Dead letter, life-giving spirit

There’s nothing more satisfying that a productive day’s work. Just stand back and admire the fruit of your labour – exhausted but satisfied a milestone has been reached and a task completed. Paul was a worker, no question of that. In this chapter Paul reflects on the product of his work: the church in Corinth – this leads him to think of the benefits of the New Covenant.

  1. You are our letter

Paul was in the business of bringing the gospel to anyone and everyone. He travelled all over the Roman world and brought the message of Jesus’ love. As we have already discovered, the church of the Corinthians was somewhat troubled; there was division, immorality and a lack of love. In spite of this, Paul was happy to be associated with this group of difficult people.

Some people had questioned Paul’s motives and it seems these people had suggested that he was not a reliable character. If you’ve ever applied for a job you will know that once the interview process is complete, the employer will ask for character references. Usually two names of reliable people need to be provided and the employer will ask them for their opinion of you, the candidate. Paul asks if he needs a letter of recommendation!  I have a lot of sympathy for him, he had suffered terribly to bring the gospel to these people and it seems that there was more than a hint of disrespect towards him – despite all he had done for them, they still doubted his motives. But Paul had a great response to this: he says ‘You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts and read by everybody’. If you want to check out my work  just read the letter of recommendation: you! One might think that the letter of the Corinthians’ lives to be somewhat less than commendable, it was anything but, because the work done amongst them was no human effort it was God’s supernatural work – Paul was just an instrument in God’s hands.

Here’s what he says in verse 3: You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Paul and his colleagues had worked hard, but it was God who brought about the change. The letter of the Corinthian’s lives was not physically written with ink on paper, or inscribed onto tablets of stone – it was written on human hearts.  You might just remember a great Old Testament promise God made to his people, he would take away their hearts of stone, and replace with hearts of flesh accompanied by a new spirit within (Ezekiel 11 and Jeremiah 36). This was the transformational work that had been accomplished amongst the Corinthians. It is the work of the New Covenant.

  • The work of the New Covenant

As we practise, skills and experience develop and by this, confidence grows. Some people are quite naturally confident in spite of a distinct lack of ability! Don’t your toes just curl when you see some over confident ’singers’ stand before the laser-like scrutiny and acidic comments of the panel on Pop Idol! Paul probably had more reason than most to be confident in his own ability. He was courageous, intelligent, quick witted and confident, but his confidence did not come through his own ability. He had confidence in God. He said in verse 5: ‘Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.’ Paul was enabled by God to be competent in a very specific task; being a minister of the New Covenant. He says ‘not of the letter but of the spirit: for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.’ This raises a whole series of questions for us to think about: what exactly is this New Covenant and what does it mean that the letter kills?

We have to go back to the Old Testament – to the Sinai desert. After a series of miraculous interventions, the people of Israel had at last been released from the tyranny of Egypt. They were to spend the next 40 years in the desert – it was a time of great testing and much failure, but God was at work. This people were to form a key part in God’s rescue plan for this world and mankind – all nations of the earth would be blessed through them. Their leader, Moses, met God on Mount Sinai. It was there that God spoke and the law, inscribed on tablets of stone, was given to Moses. You may remember that as Moses spent time on the mountain top with God (for 40 days), the people below grew restless and ended up making for themselves a golden calf idol. They were in the act of revelrous idol-worship when a distraught Moses found them – he smashed the stone tablets in his despair and anger. As the history of Israel unfolded, rather than success, we discover a litany of failure and rebellion against God. Into this mix, God indicates the coming of a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah. Incidentally this promise of a new way of working comes in the midst of one of Israel’s lowest spiritual points – isn’t God good! Here’s the text from Jeremiah: 31“The time is coming,” declares the Lord , “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the Lord . 33″This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord . “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

If you do a search in your e-bible (NIV) for ‘new covenant’ you will find that these words appear in Jeremiah but they also appear in the New Testament, where they are spoken by Jesus and Paul and they refer to the benefits of the once-and-for-all-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Moses received the law, but all that the law could do was to expose the inability of men and women to measure up to God’s standard – it is (as Paul puts it), the letter that kills. But the New covenant is entirely different, it gives life. Was the Old covenant then completely useless?

  • Old glory: greater New glory

The Old covenant was not altogether that bad! In Paul’s words it was glorious. It did deal with sin. The law made the deficiency apparent, by pointing out the sin, but it also made provision for temporary relief. As each Israelite confessed sin and a sacrifice was made, the sin was dealt with. These blood sacrifices offered a temporary relief of the penalty of sin. It was rather like using a credit card. The goods could be purchased against the promise of a future payment in full. The future payment was Christ’s perfect sacrifice. So was the Old Covenant no good? Paul says no. It may have been a transitory system but it did not lack glory.

When Moses descended Mount Sinai after meeting with God (and receiving the replacement set of tablets) his face was radiant, so much so that Aaron and the others were afraid to approach him. In response to their fear, Moses put a veil over his face. The glory did not last however. It was a fading glory, just as the Old Covenant was of a transitory nature.

In contrast the New covenant is more glorious. The Old covenant brought condemnation, but the new brings righteousness. The old was transitory, the new is permanent. These words slip onto the paper and through our minds so easily and their impact can easily be missed. Imagine – we are sinful human beings, the Old (glorious) Covenant brought temporary relief of the sinful condition, but the new covenant makes us permanently righteous. Just think, the originator, author and creator of the universe looks at us and declares us perfect! When you look at me you certainly wouldn’t think that (and incidentally I could say the same of you!), but when we have participated in the New Covenant that’s the way God sees things! Clearly the glory of this is not yet fully realised but we have a certain hope that it will. How should we feel about this? Bold! Yes, bold – Paul had just reminded the Corinthains that they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, sealed with the Holy Spirit and were recipients of the Holy Spirit as a deposit as a guarantee that God would complete the work he has begun in us. Why shouldn’t we be bold about this – we’re not glorying in ourselves but in the benefits of the New Covenant. Moses covered up the glory: we should not.

Sadly for Israel they have never sorted out the New Covenant – Paul says that they are veiled, and cannot see the truth. They remain in unbelief – this seems to be a sort of collective and corporate blindness, brought about by their national rejection of the New Covenant. What could change this? Here’s Paul’s answer ‘Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away’.  Mark those words – whenever anyone. That means what it says – at any point in time anyone without restriction can turn to the Lord. The onus is on us, God has reached down to humanity – he has put himself within reach of us all.

What about those who have turned to him, what does this mean for them? The contrast seems to be between the condemnation that comes from the law and the life that comes from the Spirit of God. When we turn to him he does not put us under the slavery of the law – he gives us freedom. Paul does not elaborate on this freedom, but it seems that his thinking is that we are not bound to God by the straitjacket of the law – compelled to obey (but failing and thus condemned), rather we are united in a love relationship to God. Thus we are free from law but motivated by love to do what is right (you can read a bit more about this in Romans 8).

Finally as we contemplate all that God has done for us through the benefits of the New Covenant and as we contemplate the glory of God, we undergo a transformation process. God is at work within us to change us – the direction of change is into his image. Moses may have had a transient radiant face, but we are developing permanently radiant lives. Is this an automatic process? Sadly when we take a look at our fellow Christians then answer is a resounding no! The story of the bible is of human inability to do what is right, versus God-provided ability to do what is right, the big news is that we bear responsibility to accept what God provides. As an unbeliever you have a responsibility to examine whether these things are true and to believe: seek and you will find. As a believer you have a responsibility to contemplate the Lord’s glory and as you do you will find yourself being transformed into his image. What a different place the church would be if this were so – it’s up to you and it’s up to me.