2 Corinthians 3:7-11 “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!”
One of the weapons the devil uses to attack Christians is nostalgia. People look back and the give a past which they somewhat know an aura of glory. Perhaps their church once had a special preacher and under him things hummed in the congregation. Sentimentality about the past encourages sad inertia today. A pastor has to lift members of his congregation out of selective memories of an allegedly golden age in the history of the nation, and urge them to look forward rather than backwards. The boys’ grammar school which I attended in South Wales had this motto, “Yesterday never returns.” It does not mean much when you are young, but you can be mighty thankful for that truth when you have passed through too many dark times. They can never return. The apostle Paul describes his own single-mindedness, “one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Phils.3:13). That is to be the posture of every Christian. Nostalgia is a sin. It is as much a sin as anger or covetousness. It goes against the clear exhortations of Scripture and it is said to be a mark of folly: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions” (Eccles. 7:10).
Paul was confronted with opponents influencing the Corinthian congregation in his absence. One of their themes seems to have been the wonderful glory of the Old Testament period, and, of course, it was glorious. At a time when Wales and the Celts were worshipping the sun, moon and stars and were under the grip of druids God was dealing with Abraham, and Moses. He was speaking to men through Elijah and Isaiah. While the nations of the world were walking in darkness God entered into covenant with this people. What a glorious privilege was theirs. So Paul has to be very careful how he deals with this error. He has to resist it for it would have made Christians another branch of Judaism, like the Pharisees or the Sadducees or the Essenes. He does not belittle God’s covenant dealings with Israel but what he says is, “Christianity is new, and more glorious.” So he does not disparage the Old Testament, not deny the glory that was there. He just highlights the greater glory that Christians have, so that there is no need of nostalgia nor of feeling that Gentile Christians had missed out. It was a fearful mistake to be looking backwards all the time. In these verses Paul is telling us three ways in which living under the new covenant in Jesus’ blood is vastly superior to living under the old covenant.
1. The Ministry of the Spirit is More Splendid than the Ministry of Death.
“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (vv. 7&8). The Mosaic old covenant ministry brought death. One unavoidable consequence of the coming of the ten commandments was that law-breakers knew they were in the deepest trouble. The soul that sins shall surely die. When Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets of stone and read to the people what Jehovah demanded of them each word was like a knife in their hearts. It utterly devastated them. If this was what their Lord required of them in order that they might enjoy life before him – who then could live? They were lost men. The ministry of those laws brought to them death. It did not bring them mercy. It did not bring them pardon. The law knows nothing of those graces. By themselves the commandments were a ministry bringing death. They had been dancing before a golden calf which they themselves had set up. This was their god, and the first word God had engraved in letters on stone told them they were to have no other gods before him, and the second forbade making idols. Soon three thousand of them would be dead and after their years of disobedience and defiance in the desert all the rest of them would be dead too. The ministry brought death. (Of course there is a killing ministry of God in the New Testament too as unrepentant defiant sinners in Corinth discovered (I Cor. 11:30).)
What happened to the tablets of stone on which were the Ten Commandments? They were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant and human hands were not allowed to touch that Ark on penalty of death. There could be no entrance to the presence of God in the Most Holy Place as long as the tablets of stone in the ark were in force as a covenant. They closed off all approach into the immediate presence of the Lord until the terms of the covenant engraved by God had been fully met. That kind of life no sinner could produce. Aaron alone was allowed, one day a year, to enter the Most Holy Place, but always with some of the blood that had been shed on the altar of sacrifice. A blameless lamb had died that people might have life before God. The whole purpose and function of the ministry graven in letters on stone was to bring death.
The apostle Paul found that out for himself. He once considered himself alive when he would not face up to what the law was saying. But there came a time when he began to understand what the law required, how searching it was. It tried his mind and affections and imagination, and even what he had not done. It was then that sins he thought he had never committed, sprang to life. It is something like the barren Arizona desert without a trace of anything green for some years, seeming utterly arid and sterile, and then heavy rains drench it, soaking the ground, immediately the millions of seeds germinate and the great change takes place. Verdant blooms are everywhere. There was a radical change in Paul when the Holy Spirit came and convicted him of sin. “I died,” this self-righteous Pharisee said: “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (Rom. 7:9&10). Saul of Tarsus the self-righteous Pharisee is no more. You search for him but you cannot find him. He no longer exists. Sin has put him to death. The ministry of death killed him. The only man you will meet now is the humble, repentant, sin-confessing, Saviour-acknowledging Paul.
