New Testament Vs. Old Testament: Another Look at 2 Corinthians 3

There are many people who give me a strange look when I tell them that I am a WHOLE BIBLE CHRISTIAN.  Many of them have heard of “New Testament Christians” or “New Covenant Christians,” but what does it mean to be a “Whole Bible Christian”? Quite simply it means that I am a Christian who believes that all of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is for all people for all time.  Regardless of people’s nationality, ethnicity and race, age, sex, or background, the whole Bible is for them.

Of course, one of the questions that pop up in speaking to people about being a “Whole Bible believer” is, “How do I handle the Old Testament?” For centuries, there’s been a debate in Christendom about how to understand the “Old Testament.”  Some people believe that most of the Old Testament is for today, except for ceremonial laws and rituals; others believe that all of the Old Testament is for today, except for the law; and then there are still others who completely reject all of the Old Testament today.  However, I believe the real problem is in our understanding of what constitutes the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.”

WHAT IS THE “OLD TESTAMENT” & “NEW TESTAMENT”?

The first thing we need to understand is that there’s not “one testament” or “one covenant” in the “Old Testament,” but at least SEVEN (some would argue 8-10, depending on how covenant is defined).  Therefore, the name itself is misleading, since it does not appropriately communicate the reality of what is discussed within its pages.  In saying that, I should also explain that there’s not one biblical verse or passage that defines the “Old Testament” as the first 39 books in the Bible or the “New Testament” as the last 27 books of the Bible.  The designations “Old Testament” for the first major portion of the Bible, and the “New Testament” for the second part of the Bible is completely man-made, it’s not given by God at all.

HOW DID JESUS REFER TO THE “OLD TESTAMENT”?

In fact, at no point in time does Jesus ever refer to the first part of our Bible as the “Old Testament.”  He clearly makes a distinction between oral interpretations that were being taught, such as in the “Sermon on the Mount” (“you have heard…”; Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43) and the written Scriptures themselves.  Jesus NEVER, EVER corrected or changed the Scriptures.  What He corrected and changed were people’s interpretations, but not the Scriptures themselves.

When Jesus refers to the Scriptures, in most cases, He makes it clear that He’s dealing with a WRITTEN text, for example,

  • “It is written…” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10; 21:13; Luke 4:4, 8, 12; John 6:45)
  • “What is written in the law?” (Mark 10:26)
  • “Haven’t you read…” (Matthew 19:4)
  • “Have you never read…” (Matthew 21:16; Mark 2:25)
  • “Did you never read in the Scriptures…” (Matthew 21:42)

He also refers to them by the term “Scriptures”:

  • “the Scriptures” (Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24; 14:49; John 5:39; 7:38)
  • “this Scripture” (Luke 4:21)
  • “the Scripture” (John 10:35; 17:12)

Thirdly, He refers to them by the sections that comprise the Scriptures:

  • “Did not Moses give you the law?” (John 7:19)
  • “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17; Luke 16:16)
  • “the prophets and the law” (Matthew 11:13)
  • “the law, the prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

Finally, He referred to them by the name of the one who wrote the words He’s commenting upon:

  • Moses (Matthew 19:18; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:3; Luke 20:37; John 5:45-46; 6:32;
    John 7:22-23).
  • Isaiah (Matthew 12:14; Mark 7:6)
  • David in “the book of the Psalms” (Luke 20:42)

But at no point in time does Jesus ever call it the “Old Testament.”

ABOUT THE TWO MAIN DIVISIONS IN OUR BIBLES

As I mentioned, the designations “Old Testament” for the first major part of our Bible and “New Testament” for the second major portion of our Bible is completely man-made, not a designation from God at all.  So when Paul and the writer of Hebrews uses the term “New Testament” and “Old Testament” or “first covenant,” there’s a huge confusion and/or misunderstanding as to what is being referenced.

THE ACTUAL MEANING OF THE TERMS “OLD TESTAMENT” AND “NEW TESTAMENT”

The term “Old Testament” is the English translation of the Greek Palaios Diatheke, which literally can be translated as “the older covenant” or “the older testament,” or the “covenant/testament that’s been around for a long time.”  And the term “New Testament” is the English translation of the Greek Kainos Diatheke, which literally means the “Renewed Covenant/Testament.”

