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We read in 2 Cor 3: 7-8 (NRSVCE):

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?

One wonders as to what St. Paul means by saying “the ministry of death”. It appears that he has borrowed the idea from Ex 20:18-19 which says:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

My question is, what does St. Paul mean by the phrase “the ministry of death” in 2 Cor 3:7-8?

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When 2 Corinthians 3:7-8 speaks of "the ministry of death" Paul is entirely clear as to what he refers - the tablets of stone which Moses received at Sinai. Paul then contrasts the fearful glory of that event with the more glorious ministry of the spirit, which he was declaring in the gospel.

The law had served its purpose in proving over the centuries that all it ever did for sinners was to condemn them. No salvation could be found in the law. No faith was required in the law. It was all "Do this, and don't do that", which 'only' required obedience, not faith. The law condemned darkness but did not give inner light. That would only come centuries later with the logos, the light of the world coming into the sin-darkened world. The law could not give righteousness: it gave the knowledge of sin. Nor could the law give life: it cursed to death. It showed no grace: it revealed wrath. There was no mercy from the law: it demanded justice and judgment without mercy. It was the dogmatic rule of law, but man in darkness had neither strength nor life to keep its commandments.

Then, when the logos was made flesh, John stated, "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." John 1:17 That was supremely achieved when God removed "the handwriting in the ordinances that is against us, that was contrary to us, and he hath taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Colossians 2:14 YLT

Paul expounds the contrast between the written law of the Old Testament with the "law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ [which] has freed me from the law of sin and death" - Romans 8:2. Throughout that letter he shows what he means. For example, in chapter 3 he states:

"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin, but now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe..." (vss.20-22 A.V.)

"Where is the boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (vss.27-28) [Bold emphases mine]

This does not make the law void, as he states in verse 31, going on to explain this. Christ fulfilled the law, which then had served its purpose:

"Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound... What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? [while servants of sin] for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life... Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ... For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." (Romans 5:20 & 21-22, then 7:4-5)

Of course, the law is not sin! And Paul goes on to explain that. There is a great need to read many consecutive chapters in Paul's epistle to the Romans, for there is only room here to whet your appetite. Paul's theology is carefully set forth, for the careful student.

There is to be no lawlessness with Christians (the theological term for that being 'Antiomianism'.) They are to obey the law of Christ, which is to believe in Christ Jesus and love one another. That is the law of love. It is equally the law of faith for we can only love as Christ loved by having him as our Head. Then we know and live by the "law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ [which] has freed me from the law of sin and death" - Romans 8:2. That alone liberates from bondage to legalism.

Going back to our starting-point, 2 Corinthians 3:7, make sure verse 1 is the starting-point, for Paul begins by saying how converts to faith in Christ are spiritual evidence, proof, that the gospel of faith gives life, that God has made him and the apostles:

"able ministers of the new testament: not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit giveth life." (vs. 6)

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2 Cor 3:7 refer to the 2nd time, God wrote on two tablets of stone His ten commandments. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets, his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.

"The ministry of death", NIV translation is "The ministry that brought death", refer to "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Romans 3:20 NIV)" and his subsequent quote "For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)".

The reason of his claim that the glory of Moses now set aside, is because now we are the ministers of a new covenant, no longer by the Law, but of the Holy Spirit. The Law (letter) brings us death, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3:6)

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"One wonders as to what St. Paul means by saying “the ministry of death”.

The word ministry means; a person or thing through which something is accomplished :

  1. diakonia

office of Moses: concisely for the ministration by which the law is promulgated that threatens and brings death, 2 corinthians 3:7 The ministration by which condemnation is announced,

To put (a law, for example) into effect by formal public announcement. To make known by open declaration, as laws, decrees, or tidings; to publish.

Indeed, the law was a definite ministry that brought death to the flesh. It was necessary to bring to light what is hidden in man; (sin) When one tries to live by a commandment in the Law he does just the opposite. He becomes aware that he is indeed a slave of sin.

The law came that the transgression might increase, Sin reigned in death.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 1 Corinthians 15:56

Since the law was spiritual, it was proven that the flesh could not accomplish the law. It was to bring to light what is in man, to humble him. It is what opens man's eyes do what lives inside him.

Indeed, the law was a very necessary ministration of death for man to have his eyes opened the indwelling sin that is reigning in his flesh.

This humbling process, "Ministry of death", prepares one for the Savior who alone can deliver him from sin and death.

The ministry of death is fulfilled in Christ.

For what the Law was not able to do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, His own Son having sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the Law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

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The Ministry of Death is referring to the 10 Commandments. This is what is understood as being the Law of Sin and Death.