The apostle had grown up boasting in the law of God. Weren’t they as Jews fortunate not to be like the ignorant Gentiles? They were under the ministry of the law, and they thought that they were actually keeping it to the letter. God must have been so pleased with them. Then one day God said to Paul, “Do you truly understand what, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ means?” And as Paul thought about the longings, discontentedness and itch for other people and their stuff that lurked around in his own heart then he saw how holy and righteous the law of God was, and that he was a law-breaker. “I am a dead man,” said Paul. If one law addressed one’s emotions then all of them did. When the Lord Jesus laid the tenth commandment on the rich young ruler he died too, because there was no way that he or any man on the face of the earth could give the Lord perfect obedience.
Only once on one day each year Aaron and his descendants could enter through the veil into the Most Holy Place and present the blood and sprinkle it on the top of the ark – the mercy seat and then be ceremonially clean for twelve months, but that blood of the animal couldn’t clean Aaron’s human conscience. What Aaron did when he put his hand on the head of the goat and sent it off into the wilderness, and then made a sacrifice of the other and take its blood into the Holy of Holies was to remind the people of their sin, and create a spirit of repentance in their hearts and make them long for the promised Deliverer. But there was nothing but a ministry that brought death in the ten commandments themselves.
But however and whenever the living God deals with men there is a display of glory. On the day of judgment when earth and heaven pass away there will be a manifestation of God’s glory. And in the coming of the law at Sinai there was a glory which was visible to the people (v.7). We are told, “When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain” (Ex.24:15-17). Moses spent forty days and nights there in communion with God and that experience left a mark of external radiance on the face of Moses. The divine glory was on the face of Moses. We are told with wonderful simplicity and power, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD” (Exodus 34:29). Moses was quite ignorant of his appearance.
Moses was not the only person in the Bible whose face was transfigured. We are told of Stephen, the first new covenant martyr, that his face shone like that of an angel as he began to speak. It may sometimes happens today when a preacher comes into the pulpit from the throne of grace he has something of the divine glory about him. We read such things about the Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne as this, “no sooner had he begun, than his manner, his look, his words riveted them all, and they listened with intense earnestness” (Andrew Bonar, “Robert Murray M’Cheyne”, Banner of Truth, 1960, p.185). Again, we are told that a man wrote a letter to M’Cheyne a few weeks before he died in which he said, “I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing to you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking, that struck me. I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before” (ibid, p.187). Or again, let me remind you of what Iain Murray has written of Dr Lloyd-Jones during the last months of his life, “his face often glistened, especially when he prayed” (Iain Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Volume 2, p.744). What privileges new covenant ministers have, being called so often into the closest fellowship with the Eternal God. A preacher may not live up to his privileges, but they are there for him and for us all. Peter talks about a joy that is indescribable and full of glory. This is something impossible to work up. It comes down from the presence of God. So it is not for the man himself to parade the hidden ecstasies of his life with God. Modesty becomes the herald of the crucified one. Moses hid his face.
It is a moment of awesome responsibility when a preacher’s soul is full of God and his audience are in tune with the Almighty. This is what we understand to be times of awakening from the presence of the Lord, when a preacher’s tongue is touched by the coal from the altar of God and he can cry aloud with a power that is heavenly. What may be achieved in just one sermon when a man whose face speaks his nearness to Almighty God preaches?
The Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses (v.7). They could only take a bare glance at him, and then look down, and another glimpse, and then down – in the same way as when we would dare to look at the sun. Moses had to put a veil on his face when he was speaking to them. They would stand in a vast silent crowd and listen to a veiled figure speaking to them. Then, when he went back up the mountain into God’s presence, he removed the veil. Why couldn’t they stare into his face? Because they’d been staring for days at the golden calf and were full of shame. Guilt made them look down. But that glory on Moses’ face was itself fading glory. It was not permanent. It was a glory to be set aside. It was not a perfect glory. It was not an end in itself. It was a glory of the Old Testament’s shadowlands, anticipating a more permanent and heavenly glory. While we live in this kingdom of darkness there can be no permanent glory shining anywhere in the world. “For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (v.10). Christ visits the world: favoured men perceive the glory of his grace and truth. He is even transfigured before Peter, James and John, and a little later he displays his glory on the road to Damascus and also on the island of Patmos, but they are fleeting glimpses of his glory. Away he goes! No glory before the end of all things, but then – what glory! When we see him we shall be like him.