In the Greek language, there are two different Greek words for “new”: neos and kainos.  The way most Christians think and talk about the “New Testament” is if the Greek had been Neos Diatheke, rather than Kainos Diatheke.  Let me explain.  If I go out and buy another car, so that I now have two cars, then I’ve made a numerical change.  I had one car and now I have two cars.  This is Neos.  It speaks of a numerical change, or it can be used to refer to the most recent thing.  On the other hand, if I fix up my car, remodel it and give it a new paint job, and show you what it looks like now, and say, “Hey, what do you think of my new car?”  This is kainos.  This speaks of a QUALITY CHANGENOT a NUMERICAL CHANGE.

Consequently, what we have in the “New Covenant” is NOT a whole different covenant, that would be neos, but what we have is the same covenant with improvements; this is kainos.  So when ministers and TV evangelists are preaching, and they say that God has replaced the Old Testament with the New Testament, giving us a whole new Divine program, they are, in fact, giving you a distorted understanding of the New Testament since it’s based on the wrong meaning of “new.”  Rather than “replacing” the “Old Testament,” He deepened it, developed a portion of it, and He modified and improved a few things here and there, but He did not “replace” it.

THE PROPHECY OF THE NEW COVENANT

Now that we understand what the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament” are NOT, let’s look at how Paul uses these two terms in 2 Corinthians 3 to gain a better grasp of these two terms.  In order to understand this chapter, we need to first understand the prophecy of the New Covenant, found in Jeremiah 3!:31-34.

Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they broke, although I was a husband unto them, says the LORD.  (Jeremiah 31:31-32)

In this prophecy, God specifically identifies the two groups that God is going to make this “new covenant” with: “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah.”  But who are they?  The “house of Israel” refers to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and “the house of Judah” refers to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  After Solomon died, his son, Rehoboam, became the king, and the tribe elders came and asked him to lighten the tax load that Solomon heaped on them to pay for all his building projects.  Rehoboam refused, and as a result, the Kingdom split into two parts: the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).  And we know that Israel violated God’s covenant over and over again.  Let’s continue.

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (the original kingdom now in two parts); after those days, says the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

What is God promising to do?  Is God promising to get rid of His law?  Is He promising that He’s going to accept us, regardless of how we live our lives?  No, not at all.  What He’s promising here is that He’s going to take this “law” that was written on tablets of stone, and He’s going to write it in our “inward parts” and “in our hearts,” and as a result of this, we will now have a new relationship with God: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”  Let’s move on to the final verse.

And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:34)

Now as a result of Jesus’s death and resurrection, our sins have been forgiven when we ask God to forgive us of our sins, ask Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, and then repent of our sins, meaning that we turn away from our sinful lifestyle and begin living in obedience to God.  But this verse has not been completely fulfilled yet.  Why?  Because are still needing to tell our neighbor to “Know the LORD.”  Evangelism is still very much needed and required.  This verse will not be fully fulfilled, until evangelism will no longer be necessary, because “they shall all know Me.”

Therefore, we are in an age of transition.  The “Old Testament” is in the process of aging, but the “New Testament” has not been fully realized.

PAUL’S USE OF THE “OLD TESTAMENT” AND “NEW TESTAMENT”

Now that we understand the prophecy of the New Covenant, which functions as one of the main backdrops to this passage, we can now begin to discuss Paul’s use of these two terms: “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” In 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, Paul writes the following:

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as you are manifestly declared to be he epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in TABLES OF STONE, but in FLESHY TABLES OF THE HEART. (2 Corinthians 3:2-3; Emphasis Mine)

Notice that Paul is contrasting two tables: one “tables of stone” and the other, “fleshy tables of the heart.”  The “tables of stone,” Paul will later identify as the “Old Testament” (2 Corinthians 3:14), and we can see that the “fleshy tables of the heart” is a reference to God’s promise in the new covenant of Jeremiah 31.  Then, three verses later, Paul writes,

[God] also has made us able ministers of the NEW TESTAMENT [covenant]; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the MINISTRATION OF DEATH, WRITTEN AND ENGRAVEN IN STONES, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of countenance; which glory was to be done away.  How shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?  For if the MINISTRATION OF CONDEMNATION be glory, [how] much more the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?  (2 Corinthians 3:6-9)

Now let’s examine what Paul is saying about the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament:”

“OLD TESTAMENT”

“NEW TESTAMENT”

“the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) “the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6)
“the ministration of death” (2 Cor. 3:7) “the ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8)
“the ministration of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9) “the ministration of righteousness” (2 Cor. 3:9)

To understand the backdrop of this chapter, we need to have read and understand Exodus 20, 24, 32, 34 and Acts 2; these five chapters are needed, along with the Jeremiah passage, to properly understand the point that Paul is making here.

