The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus the High Priest

Wherefore also [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

What is a priest?

It seems like a very easy question, but it might take us a minute. It is a lot easier to describe what a priest does, particularly in the Old Testament, than it is to actually define him. He is the one who offers the sacrifices, maintains the Tabernacle/Temple, and instructs the people (Leviticus). How can all of these be brought together?

We can settle on a fairly basic definition: a priest is a designated man who stands between God and the people. The people bring their sacrifices for God to the Temple; the priests offer them. The priests enter the places the “regular people” cannot go.

In that sense, Jesus, by definition, is the ultimate priest– He is the Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He stands between God and us in a most powerful way.

The Hebrew author describes Jesus as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10) based on the prophecy found in Psalm 110:4. Jesus, like Melchizedek before Him, is both King and Priest (cf. Genesis 14:18, Hebrews 7:1-3), itself an extraordinary matter and responsibility.

Yet Jesus fulfills this task to an extent not seen before. Priests, by virtue of their work, sacrifice animals. They themselves cannot be the sacrifice– in fact, the high priest must first sacrifice for his own sins before he can enter in and make sacrifice on behalf of the people (Leviticus 6:6, 11; Hebrews 7:27). Jesus, on the other hand, offers up Himself, the perfect, unblemished Lamb who can take away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29, Hebrews 7:27-28).

He is able to do this because He was sinless, holy, undefiled, and separate from sinners, but is not really distant– He can sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted Himself in all points, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15) and having learned obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8).

This ought to leave us breathless, really. A perfect mixture of holiness and humility, righteousness and love, separation and sympathy. Jesus is never sanctimonious, for He upholds the right while being willing to suffer with people, sympathizing with their plight. His ministry is all the more excellent because He was willing to suffer death so that we might be reconciled to God and live (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 5:6-9)! Thus Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost, inaugurating a new and superior covenant!

It is immediately apparent that no matter how righteously we might live we will never be anywhere near reaching the perfect ministry of Christ. That high priesthood in the order of Melchizedek is properly suited for One and only One, and we are not Him! We ought to thank God continually for such a perfect and wonderful High Priest!

Nevertheless, in establishing the new covenant and being the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus changes the nature of priesthood entirely (cf. Hebrews 7-9). Much is often made of the description of all Christians as priests in 1 Peter 2:5, 9, but consider what is being said in those passages. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter uses many descriptions of physical Israel to describe the spiritual Israel– Christians are as much an “elect race” and “holy nation” as a “royal priesthood.” Furthermore, what do we find in 1 Peter 2:5? Christians are being built up into a holy (spiritual) Temple, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices. And what is that spiritual sacrifice but ourselves (Romans 12:1)? A strange priesthood this is– we are as much the sacrifice as the priest!

This is all because of Jesus’ example. Jesus did not offer up some other person or animal; He offered up Himself, and thus established Himself as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. The New Testament does not emphasize “priesthood” at all– servants, disciples, brothers and sisters are more appropriate images– but when it does, it focuses on that idea of the priest offering up himself as the sacrifice like Jesus did.

Therefore, as we are able, we do well to follow Jesus’ example. Today He is the only One who stands between God and the people (1 Timothy 2:5); we point to Him to show people the face of God and how to live as redeemed believers made in His image (Genesis 1:27, John 1:18). Our ministry is to offer up ourselves, spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God. Let us praise God for and serve our Risen Lord and High Priest!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Messiah: King and Priest

The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).

It is important for us to remember that while “Jesus Christ” is used as a name today, it was not always so. His name was Jesus. His title, or His office, is that of Christ– the Messiah. Both words (“Christ” is Greek; “Messiah” from the Hebrew) mean “Anointed One.” David was anointed by Samuel as God’s choice for King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13); his promised Descendant would thus also be anointed (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:17-21). But Aaron, the High Priest, was also anointed by Moses to reach his office (Exodus 30:30, etc.). The image of the two “anointed ones,” one king, one priest, seems to be behind Zechariah 4:11-14. It also seems to have impacted the author of the Damascus Document, writing within the hundred years before Jesus, who seems to speak of two Messiahs– one of Aaron, one for Israel (CD 9b:10, 29, 15:4, 18:7).

