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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

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Verses 1-18

The Two Ministrations

2Co 3:9

What is the meaning of the expression, "ministration of condemnation"? The answer is in the seventh verse of this chapter, "But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away;" whence it is obvious hat the phrase "ministration of condemnation" relates to the law which Moses received amid the pomp and majesty of Sinai. That law is also called "the ministration of death." The Apostle is presenting a contrastive view of two systems under which it has pleased God to develop and test moral life; hence those systems are antithetically designated "the ministration of death," and "the ministration of the Spirit," as also "the ministration of condemnation," and "the ministration of righteousness." As the method of argument is entirely antithetical and contrastive, the definition of one term suggests the definition of the other; so that, as "the ministration of condemnation" signifies the law which came by Moses, so "the ministration of righteousness" signifies the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ. The simple form of the text, consequently, is this "If the law of Moses be glory, much more doth the Gospel of Christ exceed in glory."

Why should the law be described as "the ministration of death" or "the ministration of condemnation"? Are not the terms unnecessarily harsh? Do they not suggest a false idea of the dignity of law? My first object is to defend a negative answer to this inquiry. The very fact of penal law being established presupposes either power or disposition to do that which is wrong. Not only so; it is the peculiar function of penal law to define and abridge the so-called liberty of man. "By the law is the knowledge of sin." In delineating his spiritual life, in all its struggling and victories, through all phases which moral being could possibly assume, the Apostle gives us to understand how law operated in the settlement of his convictions and duties: "I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." The simplest of illustrations shall bring the meaning of the assertion, that law defines and limits liberty, within the comprehension of a child. For a length of time you have been in the habit of regarding certain fields as common property; again and again you have struck your course across them to shorten or vary a journey. You were totally indifferent as to their proprietorship. The idea that you were trespassing never occurred to you. So far as you knew, there was no law whatever in the case. In process of time, however, the pro prietor determines to assert his right to his own land. With this end in view, he gives public intimation that all persons found upon his property will be dealt with as trespassers. He proclaims a law. He sets up in his field a ministration of condemnation. From that hour the whole question of your liberty undergoes a fundamental change. The altered circumstances compel all who have been in the habit of traversing the land with impunity to say, in effect, "In this case we had not known transgression, except the law had said, Thou shalt not trespass." Yet, why should the law be designated "the ministration of condemnation" and "the ministration of death"? When the law is based on rectitude, what possible relation can it sustain to death or condemnation? The terms, though severe, are distinguished by the most precise accuracy. All punishment stands on the plane of death. Death, absolutely so called, is the ultimate penalty; but the very gentlest blow, nay, the very shadow of a frown, is death in incipiency; that is to say, it belongs to the kingdom of death, and not in any sense to the kingdom of life; death is in the penalty as truly as the plant is in the seed. The judge who imprisons a criminal for a month, or even for a day, gives that criminal as much of death as the nature of the offence is deemed to require. Why, what is death? You say that a man is dead when his heart ceases to beat. I tell you that a man may be dead even while his heart is pulsing with the vigour of perfect health! The hardened wretch who climbed the scaffold with a smile, and swung across the invisible barrier with a curse on his curled lip, is not, if the expression be allowed, half so dead as the fair young creature on whose cheek there burns the memorial of a first disgrace. The death I speak of is a question of moral consciousness. The physical heart continues its beating, but the better heart, which it enshrines, withers and dies.

That law is correctly designated "the ministration of condemnation," and "the ministration of death," may be shown by another simple illustration. Let me suppose that as heads of houses you had not for a long time felt the necessity of requiring all the members of your households to be at home by a fixed hour. Had they returned at seven, eight, or nine, they would have been received with equal cordiality. In the working of your family life, however, you find it necessary to determine an hour at which every child shall be with you. To that effect you proclaim your law. In process of events, I further suppose, one of your children is a mile off when the well-known hour strikes. What is the consequence in his own experience? He hears stroke after stroke without alarm, until, alas! the legal hour is pealed off. How that stroke shakes him! how harsh the vibration! how reproachful the shivering tone! A week before, he could have heard the same hour strike, and could have sung to it. Nothing would have alarmed him. No ghostly accuser would have been upon his track. He now feels that the law is "the ministration of condemnation." He says, "I am late; I should have been at home; my father's eye will reprove me: I had not known sin but by the law, for I had not known irregularity in time, except the law had said, Thou shalt be punctual."

