Shabbat Shalom! When Rabbi Loren asked me to deliver the main message this week, I immediately thought of different passages I might talk on, topics for a message. However, it seemed in that moment the Holy Spirit led me to one of my favorite, but also misunderstood passages of Scripture, 2 Corinthians 3.
This passage has the great Rabbi from Tarsus, Rabbi Paul, explaining just why he is so bold in his evangelism and teaching of the New Covenant. He explains how the glory and transformative power found in the New Covenant completely eclipses anything that has come before.
Before we dive into this section of the Word of God it is important to understand the background of this letter. Corinth was a city that Paul wrote to and visited several times. 2 Corinthians is actually the third letter Paul wrote to Corinth. It is also important to understand that despite being a prosperous city Corinth had many sin issues. The city of Corinth during the time of Paul was a prosperous place where individuals could become wealthy and obtain honor. Honor in Roman society was very important and Corinth did not have the entrenched aristocracy found in other major Roman cities, allowing people to gain honor by climbing the social ladder.
People were attracted to new ideas and new religions as a way to obtain honor and respect from others. The citizens of Corinth, like most people, especially desired charismatic, impressive leaders. While Paul was a formidable letter writer, in person he was a humble, unassuming tent maker. This clashed with the desire for a charismatic leader who gladly accepted the praise of others. Just like the Messiah, Paul was not impressive by the standards of society. As a result, many of the Corinthian Christians were seduced by charismatic teachers who preached a different message than Paul. Some of them even became hostile to Paul’s leadership.
In 2 Corinthians we find Paul giving a defense of his ministry. He clarifies what the ministry of the New Covenant is. He tells us why we can be bold workers of the Lord. He tells us about the hope that we have in a lost and dying world.
Let’s begin with verses 4-6: Such confidence we have through Messiah before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Paul was one of the greatest servants of God. Since all of us are called to be the Lord’s servants, it is helpful to understand how Paul viewed his ministry.
Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Jew among Jews, a skilled and learned man of Torah. He was also an Apostle, a man who represented the Messiah and who performed extraordinary miracles. But Paul’s confidence did not come from his gifts or talents or any human source, it came from the Lord Himself. It is God who makes us competent, sufficient and adequate. Where we are weak, He is strong. Where we are inadequate, He makes us adequate.
I’ve always been struck by the way Paul’s evangelism in Scripture is described. An earlier trip to Corinth is described in Acts 19 where it states he debated in the synagogue with both Jews and Gentiles. We see that it got quite heated and I am inclined to believe that Paul probably took on large crowds of Jews and Gentiles all on his own. I can only imagine what that must have been like and it is a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit.
It should also be understood that competency coming from Adonai alone is not something new. When Moses stood before the burning bush, being called to service by the Lord, he offered three excuses why he was not competent for the task. The Lord dealt with these excuses and told Moses that he was to go to Pharaoh and the Lord would teach him what to say. As Moses would tell you, it was not his skill at talking that made him able to go before the most powerful man in the world, rescue a nation of slaves from powerful oppressors, and lead a people 40 years through the wilderness; it was the all-surpassing power of the Holy Spirit, and the spirit of wisdom, who was with Moses for every part of his amazing journey.
Just like Paul, the Lord wants us to declare the Good News to a lost and dying world. And just like Paul, Moses, and every other person the Lord has called, we will be made adequate for any task by Him.
I find this particular passage a great comfort, because it is not about me, my so-called knowledge, or any meager talent I may possess, but the focus is on the Supreme King of Kings working through others and through me. That means that there is no room for boasting or pride for servants of the New Covenant.
The danger is that we may start off understanding this principle, but over time, the praise of others and the praise we give ourselves can cause us to lose sight of the Lord and engage in the idolatry of assuming our successes depend on us and are not a blessing from God. It is important to be reminded that our adequacy comes from God and that we work together for the Lord’s plans and purposes.
