2 Cor 3:4-11
Recently my dad, sons, nephews, and I were out in Altoona, PA watching trains. While there, we always go to eat at a restaurant that has blast from the past. As soon as you walk in the front door, on the right side you see an operating payphone.
Now the boys all find this to be greatly amusing. Here you have a telephone attached to the wall, into which you have to place money in order to make a call. In a world of cell phones with which you can call from basically anywhere, while using the same device to use the internet, watch videos and play games – the whole idea of a pay phone seems rather absurd. And certainly, as a technology, the cell phone blows away the pay phone in every possible way.
Yet we should not lose sight of what a glorious thing the telephone was for those who first experienced it. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the U.S. patent for the first telephone in 1876. Prior to that the telegraph was the fastest means of communication. Yet now, you could actually talk directly to the other person and hear their voice. And in the pay phone, you had locations where you could do that, even if you weren’t in your own home. There were many times when I was glad to have a payphone available so that I could call for a ride home.
The pay phone, in itself, was a great thing. But the reality is that the cell phone is an even greater thing that surpasses it, and makes it pale in comparison. In our epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul describes the same kind of relationship between the first covenant that God made with Israel, and the new covenant that we now experience in Jesus Christ. The first covenant had glory. But in the new covenant something even more glorious has come as it gives salvation to all people.
The background for our text is provided by the previous three verses of chapter three. Other Christian teachers had come to Corinth. Apparently, they brought with them letters of commendation which claimed they were authoritative teachers in the Church. Letters of commendation were a common practice in the ancient world. Someone, who was known to the receiver of the letter, would vouch for the individual carrying the letter of commendation.
The early Church used this practice too, and in this case these teachers had shown up in Corinth with letters of commendation, as they then set about in the work of opposing the apostle Paul. Now we don’t know anything about the legitimacy of the letters of commendation they brought. And Paul’s point is that it doesn’t matter, because he had something even better.
Paul writes, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
The apostle says that he and Timothy don’t need a letter of commendation, because the Corinthians themselves are their letter of commendation. Paul and his companions’ work of ministry and their love for the Corinthians was known by all. It was as if the Corinthians were written on their hearts, ready to be seen by all.
And beyond that the Corinthians themselves were the letter from Christ that had been written through the ministry of Paul. He was the first to share the Gospel with the Corinhians. It was through his proclamation and teaching that the Corinthians had come to faith in Christ. And so Paul can say, “you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Paul’s opponents often argued that Gentile Christians had to show some kind of adherence to the Torah – the Law that God gave to Moses at Mt Sinai – if they wanted to be part of God’s people. That seems to be the case here as well because Paul’s reference to tablets of stone leads in our text to a comparison between the first covenant made with Israel, and the new covenant that has been established in Christ. Paul says, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul declares that their sufficiency comes from God who had made them ministers of the new covenant – a covenant of the Spirit of God and not the letter of the law. And this made all the difference in the world because while the letter kills, the Spirit gives life.
The letter – the letter of the law kills. The law is about what we must do. The letter of the law kills because it brings judgment upon all who fail to do it. Fundamental to Paul’s assessment of the law is the reality of what sin has done to us. He told the Romans that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, all people have been conceived and born as those who are corrupted in every way by sin. We simply do not have the spiritual ability to live according to God’s will.
The law sets forth God’s will. It describes how God has ordered his creation. But it also declares judgment against all who break God’s will. And since because of our fallen nature we can never do God’s law perfectly, the letter of the law can only bring us death. Paul told the Galatians, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
We know this is true of us. There is no end to the things that we place before God. The reception of God’s Word takes second place during the week because there are so many other things we would rather do. We disobey our parents. We do not show love, care, and self-sacrifice for our spouse. We enjoy sharing gossip that hurts the reputation of others.
Yet in our text Paul declares that God had made him and his co-workers “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” God had made his covenant with Israel. But this covenant was not his last word. Instead, it was part of his plan to bring salvation to all people. In the fulfillment of the first covenant, God had now established a new covenant.
In our text, the apostle contrasts this new covenant with the first one. He points out that the first covenant certainly had glory. He illustrates this with the way that when Moses had been in Yahweh’s presence his face shown with a glory so that the Israelites couldn’t look at it. In fact he had to place veil over his face. If this ministry of the law that in itself could only bring death had such glory, Paul asks, “will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?”
Then the apostle adds, “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” Paul describes the new covenant as a ministry of righteousness. Where the law could only bring condemnation, God has acted in the new covenant to put us right with him. And in chapter five the apostle describes exactly how he has done this.
There Paul writes that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” God has acted in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to himself. He hasn’t counted our trespasses against us. But the just and holy God didn’t just pretend like our sin doesn’t exist. Instead, in the incarnation he sent his Son into the world to die on the cross for our sin. He sent him to receive the punishment against our sin. The apostle says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus Christ died for our sins in order to make us righteous before God – to make us holy in his eyes. But remember, Paul has said in our text that God, “made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The Spirit does give life. The Spirit gave life when he raised Jesus from the dead on the third day. This is the source of the life that we now experience. It is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead – the Spirit of Christ – who has now given us spiritual life. He has made us a new creation in Christ.
You know that you have received the Spirit because you have been baptized. Paul says in the first chapter of his letter, “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” The presence of the life giving Spirit within us is the guarantee that we are God’s. The Spirit is the seal that shows we belong to him.
Until we die or our Lord returns, we continue to face the struggle against sin. We are a new creation in Christ, but in ourselves the sinful nature continues to hang on. And so we confess our sin. We confess it, and at the same time we embrace in faith the ministry of righteousness that God has given us in Christ. We believe and trust in our Lord Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, and then rose from the dead. Because of him we are forgiven before God. We have salvation and eternal life. We have the confidence that he will raise us up on the Last Day as we share in his resurrection.
And at the same time we know that the Spirit gives life. The Spirit who gave us new spiritual life through the water and Word of Holy Baptism, continues to nourish and strengthen that life through the Means of Grace. He is at work in us – leading and enabling us to live in ways that fulfill God’s will. As Paul says in chapter five, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”