The Two covenants
New Covenant Ministers
In 2 Corinthians 3:5,6, the apostle Paul makes a statement which brings this issue into focus and very clearly explains what message, what ministry God has given us. He says,
. . . . our sufficiency is of God; (6) Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; (covenant) not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. (2 Cor 3:5-6)
In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:13)
God has made us ministers of the New Testament, or of the new covenant (the word “covenant” is translated from the Greek word, “diatheke,” and is translated as either “testament” or “covenant.”). If God has made us ministers of the New covenant, then obviously we cannot be at the same time, ministers of the old covenant. This is what Paul is saying, and in the verses which follow he makes this very clear. He also explains the critical differences between both covenants.
Notice, he says that the letter kills (this is not what we must minister to people) but the spirit gives life (this is what we are to minister). What does he mean when he refers to “the letter?” What is this thing, associated with the Old Covenant which “kills?” Paul explains what he is referring to in the verse which follows.
But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: (8) How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? (2 Cor 3:7-8)
It seems difficult to misunderstand what Paul is speaking of here. He refers to something which was “written and engraven in stones.” When it was instituted Moses' face shone with a glory which made it difficult for the people to look at his face. In Exodus 34:28-30 we find the passage to which Paul is referring. It says,
And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (29) And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. (30) And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. (Exo 34:28-30)
Here we are told very plainly that what was written on the tables of stone were the “words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Which covenant was this? Of course it was the Old Covenant.
Let us look at a couple of other passages which make it plain that the center of the old covenant was the Ten Commandments.
And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. (13) And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. (Deu 4:12-13)
Deuteronomy 5:1-22 also make it clear that the old covenant was based on the ten commandments.
The difference between covenants
How can we understand what Paul was saying? Was he teaching that the ten commandments have been abolished? Was he saying that God's law has been done away with because of the new covenant? Of course not! As we look back at 2 Cor. 3:6 we notice that Paul identifies the critical difference between both covenants. He says, “not of the letter but of the spirit.” This phrase holds the key to understanding the difference between both covenants.
The term, “the letter,” has reference to what was written (in this case written on stone). Under the old covenant as well as under the new covenant, the great need of the people remained the same. The goal was to obtain righteousness, to find a way to escape from sin and the death which came with it. Under the old covenant the people sought to find righteousness by obeying the words (the letter) of the ten commandments. Through strict obedience they hoped to obtain God's favour, to reach a place of holiness where God would be able to bless them and fulfill all His promises to them. It never happened. That system of seeking righteousness could never work, all it did was bring the people into condemnation. Paul refers to it as the “ministration of condemnation.” (2 Cor. 3:9)
Let us notice that the commandments themselves were faultless. Paul states that they are “holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12).” But as the means of making men righteous, as a way of producing godly behaviour they were hopeless. Paul says,
. . . . if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. (Gal 3:21)
And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. (Rom 7:10)
Man needed righteousness. The commandments described and required righteousness. So what was the problem? Why did God have to abolish the old covenant, based on the law written on stone?
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. (Rom 7:14)
The old covenant could never produce righteousness in man. There was a fundamental conflict between two of the parties involved which made it impossible for the goal of righteousness to be attained. The law did its duty faithfully. From the two tables of stone it proclaimed righteousness and demanded obedience. But the words were only words carved into stone, only the lifeless letter and they fell upon the depraved hearts of carnal men with the demand for righteousness. Man wanted righteousness. He tried and tried to obey that holy law, that perfect law, but he was only carnal. In such a condition there was not even the slightest hope that he would ever obtain righteousness by obedience to the law. So the old covenant, based on the written law (the letter) could never meet the great need of humanity for righteousness, therefore, the system had to change.
So in Hebrews chapter 8:7, we are told that there was a fault with the first (the old) covenant and because of this, God had to introduce the second.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. (Heb 8:7)
Let us note that this covenant which is called the “new covenant” or the second covenant is actually the everlasting covenant. It is the covenant by which men have always been saved in all ages and Paul emphasizes this in Galatians 3:16,17. However, in God's dealings with Israel as a nation, the covenant which was made with them at Sinai constituted the first covenant in terms of their experience as a people. So Paul says that there was a fault with the covenant and this is why it had to be changed. In Heb. 8:8,9 he tells us plainly what this fault was.
