NOT OF THE LETTER BUT OF THE SPIRIT

Paul the apostle had been trained thoroughly in the Old Testament Scriptures.  As a Pharisee, he had been brought up to believe in a strict interpretation of the Law of God, then as a young man he had been brought to Jerusalem where he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, the teacher of the law.  Being taught day after day at his feet was like going through graduate school in the Old Testament law.  Most likely, of all the writers of the New Testament he was most familiar with the Old Testament and it’s instructions on life and faith.  It was that very devotion to the law that led him to hate the cause of Jesus and to believe that he was an imposter as a messiah.  He was so filled with rage toward Jesus and his followers he was ready to persecution them and even sanctioned the death of Stephen because he preached Jesus.

That background makes the message of 2 Corinthians 3 even more interesting.  In this chapter he is comparing his work with the hucksters who were peddlers of the word of God as he described them at the end of chapter two.  He refers to the Christians in Corinth as an epistle he had written, not with ink but on the fleshly tables of the heart, written by the Spirit of the Living God.  Look at what he said then in verses 4-6, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  What does he mean by the letter and the Spirit?  The letter of the law was to look strictly at the regulation or law that was given and then add all kinds of parameters to that law that made it extremely difficult to follow and often led to attitudes and actions that violated the principles behind the law itself.  One of the best illustrations of this point is Jesus with regard to the Sabbath law of the Old Testament.  Sabbath was valuable.  It was a time of rest, devotion and worship to God.  It was meant to bring rest and reverence to God.  It was for the benefit of mankind that should have made them healthy and able to accomplish the work God gave them.  But the religious leaders had turned the Sabbath law into an accumulation of laws and regulations that lost all view of the benefit of man.  Think about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath that made them completely well.  But the religious leaders hated for Jesus to heal on that day since it violated the law as they understood it.  Jesus pointed out that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  It was turned into a way to condemn people rather than a way to heal and help them.  Besides that he told them that He was lord of the Sabbath.  When our use of law makes it harmful for the very people it was meant to help we have missed the point entirely.

It is for that reason that Paul refers to the legal aspects of the law as a “Ministry of death, written and engraved on stones.”  It became a ministry of condemnation.  He noted that Old Law was meant to be a ministry of righteousness but it wasn’t fulfilling the plan God had for it at all.  It seemed that every way the Jews of that day turned they found a way of making obedience to the law more difficult and more demanding rather than as a way for peace and glory to God.  Paul said it was like they were reading the law with a veil over their eyes so they could never see the point that was actually being made.  When Moses was read it was like they had a mask over their eyes to keep them from seeing what the real point was anyway.  It is only when one turns to the Lord that the veil is removed.

Notice how he compared the reading of the New Covenant with that of the old.  “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”  When the people read the Old Testament without any view of Jesus on their minds all they could see was laws, regulations and restrictions.  Reading on our own may be wonderful and lovely.  But the promise that as we read with the right attitude that the Holy Spirit is helping us and preparing for us an eternal weight of glory is phenomenal.  God’s Spirit is transforming us into the very image of Jesus as we read.

One thing this whole segment points out is that we can read, even Scripture in such a way that we turn it into something that condemns us rather than blesses us.  A proper reading of Scripture always involves seeing God’s word in the way God wants us to see it.  What an absolutely horrible thing happens when a Christian reads and studies Scripture in such a way as to make it condemning rather than blessing.  Open yourself up as you read and study the Bible for the Spirit to work on your heart and transform you into what God wants you to be over and over again.  It will bring such amazing blessings when we yield to the Spirit’s work in us to make us after his image rather than just seeing the Old Testament as a set of rules to be followed.

About leoninlittlerock

Preaching minister for Central church of Christ in Little Rock. Author of over 20 books including: When a Loved one Dies, Spiritual Development, Skid Marks on the Family Drive, Challenges in the church, To Know Christ and A Drink of Living Water.
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