Text: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18
The church at Corinth was founded by St Paul some 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was a dynamic but deeply dysfunctional church. There was doctrinal errors, with some even denying the resurrection of the body. There were serious moral lapses, including incest. There were divisions, with groups lining up with Paul, others with Peter, still others with Apollos.
Moreover, some had mounted vicious attacks on Paul’s character. ‘He’s fickle’ (keeps changing his mind about his travel plans), ‘he’s exploitative’ (says he doesn’t want any financial support but then pockets the collection), ‘he’s unspiritual’ (lacks mystical experiences and doesn’t do miracles), ‘he’s cowardly’ (a lion in his letters, but a lamb face-to-face).
Then, to top it all, some teachers arrive from Jerusalem with a ‘Back to Moses’ campaign. Enough of this new-fangled gospel, they say. The law of Moses has been around for hundreds of years. Paul is a self-appointed upstart, peddling novel ideas that will never last.
All of this drove Paul to the point of despair. He might well have said, “Blow the lot of you. I’m off the Spain.” And yet, in the face of all these difficulties, Paul refuses to give up on them. Far from it: this passage rings with confident affirmations. ‘God has made us competent’, v6, ‘we are very bold’, v12, ‘we do not lose heart’, 4:1.
The passage before us this evening gives a very particular reason for Paul’s resilience, his confidence, his boldness. “I have confidence,” he says, “because of the surpassing glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The old – the law of Moses – may well have been glorious; but the new – the gospel of Jesus Christ – is surpassingly glorious.
Look at the contrasts.
1. The old was external, engraved in letters on stone, v7; the new is internal, written on the heart.
You will recall that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on mount Sinai, and were inscribed on two tablets of stone. But even the OT prophets looked forward to a time when God’s law would be inscribed on peoples hearts:-
Jer 31:31ff ‘”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…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.’
There is a world of difference between seeking to please God because you know you ought to, and seeking to please God because you want to. The one is external, based on the rule-book; the other is internal, from the heart. One is in our own strength, the other is empowered by God’s Spirit. It’s the difference between turning over a new leaf and receiving a new life.
2. The old brought condemnation; the new brings acquittal, v9.
Although the law promises life to those who keep it, no-one in fact does keep it, and it therefore pronounces a verdict of death over all transgressors. ‘The office of the law is to show us our disease in such a way that it gives us no hope of a cure; whereas the office of the gospel is to bring a remedy to those who are past hope. For the law, since it leaves us to ourselves, necessarily condemns us to death; whereas the gospel, by bringing us to Christ, opens the gate of life.’ (Calvin)
3. The glory of the old was fading; the glory of the new lasts for ever, v11.
The old covenant was indeed glorious. Not only did Moses’ face shine, but thunder, lightning, earthquakes, dense clouds, blazing fire, and a deafening trumpet blast accompanied its inauguration at Mount Sinai . But it was a fading glory. Paul says, v13, that Moses ‘would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.’ The glory of the gospel, however, is permanent. There is nothing to intervene, no new revelation, no new economy, between the gospel and its ministry, and the final consummation. Whoever are to be converted, whatever nations are to be brought in, it must be by the proclamation of the gospel, which lasts, along with Christ’s very presence, until the end of the age.
So, to summarise Paul’s argument: if glory attended the ministry of a law that was chiseled in stone, resulted in condemnation, and was temporary, how much more must glory attend the ministry of the Spirit, which is inscribed on hearts, leads to acquittal before God, and abides for ever?
Let me push this in one or two practical directions.
1. Let’s live in the present, not in the past.
We live under the terms of the new covenant, not the old. But there are those who try to turn the clock back. Legalists try to turn the clock back, when they insist that God will only accept us if we keep his law perfectly. But time has moved on. We are not under law, but under grace. Sacerdotalists try to turn the clock back, when they install altars in churches and ordain sacrificing priests as intermediaries between God and his people. Again, time has moved on. Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross is complete, and the paraphernalia of priestly sacrifice and priestly mediation, has been redundant for two thousand years. Certainly, Paul does not deprecate or denigrate the law of Moses. ‘the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.’ (Rom 7:12). Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” And in his fulfilment of the law the hands of God’s clock have now moved from ‘AM’ to ‘PM’. The period of the old has passed, never to return.
2. Let’s bow to the supremacy of Jesus Christ.
Moses a spiritual giant. His ministry was glorious, but the new ministry is of surpassing glory. The old was good; the new is best. The old was a lamp shining in the darkness. But now the sun has risen. This defines our attitude not only towards the religion founded by Moses – Judaism – but to all the religions of the world. Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, may have their glories, but Christ and his gospel are surpassingly glorious. At best, religion offers swimming instructions to those who are drowning. Jesus is a life-saver.
3. Let’s be transformed.
Have you had that veil lifted from your eyes so that you can see the truth, see your need of a Saviour, see Jesus as the answer to that need? And as you gaze on the surpassing glory of Jesus, are you being changed by it, are you becoming more and more like him?
What does this transformation look like? I think it’s better illustrated than explained.
Dr Don Carson tell of a time when he was a young man and an older Christian said to him, “Don, let’s meet together to pray.” So they did. They got together the following Monday evening. They spent half an hour thanking and praising God for who he is and what he has done. Then the older Christian said, “What in particular shall we pray for?” Now it so happened that Don had that very day received a letter from a young woman whom they both knew. Her name was June. June’s life had been one big, unholy mess. She had suffered all kinds of abuse and hardship. But, not long before, she had been converted. She had turned to Christ and her life had been turned around. A few months later she found that she had a vicious melanoma, and had only weeks to live. And she sent this letter. It was full of bitterness. “Why is God picking on me? Finally I get my life in order and then God does this to me.” She was full of outrage. So the question was, ‘What do we pray for? God bless June? (that’s a bit vague) God rebuke her sharply for her unbelief? (not very compassionate) God heal June? (you certainly can ask for that, but as a favour, not as a right)’ They decided in the end to pray along the following lines: ‘Lord, you have promised that if you begin a good work in someone, you will complete it. We believe that you have begun a good work in June. Then keep your promise.’ That was Monday night. On Thursday, Don got a letter from June. She’d written it Tuesday morning. ‘I can’t tell you what happened, but I woke up this morning and everything has changed. I am so sorry I wrote that first letter. How could I talk of God that way, when he sent his Son to die for me? In a few weeks I will see him. And do you know what? I’ll see him before you do. If he wants me in heaven it can only be for my good and for his glory.’
John Wenham was Christian minister and NT scholar. He was author of a well-known textbook on NT Greek and a doughty defender of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After he retired he was driving home with his wife after speaking at university CU. As he was driving home a lorry driver, who was drunk, crossed the carriageway and there was a head-on collision and the lorry-driver killed his wife. John woke up in the hospital in the next bed to the lorry-driver, and led him to the Lord.
May we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, be transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.