of the covenant and read it to the people and they agreed to it. On the other hand, the new covenant is based on the power of the life-giving Spirit. A written document is always something that is external; whereas the work of the Spirit changes the heart of a man. A man may obey the written code, while all the time he wishes to disobey it; but when the Spirit comes into the heart and controls it, not only does he not break the code, he does not even wish to break it, because he is a changed man. A written code can change the Law; only the Spirit can change human nature.



8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?



The new covenant established by the work of Christ, and enlivened by the Spirit, “gives life” instead of “death” (vs. 6-7). It is only natural, therefore, that it should be accompanied by much greater splendor than the old legal system had. In this verse “glorious” describes the high spiritual privileges of Christian faith, worship, and life which belongs to one led by the Spirit. If the Old Testament was glorious, how much more glorious is the New Testament. Likewise, if Christianity is superior to Judaism of the Old Testament, which was the highest form of religion on earth, it will surely be superior to any other form of contemporary religion.



Paul’s New Testament letters underscore the importance of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to believers (Romans 5:5{18]). The Spirit was the guarantee—the first deposit—of their salvation. Believers were new creations because of the work of the Spirit in their lives. As such, believers had to live according to the dictates of the Spirit, instead of reverting back to their old sinful ways (Rom. 7:6{16]).



9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!



The second contrast is between the old legal system and the new life in the Spirit: the old system made God’s will known; it made man responsible; but it gave no power to break the grip of sin or to live the life it commanded, therefore, it led only to condemnation and death. The new dispensation gives the free gift of righteousness. Righteousness refers primarily to God’s gracious justifying of the sinner on the basis of Christ’s work; but since “the Spirit gives life” (v. 6), there is the further suggestion that this life is more than a legal acquittal and includes a moral enlivening of the believer. In this context the word certainly means the righteousness that God gives to believers (Rom. 4:3, 22){20].



God alone is truly righteous. No one is righteous before God (Rom. 3:10{21]). But God mercifully gives His righteousness to those who believe in His Son (Rom. 5:17{22]). This way all those who believe in Jesus are declared righteous before God (Rom. 3:20-22{23]). Believers, in turn, begin to alter their behavior one step at a time because the Holy Spirit lives within them, guiding them in paths of righteousness (Rom 8:4, 10{24]).



The grace of God is also a gift of life-transforming power. Naturally, such effective and beneficial power of that which the Spirit gives surpasses in splendor the old system which ended in condemnation. Paul knew that there was grace and power in the Old Testament period; but it did not come through the legal system as such. As Romans 4 and Galatians 3:6-9{11] show, faith and forgiveness were the true way of life even then.



The new covenant was quite different from the old covenant (v. 7).

a)     It was a relationship of love. It came into being because God so loved the world.

b)     It was a relationship between a father and his sons. Man was no longer the criminal in default, he was the son of God, even if a disobedient son.

c)      It changed a man’s life, not by imposing a new set of laws on him, but by changing his heart.

d)     It therefore not only told a man what to do but gave him the strength to do it. With its commandments it brought power.



“The ministry that brings righteousness” refers to the righteousness we have in Christ Jesus.



10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.



The old legal system (the commandments) had a real splendor (glory), since it was given by God and reflected its divine origin. Not only did Moses’ face shine, but thunder, lightning, earthquakes, dense clouds, blazing fire, and a deafening trumpet blast accompanied its inauguration at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:16-20{25]). The Israelites were terrified. They were forbidden from standing on the mountain or even on its boundaries. If they did, they would die. The glory of God inspired fear and reverence. The brilliance of Moses’ face was only a slight reflexion of God’s glory; the people knew this, for they had seen God shake the very foundations of Mount Sanai. The changed hearts and lives of believers, however, is an even more spectacular work of God than lightning, thunder and earthquakes. The giving of the Law on Mount Sanai was certainly spectacular, yet in comparison with the greater splendor of the new order it does not seem to have any splendor at all. Just as a candle appears to have no light when held in the full light of the sun, so does the lesser glory of the Law pale and seem as nothing in the presence of the new Spirit-filled glory of Christian fellowship.



11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!