Take the world's first case of law. There was law in the Edenic life. There was a "Thou shalt not" in the programme of the world's first experience of manhood, and over it fell the shadow of threatened death. Liberty was made liberty by law. Up to the very moment of touching the forbidden fruit, Adam knew not what was meant by the "ministration of condemnation"; but the moment after, how vast his knowledge! The taste of that fruit could not be expelled from his mouth; it was there as a malignant poison, for which no plant in paradise held the cure; the very tree looked hell at him, and a leaf from its desecrated branches might have crushed him to the earth. Why all this? The explanation is in the law. The law said nothing to Adam of "condemnation" until he had broken it. So long as he kept the law, he knew nothing of death, except by observation. What it was for man to die it was impossible he should know; but when the forbidden sap entered him, the inner man fell back blind, chilled, dead! Fools are they who cavil because Adam did not physically expire. Is life a question of perpendicularity? Is death a question of frozen marrow? Is manhood a question of bones? Every man knows the killing power of sin. In darkness you have done some deed of iniquity. The red mark of guilt is on the palm of your right hand. Your heart condemns you. When you come forward to the light, you feel yourself dead; your moral vitality is gone; your eye can no longer return the inquiring glance of society; you would knit your own shroud of fig leaves, and would gladly escape God as you seek to return to the dust. Ah! death is a process of the soul. Dead men walk on their own graves. The soul is in the chambers of death long ere the body yields up the ghost.

Another inquiry is now suggested. Under circumstances so appalling, how can "the ministration of condemnation" be said to be "glory?" for that is the royal word of the text. What "glory" can there possibly be in "the ministration of condemnation" and "the ministration of death?" I answer, the glory is not in the condemnation and the death, except in their immediate connection with law. That there is glory in law is open to decisive demonstration. The establishment of law implies authority on the part of the lawgiver. Law is the declared will of the superior. I wish it to be felt that this is true not only in the highest regions of legislation, but necessarily as true in the simplest relations of social life. How is it amongst ourselves? Does the servant give law to the master, or the master to the servant? By whose authority is the table of regulations put up in all your great hives of industry? The principle that authority is with the superior is essential to the consolidation and government of society. Relax it, and society is at once disorganised! We must be governed, and we must be governed by one another; and of necessity society will gravitate around its highest forces. I repeat, then, that law implies authority on the part of the lawgiver. Carry these illustrations forward to the case argued in the text, then the "glory" will at once kindle upon us, and, like the children of Israel, we shall need the protecting vail. Recall the dread days of Sinai. Almighty God alights, and the mountain shudders at his presence. There, amid thunderings and lightnings, the "Thou shalt" and the "Thou shalt not" of Infinite Wisdom are given to man, accompanied by an institutionalism as gorgeous as it is complex. Every utterance of the eternal mind must have its own peculiar glory; alike the utterance designed to produce physical results, and the utterance intended to operate in the moral kingdom: each shines with a glory distinctively its own, and in proportion as the moral is superior to the physical, so does the glory of the one exceed the glory of the other. The Israelites were hemmed in by law. They were beset behind and before, and the hand of the legislator was laid upon them. When they turned to worship, there was a "Thou shalt" that exterminated all idols, and shut the worshipper in with one God. When they associated with families, there was a "Thou shalt" that demanded filial reverence. When they were thrown together in masses, there were regulations intended to preserve the integrity, and purity, and blessedness of the vast population. In such a law, brocaded with the most gorgeous ritualism, there must have been "glory." It was the utterance of the Infinite Intelligence. It marked a distinct epoch in the moral training of the world. It was a protest, in flame and blood, against every form of error. It declared, by more than implication, that there was immense evil in the world, and that moral life among men was under the immediate scrutiny of God. That solemn law was a vital part of the education through which God was conducting the young and wayward world. That law was alike a standard of rectitude and a prophecy of a judgment day. From the very beginning, man was given to understand that all things should converge to a great judicial crisis, and that whoso broke through the groundwork of Divine law would find, when he reached the under side, that he had arrived in the unbottomed abyss of death! Yea, there was nothing between man and death but the "Thou shalt" and the "Thou shalt not" of Divine legislation 1 Just that. There was but a step between man and death. When, therefore, I contemplate the dread issue of an infraction of God's law, I can understand the Apostle when he calls that law "the ministration of condemnation"; and as I further contemplate the sublime purpose of that law, I can understand how, upon such a "ministration," there shone a "glory" which must have beamed from heaven!