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: (9) 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. (Heb 8:8-9)
The fault was with the people. The old covenant contained a perfect law, one which was “holy, just and good.” But the people of whom it demanded righteousness were “carnal, sold under sin.” The system could not work because the law and the people were totally opposed to each other. Obedience was impossible under these conditions and so, God had to change the system.
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: (Heb 8:10)
What was the difference between this new covenant and the old covenant? Well, in the old covenant God's requirements were written on stone. In the new, they were written on the heart. In the old, there was only the letter of the law (the written words) in the new, there was the spirit of the law (the living reality of those words). In the old, righteousness was only described and demanded, in the new, righteousness was imparted by the spirit of God entering the heart of the believer.
You see, the ten commandments describe righteousness. They proclaim God's will for all humanity in unmistakable words. But they cannot produce righteousness. Righteousness is not obtained by practice or by the forming of habits. It is a quality of nature, an aspect of life and can only be received by birth. Therefore the commandments do not offer a solution to man's problem. As far as the sinner is concerned, carnal and “sold under sin,” the only purpose the law can serve is to make him know how utterly wretched and hopeless is his condition and to make him see how incapable he is of changing and improving that condition. All it can do is condemn him for his sin, it cannot deliver him from his sin.
The true source
If we are to have true righteousness, then we must find the source of righteousness. We must find the place where righteousness is produced. The law can only describe righteousness, but what I need is to find the place where righteousness itself exists as a reality.
Let me make my point a little more plain. When Isaac Newton discovered gravity he wrote down his findings, and his words described the way gravity works. Even in schools today, students study those words and they refer to what Newton wrote as “Newton's Law of Gravity.” Yet no one is foolish enough to believe that gravity itself exists in Newton's words. They know that Newton's words are only the “letter” and that if they want to find gravity itself they have to look somewhere else apart from those words. The words can help a person to understand gravity but not to experience it. This is the exact relationship which the ten commandments have to righteousness. They can describe righteousness but they can never produce it.
And so, the apostle Paul says,
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; (Rom 3:21)
So there, we see, there is a righteousness which exists “without the law,” that is, without the letter of the law. It is not contrary to the law, but it is independent of the law because the law cannot produce it. A person cannot obtain this righteousness by relating to the law because the law does not have it to give. There is a place where righteousness exists as a living reality. It is not dependent on the observance of the law. This place is, in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:22; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). So a person may come to Christ who is the source of all righteousness, who is Himself the living law, the living reality of all that the law describes, and there in Christ he may find as a free gift the perfect righteousness for which he has been searching. That which the law demanded, but could not give.
Consider this question; was the law made for God? Was it something put in place to keep God from doing wrong? Why does God do only good, is it because the commandments restrain Him from doing evil? What a ridiculous idea! God does not need the law to ensure that He does good. He is goodness itself, He is the living law. The commandments are only an expression of what He is. When a person has received Christ by faith, it is this very life of God which becomes his, through the holy spirit. He has become a partaker of the divine nature – that is, God's nature has become his nature. Do you see why he no longer needs a relationship with the letter of the law? He now has the mind of Christ, the nature of God. Now he does what is right, not because the law demands it, but because Christ is living in him and the only life Christ can live is a holy life – one which is in perfect harmony with the law.
Suppose a man finds a photograph of a beautiful woman. He falls in love with what he sees and so every day he takes this picture wherever he goes. He talks to it, kisses it, embraces it and takes it to bed with him at night. How much satisfaction will he get? Not much, unless he is a madman. All he will do is only frustrate himself, because the picture is only a description. It is not the reality. To find true satisfaction he must find the real thing. The photograph has many limitations. It is a likeness of the reality but it is lacking many, many of the qualities of the original. Of course, the photograph may be helpful, it may assist the man in finding the person whom it portrays but that is the only good it can do. And so the Bible says of the law,
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Gal 3:24)
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom 10:4)
Why then give the law?
A question which arises as we consider all this, is the question, why then did God institute the system of law? Why did He ordain a ministration which could not produce righteousness? Again Paul gives us a clear and reasonable answer:
Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: (Rom 5:20)
Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. (Gal 3:19)
Man's condition was hopeless. He was depraved and lost, but how could he know it? How could he be led to see himself as he really was so that he could seek a remedy? This was one purpose of the law. The law entered “that the offence might abound” – that “sin by the commandment might become exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:10).” As Paul says, “I had not known sin but by the law (Rom. 7:7).”
