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The Ministry of the Spirit

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 3:7-18) Spoken on: August 16, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 3:7-18

The previous time I preached from 2 Corinthians, I spoke about Paul the Pastor. Today, I am introducing to you Paul the Preacher. Some scholars believe that the passage today is an example of Paul’s sermon. In this mini sermon, Paul explains the difference between the old covenant (established through the letter or the Law) and the new covenant (established through Jesus Christ and ministered by the Holy Spirit). Paul cleverly interlaced two OT passages together: Exodus 34:29-35 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. The Exodus passage was about the event of the golden calf and the second giving of the law, while Jeremiah passage spoke about the new covenant. To understand today’s passage; we need to also understand these two important OT passages.

Exodus 34:29-35 [read only v. 29 and 34]
[29] When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. [30] Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. [31] But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. [32] Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. [33] And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
[34] Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, [35] the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Moses and the Old Covenant
The old covenant refers to the Ten Commandments (craved in letters on stone). When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the Ten Commandments in his hands, his face was shining with God’s glory. The old covenant was grace for it brought the glory of God’s presence among the people. But his glory was too great for them. The people were afraid to come near him because of their sinfulness. They would surely die in the presence of God’s glory. So, Moses had to veil his face to hide God’s glory. And whenever Moses went in before the LORD, he would remove his veil. And when he speaks with his people, he would put on his veil again.

But soon, grace became condemnation. The old covenant becomes a ministry of condemnation and death for those who remained in sin. Their hearts were hardened. They could not see God’s glory even if it was right in front of them. Because Israel was “stiff-necked”, the effects of the commandments becomes condemnation.

This was how the old covenant works. People were not able to come face to face with God. Their mediator was Moses and even with him, they were not able to face him directly. They needed the veil to cover the shine on Moses’ face. It brought death to anyone who sees the face of God. Not only was Moses’ face covered with a veil, the hearts of the people were also covered too. With the veil over their hearts, the people could not see the full extent of God’s transforming glory. They were unable to experience the full extent of God’s grace.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 [read all]
[31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah and the New Covenant
The day has come when the LORD will remember our sins no more. The day came when Jesus Christ died on the cross for all our sins. The old covenant was craved in letters on stone. The new covenant was craved on our hearts. The old covenant was glorious for it bears God’s glory on Moses’ face. But the new covenant was even more glorious for it bears God’s glory on Christ’s blood-tainted face. The old covenant brought death and condemnation to those who remain in sin. The new covenant brought salvation and new life for those who turned to Jesus. The old covenantal ministry of death and condemnation have been renewed and restored by the new covenantal ministry of righteousness and of the Spirit.

New Covenant as Renewal and Restoration
We must be careful when we are comparing between the two covenants. Sometimes, when we use the word “new”, we may convey the old being replaced by the new. Biblically speaking, “new” means “renewal” and “restoration” rather than “replacement”. Jesus tells us in Matt 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Christ did not come to remove the old covenant or to make it redundant. But he fulfilled it.

Just as the New Testament does not replace the Old Testament; the new covenant also does not replace the old. The new covenant is a renewal and restoration of the old. Some Christians mistakenly believe that the OT is for the Jews, while the NT is for Christians. This is inaccurate. To correct this, some would describe our two testaments in the Bible as First and Second Testament. The New is a continuation of the Old.

If the old covenant is epitomised by the Ten Commandments, the new covenant is epitomised by the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love Man, which is a summary of the Ten. Again, nothing new is added in the new covenant. The content of the covenant remains the same. Do not forget that it was God who carved those letters on the stone on the Old Covenant. The terms and conditions of the old are the same as the new one. The only difference is the mediator between God and the people. The old covenant was mediated by Moses, while the new by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. With the arrival of the Spirit, the Law does not disappear. The Law was accomplished and fulfilled by Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus Christ is our perfect Mediator.

This is the only reason why the new covenant is more glorious than the old. This is the only reason why the new covenant works when the old one failed. Not because Christians were more righteous than the old Israel. But it is because Christ is our righteousness. Only with the arrival of the Spirit, who brings greater glory and transformation in the hearts of people, can we truly have the boldness of hope in salvation.

New Covenant as Grace and Salvation
Just as the Israelites had a second experience of grace when Moses brought back a second tablet after the first one was broken, Christ is also our second experience of grace. With Christ, we have the hope of salvation. We are bold, not because of our faithfulness, but in the faithfulness of Christ. We are saved not by our works, but by the work of Christ on the cross.