In these two passages, Paul refers to the “Old Testament” as that which had been written on “tables of stone” (3:3) and as “written and engraven in stones” (3:7).  This then identifies the “Old Testament” as the “Ten Commandments.”  These Ten Commandments are the ONLY commandments that were audibly spoken by God for all the nation of Israel and the “mixed multitude” of Gentiles (Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4) to hear who were down there at the base of Mt. Sinai.  It is also the ONLY commandments that God personally wrote upon the tablets of stone.  And it is this “covenant” that Paul is contrasting with the New Testament.

This means that the “Old Testament” does not refer to the Five Books of Moses, since these books were not written on “tables of stone.”  Nor does it refer to the whole “Old Testament” since it likewise was not written on “tables of stone.” They were all written on scrolls by different writers.  God expected His people to read and study the scrolls in addition to what was written on the tablets of stone.  The scrolls did not change; they all still need to be read and studied.  What changed was the location of where God was going to write what had been on the “tablets of stone.”

We also need to remember that both the “Old Testament” (the Ten Commandments) and the “New Testament” (the Ten Commandments written on our hearts and mind) were and are written by the Holy Spirit, and the content of both (the Ten Commandments) is the same.   Nowhere does God say that He’s changing the content of the Ten Commandments, but what He changed was where He was going to write it.

A CHANGE IN RELATIONSHIP

By writing the Ten Commandments on the inside of us, it would bring about not only a change in our relationship with God but a change with His covenant as well.  When the Ten Commandments were written on the “tablets of stone,” they were located outside of us and, therefore, they were an “outer motivator,” or a “have-to,” but when God wrote them on “the tablets of our hearts and minds,” our relationship to them changed.  They were no longer on the outside of us, they were now on the inside of us.  Therefore, they were no longer an “outer motivator,” but they became an “inner motivator,” and they went from being a “have to” to becoming a “want to.”  It was this system of using the commandments as an “outer motivator” that was “done away” or “replaced,” not the law itself.

But in another New Covenant passage, God not only promises to write His Ten Commandments upon the “tablets of our hearts and minds,” but He says that He would give us His Spirit so that He could empower us to walk out the commandments that God wrote upon our hearts, the Ten Commandments.

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put My Spirit within you, and CAUSE you to walk in My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments, and do them.  And you shall live in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God.  (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

How can the New Testament “annul” or “replace” the law of God when God says that He’s going to write the law – the Ten Commandments – on our hearts and minds, and here that one of the reasons why He’s giving us His Spirit is so that it was “CAUSE” us “to walk in My statutes,” and so we’ll “keep My judgments, and do them.”

THE “MINISTRATION OF DEATH” VS. THE “MINISTRATION OF LIFE”

So again, looking back at the chart I’ve made using the terms Paul uses for the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” why does Paul refer to them in this way?

“OLD TESTAMENT”

“NEW TESTAMENT”

“the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) “the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6)
“the ministration of death” (2 Cor. 3:7) “the ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8)
“the ministration of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9) “the ministration of righteousness” (2 Cor. 3:9)

Paul is contrasting here the experiences of the two Pentecosts: The first Pentecost where God originally gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and the Pentecost experience we see in Acts 2.  In Israel, Pentecost (Heb. Shavuot; the Feast of Weeks) is when the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai is remembered.  As I said, the Ten Commandments is the only portion of the law that was spoken audibly by God to the entire nation of Israel, it’s the only portion of the law that was written by God Himself, and it’s the only portion of the law that God promises to write on our hearts and minds.  But when Moses brought the Ten Commandments, which had been written on tablets of stone, down the first time, the people were involved in worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32), and as a result, 3,000 men were killed that day in judgment from God.

God intended His laws to bring blessing and a fulfilling life to His people, but because of the sins that they were flagrantly committing down in the camp, it brought only death to 3,000 instead.  However, if we contrast that with what happens in Acts 2, then what we find are not people pulling away from God and flagrantly sinning, but people of Israel pressing in to God, praying and seeking His face, and as they are all doing this, the Spirit of God comes down, He removes their stony heart, gives them a new heart of flesh, and then writes His law – His Ten Commandments – on their hearts and mind, filling them with His life, His Being, and they then begin to speak in other tongues.