The Gospel is described as "the ministration of righteousness," and is affirmed to "exceed in glory." In giving the law, God did not accommodate himself to human weakness by imposing easy or elastic conditions and regulations. He declared that which was absolute in rectitude. There was no tampering with righteousness. There was no shortening of the standard. You inquire, then, who could keep this rigorous, inflexible law? Could apostate man rise to the required sublimity of obedience, and from the summit of an unimpeachable life take wing for the holy heavens? The answer is, Never. "By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." Note this word "justified." Let me suppose that man could perfectly fulfil the law from this moment forward; I have then to ask, What is to be done with the life that is past, a life lived in hatred to that law? Granted, though the postulate is a moral impossibility, that from this instant man could pay "the uttermost farthing"; I demand who is to pay the accumulated arrears? Man can never do more than is right. He has no power to produce surplus virtue; so that, even granting, for the sake of clearness and emphasis, that man could henceforth fulfil the law in its most punctilious requirements, it remains to be explained how he is to atone for a life that has been prostituted to the devil. The Apostle pronounces upon the case with elaboration and authority: "That no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.... The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." The law rendered supremely important service to man if it did nothing more than bring him to the consciousness that he was powerless to fulfil requirements so holy. The law showed him the height to which he must ascend, and he trembled, and owned his weakness. "Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law." "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." The law was not designed to give life. It had but a schoolmaster's work to do. It was preliminary and introductory; "for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." We see, then, that the law was not a final act in the development of the Divine purpose; it was not clothed with resurrectional or regenerative power; it was a link in a chain; it had to train the consciousness of the world to acknowledge its own utter weakness, for "the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." There was an epoch of law; there is now an epoch of faith. Faith is younger than law; hence, "before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed."

As the law was antecedent to faith, so also it stands in perfect contrast; the one being "the ministration of condemnation," the other "the ministration of righteousness." Yet what is meant by asserting that the law was antecedent to the gospel? I mean antecedent merely in the order of open manifestation. The promise that Christ should come into the world takes precedence of all other promises: this is recognised by the Apostle in the argument of his Epistle to the Galatians, "And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect." The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. Far back in the infinite depths of unbeginning being, the atonement was the vital centre of God's moral plan in the re-creation of humanity. Merely, therefore, in the order of public disclosure was the law antecedent to the Gospel. Love is from everlasting, law is but of yesterday; law is for a season, love is for ever; law is a transient flame, love an eternal orb. Sublime beyond full comprehension is the fact that the Gospel is "the ministration of righteousness." Those who exercise repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ are not merely pardoned; that would be much, infinitely more, indeed, than the law could ever do, but they are made righteous; they are cleansed; they are sanctified; they are transformed into the image of God. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile." Here is a work far beyond the range of law. Law could not enter the heart with purifying power. Law had no blood in its iron hand to apply to the depraved and guilty nature of man. It is impossible that law could forgive; law only can condemn. You may address the broken law, but will it speak to you? Will mercy ooze out of the iron letters in which it stands forth before your streaming eyes? Never! You must appeal from the law to the Lawgiver. Only a heart can forgive; therefore "what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son (his own infinite heart) in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh." Here is the moral contrast in all its breadth. The law is weak, the Gospel is mighty; the law touches the outer man, the Gospel penetrates the heart. "The law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God."

