2 Cor 3:1-18 chiastic structure:
1a) 2 Cor 3:1-5, You are an epistle of Messiah written in our hearts, not with ink but by the Spirit;
1a) 2 Cor 3:1, Do we commend ourselves? Do we need epistles of commendation to you or from you?
1b) 2 Cor 3:2-3a, You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; an epistle of Messiah;
central axis) 2 Cor 3:3b, Ministered by us;
2b) 2 Cor 3:3c, Written not with ink but by the Spirit/ not on stone but on the heart;
2a) 2 Cor 3:4-5, Not that we are sufficient to think anything is from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God;
1b.1) 2 Cor 3:6a, Who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Testament;
1b.2) 2 Cor 3:6b, Not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life;
1c) 2 Cor 3:7, But if the ministry of death engraved on stone was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away;
1d) 2 Cor 3:8, How will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?
1e) 2 Cor 3:9a, For if the ministry of condemnation had glory;
central axis) 2 Cor 3:9b-10, “The ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels;”
2e) 2 Cor 3:11a, For if what is passing away was glorious;
2d) 2 Cor 3:11b-12, What remains is much more glorious, therefore we are bold in speech;
2c) 2 Cor 3:13, Unlike Moses, who veiled his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at what was passing away;
2b.1) 2 Cor 3:14-16, The veil remains unlifted in reading the Old Testament, for it is taken away in Messiah;
2b.2) 2 Cor 3:17, Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty;
2a) 2 Cor 3:18, We are being transformed into Messiah’s image from glory to glory by the Spirit.
So what does Paul mean when he says that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life? Paul seems at first glance to contrast the Spirit of the Lord with the letter of the law (torah), with the letter coming out on the short end of the stick. Misunderstanding Paul’s message here has contributed to the crazy modern notion the Church has, that the Spirit and the letter are at odds and enemies of each other. However, we have previously seen that the Spirit of God is the source for the Word of God — the letter. The Spirit breathed God’s Word from His heart (out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, Luk 6:45). The Spirit and the letter agree (see here for Scriptures revealing the unity of the Spirit and the letter).
I believe a proper meaning, not taken out of context, but informed by the rest of Scriptures, is this:
Take any unregenerated man, set in front of him the Ten Commandments, and say,“Obey these. If you fail to do so (i.e., if you sin), then the penalty for disobeying is death.” The Letter written on the Tablet of Stone has killed him, because perfect obedience from a heart of stone is not possible.
But take a fallen man, transform him and fill him with the Holy Spirit, by which he is given a new heart and his heart of stone (of his sin nature) is removed from him, so that he now walks in this earth filled by the Holy Spirit of God. Then what flows out of his heart is his desire to worship God (commandment 1), tear down idols (commandment 2), honor those things that are the Lord’s (commandments 3-5), preserve life (commandment 6), and so on. His nature has been transformed, and now he obeys the Law because it is his heart’s desire to do so. Since the LORD taught us that walking in His commandments gives life, Paul says that the Spirit gives life.
The Spirit also gives liberty (vs. 17). Remember that the Pharisees were so upset that Jesus healed a sick man on the Sabbath day? They were applying the letter of the Law to Jesus, and labeling healing as “work.” But Jesus applied the Spirit of the Law, and saw a sick man suffering with sickness, and blessed him and gave him rest from his disease. Jesus had liberty to heal, because He was walking in the Spirit and not the letter. He was not, after all, sawing away in His carpentry shop on the Sabbath, trying to make an income. He was at synagogue, meeting in the assembly of the believers to worship God as Scripture commands we ought to do on the Sabbath.
Paul is not saying, “Everyone! We now have liberty to work like slaves on the Sabbath, worship idols, engage in immoral relations, and eat pigs!” as some claim he is saying. Truly, this passage is what the antinomian (against the Law) pastors base their theology on. The correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture will always be in line with everything else that the Scripture teaches. Theologians call this, “Letting Scripture interpret Scripture,” and it is the only way to make sure you have arrived at the truth and are not being deceived. No truth ever contradicts another truth, otherwise, one of them is not true. It is a check and balance which you can employ to keep yourself on the right path.
Our liberty in Christ is not a license to sin. It is not liberty to sin, but it is freedom from the sin nature to which we were formerly enslaved (Rom 6:15-23, Gal 5:13), so that now we may obey God from the Spirit and from the heart!