We move now to verse 6 which begins Paul’s major point, a comparison of the covenant of Moses and the covenant of Messiah Yeshua. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
“The Letter” refers to the Covenant of Moses, especially when it is approached in a legalistic way, as a series of does and don’ts, rather than as a guide for those who are in a right relationship with the Lord.
While the Sinai Covenant has many laws, since it is Israel’s constitution, it should not be understood as a book primarily about laws. It’s about being reconciled to God, being redeemed by coming to God on His terms, receiving the atonement He provides when we know Him and are loyal to Him. As a result of being saved, we are in a right relationship with God. The Holy Spirit lives in us and transforms us. We receive a new nature. We have a new desire to obey the Lord. The desire to keep God’s requirements are the result of our salvation experience.
Approaching the Covenant of Moses as a book of laws, of good deeds outweighing bad deeds, without being reconciled to God through Mesisah Yeshua results in death. Many of the Jewish people in Paul’s day, and in our day, approach the Sinai Covenant in a legalistic, dead-end way.
However, in contrast to the legalism of many involved in the Old Covenant, is the New Covenant. It is not based on legalism, but on relationship. Everlasting life is the promise for everyone joined to Messiah Yeshua through His death and atonement and resurrection. Eternal life is produced by the Holy Spirit who makes us alive, lives in us, and seals and protects every servant of the Everliving God.
The following verses are often misunderstood: Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelis could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?
Some may be thinking: “What do you mean ‘Ministry of Death’? Is Paul insulting the Old Covenant?” No. In this passage Rabbi Paul quotes Exodus 34. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, after being in the presence of the Lord to receive the new tablets with the Ten Commandments, his face shown with the reflected glory of the Lord. Aaron and all the people were afraid when they saw the glory of Adonai on the face of Moses and did not want to come near him. However, eventually they did and Moses told them the Law of Adonai. Moses then put a veil over his face. When he went before the Lord he would remove the veil and when he exited he would put it back on, to hide the radiant glory of the Lord from being in His presence.
This seems at first glance to be a footnote at the end of a powerful story, but Rabbi Paul under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sees important principles being revealed. When Rabbi Paul calls the Old Covenant a ministry of death, it is not meant to insult the covenant the Lord made with our people. The phrase is meant to communicate an important point. The Old Covenant led to death due to our inability to keep it. This is not because the covenant was flawed but because we are flawed.
This covenant came in amazing glory with the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai descending with the sounding of a shofar. The Old Covenant contained amazing promises for the provision of our people, that the Lord would perform wonders never before seen in the world. The Lord promised to be our God and for us to be His people. We were called to be a kingdom of Priests, a holy nation to share the glory and light of Adonai with a world covered in darkness.
The glory of the Old Covenant was amazing, but insufficient. We were unable to stand before the Holy One of Israel. While there was great glory and revelation of who the Lord is in the Old Covenant, there were barriers that were in place that separated a sinful people from an infinitely holy Creator. Our people begged the Lord to not utter any more words from Mount Sinai since they were convinced they would be destroyed. Even great Moses had to be shielded in the cleft of a rock as the Lord walked past Him. We were unable to enter into the presence of God in the tabernacle and later the Temple or else we would be consumed. We could not look at the reflected glory of the Lord on the face of Moses.
Paul uses the veil of Moses to make a kal va-chomer argument, a Rabbinic teaching method that says if something is true in a lesser situation it must be even more true in a greater situation. If the Old Covenant with its limitations was full of glory, the New Covenant must be even more glorious!
If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
Paul emphasizes the superiority of the Covenant of the Messiah. In the New Covenant everything is greater. There is a greater access to the Lord. Permanent atonement has been made for our sins from a greater sacrifice, offered in a greater Temple, by a greater High Priest. Yeshua is Immanuel, God with us. Moses is only a servant of God. The glory that radiated from Moses was reflected glory. The glory that radiated from the Son of God on the Mountain of Transfiguration was the glory of God Himself. When the glory of the New Covenant is compared to the glory of the Old Covenant, it is as if the Sinai Covenant has no glory at all.