It seems that most Israelites in the first century looked forward to the Messiah who would come as king to defeat the Romans and re-establish the glory and power of Israel. Not a few Israelites also sought some kind of divine reformation and restoration of the priesthood and the Temple, imagined by some as a “Messiah from Aaron.” But there does not seem to be the expectation that the Messiah in the line of David would have the concern for ministry or the priesthood that belonged to the Aaronic line. Furthermore, the Jews had recently experienced the reign of priest-kings with the Hasmoneans– but they certainly were not the fulfillment of the predictions of the prophets, since they were not of David and Judah, but from Aaron and Levi!

Then we come to Jesus of Nazareth. He is without a doubt a descendant of David and Judah according to the flesh (Matthew 1:1-17). The throne of His father David is promised to Him (Luke 1:31-33). But in His life He never raises so much as a finger against Rome and its authority. Instead, He preaches a message of the imminent Kingdom of God and dies on a Roman cross– an event His followers understood as the sacrificial offering for the atonement of sin (Matthew 4:17, 23, Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 9:1-15). He certainly does not fulfill the expectations of the Jews in terms of the rule of the son of David, but He certainly is engaged in functions of ministry, sacrifice, and atonement, the realm generally reserved for Aaron and his descendants.

This challenge was understood by the author of the letter to the Hebrews. He understood that Jesus was of Judah, a tribe concerning which Moses spoke nothing about the priesthood (Hebrews 7:13-14). But he also understood that the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood was imperfect, offering up animals that could not really atone for sin (Hebrews 7:11, 10:4). Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, however, was perfect, able to atone for any and all sin, and thus speaks of a better ministry, a better mediation, and thus a better priesthood (Hebrews 7:15-28, 1 Timothy 2:5). But how could Jesus be a priest when He was not from Aaron but from David through Judah?

God’s great plan for salvation was predicted before the events took place, and the Hebrew author highlights a psalm of David to demonstrate how Jesus is a priest– Psalm 110.

That this is a “Messianic” psalm, written by David and inspired by the Spirit is without a doubt; Jesus asks the religious leaders about Psalm 110:1 and how David can say that “YHWH said to my lord…” if the Messiah is David’s son (Matthew 22:41-46/Mark 12:35-37/Luke 20:41-44). And then we have the promise in verse 4: God has sworn, and it will not be revoked– David’s Lord would be a priest forever according to the priesthood of Melchizedek?

Who is Melchizedek? We read of him in Genesis 14:18-20, and the Hebrew author describes him in Hebrews 7:1-10. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was king of Salem (“peace”; the city is later named Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Abraham gives him a tithe of everything carried back from the victory over the foreign kings, and the Hebrew author points out that thus Levi and the Levites, still in the “loins of Abraham,” gave tithes to Melchizedek. He did not receive his position as priest by genealogy or nepotism, and in him the roles of king and priest were truly intertwined.

Even if the Jews believed that there would have to either be two Messiahs or that the Messiah would focus entirely on his role as King of Israel, David in the Spirit knew better– the Messiah would mean the end of the old system (cf. Hebrews 7:12). The Messiah would be King, yes, but also a priest in the order of Melchizedek. The Messiah would be the King of Righteousness over the City of Peace (cf. Isaiah 61:1-4, Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6). He would accomplish this through His priesthood– the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, providing Himself as the perfect offering, a ministry in every way superior to what came before (cf. Hebrews 7:11-28).

There would be only one Messiah, and He would provide the satisfaction for everything. Yes, He would reign as King, but only after He accomplished His ministry and His priesthood on the cross. In the resurrection He receives the authority and the throne promised Him, and the message of the prophets is satisfied. Let us praise God for Jesus the Christ, King of Righteousness over the City of Peace, High Priest, our Advocate!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Prophet in His Hometown

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And he said unto them, “Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, ‘Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.'”
And he said, “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is acceptable in his own country. But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
And they were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things; and they rose up, and cast him forth out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong (Luke 4:22-29).

