Ministration of death

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“The ministration of death – Exposition of 2 Cor. 3:7-11” The Signs of the Times 13, 21.

and The Signs of the Times 15, 30. E. J. Waggoner

Several questions have of late been asked us upon 2 Cor. 3:7-11.

As that is a passage which those who are striving to teach the law often find difficult to explain, and which enemies of truth use with great confidence as being opposed to the law, we will try to give a simple scriptural exposition of it. The fifth and sixth verses of the chapter read as follows:-

Ministration of death“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

It will be noticed that the last clause of verse 5 is an answer to the question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” asked in verse 16 of the preceding chapter.

The subject which is under consideration is the Christian ministry, as is seen by verse 6, and the first verse of chapter 4. The apostle is showing its excellence, and in so doing contrasts it with the ministry of the old covenant. The word “testament” in verse 6, means “covenant,” and the statement is that we are made ministers of the new covenant; “not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

Many people seem to have the idea that in this verse Paul is contrasting the two testaments or covenants.

The old covenant they call the letter, and the new covenant the spirit. But one who reads the verse carefully cannot fail to see that this is an error. The old covenant is not referred to till we reach the seventh verse. Paul’s statement is simply to the effect that he and his associates were ministers of the spirit of the new covenant, and not of its letter; for the new covenant has its letter as well as the old.

On this point Dr. Clarke makes the following pertinent comment:-

“Every institution has its letter as well as its spirit; as every word must refer to something of which it is the sign or significator. The gospel has both its letter and its spirit, and multitudes of professing Christians, by resting in the letter, receive not the life which it is calculated to impart. Water, in baptism, is the letter that points out the purification of the soul; they who rest in this letter are without this purification; and dying in that state, they die eternally. Bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, are the letter; the atoning efficacy of the death of Jesus, and the grace communicated by this to the soul of the believer, are the spirit. Multitudes rest in this letter, simply receiving these symbols without reference to the atonement or to their guilt; and thus lose the benefit of the atonement and the salvation of their souls. . . . It may be safely asserted that the Jews in no period of their history ever rested more in the letter of their law than the vast majority of Christians are doing in the letter of their gospel. Unto multitudes of Christians Christ may truly say, Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life.”

In the above quotation, it is shown that the letter of the new covenant kills; but the reason why it kills

will be made plain after we have made a brief comparison of the two covenants.

These two covenants with their ministrations are brought to view in contrast in verses 7 and 8, which read thus:-

“But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away; how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?”

In this verse, the old covenant is called the “ministration of death.” Why it was so-called is very apparent to one who understands what the old covenant was.

We will state it briefly. Before the Lord gave the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, He said to the Jews:-

“Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” Ex. 19:4-5.

On the third day after this, the Lord spoke the Ten Commandments in the hearing of all the people: “and he added no more; and he wrote them in two tables of stone.” Deut. 5:22. Then Moses went up to the Lord in the mount, and the Lord gave to him precepts growing out of the Ten Commandments. See Ex. 21, 22, and 23.

The confirmation of the covenant, the preliminaries of which are given in Ex. 19:5-8, is related in Ex. 24:3-8.

Ministration of deathThere learn that “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.” After this “Moses wrote all the words of the Lord;” and after he had built an altar and offered sacrifices, and read in the audience of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.”

Then “Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” Thus was the covenant confirmed. We learn from this that the old covenant was simply an agreement between God and the children of Israel, concerning the commandments of God. The people on their part promised faithfully to keep the commandments, and the Lord promised to make of them a great nation. In connection with this covenant there were “ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary,” Heb. 9:1. This sanctuary is described in Ex. 25; 26, 27, and 30, and the principal “ordinances of divine service,” are described in Ex. 29:38-42, and Leviticus, chapters 4 and 16.

With these facts before us, we may understand why the ministration of the first covenant was called a “ministration of death.”

(1) In this covenant the people had made an explicit agreement to keep the law of God.

(2) By this law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), “for sin is the transgression of the law.” 1 John 3:4.

(3) The “ordinances of divine service connected with the first covenant were for sin; but Paul tells us (Heb. 10:4) that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” Those “ordinances of divine service” were only “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things,” and therefore the sacrifices which the people offered had no power to make them perfect. Therefore

(4) all who had to do with the old covenant alone were condemned to death; “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); “and the wages of sin is death.” Rom. 6:23.

There was in the old covenant no provision for the forgiveness of sins; therefore the ministration of that old covenant, which was performed by earthly priests, was, so far as their work extended, the ministration of death. Only the perfect can have life, and their ministration made nothing perfect. It is true that during the time of the ministration of the old covenant, sins were forgiven (Lev. 4:26, 31, 35), and this forgiveness was real, but it was obtained solely by virtue of faith in the promised sacrifice of Christ, and not because of anything in the old covenant. Paul says of Christ, in Heb. 9:15, that “he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” Thus we see that when sins committed under the first covenant were forgiven, they were forgiven by virtue of the second covenant.

Some stumble over the first clause of 2 Cor. 3:7, “The ministration of death, written and engraven in stones,” but the Scriptures furnish means for the complete exposition of this. Paul cannot mean that the ministration was written and engraven in stones, for that would be impossible, because the ministration was the service of the priests.

Then it must be that he means that death was written and engraven in stones. But some will say, “This makes nonsense of the text.”

Let us see. It is very easy to ascertain what was written and engraven in stone. Ex. 31:18 says that the Lord “gave to Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” “And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand. The tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” Ex. 32:15, 16.