So Paul’s argument is this, that that ministry that brought death did indeed come with glory. It would be unthinkable that it came with a whimper. He would acknowledge to any Judaizing Christian looking back to the glory days of the Old Testament, “Of course there was a glory about the old covenant even in a ministry that brought death.” But his point is this, that if that were so “will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (v.8).
Was there not a ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament? Yes, there was, but there is no record of him abiding in ordinary believers. We are told when he comes upon kings, and prophets especially, and the inspired psalmists, and priests. He gives gifts to craftsmen for their work. But it will not always be thus. It was the prophecy of Joel that announced that in the last days God would pour out the Spirit upon all his people, even servant girls, young and old, and they would have him for themselves permanently and personally. There would not be one single Christian in the whole world without the Spirit. His Old Testament ministry had been enigmatic, sporadic, selective and in some respects external. There was a longing in the hearts of the men of the Old Testament for better days. Moses desired a fuller and widespread coming of the Spirit on God’s people (Num.11:29). This happens at Pentecost. The exalted Christ pours out his Spirit upon the church and all, without exception, were filled with the Spirit.
The ministry of the Spirit today coming down upon one little Christian girl regenerating, joining her to Christ, providing her with a new Lord, ending the reign of sin over her and giving her an inner witness that Christ is her Saviour is more glorious than God coming down at Sinai in glory and giving his law to Moses. Moses giving the law gives way to Christ giving the Spirit. A few men receiving him for the demands of their vocation gives way to every single Christian receiving him for the demands of following the Lord Jesus each day. The Old Testament Scriptures are amplified by the New Testament Scriptures written by apostles who are led into all truth by the Spirit. The relative silence of the Spirit in the Old Testament is replaced by the Spirit saying to men “Come”, and opening people’s hearts so that they can and must come to Christ. Isn’t that a far more glorious ministry than in the Old Testament? Christ who gave the law on Sinai now lives within us by his Spirit and writes his law on our hearts and enables us to fulfil it. He teaches us the truth; he gives us unflinching courage; he equips us to conquer the final enemy, death itself; he even moulded the characters of people who lived in sin-sodden Corinth so that there they display “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gals. 5:22, 23).
So don’t ignore the ministry of the Spirit. Don’t reduce him to some divine influence in the heart. He is as much God, as the Son is God and as the Father is God. Don’t institutionalise him. In other words, don’t assume that because of our orthodoxy, and church government, and the great hymns we sing (or our psalm-singing), and our separation from modernism, and traditional patterns of worship, and the central place we give to preaching the whole counsel of God that because of these institutional practices that we have got him in our box, and that these good structures will guarantee the Spirit in his glory is bound to bless our church. It is the error the sacramentalist churches make. It is the same error those churches make who look to their programmes, and music skills, and administration, and staff as sufficient proof that God is with them. Any church can institutionalise the Spirit and then formalism sets in, and complacency and it is all an utter disaster. Under the new covenant the Lord sends the Spirit to draw sinners to Christ, and to make individual believers Christ-like in humility and righteousness. He animates a congregation to offer praise together to God, to serve one another and reach out in compassion and boldness to the world. These are the glorious marks of the Holy Spirit in a congregation. “Do it Lord,” we must cry to the Spirit.