The 10 commandments are The Holy Spirit Standard by which God expects us to live our lives in righteousness. But under the Old Covenant, it was obvious that we could not keep the law because of our human sinfulness. Hence, the need for the bloody sacrificial system. The Law of the 10 Commandments and the sacrificial system for sin was to show us our need for a saviour. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Even Jesus said "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." But we know that Jesus is God our Father come in human flesh as identified in Isaiah 9:5 NCB or Isaiah 9:6 in other translations.

When Jesus said, "No one gets to the Father except through me." He was actually letting us know that He is our Father as foretold in Isaiah, and that if we ignore Him then we cannot be one with Him. Because he is the righteous one by whom we are saved as foretold in the Old Testament and confirmed in the new.

So, the "Ministry of Death" is speaking in relation to the Law of Sin and Death, i.e., the 10 commandments that show our need for a saviour. And the "Ministry of the Spirit" is the ministry of the Holy Spirit that leads into all righteousness, the Christ Jesus. For in our unrighteousness, Jesus is our righteousness.

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Paul calls the law covenant ministry of death because the law covenant was punitive and disciplinary, demanding death as consequence. Death is used as a metaphor for its punitive nature; for the law consisted of a comprehensive guarding fence of commands beyond the moral law to dictate the life of believers. It is exemplified with words like condemnation, sin and death. It must be kept in mind that these arguments are always in comparison with the superior new covenant which released from the law. Paul contrasts the spiritualistic new from the legalistic. The context of verse 6-10 is clear.

2 Corinthians 3:6, NLT: He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:6 WEB who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Rom 8:1-2 NHEB There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

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“For the letter kills” (2 Cor 3:6).

“You (Corinthians) are our letter” (2 Cor 3:2).

So, Corinthians kill Paul!!

This is bad hermeneutics and wrong exegesis.

Answer

“The ministry of death” is the first covenant and the associated things.

Explanation

“The ministry of death” = spiritual laws “engraved in letters in stone”= “sons of Israel” (2 Cor 3:7).

Ministry of life = new covenant = the same spiritual laws engraved with Spirit (2 Cor 3:6).

In fact, Paul is making a comparison of the first and second covenants.

First Covenant Second Covenant
Ten Commandments-Exo 34:28 Ten Commandments-Rom 7:7
Holy Spirit not given-2 Cor 3:6 Holy Spirit poured-2 Cor 3:6
Engraved in stone-2 Cor 3:7 Engraved in minds and hearts-Heb 8:10
Unable to follow-Heb 8:9 Able to follow through Spirit-1 John 5:3
Hardened people-2Cor 3:14 Humble people-Col 3:12
Mercy less-Heb 12:20 Full of mercy-Heb 8:12
Temporary-Heb 8:13 Permanent and better-Heb 13:20; 8:6
Works of law-Rom 3:20 Christ’s eternal sacrifice-Heb 7:27

As is obvious from the above, Ten Commandments are an integral part of both covenants. But in the first covenant, God wrote His laws on stone tablets. But in the second covenant, God wrote the same laws in the hearts and minds of the called out saints through the Holy Spirit.

So it is wrong to say that the Ten Commandments, which are called “spiritual”, “holy”, “just and good” (Rom 7:12, 14) are part of the ministry of death.

Paul explains well:

“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? Let it not be! But I did not know sin except through Law; for also I did not know lust except the Law said, "You shall not lust."

“But sin taking occasion through the commandment worked every lust in me; And the commandment which was to life, this was found to be death to me; for sin taking occasion through the commandment deceived me, and through it killed me”.

“So indeed the Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Then that which is good, has it become death to me? Let it not be! But sin, that it might appear to be sin, having worked out death to me through the good, in order that sin might become excessively sinful through the commandment”.

“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly (without the Holy Spirit), having been sold under sin. But if I do what I do not will, I agree with the Law, that it is good”.

“For I delight in the Law of God according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members having warred against the law of my mind, and taking me captive by the law of sin being in my members”.

“So then I myself with the mind truly serve the Law of God, and with the flesh the law of sin”. (Rom 7:7---25).

Conclusion

The spiritual Ten Commandments are an integral part of both the covenants. This is undeniable in the Scripture.

But in the first covenant, God wrote them on stone, which means the Holy Spirit was not involved. Thus the first covenant became a ministry of death.

In the second covenant, God wrote the Ten Commandments in the hearts and minds of the saints through the Holy Spirit.

This is the ministry of life because “It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh does not profit, nothing!” (John 6:63).

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