These two tables were broken, and after Moses had, by the command of the Lord, made two other tables, he said, “And he [the Lord] wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments, which the Lord spake unto you in the mount, out of the midst of the fire, in the day of the assembly.” Deut. 10:4. These texts show that it was the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments alone, that were written and engraven in stones; and therefore by the word “death,” in 2 Cor. 3:7, Paul must refer to the Ten Commandments.

But is it allowable to speak of the Ten Commandments as “death”? – Are they death to anybody?

Ministration of deathIt certainly is allowable, for they are death to all men, because all have sinned, and the “wages of sin is death.”

The law is the cause of death to every sinner that shall perish, and so by metonymy, it is called death. In like manner the sons of the prophets said of the poisonous gourds, “There is death [i.e., a cause of death] in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40); and the Lord said that “the tree of the field is man’s life” (sustainer of life). Deut. 20:19.

So when Paul describes his conviction as a sinner, he says of the law, “And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.” Rom. 7:10. Thus we find that in every case of the word, the ministration of the old covenant was “the ministration of death.” We have found, then

(1) that the law, which was the basis of the covenant, was death to all, and

(2) that the ministration concerning that violated law offered no relief, but in itself tended to death. Notwithstanding all this, there was a wonderful glory connected with the old covenant and its service. The giving of the law was attended with glory the like of which has never been seen on earth before or since, and will not be until the Lord shall come in the glory of His Father with all His angels.

When Moses returned from the mount, his face was so glorified that the people could not look at it; and the glory of the Lord was present in the sanctuary to so great a degree that the priests were forced to obscure it with a cloud of incense, lest they should die.

Now let us briefly outline the new covenant.

Paul says that this was established upon “better promises.” Its terms are found in Heb. 8:8-12, which reads thus:-

“For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people; and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.”

We find here the same condition as in the old covenant,-the people are to obey the law of God. But this covenant is established on “better promises” than the first, in that the Lord promises to forgive their sins, to write the law in their hearts, and to remember their iniquities no more. These things are all accomplished by virtue of Christ, who is the mediator of the new covenant. Heb. 8:6; 9:15. “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), by securing the remission of past sins (Rom. 3:24, 25), and enabling us to walk in harmony with the law. Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:10; Heb. 13:20, 21.

The law, then, is the basis of both covenants; hence it could not be done away with the old covenant, else there could be no new covenant. The terms of the new covenant leave no doubt on this point, and Christ’s connection with it brings the fact out still more clearly. Thus Christ is the minister of this new covenant (Heb. 8:1, 2) and is now performing the ministration in the true sanctuary in Heaven. Heb. 9:24. His ministration has reference to the law, for he came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and he is offering his blood to save men from sin. Rom. 3:24; 1 John 1:7; Matt. 1:21.

This redemption we get through faith (Rom. 3:24), and faith establishes the law. Rom. 3:31. The law itself, having been violated, brings death; Christ redeems us from its curse (Gal. 3:13), and thus becomes our life. Col. 3:4.

Now note the contrast between the two covenants:

The first had the ministration of death, because everything connected with it tended to death; the violated law was death to the sinner, and the earthly ministration freed no one from that condemnation.

The second covenant has the ministration of the Spirit, because “the Lord is that Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17), and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty and life. Gal. 6:8. But although there is no death in the second covenant, there is in the rejection of it, for the law is still death to sinners, and all who are opposed to Christ are sinners, and condemned to death; so Paul says that the letter of the new covenant kills. The reason is that holding the mere letter of the new covenant,-the performance of the gospel ordinances while not receiving Christ in the heart,-is really a rejection of Christ.

Of the Lord’s Supper, Paul says that he who does not discern the Lord’s body, eats and drinks damnation to himself. 1 Cor. 11:9. He is in the same condition as though he had never heard of the new covenant. But in every case, whether of the sinner under the old covenant, or of one who rejects the new, it is the law that causes his death. In the text under consideration, Paul contrasts the two ministrations as to glory. If the ministration which could not cleanse from sin, was glorious, the ministration of the Spirit, which gives freedom from sin, must be more glorious. “If the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.” And so much more glorious is the ministration of the second covenant than that of the first, that in comparison the first covenant seems to have had no glory. Why the ministration of the second covenant should be so much more glorious than that of the first, is because it is established upon “better promises,” and Christ is its minister. “For if that which is done away was glorious, much more than which remaineth is glorious.” 2 Cor. 3:11.

Now what was done away? The answer must be that it is that which was glorious.

Verse 9 states that it was the ministration of condemnation that was glorious. Then it must be the ministration of condemnation that was done away; that which remains is the ministration of the Spirit. By no possibility can verse 11 be made to refer to the law, because it contrasts something done away with something that remains. And we have found that the law is the basis of both covenants, and therefore, it cannot have been done away; but the ministration of the old covenant as well as the covenant itself was done away, as was indicated by the fading glory upon the countenance of Moses. But it needs no abstract reasoning to show that it is the tabernacle service, and that alone, to which the apostle refers in verse 11 as being “done away,” for he says, “if that which is done away was glorious,” showing by the “if” that he had before called attention to something glorious; and the only thing which he has so designated in this connection, is the ministration of death. Verse 7. We think that any reader who carefully follows this brief exposition will be able to see for himself, on reading 2 Cor. 3:7-11 that the apostle is simply contrasting the glory of the service of the two covenants, and that the law of God is not under consideration at all, except by an incidental allusion which goes to show its permanent character. W.

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