Two Ways of Relating to God
2 Corinthians 3:6-18
God wants Christians to be a "fragrance of Christ" (read 2:15)--exuding the presence of Jesus in a way that attracts others to him. How can we do this? We get a clue on 2:17 (read). We must communicate the true message of Christianity, and not “adulterate” it. This term (kapayleuo) was used to describe how peddler-hucksters diluted the contents of their potions and medicines. In chapter 3, Paul goes on to expose how some were diluting the contents of the gospel (which he calls the “new covenant”) by mixing it with the “old covenant.” Therefore, one key to being a fragrant Christian is communicating the new covenant instead of the old covenant. This is a crucial issue, one that sets the tone/flavor/scent of Christianity. For the rest of this evening, I'll be explaining the difference between these two covenants--but first we need to understand what they are...
What are these 2 covenants?
A covenant is simply a contract/agreement between two parties. In this case, the covenants are between God and people. These two covenants provide two very different ways by which we relate to God.
The Old Covenant refers to the Law (the 10 Commandments plus 600+ other laws). It was given through Moses around 1400 BC. It is recorded in the Old Testament. It emphasized works—what we must do for God ("Thou shalt/shalt not").
The New Covenant refers to the gospel ("good news"). It was given through Jesus Christ. It is recorded in the New Testament. It emphasizes grace (charis)—what God has done for us through Christ.
Both of these covenants come from God—but there is an important relationship between them that Paul explains in 3:6-11 (read). There's a whole of glory here, but the main point is pretty clear. While both covenants come from God, the New Covenant surpasses and replaces the Old Covenant (3:10). (BTW, this is Paul's "Reader's Digest" version of the argument of Hebrews.)
It's like when you see the full moon just before and just after sunrise. The moon has a certain glory before the sun comes up. But once the sun comes up, the moon just fades away into the background because of the surpassing glory of the sun. In the same way, Paul argues, the new arrangement of relating to God under grace through Jesus so outclasses the old arrangement of relating to God under law that it is wrong to hold on to it and/or communicate it to others as Christianity.
Let's take a closer look at these same verses—and the rest of chapter 3—to understand why the new covenant surpasses and replaces the old covenant...
Ministry of death vs. Ministry of the Spirit
Re-read 3:6b-8. What does Paul mean when he says, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?" Why does he call the old covenant "the ministry of death," while he calls the new covenant "the ministry of the Spirit?" Does this mean that the Law is evil?
As Paul argues elsewhere (Rom.7:12,18b), the problem is not that the Law is evil—it is holy and righteous and good. The problem is that we are impotent to keep it by our own power. The old covenant is a lifeless code of moral demands ("Thou shalt! Thou shalt not!"); it makes moral demands upon me, but it doesn't help me keep those demands—so the result is always failure ("death") on my part.
When I was in grade school, I took swimming lessons one summer in two sessions. In the first session, my instructor was very competent, but he never got in the pool! He just stood there in his sweatshirt and sweatpants (while we were freezing) with a whistle around his neck. He'd shout instructions on how to float, do the crawl, etc.--and he'd blow his whistle at us when we goofed up, and scold us. His instructions were accurate, but I made little progress and loathed the lessons.
The following session, I had a girl who instructed very differently. She also gave instructions and corrected us when we goofed up. But she got to know us, she got in the water with us, and she helped us learn the strokes by holding us up, moving our arms, etc. What a difference! I liked the lessons and I learn to swim because she helped us.
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 provides God's power to live for him. God gives the same moral instructions in both covenants—but in the new covenant he provides his Holy Spirit to supply both the motivation and the power to fulfill those instructions (Phil.2:13). (NOTE: Paul will tell us more about this way of life, and how to appropriate it, at the end of the chapter.)
Ministry of condemnation vs. Ministry of righteousness
Re-read 3:9. Paul calls the old covenant "the ministry of condemnation" because it exposed our guilt and worthiness of God's judgment. It was designed to show people that they constantly violated God's moral standards, and that God demanded death as the payment for their violations.