This is an incredibly bold statement to make and yet it is completely true. Rabbi Paul wants those in Corinth, and us, to understand that what we have in Messiah Yeshua far surpasses anything in the Mosaic Covenant.
So a completely convincing case has been made for the glory of the New Covenant, but what does this mean for believers? We find the answer in the next two verses: Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelis from seeing the end of what was passing away.
The New Covenant gives us hope and boldness. There is no barrier between God and Man because of the great mediator, the one greater than Moses, Messiah Yeshua. The blessings of the New Covenant will never fade away. Therefore we have no need for the veil that Moses had to wear. So, we are to be bold proclaimers of the Good News that atonement for our sins has been accomplished, that the barriers that prohibited us from living with our Heavenly Father have been permanently removed!
However, for those who have not allowed the Lord into their lives and do not have the Holy Spirit, things are much different, especially for our people: But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Messiah is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
To this day, the Law of Moses is read each and every week with the Torah portions in synagogues around the world. The cycle of readings has continued unbroken for almost 2000 years since Paul wrote these words and they remain as true today as they did then. There are those who would claim that our people are fine without our Messiah, that Yeshua is optional for them, that the Sinai Covenant is enough. This cannot be further from the truth! There is no dual-covenant theology being taught here! The truth is that there is a veil, a deadly spiritual blindness that covers the spiritual eyes every single Jewish person who has not turned their lives over to Messiah Yeshua. We can’t see God the way we need to in order to be saved! Our minds and hearts are not where they need to be.
The barrier that keeps us from God can only be removed in Messiah. To be outside of Him is to be outside the Holy Spirit, outside of salvation, outside of eternal life. This is not a matter of opinion but is the clear and simple teaching of God’s revealed Word.
So if a veil lies over the spiritual eyes of the people the Lord made covenant with, how much more dire are the circumstances for those outside of the covenant mediated by Moses?
The whole world needs the New Covenant! The Jewish Messiah needs to be accepted by everyone! The Lord’s house is designed to be a house of prayer for all peoples, and you had better be in it!
But Paul is not finished! This chapter ends with a powerful teaching of the working of the Holy Spirit in all believers.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
What a powerful picture of the transformative power of the Lord! We have a freedom that is for Christians and Messianic Jews alone. We alone have the ability to be in the presence of Adonai with an unveiled face. We do not have to hide or be protected from the glory of our God! Through Messiah we are able to see His wonderful majesty in a way not possible before. Not only are we able to gaze upon our perfect Father, but as we see Him, the glory of the Lord transforms us. We are being transformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, day by day to be more like Him. The work does not stop at salvation but our transformation is an ongoing process.
There are two major takeaways from this part of the Word of God, one for believers and one for those who are not. For believers, we can be encouraged and renewed by understanding the glorious reality we are part of. The amazing magnificence of the New Covenant calls us to be bold and courageous workers who are confident because we know that the Lord will equip us for every work He wants us to do. Be that bold, courageous man or woman who belongs to God!
Christians and Messianic Jews can rejoice in the knowledge that not only do we have unveiled access to Adonai, but the Lord’s Spirit is transforming us from within, conforming us to His image and in spite of our occasional falls, making us the vessels we were always meant to be.
For those who have not made the decision to accept the gift of eternal life the Lord is offering, consider the covenant of the Lord. Consider the glory of the New Covenant and how it eclipses all that has come before, all the amazing benefits it offers. Consider how the infinite glory of the Lord can work in your life.
I encourage you to pray to the Lord, to ask Him to reveal to you whether what we preach is the truth and to read the books of the New Covenant for yourself and see that Messiah Yeshua is the best thing that can ever come into your life.
May the Lord continue to bring more and more people into His glorious Covenant, equipping and encouraging us for the work of evangelism and all the various other ministries he has called us to do. And may the veils be removed from all our loved ones, all our friends, and the whole world, speedily and soon, so all will bless He who comes in the name of the Lord.