The letter and the spirit

2 Corinthians 3:1–11

God has enabled us to be ‘ministers’ of his new covenant, Paul says.

One meaning of minister is a person in government such as Finance Minister or Defence Minister. This person represents the leader of the state as head of that department. The most important minister, who is in charge of the other ministers, is the Prime Minister.

That makes a minister seem to be a very important person. In fact the word minister is derived from the Latin word ‘minus’, meaning less. Less than the supreme authority, queen or king or caesar. Although these days we usually think of a minister as a very important and powerful person, the word minister actually means ‘servant’. In our passage today the word ‘minister’ is a translation of the word ‘deacon’.

Deacon and minister both mean servant. Or waiter. A person who runs errands and attends to the needs of others, in particular their master. In our case, we serve or wait on God.

Paul appears to be saying that God has made it possible for us to be his servants. He says this is because we are not qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God.

Many people have many qualifications. There are people who want to be ministers and who think they are qualified because they have a degree from a famous university. They were graduated from Princeton or Yale or Oxford or Cambridge – what are some other famous universities? – Tokyo University, Seoul University, etc. and that qualifies them.

More qualified people have the letters Ph.D. after their name, and got their doctorate from a famous seminary. Paul says that’s not the sort of qualification a minister really needs.

How about the gift of public speaking. The qualification of being able to speak for two hours and hold the audience’s attention might sound like a great qualification for a preacher.

Perhaps I could be qualified because my family have been ministers for 10 generations, or 20?

How would it be if in my job interview for minister I said, My father is Bishop of Jinju and I have great compassion for the poor and lost. We tend to look at many things as qualifications when the Bible lists only one thing.

This is how Paul explains it in our Scripture today. He says we need a letter of recommendation.

A letter of recommendation is common today as it was common in Paul’s day. A known and trusted person would write the letter for someone, who would carry it and show it when need arose. For example when going to a new city and needing to be trusted by people.

You would show the letter, and the recipient would trust the writer and so offer you a place to stay, introduce you to their friends, and trust you in business deals.

It is very common in England, and a big reason it is so hard for outsiders to get access to positions of power and influence.

For a minister of the new covenant, this letter of recommendation is written by God. A letter or a contract or a law is written with words. It has its spirit and it has its letters.

What do we mean by this?

Every word refers to something. Each word is a sign that points to the significance of something. The Bible for example has letter and spirit. It is perfectly possible to be a Christian by the letter of the Bible, professing a living faith in Jesus as saviour. You can repeat Scripture perfectly but lack the life that it points to.

In baptism, for example, water is the letter that points to the purification of the soul. Anyone who trust and relies only on the water will not receive the purification to which it points.

In the sacrament of Holy Communion we have bread and wine. They are the letter. The grace of God and his son’s atoning death are what the letters signify. This is the spirit. There are many people who trust in the letter of Holy Communion, relying on the Bread and Wine without any reference to the atonement or their own sin. They lose the benefit of Holy Communion and are in danger as they miss the spirit.

One who meets Jesus and accepts his invitation to ‘Follow me’ has the same choice. We can follow the letter of this invitation, walking with Jesus up and down Galilee to the city and temple and mountains, and all over the world to the farthest reaches, without having any part of his spirit and might. We could follow Jesus and lose our souls.

It is the spirit that gives life, not the letter. This means that when we listen to Jesus and decide to follow him, we need to listen and follow in spirit and truth. This means believing and trusting Jesus, but it also means following his example, living as he lived. It is not only possible to be a Christian who lives by the letter, but in fact many do. They seek life in the Bible, but refuse to come to Jesus in order that they might receive salvation.

This is why in verse six Paul says: “This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit.”

There is letter, and there is spirit.

The Jews rested on the letter of the law given to Moses, and on the interpretation of the law through their teachers. This didn’t give life. It killed. They were measured against the law and none of them ever reached the mark. They were all condemned to death as transgressors, lawbreakers. They failed to look to the spirit. The did not seek the spiritual meaning of their laws and thus missed Jesus when he came. They rejected him.

The new covenant unveils these spiritual things and places them before us. The new covenant reveals the reason and purpose of the law.

A minister is a servant of God who has been given the task of revealing the reason and purpose of the law. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are a letter from Christ. He wants us to know that we are all ministers.

He explains how this letter is different from the law. It is a spiritual letter.

Verse 3: This “letter” is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts.

God writes the new covenant on your heart with his spirit. We are qualified to teach others because we are living the law in our lives, because we have the spirit of God active and powerful within us.

We are only qualified this way. We cannot qualify ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much we study or how hard we work.

We are qualified by having Holy Spirit living within us. The letter of the law has life and meaning when joined with the spirit. We have life when we are filled with his spirit.

When Moses face shone with the glory of God, verse seven, the people could not look at him it was so bright. It had to be covered with a veil. But that glory quickly faded. The glory of the new way is far brighter.

Paul says in verse eight: “Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life?”

And in the new way the veil is removed so that we can all see clearly by the spirit of God.

“All of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”

We cannot understand the Bible until we turn to and follow Jesus, because until then our minds and hearts are veiled. But then the law will be written on our hearts. We cannot live without the spirit of God.

This is exactly what is prophesied in Ezekiel 36:26, but the Jewish people forgot God’s promise and rejected Jesus.

“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”

God has qualified you to be a servant in his house, a minister in his government. Have confidence and walk in faith.

Amen 아멘

About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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