“Now if the ministry that brought death, chiseled in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites were not able to gaze steadily at Moses’s face because of its glory, which was set aside, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry that brought condemnation had glory, the ministry that brings righteousness overflows with even more glory. In fact, what had been glorious is not glorious now by comparison because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was set aside was glorious, what endures will be even more glorious.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is the relationship of followers of Jesus to the Old Testament? Let me put that another way. What does the old covenant have to do with members of the new covenant? That sounds different and probably would generate different responses, but it’s the same question. And it is a question that has generated no small amount of response and debate over the centuries of the church. It is also a question we aren’t going to be able to answer rigorously in this one post. But Paul’s words here do afford us the opportunity to do something thinking about it. Let’s take a few minutes together today and do just that.
This is one of those passages I’ve read multiple times before but have never really noticed. This chapter ultimately lands on some verses that are much more well-known and studied than these, including Paul’s incredible statement that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This is just the beginning of his argument toward that end.
It was actually this journey through Hebrews that highlighted these verses for me. The reading plan I’m using as a rough guide for my reading walks through Hebrews, of course, but it includes some extra passages for each day (I’m way, way behind their pace, by the way) that are intended to let Scripture help interpret Scripture. This was one of them, and although it didn’t introduce any new ideas for me, it confirmed some thinking I’ve had for a while about the relationship of the old covenant to the new in a powerful way.
Today, since I didn’t preach yesterday and thus don’t have a sermon to post for you, I want to walk through these verses together. I think the end result will be worth it for you. Let’s do it.
In this chapter, Paul is talking about the witness of his very life as a commendation of the Gospel to those who haven’t accepted it. More specifically, he points to the changed lives of the members of the Corinthian church as proof of his credentials as a Gospel minister. He tells them that they “are Christ’s letter, delivered by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God – not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The Spirit is the one who enables the work to be done in their hearts. The Spirit is not only the one who enables the work to be done, but He in fact is the one doing the work. And it is in God’s Spirit that Paul has confidence in what he is doing. He and his companions are competent for new covenant ministry, not because of something written in the Law of Moses, but because of the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. He lands in v. 6 with the observation that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
What he’s getting at there is that the law brought death to all who sought to live by it. This was not a bug of the Law, but rather a consequence of the Law’s high demands of righteousness combined with our sinful inability to meet its demands. The Law revealed the standard of God’s righteousness without also providing the help we needed to meet it. Because of that, while showing us the way to righteousness, the net effect was simply to condemn us.
Now, it would be very easy here for someone to simply write off the Law as worthless. After all, if all it accomplished was to condemn us, what was the point? Why give it in the first place? But Paul never takes that route. The Law showed us the way to righteousness with God. In that, it was a very good thing. It was a necessary thing. It was simply not a sufficient one. Yet again, that does not mean the Law was not good and even glorious.
That finds us, at last, where our passage up above picks up. In v. 7 Paul is talking about the Law of Moses. The ministry that brought death is the Law. The phrase “chiseled in letters on stones” is a reference to the Ten Commandments. And Paul makes clear that it “came with glory.” It revealed to us the glory of God.
Now, the next part is interesting. Paul makes reference to Moses’ glowing face after his granted request to get to see God’s glory with his own eyes. God didn’t give him exactly what he asked for since, in God’s own words, His glory would have destroyed him. But He did allow Moses a brief glimpse at his backside glory. The experience was enough that it made Moses’ face literally shine with the reflected glory. His face shown so brightly, in fact, that the people made Moses wear a veil until the effect wore off because it was making them uncomfortable.
What makes this reference interesting is that Paul seems to indicate that Moses’ glowing face came from his encounter with the Law. But this was a separate incident. I’m going to leave to the scholars the job of parsing out exactly what Paul meant here (I could offer some theories, but this is going to be long enough as it is). I’m going to simply trust that Paul understood the old covenant Scriptures a whole lot better than I do and that his reference was theologically sound (as a general rule, when we don’t understand something in the Scriptures as well as we’d like, we should always assume the problem is with our understanding and not with the Scriptures themselves).
