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He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant … not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills but Spirit gives life.  Now 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, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?  II Corinthians 3:6-8

The law, apart from gospel, has a deadly effect.  That does not mean that the law is bad while the gospel is good – both are good.  Elsewhere, in Romans 7:12, the Apostle declares the law to be “holy, righteous and good.”  Of course that is true because God, the Lawgiver, is good.  The difficulty with trying to gain and sustain life by adherence to law does not rest with commandments.  It rests with us; we are the problem.  The law is good while we are not, therefore the letter kills.  The Scriptures declare that the one who sins must die.

Imagine a basketball game in the college field house.  A “real hot dog” on the visiting team has called attention to himself by the combination of his skill and arrogance.  Then he commits a flagrant foul.  As one person a group of home-team rooters rise up from the bleachers, jab their fingers in the direction of the offending player, and shout in unison, “You! You! You!”  So acts the law.  It rises up, points the finger of guilt and shouts, “You!”  The law condemns; it kills.

In II Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the ministry of the Old Covenant and that of the New.  The former brought death; the latter brings righteousness.  The Old Covenant was established with Israel a Mt. Sinai, accompanied by a fearful display of divine power.  The Lord came to His people in dense cloud.  There was thunder and lightning, a mysterious trumpet blast, very loud, and the mountain quaked violently.

“When people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear.”  (Exodus 20:18).  In the days that followed, Moses served as the go-between, receiving the Lord’s revelation and giving it to the peopleGod acquiesced to the people’s plea that the contents of the Covenant would be given in that way.

The effect on Moses of his going and coming into and out of the special presence of God was clearly visible to the people and added a new dimension to their fear.  Moses’ face was radiant, reflecting the divine glory.  Even Aaron was afraid to come near him.  So Moses took to wearing a veil over his face while the radiance was fading away.

The Apostle sees Moses’ radiance as evidence of the glory which surrounded the first covenant but, at the same time, symbolic of its insufficiency.  The law is glorious for it is a revelation from the God of all glory.  “Righteous are you, O Lord, and your laws are right.  The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy” (Ps. 119:137, 138).  The ministry of the Old Covenant was glorious but it was a ministry that condemned.  Therefore its glory, like the radiance of Moses’ face, was a fading glory.

The reason the Israelites were afraid of God the Lawgiver, the reason they were afraid of Moses with his radiant face, was that there was veil over their hearts (II Cor. 3:14).  The light of God’s glory is incompatible with the darkness of man’s wickedness.  That darkness caused the Israelites to worship an image of gold at the foot of Mt. Sinai at the very time Moses was receiving the law inscribed on tablets of stone.  Israel stood condemned and the most guilty among them were put to death.  The letter kills.

Yet the very fact that the law condemns brings some benefit to us.  It makes us aware of our desperate need for a Savior.  Indeed the entire Old Covenant emitted a sustained cry for the Redeemer.  In Galatians 3:23 and 24, the Apostle asserts that before faith came “we were held prisoners by the law – So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”

Willard Macmillan


– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”

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