2 Corinthians 3:7-11
But if the ministration of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious…
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. 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. 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 proprietor 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. 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? 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. 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. 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 reproachful the shivering tone! A week before he could have heard the same hour strike, and nothing would have alarmed him. 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 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. Fools are they who cavil because Adam did not physically expire. Is death a question of frozen marrow? Every man knows the killing power of sin. In darkness you have done some deed of iniquity. Your heart condemns you. When you come forward to the light, you feel yourself dead, your moral vitality is gone. 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. I answer, the glory is not in the condemnation and the death, except in the immediate connection with the 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. 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? 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 veil. Recall the dread days of Sinai. Almighty God alights, and the mountain shudders at His presence. 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. 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. 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. 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 into 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. The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. 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. 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. 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 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. We thought nothing could exceed the splendour of Sinai, yet it was eclipsed by the transcendent magnificence of Calvary. The law was veiled under types and shadows, but the Son of God has been crucified before our eyes. 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. Some are endeavouring to reach heaven through obedience to the law. Are you wiser than God? Is the atonement a mistake? A 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.
(J. Parker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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:
WEB: But if the service of death, written engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look steadfastly on the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which was passing away: