The Signs of the Times, vol. 17


The Signs of the Times, Vol. 17


January 5, 1891

“Exposition of 2 Corinthians 3:7-11” The Signs of the Times, 17, 1.

E. J. Waggoner

Several questions have of late been asked us upon 2 Corinthians 3:7-11. As that is a passage which those who are striving to teach the law often find difficult to explain, and which enemies of truth use with great confidence as being opposed to the law, we will try to give a simple scriptural exposition of it. The fifth and sixth verses of the chapter read as follows:- SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.1

“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.2

It will be noticed that the last clause of verse 5 is an answer to the question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” asked in verse 16 of the preceding chapter. The subject which is under consideration is the Christian ministry, as is seen by verse 6 and the first verse of chapter 4. The apostle is showing its excellence, and in so doing contrasts it with the ministry of the old covenant. The word “testament” in verse 6 means “covenant,” and the statement is that we are made ministers of the new covenant; “not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Many people seem to have the idea that in this verse Paul is contrasting the two testaments or covenants. The old covenant they call the letter, and the new covenant the spirit. But one who reads the verse carefully cannot fail to see that this is an error. The old covenant is not referred to till we reach the seventh verse. Paul’s statement is simply to the effect that he and his associates were ministers of the spirit of the new covenant, and not of its letter, for the new covenant has its letter as well as the old. On this point Dr. Clarke makes the following pertinent comment:- SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.3

Every institution has its letter as well as its spirit; as every word must refer to something of which it is the sign or significator. The gospel has both its letter and its spirit, and multitudes of professing Christians, by resting in the letter, receive not the life which it is calculated to impart. Water, in baptism, is the letter that points out the purification of the soul; they who rest in this letter are without this purification; and dying in that state, they die eternally. Bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are the letter; the atoning efficacy of the death of Jesus, and the grace communicated by this to the soul of the believer, are the spirit. Multitudes rest in this letter, simply receiving these symbols without reference to the atonement or to their guilt; and thus lose the benefit of the atonement and the salvation of their souls.... It may be safely asserted that the Jews in no period of their history ever rested more in the letter of their law than the vast majority of Christians are doing in the letter of their gospel. Unto multitudes of Christians Christ may truly say, Ye are not come unto me that ye may have life. SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.4

In the above quotation it is shown that the letter of the new covenant kills; but the reason why it kills will be made more plain after we have made a brief comparison of the two covenants. These two covenants with their ministrations are brought to view in contrast in verses 7 and 8, which read thus:- SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.5

“But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away; how shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?” SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.6

In this verse the old covenant is called the “ministration of death.” Why it was so called is very apparent to one who understands what the old covenant was. We will state it briefly. Before the Lord gave the ten commandments from Mount Sinai, he said to the Jews:- SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.7

“Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” Exodus 19:4-6. SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.8

On the third day after this, the Lord spoke the ten commandments in the hearing of all the people; “and he added no more; and he wrote them on two tables of stone.” Deuteronomy 5:22. Then Moses went up to the Lord in the mount, and the Lord gave to him precepts growing out of the ten commandments. See Exodus 21, 22, and 23. The confirmation of the covenant, the preliminaries of which are given in Exodus 19:5-8, is related in Exodus 24:3-8. There we learn that- SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.9

“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.” SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.10

After this “Moses wrote all the words of the Lord;” and after he had built an altar and offered sacrifices unto the Lord, “he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people; and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” Then “Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” Thus was the covenant confirmed. We learn from this that the old covenant was simply an agreement between God and the children of Israel, concerning the commandments of God. The people on their part promised faithfully to keep the commandments, and the Lord promised to make of them a great nation. SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.11

In connection with this covenant there were “ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.” Hebrews 9:1. This sanctuary is described in Exodus 25:26, 27, and 30, and the principal “ordinances of divine service” are described in Exodus 29:38-42, and Leviticus, chapters 4 and 16. With these facts before us, we may understand why the ministration of the first covenant was called a “ministration of death.” SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.12

(1) In this covenant the people had made an explicit agreement to keep the law of God. (2) By this law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), “for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). (3) The “ordinances of divine service” connected with the first covenant were for sin; but Paul tells us (Hebrews 10:4) that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” Those “ordinances of divine service” were only “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things,” and therefore the sacrifices which the people offered had no power to make them perfect. Therefore (4) all who had to do with the old covenant alone were condemned to death; “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); “and the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). There was in the old covenant no provision for the forgiveness of sins; therefore the ministration of that old covenant, which was performed by earthly priests, was, so far as their work extended, the ministration of death. Only the perfect can have life, and their ministration made nothing perfect. SITI January 5, 1891, page 2.13

It is true that during the time of the ministration of the old covenant, sins were forgiven (Leviticus 4:26, 31, 35), and this forgiveness was real, but it was obtained solely by virtue of faith in the promised sacrifice of Christ, and not because of anything in the old covenant. Paul says of Christ, in Hebrews 9:15, that he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” Thus we see that when sins committed under the first covenants were forgiven, they were forgiven by virtue of the second covenant. E. J. W. SITI January 5, 1891, page 3.1

(Concluded next week.)