The tense of the verb here is very important: “what was passing away.” Paul wrote at a period in history when the ages were overlapping. The new covenant of Grace had come in, but the temple sacrifices were still being carried on and the nation of Israel was still living under the Law. In a.d. 70, the city of Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed by the Romans, and that would mark the end of the Jewish religious system. The grace of the Law was fading in Paul’s day, and today that glory is found only in the records in the Bible. The nation of Israel has no temple or priesthood. If they did build a temple there would be no Shekinah glory dwelling in the holy of holies. The Law of Moses is a religion with a glorious past, but it has no glory today. The light is gone; all that remains is shadows (Col. 2:16-17{26]).



The giving of the Law was marked by a magnificent exhibition of God’s glory; there was thunder, lightning, and a mighty shaking of the earth—the old covenant was born in glory. But it was “fading away” at the very time that Moses, who had just come down from the mountain bringing with him the Ten Commandments, which are the code of the old covenant, was explaining the covenant of Law to Israel. Moses’ face had shown with such a brilliance that no one could look at it (Ex. 14:30), but the condition was only temporary; it did not and it could not last. The fading brightness of Moses’ face was a symbol of the temporary nature of the Law under the old covenant. The glory of the old covenant, like that of Moses’ face was fleeting and “fading away.” Notice that it is “fading away.” Then how much more glorious is “that which lasts,” that New covenant which imparts eternal life to anyone who believes in Jesus. He is making a contrast between the giving of the Mosaic Law and the day of grace in which we live. The new covenant, the relationship which Jesus Christ makes possible between man and God has a greater splendor which will never fade because it produces pardon and not condemnation, life and not death. Indeed, the new covenant had already shown God’s glory. Jesus Christ, by His perfect life, had revealed God to human beings. God’s saving of human souls is greater than anything we consider great in this world—big houses, fat bank accounts, fame, or power and influence.



Scripture reference and special notes.


{1] (2 Co. 2:16) To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?


{2] (Ex. 20:2) "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.


{3] (Heb. 9:18) This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood.


{4] (Ex. 24:3-8) When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, "Everything the LORD has said we will do." Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey." Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words."


{5] (Rom. 6:4) We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.


{6] (Mk. 14:24) "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them.


{7] (1 Co. 11:25) In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me."


{8] (Heb. 12:24) to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.


{9] (Ex. 34:29-35) When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.


{10] (1 Tim 6:16) who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.


{11] (Galatians 3:6-9) Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.


{12] Dispensation—a distinctive arrangement or period in history that forms the framework through which God relates to mankind.


{13] (Rom. 2:29) No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not a cutting of the body but a change of heart produced by God's Spirit. Whoever has that kind of change seeks praise from God, not from people.


{14] (Rom. 3:19-20) Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses and to bring the entire world into judgment before God. For no one can ever be made right in God's sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God's law, the clearer it becomes that we aren't obeying it.


{15] (Rom. 6:23) For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


{16] (Rom. 7:6) But now we have been released from the law, for we died with Christ, and we are no longer captive to its power. Now we can really serve God, not in the old way by obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way, by the Spirit.


{17] Glory—The Greek word for “glory” is doxes (from it we get the word doxology), which refers to the wonderful, awe-inspiring, indescribable presence of God Himself.


{18] (Romans 5:5) And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.


{19] fading—The Old testament passage does not record that the glory faded from Moses face. It seems that Paul interpreted Moses’ action of covering his face with a veil as an effort on Moses’ part to divert attention from the fading brilliance of his own face in order to focus the people’s attention on the Law.


{20] (Rom. 4:3, 22) For the Scriptures tell us, "Abraham believed God, so God declared him to be righteous.". . . And because of Abraham's faith, God declared him to be righteous.


{21] (Rom. 3:10) As the Scriptures say, "No one is good—not even one.


{22] (Rom. 5:17) The sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over us, but all who receive God's wonderful, gracious gift of righteousness will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.


{23] (Rom. 3:20-22) For no one can ever be made right in God's sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God's law, the clearer it becomes that we aren't obeying it. But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight—not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God's sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.


{24] (Rom 8:4, 10) He did this so that the requirement of the law would be fully accomplished for us who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. . . Since Christ lives within you, even though your body will die because of sin, your spirit is alive because you have been made right with God.


{25] (Ex. 19:16-20) On the morning of the third day, there was a powerful thunder and lightning storm, and a dense cloud came down upon the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram's horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake. As the horn blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply for all to hear. The LORD came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses climbed the mountain.


{26] (Col. 2:16-17) So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules were only shadows of the real thing, Christ himself.

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