What is evangelism without the Spirit? It is music, and singing, and man-manipulation, and entertainment, and decisionism: or it is boredom, and heaviness, and intellectualism, and irrelevance, and fear. Without the Spirit the will is appealed to, or the emotions, or the intellect, but not the whole man. What is worship without the Spirit? It is the idea that God exists for man rather than man exists for God. It is feel-good religion. It is ritual. It is dressing up. It is noise and the engineering of men. Dr Paul Brand was once speaking in India and his lectern light was an oil lamp. As he was preaching the oil finally ran out and the wick burned dry and the light dropped and smoke made him and the congregation cough. That is worship without the Spirit, there’s a fire and a light, but it stinks. Man has become the fuel of his own worship rather than the Spirit. Whether the hymns are old or new is not the issue, nor what is the version of the Bible we use, but the constant supply of the Holy Spirit magnifying Christ. With the Spirit – how different our worship. It is a celebration of the greatness and graciousness of God and an exuberance of thankfulness, joy and zeal. We have to take the Holy Spirit seriously because he is the one who shows a congregation the love and glory of the Son and the Father and draws us into personal communion with them. Hear these words of Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom.15:13). That is evangelistic worship and worshipful evangelism.
What is suffering without the Spirit? It is hardness, and resentment, and bitterness. It is the flight from one faith healer’s vain claims to another’s, and deceit and heart-ache. It is the gospel of health and wealth. It is ‘name it and claim it.’ But by the Spirit suffering is a gift of God; it is natural, it is sanctifying, it is necessary.
We are saying that the glory of the new covenant is that we take the Holy Spirit seriously. He renews us all. He empowers us all. He doesn’t give up in all his elect until the work he has started is completed in the day of Christ. What an end he has in mind for us all. It is our glorification. It is Christlikeness for each one of us. What could be more glorious than that?
2. The Ministry that Brings Righteousness is More Splendid than the Ministry that Condemns
“If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (vv.9&10). The ministry that condemned was glorious. When God drove our first parents out of the Garden he did not suddenly drop a high drab wall around the tree of life. He chose one of the highest ranks of angels, the cherubim, and he said to him, “Take your sword and go to Eden and guard every way to the tree of life.” What a fearfully glorious those cherubim must have been to Adam and Eve. Or when he judged the world at the time of Noah he did not rapture the whole population of the world and most of the animals away leaving just eight people and a few animals. “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month – on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of heaven were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen. 7:11). What mighty glory in that judgment. Or when the men of Sodom had sought to sodomize the messengers of God, he did not give the angels permission to smite those people dead. “The Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorra – from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities – and also the vegetation in the land” (Gen.19:24&25). How spectacular! The ministry that condemns is glorious! And you think of the plagues of Egypt, or the Red Sea consuming the chariots and horsemen of Egypt, or the earth opening its mouth and swallowing “all Korah’s men and their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they were perished and gone” (Nums.16:33). What news-reporter would not have given a fortune to have been able to see and record that? Or think of the walls of Jericho collapsing, or Samson tugging at the two pillars in the temple of Dagon and bringing the whole building crashing around the ears of the elite of the Philistines. The ministry that condemns men is glorious. Or think of the tongues of fire that came licking out of the burning fiery furnace and took those men who sought to destroy Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego. God chooses to show his wrath. The ministry that condemns is glorious.
Or consider that great day on which we all without exception shall see his wrath for ourselves, when Christ shall come at the head of all his holy angels, and he will glance at an angel and he will give a blast on the trumpet, such a sound as none of us has ever heard. Then the dead will be raised. The sea will give forth their dead. Adam will rise, and Eve. Cain will rise, and Abel. Noah will rise and all who perished in that flood, and so on through history to some who had been laid to rest or were burned to ashes just that morning. All must assemble before the Lord Christ, and he will divide the company into two huge crowds. Let us hear his own words lest you think I am a stupid fire-and-brimstone preacher wanting to scare the children and the little old ladies: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me you who are cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”” (Matt. 25:31ff). What a scene when they go away to eternal punishment! The ministry that condemns is also a glorious ministry.
Of course, we are preachers of good news, and the Bible has much more to say about heaven than it has of hell. So we shall speak much more in the joyful accents of the gospel than in the sober accents of hell. We are messengers of hope rather than as heralds of a lost eternity. But if we are going to be faithful to the proportions of God’s Word then we cannot ignore God being glorified in the ministry of condemnation. The sense of justice engraved on every human heart demands it. The teaching of Jesus of Nazareth requires it. I cannot be a Christian without believing as he believed. What is the cross of Golgotha all about if you tear the truth of God’s rectitude out of the Bible?