Humans have a strange affinity to their place of birth and/or raising. Even though, in truth, dirt is dirt, and all the earth belongs to God, we have an attachment of sorts to the land where we are “from.”

Oftentimes this affinity is a result of the comfort we feel in regards to “home”– a place where we were known by people and things did not seem so scary or daunting or big. While there can be comfort from such familiarity, there is also the other edge of that particular sword– familiarity can breed contempt.

There is in all of our lives a place where we go and we are still a small child– or at least we are made to feel that way. It is entirely natural: when we remember someone at a particular age, it is very easy to keep remembering them as being that age despite the fact that they grew up. It is part of yet another generational cycle.

In these terms Nazareth of the first century was little different than any other community. It would not have been a large community, and there is little doubt that everyone would know everyone else– and, more likely than not, everyone else’s business.

It was in this community that Jesus, the Son of God, was raised (cf. Luke 2:39-40, 51-52). The townspeople would have known Him from the days when He was a baby. They would see Him grow up alongside His half-brothers and half-sisters (Matthew 13:55-56).

Then Jesus began to do mighty works after His baptism and temptation in Capernaum and in other parts of Galilee (Luke 4:14-15). After some time He returns to “home” in Nazareth.

His fellow inhabitants of Nazareth were certainly astounded at what they were seeing and hearing– but it was not, on the whole, paired with true faith. Instead, they marveled that it was Jesus of all people doing these things! The same Jesus who was the son of their carpenter Joseph, the Jesus who grew up before their very eyes. Surely Jesus was not guilty of sin or any malfeasance as many a teenager has done, but nevertheless, when they see and hear the Man Jesus, they remember the Child Jesus. Because they had always known Jesus they did not believe (Matthew 13:58).

Jesus rebukes them sharply for this disbelief, condemning both them and Israel as a whole in the process. Since they would not believe He did not bother demonstrating His power (cf. Matthew 13:58, Luke 4:23-24). He then presents two pieces of evidence to strike at the “soft spot” of Israel– Elijah residing with the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian (1 Kings 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5:1-27). Jesus rightly points out that there were widows and lepers in Israel in those days, but God only provided relief to those who would trust in Him– and they happened to be outsiders, a Canaanite and an Aramean, respectively.

This is too much for the people of Nazareth– not only has Jesus become “uppity,” He also is speaking in censorious terms to His fellow townspeople. They want to push Him over a cliff, but it is not yet His time.

A prophet is not acceptable in his own country– this is the takeaway from Jesus’ time not just in Nazareth but also with the Jews in general. Jesus attracted large audiences in Galilee in general but not in Nazareth. Many of the poor and dispossessed and sinful would listen to Jesus while the religious authorities despised Him. And as the message of His Gospel would go out into the world it would find softer hearts among the nations than among the Jews (cf. Acts 13:46-48, 28:24-28). There may be “comfort” in home, but that comfort can also lead to contempt!

We believers suffer from such things also. It is often most difficult to reach our closest friends or family with the Gospel, for they remember us as when we were smaller or when we were not acting as we should, and the word is not respected. It is many times difficult for a preacher to preach the Word in the city in which he was raised– the congregation remembers him when he was little and may not give due reverence to the truth of the message he preaches. It is also many times difficult to reach our fellow Americans with the Gospel because they, as the Jews, have believed themselves to be the people of God for so long that there is contempt for any attempt to point out difficulties or challenges or for any attempt to exhort people to return to their Creator God.

A disciple is not greater than his master (cf. Matthew 10:24), and so it is with Jesus and ourselves. There are times when we will not be heard because of people’s familiarity with us as the messengers. And, if we are honest, there have been times when we have held others in contempt or in less respectful manner because we are quite familiar with them. Nevertheless, let us persevere, looking toward Jesus, and always being willing to humble ourselves so as to receive His grace!

Ethan R. Longhenry