The people hear all of the commotion outside, and Peter then gives his first sermon to explain what was happening.  As a result, 3,000 people are saved, i.e, given “life.”

So the difference between the two has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit, since He was involved in both, nor is it due to the words of the Ten Commandments (the law), since the same words are used in both.  But the difference was on what happened when it was first given to the people.  Whether it brought “life” or “death” was dependent on whether the people were living in rebellion against God (Exodus 32) or they were pressing in to know and experience God (Acts 2) – not on the words of the Ten Commandments or the Presence of the Holy Spirit since He’s the writer in both scenarios.

“THE VEIL OVER MOSES’S FACE”

Another part of this passage that gets horribly misrepresented is “the veil over Moses’ face.”  To properly understand this, we need to read the passage of Scripture in Exodus 34 that deals with this topic.  After the golden calf incident, Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai again to get a second set of tablets, because He broke the first set during the incident with the golden calf.  We are told that Moses was on the Mount with God for “forty days and forty nights” and during this time, “he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Exodus 34:28).  And it says, “he wrote upon the tables the WORDS OF THE COVENANT, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” (Exodus 34:28).  We are specifically told here that the Ten Commandments are, in fact, the “words of the covenant.”

Upon coming down from the Mount, it says that Moses didn’t realize that as a result of him speaking with God, that it had effected the skin of his face: “the skin of his face shone” with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29).  And seeing his face shine like that scared the people:

And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come near him.  (Exodus 34:30)

So what does He do?  He wears a veil while he’s out with the people, but then takes off the veil when he goes back up the Mount to speak with God.

And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai.  And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face.  But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out.  And he came out, and spoke unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded.  And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with Him.  (Exodus 34:32-35)

In this passage, why does Moses wear a veil?  It’s to cover his face.  Why?  Because it is shining with the glory (or Presence) of God, and this glory scares them.  Therefore, so the people would not be afraid of God’s glory or Presence, Moses wears the veil when he’s down there with the people, but when he goes back up into the Presence of God, he removes the veil.

Now let’s compare this with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3.

For if that which is done away [the Ten Commandments as an outer motivator] was glorious, much more that which [continues to] remain is glorious.  Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remains the same veil untaken away in the reading of the OLD TESTAMENT, which veil is done away in Christ.  But even to this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.  Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.  (2 Corinthians 3:111-16)

Moses put the veil on his face, because the people were afraid of the glory of God; they were afraid of the effect of what God’s Presence had on the facial skin of Moses.  Now did the veil have anything to do with Moses’ “plainness of speech”?  Also, Paul says that Moses put “a veil over his face,” so “that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished.” But according to the Exodus passage, he put the veil on his face because of the fear of the people.  Maybe, what Paul is saying here is that what was abolished was our fear of God and His Presence, NOT His commandments.

Paul says here that “the same veil” is “untaken away in the reading of the OLD TESTAMENT.”   Could the “veil” be seen by Paul as an image representing our fear of God, our fear that if we don’t obey Him we’ll be punished, or our fear of what will happen to us, if we get too close to God?  Or perhaps, could the veil represent whatever  might separate us from the Presence of God (represented by the face of Moses)? But Paul says that “in Christ,” the “veil,” i.e., our fear of God, is done away.  But “even to this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.”  The fear is still covering their hearts, their fear of getting too close to God, but then he says, “when IT shall turn to the Lord.”  Is the “IT” their heart?  So when we turn our hearts to God, then Paul says, “the veil shall be taken away.”

CONCLUSION

But when we compare this chapter to the material that provides the backdrop for it that Paul assumes we’ve all read and know intimately, we cannot come away from it with the understanding that God has done away with His law.  Such an interpretation is extremely superficial, and only reveals that the person who says this has not spent the time needed in the background material to properly interpret and understand the material.

In the New Testament, the Ten Commandments, the covenant of God, has now been written on the new heart and spirit that God has given to us.  And because His Spirit has also been given to us, not only do we have all we need to walk out the commandments, but now the veil, our fear of God, has been removed, so that we can develop that close, intimate relationship with Him that God has always desired.   So rather than teaching us that the Law of God is not for Christians, this is pointing us in the directly opposite way, to God, His Presence, and His commandments.

 

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