Rabbi Duncan once said a remarkable thing in a sermon: “Sir, you have no right to go to hell” (John Duncan, “In the Pulpit and at the Communion Table,” p.63). He was talking about a wounded soldier who, so long as he is wounded, is useless to his general. Such a soldier might refuse treatment so that he could remain in the hospital rather than return to the dangers of the battlefield. However, he has no right to refuse treatment. He has volunteered to serve Queen and Country. Duncan says, “the gospel is not a mere offer, it is an imperative offer … That fellow must get his knee cured that he may not have to be discharged, and get well and serve his Queen. So the gospel does not say, ‘There is a Saviour, if you wish to be saved’ but, ‘Sir, you have no right to go to hell – you can’t get there without trampling on the Son of God.'”
Now we have seen that the ministry that condemns is glorious, but that is not the thrust of Paul’s words here. He says it, perhaps, to wrong-foot the judaizing tendencies of his opponents. Yes, there was a glory given to Jehovah in his act of condemnation but, the apostle says, what is all that? “How much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” (v.9). If God had rained down burning sulphur on Saul of Tarsus for agreeing to the stoning of Stephen then it would have been all up for him, and such a ministry that achieved Paul’s condemnation in the twinkling of an eye would have been as glorious as the smiting of the fig tree. But that does not happen, rather Jesus Christ comes to him in the ministry that brings righteousness. On the Damascus Road the Saviour meets with this cruel bigot and forgives him his sin and justifies him. Paul had done nothing to earn such a response. It was divine mercy all, immense and free. What would be more glorious, destroying this man as we would step on an ant, or rather transforming him, forgiving his sins and declaring him righteous in Christ? That is what happened to Paul, because the apostle himself writes, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Roms. 1:17). He himself had known this. Isaiah’s great prophecy had been fulfilled in Paul, that God “has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isa:61:10). Think of Peter Jeffery’s illustration of this:-
“A man comes home from work and tells his wife the good news that he has been promoted. To celebrate he is going to take his wife to the most expensive restaurant in town, a place they have never been to before. ‘We can’t go there,’ she says, ‘I’ve nothing to wear.’ He fumes, thinking of the bulging wardrobes upstairs and all the cheques he has written for boutiques. ‘No!’ she says, ‘I know I have plenty of clothes, but nothing good enough for that place. If we are going there, I want to be presentable.’
“Are you presentable for God? Do you think your morality and religion are good enough? If you are not a Christian, let me tell you something about Christians. There was a time when none of us was a Christian. We walked around in the robe of our own self-righteousness. We were proud of it – my efforts, my goodness, my achievements. I was as good as anyone. Who could tell me if I were a sinner and not good enough for God? The robe of self-righteousness fitted well and we loved it until God showed us the perfect sinless purity of Jesus, and then we felt a bit tatty. Then, to make matters worse, God said that all our best efforts were like filthy rags to him, and we felt dirty, guilty and vile. The Bible calls this conviction of sin. We did not understand it at first, but oh, how we felt it!
“What could we do? The obvious thing was to get another robe, another covering. We tried the garment of morality, and we stopped swearing and drinking and things like that. It worked all right for a while, until God showed us the real demands of his holy law. Then, like the robe of self-righteousness, it became transparent and useless. So we tried the robe of religion. We went to church more often, put more money in the collection and became very religious. That too was all right for a while, until God showed us the cross, with his Son dying, bearing the punishment and guilt of sinners. Religion then became pathetic compared to that.
“Conviction of sin came back and we really had no idea how to cope with it. Then God said, ‘I will deal your sin and give you a garment of salvation and a robe of righteousness.’ We came fearfully, but there was no need to fear because we found a God of amazing grace and the deepest love. He took is to his wardrobe of sovereign grace and brought out this most beautiful garment. We saw the price tag – purchased by the blood of Jesus. Amazingly, it had our name on it already. The Holy Spirit fitted it and there was no need of alteration. The fit was perfect.
“Do you want this garment? Romans 3:22 tells us, ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ The only thing that can make us acceptable to God is that our righteousness be as good as God’s – and God gives us this in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come in repentance and faith to Jesus, God credits us with the righteousness of his Son. His righteousness becomes ours and we are acceptable to God in Christ” (Peter Jeffery, “Windows of Truth”‘ Banner of Truth, 1992, pp 23&24).