The ministration of righteousness exceeds the ministration of condemnation "in glory." This is in strict harmony with God's general method of government. He never goes from the greater to the less, but ever from the less to the greater: "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." We thought nothing could exceed the splendour of Sinai, yet it was eclipsed by the transcendent magnificence of Calvary. We were amazed at the eminence of Moses, and the radiance of his transfigured face; but "we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." We felt that human nature was honoured when Moses was called a "servant;" but "beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be." When the law was announced, the people exclaimed in consternation, "Let not God speak to us any more, lest we die." But Jesus Christ hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel; he hath "come that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly." The law was veiled under types and shadows; but the Son of God has been crucified before our eyes, and we are crucified with Christ: nevertheless we live; yet not we, but Christ liveth in us: and the life which we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Is not the contrast perfect? Is not the glory of the first economy paled by the noontide splendour of the better dispensation? A question of infinite importance arises here. Did the law exceed the Gospel in its condemnation of sin? You know the answer. I speak with trembling reverence in declaring that God could not have shown his infinite hatred of sin so clearly by any method as by giving his only-begotten and well-beloved Son to pour out his soul unto death. When I wish to understand how God regards sin, I do not look at the quaking slopes of Sinai; I do not listen to the thundering or to "the voice of words"; I steal away at midnight across the brook Cedron, and listen to the wail of sorrow that bursts from the breaking heart of the lonely Redeemer; I listen as he pleads for release, and then falls into filial resignation to his Father's will; I watch him up the "dolorous way"; I see him stretched on the accursed tree; I hear his groan, and it makes my heart sore with unutterable grief; I see the gushing blood, the quivering limbs, the languid eye, and hear the voice of despair amid the darkness of premature midnight and in all this I come to apprehend that sin is the abominable thing that God hateth. The exceeding glory of the Gospel, then, is seen in this, that while it comes to condemn sin, it also comes to destroy its power, and save those whom it has brought into bondage. The Gospel has no word of pity for sin, or of extenuation for error, but it melts with infinite compassion as it yearns over the sinner. The law never had a loving word for the transgressor it was stern, inflexible, rigorous; but the Gospel speaks with entreating tenderness to erring man offers him rest, offers him joy, offers him heaven. "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Jesus never temporises with sin; but who ever addressed the sinner in words so full of love, and mercy, and hope? You have never seen him spurn the vilest malefactor from his pierced feet. When such malefactor has gone up to the law, he has been met by thunder and lightning, and tempest and vengeance; but when he has crept to the Cross, Jesus has wept over him, and offered him pardon, and peace, and righteousness. Does not, then, the ministration of the Gospel "exceed in glory" the ministration of the law? So greatly does it exceed, that we may exclaim with the Apostle, "Even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth." This method of working fills me not only with wonder, but with hope. It gives me a glimpse of what shall go forward during unending time. No more, indeed, shall there be need to interpose on account of sin; no hill in heaven shall be surmounted with the Cross on which shall be outstretched an atoning Saviour; no more sin, no more sorrow, no more sacrifice; but still ever-expanding and ever brightening revelations of the Divine character; our knowledge shall increase, our love shall deepen, our strength shall strengthen, and heaven itself will be the last but inexhaustible expression of "the ministration of righteousness." We do well to think of heaven in this light. But for "the ministration of righteousness," heaven would have been inaccessible to man. The Cross opened heaven on the side which darkened towards the earth. The Christian, therefore, does not cease his connection with the Cross when he waves the signal of triumph over the last enemy. The ministration of righteousness does not terminate at the grave; it stretches across the troubled river of death; and when the believer enters heaven he instantly joins the song of honour, and power, and blessing, to "the Lamb that was slain." When he reaches that city of rest, beholds the indescribable Majesty, stands face to face with his Lord, whom he has loved and served, he will know all that is meant by the exceeding glory of the ministration of righteousness.

Some are endeavouring to reach heaven through obedience to the law. Are you wiser than God? Is the atonement a mistake? "Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace." "If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?" Can the law "purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" Go to the law, as given to Moses, examine yourselves by it word by word, and say whether every requirement has been fulfilled; and if the letter has been fulfilled, go deeper, and see how far the spirit has been apprehended and realised. Have you loved the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength? and enclosed your neighbour in the folds of an all-loving philanthropy? What is the answer which conscience forces upon you? The blush of guilt is on your cheek; the fire of self-condemnation is kindled within you. Do not attempt to scale the sides of Sinai; there is nothing there for guilty man but "condemnation" and "death." Climb the hill on which the Saviour bleeds. Tell Jesus that you have broken the law; tell him how guilty and weak you are; ask him to pity and save your soul; and he will surely take you up into his infinite heart!