There are some who live by the law, follow every rule and regulation found in the Bible. They follow every letter of the Law to the T. But is Christianity about following all the rules in the Bible? Is it really possible? Someone actually tried to put this to a test. AJ Jacob, an agnostic Jewish journalist, who wrote of his spiritual experiences in The Year of Living Biblically. This book is about his quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. He discovered that no one actually lived out every single rule in the Bible literally, maybe except for Jesus. Everyone picked and choose according to their own theological beliefs, even the most fundamentalist conservative Christians. We follow certain rules and not the others. It is the principle or the spirit of the Law which we should be following. For the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6b), while the letter kills. And in his journey of living biblically, he experienced grace on a totally different level. I do encourage you to read this humorous and insightful book if you have the opportunity. It is an eye-and-heart opener. In my opinion, he experienced a certain sense of inner transformation in his understanding of God and of the Bible.

Conclusion: Repentance, Freedom, Transformation
Many struggle with true transformation in our lives. How does this transformation happen? I would like us to take a deeper look at vv. 16-18 of 2 Cor. 3: 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom . 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Note the three key words being highlighted. Three words could be used to summarise them: Repentance, Freedom, and Transformation. The take-home message from this passage is this.

Thesis: True transformation begins when we turn to Jesus, and freely allow the Spirit to write God’s covenant on our hearts!

The veil is a key concept in Paul’s theology. Previously, the veil had served two purposes. Firstly, it allowed the Israelites to experience God’s glory and grace in its limited form. Secondly, the veil also covered their hearts and prevented them from truly transforming into God’s holy people. But now, the veil, which previously had been a hindrance to God’s glory and God’s power of transformation, is now removed. Let’s take a moment to think about this: Our veil is removed whenever we turned to the Lord. God will remove every hindrance and inhibition that are preventing us from meeting him face to face. Wow! How beautiful is that?

All we have to do is to turn to the Lord. This turning begins when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and repent of our sins. In fact, the Greek word ἐπιστρέψῃ (epistrephō v. 16) is to “turn around” or “to turn to the Lord.” The biblical version of this word is “to repent”. This repentance must take place every single day of our lives. It is the process of becoming more Christ-like each day. Every single day, we need to turn our eyes upon Jesus. This is what it means in Luke 9:23-24, when Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. [24] For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Repentance is the prelude to salvation.

With repentance, we can experience freedom in Christ. We are no longer condemned by the Law because it is already fulfilled by Jesus Christ. With Christ, there is freedom, ἐλευθερία (eleutheria v. 17). This freedom comes from having the Law being established in our hearts when we are united with Christ. The Law is no longer carved in stones, but on our hearts. Christ is the new covenant that is created within us, and written on our hearts by God. There is true freedom for those who turned to Christ.

The key to today’s passage is really about the ministry of the Spirit. This is Paul’s message here. True transformation μεταμορφόομαι (metamorphoomai v. 18) can only exist when we allow the Spirit to work in us and change us each day. Paul’s sermon seeks to illustrate the transforming power of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit begins when the work of Christ is done[1]. Christ makes us righteous when we believe in him. God removes our veils from our hearts, and we are free from the Law. The Sprit is free to begin its work within us, transforming us. When we allow the Spirit to change us, we experience true transformation. Our old self dies, our new self is born. We are a new creation.

Some of us may wonder...what if we miss a day of turning to the Lord? For some, this may be as long as 2 days, 3 days, a week, a month, a year, 20 years down the road...what happens? Do we then fall from grace? That I do not have the confidence to answer but I do know that the moment we take the step to repent, to turn back to the Lord, God will welcome us back with open arms.

Today is just as a good a day as any to start turning to the Lord again…and to continue turning to the Lord tomorrow and the day after…so that you can continue to experience that TRUE FREEDOM, and your TRANSFORMATION into his every increasing glorious likeness may begin…and continue.

Have you experienced TRUE FREEDOM? Are you a vessel WHERE THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS? Are you BEING TRANSFORMED into his likeness with ever-increasing glory?

If not, today is a good day to start!

Following Jesus is not only a decision we make, but it requires an action of turning to him each day. Only in Christ, can we truly be free. And only when we allow the Spirit to work in us, can we then be truly be transformed.

Let us pray.

[1] According to Anthony Thiselton, “Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit is centred on Christ...the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ” (The Living Paul, p. 58). The relationship between Christ and the Spirit is deeply intertwined. There is no Christ without the Spirit and no Spirit without Christ.