The Glory of the New Covenant
7Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
It is quite common and popular now days for someone to meet a new romantic interest through the internet. There are even sites for Christians to meet online with an eye towards getting married. The people will look at one another’s profile, decide to meet, and carry on the new relationship through pictures and letters passed back and forth. That’s all well and good, but in the end, it’s very difficult to truly get to know someone that way. There is a distance there that only meeting in person could actually ever resolve.
In discussing the differences between the Old and New Covenants, Paul’s point is clear that the New Covenant, of which he is a legitimate minister, is far superior to the Old Covenant. The reasons for that, though, are more similar to the internet example than we might at first suspect. It’s simply difficult to have a fulfilling relationship when there is distance between the two parties, regardless of what form that distance takes.
Paul maintains that there are similarities between the two ministries of the Old and New Covenants, that are only outweighed by their differences. To truly grasp the differences, we must understand that Paul has Exodus 32-34 as a backdrop in mind for this section. The problem with the Old Covenant dispensation was that the Israelites broke it from the beginning (see Ex. 32:7-9, 19). Despite the fact that Israel had been freed from slavery, their idolatry demonstrated that their hearts were still hard and their necks still stiff in their enslavement to sin (Ex. 32:9; 34:9). Because of that, the Covenant had failed in its purpose from the very beginning. Due to the stiff necks of God’s people, His presence would bring punishment and judgment, not their actual transformation. Thus, the law remained an external letter from God that could do no better than reminding them of their shortcomings and failure to truly transform into the people that God intended them to be.
This failure of the Old Covenant had, of course, nothing to do with any shortcoming on the part of God. It was the moral failure and the stiff necks of the Israelites. Yet, it left God with a problem. How could His glory continue to dwell in the midst of His people without judging and destroying them? Moses pleads with God that he might experience God’s glory and serve as a mediator between God and His people (Ex. 33:18-23). God grants Moses’ request and the Covenant is restored (Ex. 34:1-10). From that point on, however, Israel is separated from the transforming glory of God. First they were separated from God’s glory at Mt. Sinai, as they could only glimpse Moses’ veiled face which reflected God’s glory. Then, God’s glory would continue to be veiled or separated from them in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple. They could only know it externally and from a distance. That was better than nothing but it was still not what God wanted for his people.
What is important for Paul is that God’s glory was present during the Old Covenant just as in the New. It is the same glory of the same God. Why did God’s glory in the Old Testament bring death, while the gospel brings life? The answer is, that the gospel does not bring life. The gospel brings the same judgment and punishment for those who remain stiff-necked. It is neither the Law or the gospel that brings death or life. Both of them are mere external announcements of God’s faithfulness to His people. What makes all the difference is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the ministry of the Spirit that brings the transforming, life-giving power of God to His people. Without the Spirit, the gospel would bring death to those whose hearts are heartened just as much as the Old Covenant Law did.
This is precisely what Paul wants the Corinthians to understand. What makes all the difference between the Old Covenant and the new dispensation of God’s grace is that the Spirit actually enters into believers as they enter into Christ. This is what allows stiff-necked humans to be transformed into the Kingdom of priests that we were always intended to be. It is because we enter into the sin-free life of Christ that we can be temples of the Spirit of the living God. It is the power of the Spirit that enables us to internalize God’s glory and be transformed by it rather than being judged and destroyed.
Make no mistake though, the Old Covenant was indeed glorious. It was, after all, God’s revelation to mankind. What it could not do, however, due to the lack of the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, was bring righteousness. God’s righteousness is the fact of Him being faithful to His covenant justice and promises. For man, being righteous means to stand in the right place before God and uphold our end of the Covenant. This cannot be done without the internal presence of the Spirit which transforms us into the likeness of the life of Christ in whom we have entered. In comparison with the New Covenant then, the Old Covenant has no glory now. What it could only point to, the restoration and transformation of human beings, the New Covenant can actually accomplish. It is not that Paul is saying that the Old Covenant simply can’t stack up to the New. It as though the Old Covenant took man half way up the mountain. Now the New Covenant takes man all the way up to the summit, thus, surpassing the Old in purpose and result. Once the New Covenant arrived, complete with its Spirit-powered granting of life, the Old Covenant, with the primary purpose of condemnation is no longer the place where God’s glory can be found. The Old Covenant was designed to point man towards their need for something greater, and in the New Covenant the greater is now available to mankind.
There was indeed glory in Moses’ ministry or there would have been no need for his veil. The problem is that the glory of God’s presence was fading from the very beginning because it could only bring judgment and punishment due to the continuing rebellion of mankind. The more Israel tried to follow the Law, the more they failed, and the more they needed a buffer between them and God. In the New Covenant, we have access to the transforming power of the Spirit that will never fade, will never go away, and will never need to be replaced.
The glory of the New Covenant is that we have access to the Spirit who transforms us and allows us to uphold the Covenant and to be righteous. Have you allowed the Spirit to come in and transform your life? Are there certain areas of your life that you’ve tried to hold back from the transforming power of the Spirit or have you completely surrendered?