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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Please explain the reference to the law as the “letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6.
I presume that your main concern is a reading of the passage that could imply the rejection of the law as a guide for the Christian life. Interestingly, the reference to the law in that and the following verse is indirect. In fact, the term law is not used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3. In verse 7 Paul uses the expression “engraved in letters of stone” (NIV), suggesting that he has in mind the Decalogue as the covenant law, but we must place Paul’s discussion of the law in its proper context and then explore what he was saying.
1. Paul’s Main Argument: Paul’s primary interest in 2 Corinthians 3 is in defending his ministry of the new covenant against the attacks of false teachers who have entered the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 2:14-7:4). As part of his defense Paul contrasts his new covenant ministry with the ministry of the old covenant. It is within that apologetic and polemic context that we have to interpret what he says about the law.
2. The Glory of the Old Ministry: Paul does not consider the ministry of the old covenant to be evil. On the contrary, he describes its origin as a glorious one: It “came with glory” (2 Cor. 3:7, NIV). The reference is to the glory of God manifested throughout the events leading to the covenant between God and Israel, and in particular to the revelation of that glory on the face of Moses. Paul proceeds to contrast the old ministry with the ministry of the new covenant. The old ministry is glorious, but the new one is more glorious.
3. Inferiority of the Old Covenant: The apostle uses two main arguments to show that the ministry of the old covenant was inferior. First, he points out that its glory was as transitory as the reflection of God’s glory on Moses’ face; implying that the old covenant was from its very beginning destined to come to an end: the glory with which it came into being was already fading when it was being instituted (verse 7). The implication is that God had something more glorious in store for His people: The glory of Christ (verses 14-18).
The second argument used to indicate the inferiority of the old is that the old covenant is “letter,” a letter that kills. Consequently that ministry is a ministry of death (verse 6). Paul defines what he means by saying that the ministry of the old covenant, with its law engraved in letters on stone, condemns humans to death (verses 6-9). He is not describing here the nature of the law itself but the function of the law separated from Christ. The ministry of the old covenant became deadly when separated from the Messiah. The Jews needed to read the old covenant and the covenant law through Christ (verses 14-16).
The law as “letter” is contrasted with the Spirit. The law is totally unable to give life to the individual: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (verse 6, NIV). “The Lord is the Spirit” (verse 17, NIV); only Jesus can give life and transform us into His likeness (verse 18; cf. Gal. 3:20). The law as “letter” is the law separated from the power of Christ and the Spirit that enables us to obey the righteous demands of the law (Rom. 8:3, 4). Only the Spirit can internalize the law in the human heart; otherwise it is a powerless external “letter” that the individual is unable to obey (Rom. 2:27).
4. Superiority of the Ministry of the New Covenant: Paul uses two main arguments to demonstrate the superiority of his ministry. First, the ministry of the new covenant is more glorious because it reflects the glory of Christ, and that glory belongs to Him by nature. It is a permanent glory (2 Cor. 3:11), shared by Christ with all who turn to Him, and has the power to transform them (verse 18). Second, the ministry of the new covenant is not of the “letter” but of the Spirit, and through Him believers are united to Christ. The result of this ministry is not death but righteousness (verse 9). There is freedom from the law as an instrument of condemnation and death (verse 17).
We certainly agree with Paul.