But the law also served another purpose. It was “added because of transgressions.” As sin abounded and the innate wickedness of men's hearts produced all kinds of atrocities, there was the need for man to be placed under some kind of discipline and restraint. Even among those who were called God's people there was the need of a system which would restrain the natural tendencies of the carnal heart. This is why God placed Israel “under the law.” He put them under a system of government where the law ruled. This was not God's final plan, it was only a stop-gap. Such a plan could never produce true righteousness, but there was need to put a restraint on man's naturally wicked behaviour and so, the law was “added because of transgressions till the seed should come (Gal. 3:19)
Notice, this system was only to last “till the seed should come.” After that faith is come we are no longer under a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:25).”
Ministers of Christ
So what we have seen very clearly is that we are not ministers of the old covenant. The commandments as they were written on stone (the letter) cannot be the focus of our work. We are made “able ministers of the new covenant,” not of the letter but the spirit.
“Now the Lord is that spirit … (2 Cor. 3:17).” Christ Himself is the reality of the new covenant. He Himself is the living reality of the law. All that the commandments described, He is the reality of it. Now we are ministers not of dead words, written on lifeless stone, but of the living reality to which those words only pointed. Christ is to be the center, the focus of our ministry. Christ is to be all, and in all (Col. 3:11).
The Law Established
What then is the relevance of the ten commandments? Now that they have led us to Christ are they abolished? We know that the “ministration,” or the system of government based on the ten commandments has been abolished (2 Cor. 3:11,13) but does this mean that the ten commandments themselves have been abolished? Absolutely not!
Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Rom 3:31)
When God gave the commandments to Israel He had two purposes in mind. Firstly, He wanted to make them aware of their true condition, to make them see how deeply integrated sin was into their nature (Rom. 7:10; 5:20) so that they would seek a remedy (Gal. 3:24). Secondly He wanted to put some restraint upon their naturally sinful behaviour to prevent them from becoming totally depraved in their way of life (Gal. 3:19). Did God give them an artificial standard of righteousness to convince them of sin and to show them how He desired that they should live? Did God say, “this is the way of righteousness,” although what He gave them was not a true description of righteousness? Of course not! The ten commandments as they were written on stone did not express all the deeper meanings of God's law. Jesus showed us that they go much deeper than the words actually say (Matt. 5:20-28), but they were a genuine and true description of righteousness nevertheless. They may have been limited in their expression of the truth, but they were absolute truth nevertheless. Note the words of Paul:
Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, (10) For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; (1 Tim 1:9-10)
Paul does not teach that the law is abolished. There is a class of people who still very much need the law. They are the lawless, the disobedient etc. They still need the rule of law to prevent the open manifestation of gross sin and to make them aware of their true condition. They have not yet come to Christ so they still need the schoolmaster. But the law is not made for a “righteous man.” Why not? Because having received Christ's righteousness (the only righteousness there is), the righteous man is by nature in harmony with the law. He has obtained the righteousness which is the goal of the law and he obtained it without the law (Rom. 3:21) The law did its work when it led him to Christ, but now, his relationship is no longer with the law, but with Christ. Nevertheless, everything which the law demanded is present in Christ, who is the living law, and the man who truly has obtained the righteousness of Christ, will, in Christ, walk in perfect harmony with the law (Rom. 8:4; Rom. 3:31; 1 John 2:6).
This is not difficult to see. God did not say to the sinner, “here are the ten commandments. They show you how you must behave.” But then, after the sinner has found Christ He tells him, “now you no longer are required to behave in the same way.” What! This would mean that when a man is a sinner, God holds up a certain standard of behaviour before him and tells him that if he does not obey it, he is guilty, but then as soon as the person becomes a Christian, then what was wrong for the sinner is no longer wrong for the Christian. But this is foolishness. If God said something was wrong when I was a sinner, then it is still wrong when I am a saint. The difference is, I was, as a sinner, trying to obey the rules but my nature was opposed to the work. Now I am in Christ, His nature is my nature. My whole life is an expression of Christ. I don't need the rules to demand that I live righteously. In Him, it is my normal way of life.