“… who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Cor 3:6
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. So in order to understand what Paul is saying, we have to define terms. And the dictionary for the Bible, where all things have been defined, is the Old Testament. Paul talks about a new covenant which is by the Spirit, not by the letter.
He is merely repeating what Jeremiah prophesied:
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,” says the LORD. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the LORD: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jer 31:31-34
The Hebrew for new covenant here in Jeremiah means, not completely new, as in something never been seen before, but renewed, refreshed. The noun form of this same Hebrew word is the word for the new moon! God made an everlasting covenant with Israel (Gen 17:7, Psa 105:8-10, Isa 24:5, . If something is everlasting to God, then how can it be thrown away for something completely new that has never been seen before?
Israel threw the covenant away when they broke it. God did not throw it away. The covenant which Israel broke, the ancient covenant (God never defines the everlasting covenant as old, by the way; but Paul defines it as the ancient covenant in this chapter), was one on which Law was written with letters on tablets of stone. Israel was told to obey those letters, but their hearts inside of them were still unchanged. They still had their sin nature inside of them. They were compelled from the letter of the Law on the outside to obey God. In the renewed covenant — the everlasting and ancient covenant which God renewed after Israel broke it — however, it is not the Law itself that changes, but the place upon which the Law is being written that changes. For the fathers, the Law was written by letters on the outside. For Israel and Judah (Ephraim and Judah, the two witnesses), Jeremiah prophesied that the Law would be written by the Spirit on the inside.
And it is to this passage that Paul is referring – not overtly, not by saying, “Jeremiah said, quote unquote,” — but referring none the less because the language Paul uses in 2 Cor 3 is exactly lifted from Jeremiah. Paul is also talking about a new covenant now written by the Spirit, not by the letter.
Now, there are two words used in Greek to mean “new.” The first is neos, and it means, brand new, never been seen before. The second is kainos, and it means fresh. If what we are saying is true, and if Paul is referring to the passage in Jeremiah where the ancient covenant is being refreshed, not by the letter but by the Spirit, then , the Greek we would expect to see in 2 Cor 3:6 would be kainos, fresh, not neos, completely new.
And it is kainos, Strong’s G2537. Here is the Greek dictionary definition copied straight from the New Testament Greek dictionary (Strong’s):
kainos: Of uncertain affinity; new (especially in freshness; while neos is properly so with respect to age).
So what does Paul mean when he says that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life? 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 for a fallen man.
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, and 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. 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 homosexual relations, and eat pigs!” as some claim he is saying. Truly, this passage is what the gay 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, and is not liberty to sin, but it is freedom from the sin nature to which we were formerly enslaved, so that now we may obey God from the Spirit and from the heart!
For further reading:
2 Corinthians 3:14, Doesn’t this passage teach that the veil of the old covenant has been removed (i.e., the law of the old covenant has been abolished)? – TNN Online