As man passes from one "ministration" to another, and so is brought nearer and nearer to God, we should remind ourselves that the advancing ages multiply our responsibilities. We cannot live under the "exceeding glory" without incurring proportionate obligations. It is more awful to live now than to have lived in the opening youth of the world. Today is the mighty sum of all yesterdays! He who lives in the nineteenth century has nineteen centuries' experience and history as his dowry. The developments of Divine purpose have a practical bearing on every man's destiny. We are not permitted to trifle with the dignity of the epoch under which we live. Man's privileges affect man's judgment. A birthday is taken into account in the judicial examination of human history. According to the breadth of light which shone upon our span of life, shall be the rigour of the judgment by which we shall be judged: "for if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven." These words make me tremble. So many of us have lived a life of frailest infancy, instead of vigorous manhood. We have lived as though God had done nothing for us, forgetting that he hath come in our likeness, and suffered in our stead! Need more be said to penetrate us with horror, and awaken us to duty?


Almighty God, we are still in thy keeping. Thou dost love us with an unchanging love; we are not thine to-day, and our own tomorrow, we are always thine; for thou didst make us, and not we ourselves; thou hast redeemed us, not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ thy Son. Thou wilt not forsake the work of thine own hands; thou dost watch us with love, thou dost redeem us with love, thou dost surround us with love: so now we know and say, God is love, and in his love we live, and die, and rise again, and abide through all duration. All thy ways concerning us are full of mercy; it is hard to see the judgment, because the compassion is so great; if now and then we see nothing but darkness, it is that we may be surprised by a great glory; we will not surrender our faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thou art our portion, yesterday, to-day, and for ever; we cannot be forsaken whilst thou art with us; the clouds are but veiling an intolerable splendour, and the winds that blow from heaven bring with them the fragrance of the better land. How wondrously hast thou opened for us the gate that was locked; how in a moment hast thou levelled the mountain that was high; and how suddenly have the rough places become plain. Thus we have seen thee in our own life, thus is thy name written upon our whole consciousness and observation and experience; so now we can be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might; we are no longer children tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine; we stand upon eternal verities, we are sure that the rock beneath us can never be moved; here we may build for eternity, for an eternal security is ours. We bless thee for the new visions of life which we see day by day; we are a wonder unto ourselves, we marvel that we carry within us so great a mystery as life, a perpetual surprise, a daily miracle. May we know ourselves to be the Temple of the Holy Ghost; may we no longer trifle with ourselves as the creatures of a moment; may we rather look upon our humanity as redeemed by the blood of Jesus, sanctified by the Spirit of the living God, and made meet to partake of the inheritance that is above. Now we can bless thee for our tears; at the time we shed them they were hot and bitter, they were full of burning; but now we see how good thou wert in bringing us to drink of sorrow, and to bow down in humiliation before thee; now we bless thee for our estate in the cemetery; we thank thee on behalf of those who having left us are still with us, whose graves grow the brightest flowers to be found in all the lap of the summer, whose memory is a perpetual inspiration, whose example is often a gentle rebuke, but more frequently a noble encouragement: for the enthroned and crowned ones we bless the Cross of the Risen Christ. We commend one another to thee; for such commendation we always need: some are old and weary, some are troubled sorely with the anxieties of a life they cannot measure or control; others are in constant fear, so that they eat their bread with difficulty and drink their water with pain; others are needlessly anxious, but they cannot turn aside the threatening shadow; thou knowest their frame, thou understandest their constitution, thou didst make them and not they themselves. According to our need and pain, our joy and sorrow, our opportunity, our conflict, our triumph, order thy blessing to rest upon us, for without that blessing there can be no beauty, no strength, no duration of gladness. Visit our sick ones: they are sick unto death, they long to die; the bitterness of death with them is past, and they long for the last command, that they may join the free and happy in heaven. Upon the whole world let thy smile rest; upon all mankind let some token for good abide; make all ministers of thine strong in truth, tender in grace and love, rich in human sympathy; stir thy Churches as with Pentecostal blessing and inspiration; and upon all efforts made for the dispersion of darkness, and the displacement of ignorance, let thy blessing come down like a plentiful rain: thus may thy kingdom come, and thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/2-corinthians-3.html. 1885-95.
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