When Jesus met with his disciples to warn them of the insidious danger of following the religious leaders of the day, He told them to do what they told them to do but not do as they do. They say but don’t practice. He illustrated the point in several ways. He said they bound heavy burdens on others but didn’t do anything to lift the burdens from them. He said you go around the world to make disciples and make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. He said they emphasized little bitty things that didn’t make a difference while ignoring the big things like justice, mercy and faith. They illustrate the whole concept of teaching the letter of the law and missing the spirit of the law. On another occasion Jesus said to the scribes, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have life, but these are the Scriptures that testify of me.” Think of how one can read the Old Testament and see laws, regulations and commands but miss the main point that God loves us and will send the messiah into the world to offer salvation to all people.
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul makes similar points with regard to the New Covenant Scriptures. He started the discussion by noting that he didn’t need letters of recommendation to the church there or from them. He told them “Your yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. 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.” (Verses 2-3)
Paul declared he wasn’t competent in himself to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. “He has made us competent as minister of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (Verse 6)
What does it mean to teach or preach the letter of the covenant but not the Spirit? It is exactly what was practiced by those religious leaders Jesus dealt with. They studied hard from the Scriptures. They were able to pull out all kinds of regulations to make demands on the people. They were also able to find ways around doing the very things God commanded them to do. In Matthew 15:1-9 there is a great illustration of the point. The Pharisees and teachers were frustrated at the disciples for not following the traditions of the law like washing their hands in the proper way before eating. Jesus challenged these religious leaders with setting aside the commands of God for the sake of their traditions. He illustrated his point by telling of what they had done with the command to honor their father and mother. God intended them to care for the parents and even take care of them when they were unable to take care of themselves. These religious leaders came up the idea that if one pledged their goods to the temple they could still use them during their life time but not have any obligation to their parents. He concluded “They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Verse 9).
They looked at the law like a high priced lawyer looks at the tax code, not to see what is intended by the law but to find a way around it.
It is entirely possible for a person to read the New Covenant in the same way the Pharisees read the Old. One can miss the whole point of the text to prove what they want to see. One can turn the teachings into another set of laws instead of seeing God and knowing him.
When the letter is emphasized a person keeps record of every act of obedience and believes that doing enough good things or refusing to do enough bad things will lead them to heaven. When one looks at the spirit of the word they search for the point, the principle and how it is to be applied in our time and situation.
Consider one illustration to help with this point. The New Testament teaching about giving is very different from what was taught through the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant gave exact regulations of what to give in different situations.
In the New Covenant we are challenged to first give ourselves to God. We are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Romans 12:1). We are told that Jesus said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” We are told of people giving freely in order to help people that were complete strangers to them. When the church made up of gentiles who were new Christians in Antioch heard from a prophet that a famine was coming in Judea they each gave according to their ability and sent the money to Jerusalem to take care of the needs there. No mention is made of anyone telling them how much they should give. Instead the need was presented and their hearts were touched so they gave.
In I Corinthians 16:1-2 Paul said, “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up so that when I come no collection will have to be made.” Notice he said all were to give and that they were to give in accordance with their income. But he left it up to them to decide how much to give.
In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 Paul again speaks of this same contribution for the poor saints in Jerusalem. He told of how the grace of God had been given to the churches of Macedonia so that in their deep poverty the abundance of their joy moved them to share freely with the poor in Jerusalem. They gave according to their ability and beyond their ability because they were freely willing and they had first given themselves to the Lord. Paul then appealed to the church in Corinth to have the same attitude. As they had excelled in everything – “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (8:7-9)
In chapter 9:6-8 he challenged them to remember “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
The New Covenant isn’t so much telling the church how to raise money to be able to do the work God called us to do as it is teaching people to have a heart for giving, for sharing what they have with others. He tells us clearly that he wants us to enjoy our giving and to give trusting God to give back to us more than we can ever give away.
If you look at this command from the standpoint of the letter of the law you come away with questions like, “Should we give out of the gross of our income or out of the net?” “Are we still bound by the law of tithing?” “Does it count if I give money directly to someone in need instead of going through the church?” When we look at the teachings from the standpoint of the Spirit of the word we want to give and do so generously because of the amazing grace God has shown to us. We want to be generous givers because we trust God to give back to us as we give to him. Giving makes us more like God who gave the most precious gift ever given so we could be forgiven of our sins.
When one looks at the Bible from the standpoint of the letter, they search for a phrase or verse that says what they want it to say and can bind easily on others. When we read the Bible from the Spirit we look for the will of God. We work to find from the context who he was talking to and what was he talking about. We first learn what was meant in the first place when those words were penned. Then we start looking for ways to apply the principles learned to our own time and place.
At the end of this chapter Paul told how that even then people were reading the Old Covenant they were reading with a veil over their eyes missing the very point that was made. Then he said, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” When we read the Bible with the right heart it makes us more and more like Jesus all the time. The Holy Spirit works through the words we read to transform or transfigure us into his image. When we read from the standpoint of the letter, we see commands to be bound on everyone around us and we tend to become more like the Pharisees all the time, serving as judge of the world.
When you open the Bible to read, are you praying for God to change you, to open your eyes and learn the great truths of His word? Are you looking for a way to become more like Jesus all the time?
Let’s all work to become competent ministers of the Spirit of God who know the Lord and become more like him all the time.