“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6)
We are ministers -or rather servants. The word is diakonos or deacon. It implies a necessary humility as befits those who are at God’s beck and call. The trouble with the M word is the we can so easily attach a capital letter and end up with a concept almost entirely opposite to that which Paul intends. The message is always more important than the messenger, and we are only messengers.
But we are messengers of “a new covenant,” and that covenant is qualitatively different from the old. How? Because the new covenant comes not by the authority of a written law which only brings death, but by the Spirit who brings life.
That statement is both a reassurance and a rebuke. It’s a reassurance in the sense that this whole new move of God-in-Christ is Spirit-led. The Spirit animates the church in the spirit of Jesus. We are a wave -a tsunami of Jesus-life over the face of the earth. We are scattered servants united in the attitude and mindset of Christ.
But, of course, it’s a rebuke, too. The Bible warns the professing church over and over again that if God’s people persist in sin and abandon close fellowship with him, his Spirit will be quenched and his abiding presence removed. Ichabod will be its new name — ‘the glory is departed’ (1 Samuel 4:21).
Israel in the Old Testament and some of the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 are striking examples of what happens when God finally gives his lukewarm, lifeless, people over to their own ways — ‘Judgement begins at the house of God’ (1 Peter 4:17).
The really scary thing is that those concerned sometimes don’t realise! We somehow manage without the Holy Spirit! We have programmes and people and we keep busy. And somehow, what was intended as a mass movement of counter-cultural energy becomes a country club in some sad little redbrick building, half-way between a museum and a fridge.
The Bible calls such churches ‘synagogues of Satan’ (Revelation 2:9). They are blind to the reality that God has withdrawn his blessing from them. He has removed their lamp-stand.
The Bible sometimes sounds harsh, but it always speaks the truth in love. I have to know how serious the condition is if I am to find the remedy. “I will come and remove their lamp-stand.” This was the condemnation over churches that had lost the presence of Jesus. How does it happen? It is often due to the failure to maintain a ‘ministry of the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:8). It is much easier to build a church around a teaching ministry, than around the twofold ministry of Word and Spirit — but we need both. We need Word and Spirit together or we will not grow up.
Firstly, consider life.
‘The letter kills but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). The apostle Paul does not mean that the Word of God is less important than the Holy Spirit. The Word and the Spirit are not in competition with each another. Paul is teaching that both are absolutely necessary for a ministry of life to exist.
To prove this, Paul points to the source of our sufficiency as new covenant ministers.
“You are the living letter of the Anointed One, the Liberating King, nurtured by us and inscribed, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God—a letter too passionate to be chiseled onto stone tablets, but emblazoned upon the human heart…. Don’t be mistaken; in and of ourselves we know we have little to offer, but any competence or value we have comes from God.” (2 Cor 3: 3,5).
The source of our sufficiency is not the Word alone. If it were, Paul would not have said, ‘our sufficiency is from God’ (2 Cor 3:5). Paul ministered Christ to them ‘not with ink’ — that is, not by the word alone — but by ‘the Spirit of the living God’ (2 Cor 3:3).
If the Holy Spirit failed to give life and power to Paul’s preaching, his words would have fallen on deaf ears. Likewise, if the Word by itself could produce spiritual results then why do we need to cry to God in prayer for the Holy Spirit’s blessing?
If the Word alone could produce converts, why did Jesus teach that the Spirit’s power was needed to make the gospel effective? — ‘Tarry in Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49).
That term ‘living God’ (2 Cor 3:3) is not a side-issue. The Holy Spirit’s purpose in anointing the spoken word is to bring life out of death — for ‘God is not the God of the dead but of the living’ (Matt 22:32).
We are called ‘ministers of the Spirit’ because the Holy Spirit plants and perpetuates God’s life in his saints through their public and private ministrations. And without the Spirit’s influence the Word of God produces death, not life (2 Cor 3:7-9).
Some will misunderstand what we are saying and think we are disparaging the Word of God. On the contrary, we are elevating both Word and Spirit to their scriptural place as the inseparable, God-ordained means of creating and sustaining spiritual life.
Secondly, consider balance.
Only Word and Spirit together can provide a vital, balanced ministry in the local church. Without this balance the church will become anaemic, deformed, and dead in some or all of its parts. Jesus refers to this need of balance in John 6:63: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are Spirit, and they are life’.
Furthermore, balance is necessary if we are to worship God acceptably: ‘God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth’ (John 4:24). We are striving for a balance here between altar and pulpit. The true believer, who is born of the Spirit and knows God with head and heart, will never be satisfied, edified, and nourished by worship which lacks the Holy Spirit’s presence and ministry. But for God to be pleased with our worship he must be worshipped in truth (sound doctrine) and Spirit.
How we need both! ‘For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance’ (1 Thess 1:5).
Thirdly, consider the centrality of Christ.
The Pharisees were experts in the rules and regulations of the Old Testament, yet were almost completely ignorant of its underlying spiritual meaning.
Jesus told the Pharisees the reason for their unbelief and their ultimate rejection of his teachings and ministry: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing’ (John 6:63).
The Pharisees were teachers and caretakers of the law, but the Spirit had not illuminated their darkened minds to comprehend spiritual truth. Only the Holy Spirit can transform dead letters into ‘living epistles’.
Thus, having no capacity to see things with ‘spiritual eyes’, the Pharisees had no other sphere in which to perform their duties but the intellectual, religious and physical realms. Their lack of the Holy Spirit’s illumination and power led to the unthinkable — they rejected and crucified their Messiah. They missed the moment.
The absence of the Holy Spirit cast great darkness on the minds and hearts of these men. Jesus identifies this problem with piercing clarity: ‘You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me’ (John 5:39).
They had committed what Adolph Saphir calls bibliolatry (making an idol of the Bible and its doctrines). The Pharisees were professional religionists whose religion, scriptures, system of doctrine and national heritage were ends in themselves.
Let us beware that we do not become like them.
God never gave us any gift, benefit, or privilege as an end in itself. All God’s gifts, means and benefits — including the Scriptures, the church, the ministry and every other spiritual blessing — are but servants to lead us to Christ! Bonhoeffer’s sermon for Whitsunday, 1940, includes this paragraph:
“The Holy Spirit is the living God, not some inert concept. The church community has to trust the Holy Spirit in every decision and believe strongly that the Spirit continues to be present in the community and at work in it. The Spirit will not permit our community to grope about to darkness, if only we are willing to take the Spirit’s teachings seriously…”