Teaching series from 2 Corinthians

Two Ways of Relating to God

2 Corinthians 3:6-18

Teaching t05786


Remind of digression that gives some of the clearest descriptions of Christianity. LAST WEEK: the aroma of Christ (which he seems to come back to in chapter 4).

THIS WEEK: the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (see vs 14,6). "Covenant" simply means an arrangement between two parties. In this case, the arrangement is between God and people. These two covenants provide two very different ways by which we relate to God.

Old Covenant: relating to God on the basis of LAW (what the 10 Commandments + 603 others say we are to do for him)

New Covenant: relating to God on the basis of GRACE (what his Son Jesus Christ has done for us)

If we aren’t clear on this, our whole understanding and experience of Christianity will be distorted. The Corinthians were being confused by false teachers, so Paul writes this passage to remind them . . . 

Read vs 6-11. The main point here should be obvious--the New Covenant completely outclasses the Old Covenant. While acknowledging that the Old Covenant came from God (glory), he emphasizes that the New Covenant has superseded it (more glory) and is so superior to it that the Old Covenant is now obsolete (MOON AT SUNRISE: "that which had glory has no glory on account of that which surpasses it"). In these verses and the ones that follow, Paul spells out several ways in which the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant.

Ministry of death vs. Ministry of the Spirit (vs 6b-8)

The Old Covenant was a lifeless list of moral demands. Personified by the 10 Commandments, it spelled out what God required from his people--but it provided no power to fulfill those demands.

2 SWIMMING LESSON INSTRUCTORS: The first one knew his stuff, but he never got in the pool! He stood there in a sweatshirt and sweat-pants with a whistle around his neck, blowing his whistle at us when we goofed up, and correcting us. His instructions were accurate, but I made little progress and loathed the lessons.
The following year, I had a girl who instructed very differently. She also gave instructions and corrected us when we goofed up--but she communicated personal interest in us. She also got in the water, showed us how to do the strokes and helped us do them by holding us up, moving our arms, etc. I learned to swim and enjoyed swimming that summer!

This is a crude illustration of an extremely important point. The Old Covenant is like the first swimming instructor, but the New Covenant is like the second instructor. The Old Covenant is a lifeless code of moral demands, but the New Covenant is a life-giving relationship. God gives the same moral instructions, but through the indwelling Holy Spirit he also provides the love motivation and personal instruction and power to fulfill those instructions (Phil. 2:13).

This changes the whole way we view God’s moral commands. Instead of being an impersonal list of things that I must do by own power, they become a picture of the kind of life that a loving God is gradually producing in me through his indwelling Spirit. Paul will tell us more about this way of life, and how to appropriate it, at the end of the chapter.

But there is another way in which the Old Covenant "killed" and was a "ministry of death" . . . 

Ministry of condemnation vs. Ministry of righteousness (vs 9)

Paul calls the Old Covenant "the ministry of condemnation" because it emphasized sin and judgment. It was designed to show people why they were justly under God’s condemnation. It did this by emphasizing human sin and his demand for death as the penalty for sin.

This is the reason for the cleanliness laws and the sacrificial system. The cleanliness laws emphasized pollution by sin, separation from God because of sin, and the necessity of cleansing. The sacrificial system provided a picture of how God would one day solve the sin problem, but it gave no assurance of God’s forgiveness and acceptance. Life under the Old Covenant was therefore an endless round of becoming unclean, offering a sacrifice through a priest, being cleansed, becoming unclean again . . . 

Many of you know what it’s like to relate to God in this way. Whenever you sin, you become estranged from God. You confess to a priest or you perform some ritual or you "come forward" again to get right with God--but then you sin again and the whole thing starts all over again. Those who relate to God in this way eventually either admit they’re too sinful and give up on relating to God at all, or (worse) they deceive themselves into believing they are righteous by diluting God’s standards and comparing themselves to others (instead of to God’s law).

But the New Covenant emphasizes right standing with God through Christ. The "righteousness" Paul speaks of in vs 9 is not our good works or ritual performance. It is Christ’s righteousness which God gives to us as a free and undeserved gift (Phil. 3:6b,8,9). Because Jesus Christ was willing to take what he did not deserve (our sins and God’s judgment for those sins), God is willing to give us what we do not deserve (Christ’s righteousness) >> 2 Cor. 5:21.

