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Essence and administration of the New Covenant

Moses, stones covenant, testament, New Covenant, letter of the law, spirit of the law, His covenant, Biblical standard, letter kills, spirit gives life

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The New Covenant is also mentioned in II Cor 3:6.

[God] "who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Why does the letter of the law kill? The letter kills when one doesn't keep it. If the Law were void it would no longer kill. It also kills when one zero's in on the letter and therefore misses the spirit or intent. The intent of the New Covenant is to get believers to focus on the spirit or intent of the law not zero in on the letter only. The Jews often focused on the letter and broke the law because they did not see the full intent. We'll see that Paul says exactly this a few verses later in this chapter.

What does it mean to be 'ministers of the New Covenant'? The Greek word for 'ministers' here is "diakonos". It means "one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant, attendant, minister". (see Thayer's Greek Lexicon) Minister in this context is not a preacher or the leader of a congregation, but a servant who ministers to his master's wishes. Verse six is saying that the Creator has empowered us to fulfill the will of the New Covenant in the spirit as opposed to the letter. According to its intent not just in the letter of the law.

By using 'the letter' Paul makes the connection with the Law, the Law of Moses. Indeed Christianity recognizes this and teaches that Paul here is showing the Law to be substandard. Certainly this is true. But that doesn't mean it is to be ignored. Paul doesn't say here that we should dismiss the law, but that God empowers us to live according to the spirit of the Law. One cannot ignore the letter and still live by the spirit and intent. The letter is not at cross-purposes with the spirit and intent, but only a subset or part of the full intent.

The next verse is sometimes used to condemn the Ten Commandments written on stones as a law of death. "But if the ministry of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious , so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which was passing away".(II Cor 3:7)

A careful reading will find that it is not the Sinai Law or the Law of Moses that is under discussion here. (If you don't know the difference between these laws click here for an explanation.) The subject in verse 7 is the ministry of Moses. It is referring to the function Moses was performing.

"Ministry" in this verse is a translation of the Greek word, "diakonia" similar to minister in verse 6 above. It refers especially "to those who execute the commands of others". Specifically, in this case, it is the "office of Moses", (Thayer p137). The functionaries in place to administer the law are passing away. Jesus Christ, our High Priest replaced them. The Law is not the focus of this verse, but how it is administered.

Verses 8-11, & 13 all contrast Moses ministry, function or administration with the ministry, function or administration of the spirit. Moses was the chief human judge of Israel and it sometimes fell his lot to dictate the penalty for breaking of the then current law. Too often that penalty was death.

Under the Sinai covenant especially, there was often no other option. Even under the administration of the Moab covenant, the law, death was required too. Fortunately it was not always the death of the human involved. Later, during Jesus life the administration was done by the Sadducees, or scribes, and the Pharisees, "…The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat." (Mat 23:2)

Before the Moab covenant , Moses directly administered the covenant between God and Israel. As that law was written, one could make restitution for stealing, or help restore someone to health that one had a hand in injuring, but most other offenses resulted in death. When the Moab covenant was confirmed Israel came under that law as well as the Law of God (Deu 29:1). Atonement could be obtained with the blood of an animal.

"All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." (Rom 2:12-13 NIV) They are not declared righteous because they have kept the law perfectly, but because on the rare occasion when they miss the mark (sin) they are forgiven by means of a blood sacrifice. Their sin is forgiven preventing the separation from God that would typically be required. However if they do not recognize Jesus blood as applying to them they can only be forgiven by means of the sacrifice prescribed in the law. The Law is obviously still very much in effect.

Paul then goes on to explain that the gentiles that are not schooled in the law nevertheless have some of God's law written in their heart, (vs 15) because in some ways they conduct themselves according to the law. It is clear that having the law written in the heart is evidenced by the believer doing, that which is enjoined in the law.

With the new covenant, we can accept Jesus blood as our atonement, which provides a better means of forgiveness, i.e. grace, and enables us to live according to the spirit and intent of the Law. "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17). Jesus died to provide a better means of forgiveness, and remission (releasing from the bondage of sin), not to void ‘My Law’, which defines sin.

The better promises  of the new covenant include especially forgiveness. "…For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more"(Jer 31:34). Of course this follows immediately after Jeremiah 31:31-33 where Hebrews 8 got the very concept of the New Covenant.

We are not under the Law of God as administered by Moses. We are not under the Law as administered by the Levites. That law attempted to keep them in compliance with the original Sinai covenant and especially the Covenant of the Lord, but Israel never really ‘got it’. Since Jesus came He set the example and properly interpreted the Law and the prophets. It is His teaching and example that is to be our standard.

"till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:14)."

