The Surpassing Glory of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:4-11)
Nothing is more frustrating than knowing what one ought to do and lacking the power to perform it. To see and read and be confronted with the will of God all the while one is bereft of the resolve and spiritual energy to respond in a positive fashion is my definition of despair!
That is why I thank God daily that I do not live in an age when the law of God was merely written on stone and called for my obedience without the promise of the provision of power. That is why I thank God daily that I have by grace been made a member of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus, the distinguishing feature of which is that for every precept there is power and for every statute there is strength and for the otherwise impossible task of saying Yes to God’s commands there is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
In describing this New Covenant of which we’ve been made members, Paul contrasts it with the Mosaic or Old Covenant. He associates the New with the Spirit and says that it “gives life,” whereas the Old he describes as “the letter [which] kills” (2 Cor. 3:6).
This contrast has been misunderstood. It does not mean that the Law of Moses is sinful (cf. Rom. 7:12-14), nor does it allude to two ways of interpreting Scripture: literal vs. spiritual (or allegorical). Far less does it have reference to the distinction many make between doctrine and spirit or between mind and heart.
The contrast in view becomes evident when one examines the nature of the New Covenant as over against the Old. In sum, the Law of Moses was imposed from without on a rebellious people, the result of which was death. The New Covenant, on the other hand, is inscribed on the very hearts of its recipients, all of whom, from least to the greatest, will "know the Lord" (Jer. 31:33-34). All participants in the New Covenant are provided with the inner power, i.e., the Holy Spirit, to fulfill its dictates. The Old Covenant made no such provision. Its dictates confronted a people whose hearts were stone. The effect of God's commandments on unchanged (stony) hearts is condemnation and death. Thus, spiritually speaking, the Old Covenant "killed" and made it, therefore, "a ministry of death" (v. 7a).
Scott Hafemann provides this excellent summation of Paul’s point:
“The problem with the Sinai covenant was not with the law itself, but, as Ezekiel and Jeremiah testify, with the people whose hearts remained hardened under it. The law remains for Paul, as it did for the Jewish traditions of his day, the holy, just, and good expression of God’s covenantal will (Rom. 7:12). Indeed, Paul characterizes the law itself as ‘spiritual’ (7:14). As the expression of God’s abiding will, it is not the law per se that kills, or any aspect or perversion of it, but the law without the Spirit, that is, the law as ‘letter.’ Devoid of God’s Spirit, the law remains to those who encounter it merely a rejected declaration of God’s saving purposes and promises, including its corresponding calls for repentance and the obedience of faith. Although the law declares God’s will, it is powerless to enable people to keep it” (132).
Thus the inadequacy of the Mosaic Law was not due to any inherent sinfulness or failure on its part. Its inadequacy, rather, was that it could only prescribe what people ought to do but without making provision that would sufficiently enable them to fulfill its commands. The Law of Moses was quite effective in explaining one’s moral obligation and exposing one’s sin, but it was not endowed with the power to ensure that those who stood under its covenant would fulfill its terms.
That there should be no doubt concerning the inherent goodness of the Old Covenant established through Moses, Paul himself speaks of its “glory” no fewer than six times in vv. 7-11, and no fewer than four times refers to the superior “glory” of the New Covenant established through Christ!
Before I go any further, let me say a few brief words about the New Covenant. By the way, this is no theological diversion or meaningless bunny-trail. This is the foundation for your relationship with God! Nothing could be more personal or important than understanding the terms on which we relate to God as our Lord and Savior and experience the blessings he has provided.
First of all, what is provided for us in the New Covenant? According to what we read in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Ezek. 36:25-28) it entails several glorious blessings, such as the internalization of God's law ("I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” Jer. 31:33a; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), unbroken fellowship with God ("I will be their God, and they shall be my people," Jer. 31:33b), unmediated knowledge of God ("And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord,” Jer. 33:34a), and the unconditional forgiveness of sins ("for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,” Jer. 33:34b).
Second, in whom is the New Covenant fulfilled? I’m always a bit stunned that anyone could have any doubts about this, but let me briefly mention five answers that have been given.
Some so-called “classical dispensationalists” argue that the New Covenant was given exclusively for ethnic Israel and will therefore be fulfilled only in her at the end of the age when Israel as a nation is saved. The Church, according to this view, has no part in the blessings of this covenant.
There have been other dispensationalists who argued that there are two New Covenants, one for ethnic Israel and one for the Church. Happily, this view has been largely if not altogether abandoned by those who first proposed it.
Still others within the dispensational camp have suggested that there is only one New Covenant, for Israel, in which the Church shares spiritually. In other words, those blessings in the covenant which pertain to salvation are equally enjoyed by the Church, but those that pertain to earthly prominence in the land belong solely to Israel.
A fourth view, not very popular but extremely unbiblical and dangerous, is that there are two covenants, one for the Jewish people and one for those (whether Jew or Gentile) who embrace Jesus as Messiah. The latter comprise the Church. The former are Jews who need not believe that Jesus is the Messiah but who relate savingly to God via Judaism and the covenant God uniquely established with them as a nation.
The correct view, in my opinion, is that there is only one New Covenant. The Church, being the historical continuation of the believing remnant within Israel, is the recipient of its blessings. Thus, both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, the latter of whom have been graciously included in the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), together and equally enjoy the fulfillment of all aspects of the New Covenant (see especially Mt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:29; Eph. 2:11-22; 3:6; Hebrews 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:15; 10:19ff.).
It is as a minister of this New Covenant that Paul happily declares he has been made adequate or sufficient by God. He finds nothing in himself that would qualify him for this awesome task. God made him “competent” (v. 5), as is surely the case with each of us in the exercise of any spiritual gift or ministry or act of service to which God has called us.
What a blessing indeed, that the superior glory of the “ministry of the Spirit” (v. 8) or the “ministry of righteousness” (v. 9), i.e., the ministry of the New Covenant, will never fade away or be abolished or replaced by one that surpasses it in power or preeminence (v. 11). For its provisions we give thanks and on its power we rely as we seek to live to the glory of its Giver.