“Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6
There is a legal idiom, “the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” which asks us to look at why laws are written. Should laws promote justice and fairness, or exploit and oppress? Are we following a law as it is technically written, in order to manipulate it to our advantage, or are we following the law according to what it intended, so that the oppressed may be treated fairly? In 2 Corinthians 3, God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, makes a similar comparison of letter versus Spirit, and reveals to us Christians the liberating truth of his New Promise.
Let’s step back a bit before we go forward. What was God’s Old Promise? Basically, God said “follow my laws, and you will be a great nation.” Obey, you are rewarded and blessed. Disobey, and you are punished, enemies will invade, and your nation is destroyed. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy dictate the over six hundred laws that Israel, God’s people, had to follow. And if you broke a law, you must make a sacrifice. God’s law demands blood – thousands of animals slaughtered at the altar. And over and over, we see God’s people repeatedly fail to follow the law, fail to protect the oppressed, fail to keep the sacrificial commands, and repeatedly God pronounces judgements of death upon them, and ultimately Israel and Judah are overthrown and God’s people exiled in Babylon.
Paul explains that the failure of God’s people to follow God’s laws is to be expected, and the pronouncement of death inevitable. In fact, in verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 3, Paul calls God’s laws, so glorious that the face of Moses radiated light when he came down from Mt. Sinai, a ministry of death. Following the letter of the Law, according to Paul, kills. No one can meet the perfect standard of God. So what hope is there? Paul gives us the answer: God. Jesus met God’s perfect standard, and satisfied his sacrificial requirements on our behalf. And, through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to live the way God desires for us. We have the Spirit of God, living in us, not condemning us against an impossible standard, but transforming us to be like Jesus. The letter of the Law, written by Moses on stone tablets, results only in death, but the Spirit of God, who writes his letter upon our soul, brings refreshing, liberating life.