Speaking of the coming Messiah, 'My Elect One': "I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles" (Isa 42:6)

Jesus/Yeshua is the standard.  If we recognize Him as our High priest and wish to take up His challenge to be perfect as the Father is perfect (Mat 5:48), we accept His sacrifice and diligently seek to live to His standard. We must go and sin no more. He continues His life and example through us.(John 14:23)

We can, and unfortunately do, still sin. If we do sin, sin will not own us, for we are not under any law as written on paper, but we are under the administration of and standard of our Savior and Messiah. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Heb 4:15) "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked." (1John 2:6) Who we obey is whose servants we are (Rom 6:16). Therefore we willingly yield ourselves, as Messiah did, to the Law of God and include His instruction. God forbid that we would willingly sin. "I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jer 31:33b, Heb 8:10b).

Under the Sinai law if someone was not careful to protect his fellows from a known dangerous situation and someone was killed as a result, the one responsible, who knew of the situation, was liable for the death. In that case the one responsible was to be put to death (Ex 21:29). Certainly the principle behind this law still applies. If we are aware of and responsible for a dangerous situation, which then results in someone’s death, the Sinai covenant dictates we be put to death ourselves. "You shall not murder" (Ex 20:13).

However, because of the incredible grace and mercy of God, we are not under the law as written in the Sinai covenant or the Law of Moses, if we acknowledge Jesus as Savior and repent of our own ways and diligently seek to live as He lived. The covenant of the Lord is administered differently than it was under Moses in the Sinai covenant. However if we grasp the new covenant we will have the Law of God, the Covenant of the Lord, written in our heart. We will be anxious to obey that law in the spirit and the letter. We will not be careless and cause injury to anyone.

The New Covenant assumes we know His Law and are anxious to obey or repent if we sin. To repent means that we recognize we have made a fundamental error and wish to correct the error and avoid it in the future.

We will keep dangerous animals securely contained. We will drive our cars with courtesy and caution. We will not allow hazardous situations to develop around our homes or in our workplaces. We will properly handle dangerous substances. We will go to the same lengths to honor all the other instruction of the Sinai covenant as well. This demonstrates our love of God and love toward our neighbor in its pure and full sense.

II Corinthians 3:14-16 is interesting. Paul likens the veil that Moses had over his head, to the veil that covered the Jews when reading the "Old Testament". (The Greek word for testament is the same word as is used for covenant in Hebrews 8). Paul was unaware the Hebrew scriptures would be called the ‘Old Testament’, since there was not yet a ‘New Testament’ when he wrote II Corinthians. 'Old Testament' here should really be translated ‘old covenant’. So when the Jews read the ‘old covenant’, the Law or especially Deuteronomy, they didn’t understand it. When we truly turn to the Lord that veil is taken away and we can then understand what the law has been saying for thousands of years. Of course nowhere does the Law of Moses indicate that the Covenant of the Lord is to be cast aside.  The covenant made in Moab however, contains some regulations that did not fully support the Creator's original intentions

What the Law does tell us is how to love, honor and respect God and how to respect and love our neighbor. It gives specific examples of how the Patriarchs exercised faith, and recommends we do the same. It also gives bad examples, so we can learn what not to do. It’s all there if one reads it carefully and applies the principles, or spirit of what is being said.

"…but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (II Cor 3:5b-6) If we just read God’s instruction for the letter we will miss the point. For instance Exodus 23:19 tells us to not seethe a kid in its mother's milk, which was a popular pagan tradition. If we determine not to do that, but continue to pay homage to other pagan traditions we will have obeyed in the letter, but still be liable for worshiping other gods, because we have missed the spirit. Unfortunately this was much of the problem with ancient Israel. They read the letter, but missed the spirit. The veil Paul spoke of prevented them from completely understanding the intent of the law. The result was ultimately their death.

God spelled things out more clearly in the Moab covenant. "When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, 30. Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.'" (Deut 12:29-30)

By accepting the New Covenant that became available with the death of Jesus Christ we acknowledge that we are guilty of sin that required a death penalty. He took that guilt and paid that penalty Himself. If the law was not in force there would be no guilt nor would a penalty be due. The Law of God still embodies the mind of God. The Law of Moses details much of that law and adds stipulations intended to help Israel stay within the bounds of the Law of God.

If we have the spirit of God we relate to the Law of God the same way He does. It is an integral part of how we think and how we conduct our lives. The Law of God as written does not address all possible applications in human life. It addresses samples. It is our job to understand the spirit and intent, which can be done if the veil of traditional teaching is lifted.

One cannot serve two masters (Mat 26:24). If we determine to set our own will and preconceived ideas aside to serve God, He will give freely of His spirit which will remove the usual pulls of our human nature. The promises of the New Covenant  will be realized resulting in a down payment of the divine nature.