This is the reason for most of 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 beautiful picture of how God would one day solve the sin problem (EXPLAIN), but it gave no assurance of God’s forgiveness and acceptance. Life under the Old Covenant was therefore an endless round of ritual pollution, ritual sacrifice through a priest, ritual cleansing, etc.
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 ("self-righteous")—or they discover the good news of the New Covenant (read Heb.7:18,19).
But the New Covenant offers us permanent right standing with God through Christ. Read 2Cor.5:21. 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). The “righteousness” Paul speaks of in Phil.3:9 is not our good works or ritual performance. It is Christ’s righteousness which God gives to us as a free and undeserved gift.
What a difference this gift of right standing makes! It means that you can have a personal (not ritualistic) relationship with God that is secure, because it is not based on what you do for God, but on what Christ has done for you.
GOSPEL: This is what it means to become a Christian--something that many people are confused about. I ask some people if they're Christians, and they say, "Yes, because I am trying to live a good life...I am living a better life than most people." Ironically, this is what proves they are not Christians. To become a Christian is to forsake all of your works to earn God’s acceptance and trust Christ alone to earn it for you. This is humbling if you think you can earn your way, but it is good news when you realize you can't. Are you ready?
Superficial vs. Profound change in your life
Paul summarizes the superiority of the old covenant over the new covenant by describing one more contrast--superficial vs. profound impact change in your life.
Read 3:13. Briefly explain Ex.34. Imagine receiving direct revelation in the presence of God so that your very face glowed like Moses did! This must have been an incredible experience. But as great as it was, this revelation had only a superficial impact on Moses. God’s glory shone on his face only—and then only for a little while before fading away. For reasons that aren't clear (explain two views?), Moses put a veil over his face so the Israelites couldn't see it fading away.
Paul seems to be saying that this was yet another way in which God declared the inferiority of the law even as he gave it. The old covenant can only produce external changes that disguise your unchanged hearts. Those who focus on the law and trying to keep it may alter certain external behaviors (DON'T CUSS/SMOKE; GO TO CHURCH; HIDING SIN), but the change is superficial--their lives are not changed on a deep level. They do not become Christ-like in character—people who love God and other people (COMMITTED TO THEIR GOOD: INVEST; FORGIVE; CORRECT). That's why Jesus said Matt.23:25,26 (read) to the Old Covenant Pharisees. As we saw earlier, the law simply has no power to produce this kind of change.
But Paul says the new covenant can have a totally different kind of impact on your life (read 3:18). The new covenant (called here "the glory of the Lord"--see 3:7-11) can gradually transform (metamorphow) your life from the inside out so that you display Christ's loving character to others. Paul is deliberately contrasting the effect of the old covenant on Moses (3:13) with the effect of the new covenant on all Christians (2 ANIMATIONS). The Holy Spirit gradually produces the fruit of the Spirit (read Gal.5:22,23). This is why I said at the beginning that the new covenant is one of the keys to becoming more fragrant with the aroma of Christ!
"How can I experience this change?" Why do so many Christians experience only superficial change? The answer, Paul says, lies in what you contemplate. "Beholding" is katoptrizw. It can mean "reflecting" (NIV), but the normal meaning (and the one New Testament scholars prefer) is "beholding" or "contemplating." As you learn, contemplate, and focus on what God has done for you through Christ, this unleashes the power of God's Spirit to gradually transform your life. We will be elaborating on this over the next two weeks...
Let's listen to Travis Henderson describe his own journey from living under the law to living under grace...
Travis emphasizes forming relationships with other Christians who understand and live under God's grace. If you hang out mainly with Christians who live under the law, it is bound to rub off on you. But if you form personal friendships with Christians who are grounded in and excited about grace, you find God teaching you the same focus and changing your life.