Exodus 34:1-10, II Corinthians 3:1-3, 12-18
June 3, 2018
Today we’re getting away from the historical narrative – that is, the story. And it is good to look at these stories. These are the events that changed the course of history! The Church of Jesus Christ began in a most amazing and dramatic way, and it became the most influential force in the history of the world! And nothing else even comes close! And it began with these amazing stories, these powerful acts of God, beginning with his Apostles. And we are part of it!
However, we’re stepping away from those stories today. But not really. Because it was these same men inthose stories, who were writing these letters, letters that became the books of our New Testament. And these stories where what their lives were all about. They were part of it. They were there at Pentecost. (And I suspect even the Pharisee named Saul was there, too!) And they all knew that something new, something big, was happing. And it was something that affected their whole religious orientation.
This week, I found myself drawn to this passage from the second letter of Paul to the church in Corinth. If you don’t remember it, Corinth was located on that little bridge of land, that little isthmus, between northern and southern Greece. If that little isthmus wasn’t there, southern Greece would be an island. That made Corinth a very important and influential city. And the same could be said of this church in Corinth. It was a church that was founded by Paul, and it was one of his most beloved congregations. Yet, at the same time it was one that presented him with some of his greatest frustrations! (Thank heavens that churches no longer cause their leaders frustrations!)
As I said, these Apostles knew that something new was happing. Things were changing! And here we find Paul telling the Corinthians that their relationship with God, and even their relationship with the “Law” – the “Torah” – was now changed! And for the Jewish people, that was big! The Torah was the most important thing to them. The Torah was their covenant with God! Now, that was changed. That’s huge! And then, for a Pharisee to be saying such things, well, that was unbelievable!
But that’s what’s being said here. This whole business of “tablets” and the “written code” was all about the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the “written code” they represented. And for a Pharisee, life was about all the “written codes.” They had all kinds of supplements to the Commandments – over 700 of them. And they followed them and taught about them all the time! Keeping those commandments and all the other codes was paramount for them! Now, we have Paul, the “Pharisees of Pharisees,” talking about matters of the heart! Amazing!
Listen to this stuff! He said that the Corinthians themselves were “letters from Christ.” They were “letters of commendation.” They were the ones Paul was proud of, not himself. And they were letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts!” You can see his pride as their founder, their teacher, their mentor!
Then this. “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us.” It was not about him! Instead, he said, “Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit. For the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life”
There is a wonderful humility to all of this. All these amazing things that were changing were not about them – Paul or the others. They were about God. Paul wanted to make that absolutely clear! And he wanted them to know that it wasn’t to be about “The Law” any more. All of that was behind them now. Now they were “Ministers of a New Covenant.”
Remember, “Covenant” was another huge word for them! It was what the Torah was all about. Now it was all new! And this “New Covenant” was not encapsulated in a written code. “For the written code kills!” he said. This covenant is in the Spirit, “for the Spirit gives life!” I hope you can see how radical this is! We could stop right there and that would be plenty! …But Paul would be disappointed with us!
In the next paragraph, Paul talked about the splendor of the original Covenant. By the way, Paul didn’t write in paragraphs. Bible editors divided it out that way over the years. When Paul wrote it there were no breaks. It was all one long thought with Paul! (That’s why it’s sometimes so hard to read his letters. It’s hard to know where to stop!) And what he was saying here was that, yes, the Old Covenant was great stuff! There was great splendor to it! But the New was even greater! In other words, what he was telling them was at least as importantas the old Covenant!!!
That is big! Then he says, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold!” “And by the way, we are much more bold than we would be if all of this were our own doing!” “But no,” he said. “This is from God.” And then again he reminds them of this story of Moses, who was so close, so intimate with God his face glowed with the Spirit. They knew that story. It meant so much to them. And Paul was telling them that this New Covenant was at least as important as that! That’s amazing!
But, as the info-mercials all say, “There’s more!” For Paul concludes this section, saying, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:17-18)
So… What does all of this mean to us? Well, it means this. This “New Covenant” is our Covenant, too! And we have that same “freedom in the Spirit.” And it’s not our doing. We can’t “manufacture” that peace and freedom on our own. We can’t conjure it up in our minds. It doesn’t work that way. We have to base our freedom, our peace, on something. In this country, we base our freedom on the freedom which was fought for by those who came before us – a couple of hundred years ago. We’re going to be celebrating that freedom again, not to long from now.
Well, in the same way, we need to know that our freedom, our peace is based on something, too, something beyond ourselves. We need to know that it comes from God. And it is not based on what we have done. It is based on what God has done for us. It is based on his Spirit in our lives! It’s not based on “tablets” or “Laws” or “written codes. It’s based on the heart, where the Spirit of God resides.
We might not be the people by the mountain in the wilderness. We might not be witnessing the fire and the earthquake and the thunder of God. We might not be the people who were fearful of the shining face of Moses as the Spirit was seen in him. But(!) we have a covenant that is just as glorious, and at least as important as all that!
And then, in the end, as Paul concludes, “we are changed into his likeness.” That is glorious. But it’s also challenging! Because we can just sit on all of that. We can not let the Spirit affect us. We can be comfortable with the same “Old Covenant,” based solely on our behavior, based on whether we know and do the right things – or not! Or we can know the real “Covenant” which is written on our hearts! We can know that it changes us into the Lord’s likeness! We can know that’s how we have our true freedom!
Eternal God, help us to know that your Covenant is indeed written on our hearts. Help us to know your Spirit. Help us to seek the freedom and the peace that only you can give. Help us to know your glory. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.