His point, though (which is what matters most here), is that the ministry of the old covenant was glorious. Moses’ encounter with that covenant made his face shine with God’s reflected glory. It was powerful stuff. Paul’s bigger point and the place he’s taking us is revealed in v. 8 when he completes the question he started asking in v. 7. If the old covenant ministry rooted in the Law was glorious, wouldn’t the new covenant ministry rooted in God’s own Spirit be even more glorious? That is, if the old covenant ministry was good, wouldn’t the new covenant ministry be even better?
In v. 9, he simply repeats this idea as a statement rather than a question. In doing so, though, he changes up the wording just a bit to make his point a bit clearer for his readers. “If the ministry that brought condemnation had glory, the ministry that brings righteousness overflows with even more glory.” That is, the old covenant ministry, in spite of its glory, only brought condemnation. That’s a point Paul made several times in his letters. If the ministry that ultimately condemned us was good, the ministry that actually brings us to the righteousness of God must be even better. Under the new covenant, God addressed the key thing lacking in the old covenant: providing us a way to actually meet with the standard of His righteousness. This way, of course, is Jesus. Jesus’ new covenant ministry that enables us to live up to God’s righteousness through Him is more glorious than anything the old covenant could give us.
He doesn’t stop here. He pushes things yet another step forward, and this one matters a great deal. The new covenant is so surpassingly more glorious than the old covenant, that, by comparison, the old covenant isn’t glorious any longer. I remember driving across the old Cooper River bridge connecting Charleston, SC to Mount Pleasant, SC. That old bridge was narrow and a bit of a harrowing experience. But it was the only way to get from one side to the other without driving around the world, so everybody took it. About the time I was getting married, they were just finishing the new Ravenel Bridge intended to replace it. I remember the first time I drove across the new bridge, before they demolished the old one. You could look down (and it was quite a ways down) to where the old one was. The old one, which had been successfully getting people from one side of the Cooper River to other for years, by comparison to the new one, now looked like a death trap that you couldn’t even imagine driving on. It looked like a prop from some post-apocalyptic film in which people had pulled together whatever scraps they could find to span the gap. The difference was stark to say the least.
Paul’s point here is that by comparison with the new, the old covenant has not only lost all of its luster, it looks like a faded piece of junk now. It should be met with the same fate as the old Cooper River bridge which was demolished and sunk to the bottom of the river where it is likely now a delightful habitat for the bottom-dwelling fish that live down there. In the same way, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are living under the auspices of the glorious new covenant. It is so vastly superior to the old covenant that there is no apt comparison between the two. Trying to live our lives in Christ in such a way that we seek to maintain something of that old covenant is not merely illogical. It is insane. Why would someone reach back to a way of engaging with God that made such a relationship functionally impossible? It’s less than a bad idea.
And yet, old covenant thinking seeps into the modern church in far more places than we should care to count. Anytime we insist on any kind of rule-keeping as a means of securing God’s favor or blessing, we are using old covenant thinking. Anytime we try to nationalize God’s relationship with one country or another, we are using old covenant thinking. Anytime we try to justify violence or a grab for power in the name of advancing God’s kingdom, we are using old covenant thinking. Anytime we try to grab hold of God’s promises to Israel and claim them for ourselves, we are using old covenant thinking. It is all over the place. And we just can’t do it. It won’t ever lead us to life. Ever. Instead, we must give ourselves wholly over to the new covenant we have in Christ. It is not a covenant of law, but of grace. It is not ministered to us through a list of rules, but God’s own Spirit dwelling in our hearts. The only standard we must meet to keep it is Christ’s standard of love: love one another as I have loved you. If we are willing to put our trust in Him and love our neighbors as ourselves, we can experience God’s righteousness as our own. That’s a pretty powerful gift. We only need to accept it; to accept Him. I hope you will.