What a difference it makes to know that God accepts me completely apart from what I do for him, and solely on the basis of what Christ has done for me! How wonderful to be able to look back into history and know that God has objectively paid for all of my sins through Christ’s death!

GOSPEL: You can have this same assurance today--if you simply turn to God, acknowledge your need for his forgiveness, and ask him to apply Jesus’ sacrifice to you.

Fading vs. Remaining (vs 11)

The Old Covenant was a temporary arrangement. God even designed the way he gave the Law to illustrate its temporality. Re-read vs 7. This event is recorded in Ex. 34:29-35. God’s radiance on Moses’ face confirmed the divine origin of the Law to the Israelites, but the fact that the glory faded from Moses’ face indicated the temporary nature of the Old Covenant. It was to be in force only until God’s permanent way of dealing with us was inaugurated through Christ.

This is not something Paul and the other New Testament authors made up! Nor was the New Covenant an afterthought because the Old Covenant failed; it was always part of God’s plan, to be ushered in at the proper time. The same Old Testament prophets who predicted the first coming of Christ also understood that his coming would bring an end to the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. Read Jer. 31:31-34, written six centuries before Christ. Notice also the correspondence between what Jeremiah says about the New Covenant and what Paul has said about it.

Bad news vs. Good news to others (vs 12-16)

Read vs 12-16. This is a difficult passage, but its main point is clear. Paul is contrasting the messages communicated by Moses and him.

Moses put a veil over his face after he finished communicating each portion of the law. He did this, not to hide the glory fading from his face, but to remind them that their sins separated them from God.

The veil in the tabernacle had the same purpose. It stood as an unmistakable barrier between the Israelites and God, reminding them that until their sins were truly paid for (not merely passed over by animal sacrifices), they were unwelcome in the presence of a holy God.

For this reason, the law is bad news. It tells people how holy God is and how far short they fall from his requirements and why they cannot draw near to him.

But Paul says "We use great boldness in our speech" when we communicate the gospel because it is good news. It is a not a message that reminds people of the barrier that separates them from God, but rather a message that invites people to be reconciled to God. It explains how Christ removes that barrier if only they will turn to the Lord.

Everyone likes to communicate good news more than bad news. We have the great news in the world to communicate to people! "Hey, God wants to give you his gift of forgiveness. He’s offering you a personal relationship with him through Christ. What do you say?" We may need to use the law to remind those who are self-righteous that they need this gift--but our main message should be this good news and we should be spreading it.

Superficial vs. Profound impact on your life (vs 17,18)

Re-read vs 13. Imagine receiving direct revelation in the very presence of God! Some of us would say that this surely would be a life-changing experience. But as great as it must have been, this experience had only a superficial impact on Moses. God’s glory shown on his face only--and then only for a little while before fading away.

This was yet another way in which God declared the inferiority of the law even as he gave it. Those who focus on the law and trying to keep it may alter certain external behaviors because they fear God (EXAMPLES), but their lives are not changed on a deep level. They do not become people who fall in love with God and his Word, and who delight in advancing his purposes and loving other people. As we saw earlier, the law has no power to produce this change.

But look at how Paul describes the kind of impact the New Covenant can have on your life (read vs 17,18). Whereas the law effects only an external and fading change, grace effects a change that is internal and increasing. God’s Spirit takes up residence in our hearts, and begins to gradually change us from the inside out ("are being transformed") to become like Christ.

How can we experience this kind of change? Paul gives us the answer--by "beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord."

The mirror which reflects God’s glory in the message of the New Covenant--the New Testament teaching about all that God has given to us through Christ. This is why we emphasize the New Testament more than the Old Testament. We want people to be familiar with the contents of the Old Testament--especially the way it foretold the coming of Christ--but this is not the portion of scripture which produces life-changing growth.

Both the meaning and tense in "beholding" emphasize the importance of cultivating a careful and consistent focus on God’s grace. The word (katoptrizoo) sometimes means to reflect (NIV), but also can mean to look intently rather than merely take a glance. This is the preferable meaning here. The tense (present continuous) emphasizes cultivating this as a way of life.

In other words, if you focus on the law, you will not be deeply changed. But if you take your eyes off the law and focus instead on God’s grace and all he has given you in Christ, you will gradually notice the work of God’s Spirit changing you from the inside out.

NEXT TIME: another key to exuding the aroma of Christ