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness,
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
In flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Nicholas Von Zinzendorf, tr, John Wesley.
Do you see how this theme of the ministry that brings righteousness leads to such hymns of praise? There are few hymns that rejoice in the ministry that condemns. Condemnation is all about the fairness and justice of God – his inevitable response to what contradicts his character. But the ministry that brings righteousness comes out of his amazing grace alone. We have forfeited every right to heaven, but he has constituted a righteousness by the incarnation, perfection and sacrificial death of his dear Son. That righteousness he imputes to everyone who believes and freely justifies them. What a glorious good message!
We are healed by his stripes – wouldst thou add to the word?
And He is our Righteousness made;
The best robe of heaven He bids thee put on;
Oh, couldst thou be better arrayed?
Look! Look! Look and live!
There is life for a look at the crucified One,
There is life at this moment for Thee.
Amelia M. Hull
3. The Permanent Ministry is More Splendid that that which Fades Away.
“And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (v.11). That covenant with Moses came with such glory, but once the Messiah had come it was all being set aside. It was a temporary covenant of preparation. Aaron was a mortal man, “and he died.” All the sons of Levi died. The Tabernacle disintegrated, and soon after Paul wrote these words the very Temple in Jerusalem was demolished for the third time and never rebuilt. It was all fading away as Paul was writing these words, and by the 21st century all the paraphernalia of Moses’ covenant, the whole Levitical sacrificial system has long disappeared. Today only the black hatted, black bearded Orthodox descendants of the Pharisees remain.
What a beginning on Sinai, the mountain top covered in the divine glory, but that ministry that resulted in death has crumbled away. The children of Israel themselves put it aside. By their sin they caused what glory it had to be extinguished. It was all utterly transitory, and who could enthuse over it? Who can be enthusiastic about cooking every day over a wood fire on the ground in the open air? Who will be enthusiastic about a 9 inch black and white TV set from 1945? Who would sing the praises of a doctor from Jane Austin’s days with his leeches and blood-letting? Those things are so like the Mosaic covenant. They had a temporary significance, but they are now redundant because something better has replaced them. It is fashionable for people to live as castaways on an island for a year with TV cameras capturing their struggles, but should one of them be seriously hurt then the helicopter ambulance comes flying in and off they go to the intensive care ward. Don’t be nostalgic for the past. The Mosaic covenant made its appearance in human history with glory, but now it is set aside. Do not try to restore it. That was Paul’s message loud and clear to the church in Galatia.
“How much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” In this changing world there is something gloriously permanent. He is speaking here of the rock-solid reality of Christ. Your health can change, your relationships can change, your finances can change. Weather patterns, economies, technology, governments, national boundaries – all these can change. Church officers and members, preachers and missionaries all change, but there is a glory that lasts and you find it in Christ alone. Changing times do not change the Lord.
We have a great high priest after the order of Melchizedek who is at the right hand of God. He is utterly glorious in his person and work. The same one who sat and shared meals with the worst of sinners now exercises mighty power from the throne of heaven. If you’ve been embraced by Jesus’ love and have trusted his blood to pay for your sins, then his love for you is permanent. Absolutely nothing can change him or can separate you from his love. All the demons in hell cannot disturb what he does. If all the United Nations should point their nuclear warheads at heaven and try to dislodge him from the throne of the universe they would all fail. There he lives as High Priest for ever.
Nothing changes about him. His message was, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” It is his message yet! The promise of rest for repentant sinners still stands. “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out!” These are his words tonight. If your past is reprehensible, so that you cannot speak about it, if you come to this glorious Son of God, there is no way he will pick you up and throw you into hell. What could be more glorious than that? Aaron and Moses could not say that, but the glorious unchanging Jesus does. The way of salvation does not change, because the Saviour cannot change. His love for sinners, his illimitable mercy, and his patient intercession cannot change. His words abide for ever. He has omitted nothing we need to know.
Time changes many things, but nothing changes the glory of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. So put your confidence in him. Embrace his unchanging love and seek to imitate it. Treasure the beauty of his changeless character and start to reflect it. Trust his unchanging faithfulness, and rest content in his care. Believe his immutable truth and tell it to others. Then whatever lies ahead, you can face the future fearlessly and joyfully.
7 January, 2001 Geoff Thomas