Ch 5: Death Versus Life

  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:7-11
2 Corinthians 3:7-11

7Now 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, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

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At the moment you read this sentence you are seeing, reading, and thinking either in the energy of the flesh or by the energy of the Holy Spirit. To use the same visual aids employed by the apostle Paul, you are either looking at the face of Moses or you are looking at the glory of God reflected in the face of Jesus Christ. You may not be at all conscious of this, but it is true nevertheless. Furthermore, it would be equally true if you came from a remote part of the world and had never before heard of either Moses or Jesus. Every human being on this planet lives and acts according to either the old covenant or the new covenant. There is no middle ground. There is no exception. Even if you have never heard the gospel, even if you've never seen a Bible, even if you live a thousand miles from the nearest church or even the nearest Christian, Paul argues in Romans 2 that the law of God, the law of Moses, is written to some degree in your heart or conscience--and everything you do relates somehow to the law of your conscience.

The fruit reveals the root

"Well," you may say, "if one is hardly conscious of which face you are looking at in any given moment, how can you know when you are in the flesh and when you are in the Spirit?" The answer: By the quality of "fruit" your life produces! The flesh invariably produces one kind of life; the Spirit invariably produces another kind. Jesus has this truth in mind when he says: "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:20).

Before we go on to look at Paul's practical description of these two kinds of living, we should remind ourselves that until we become born again as a Christian, we have no choice but to live by the flesh and produce the life of the flesh. The "good" which may be in our lives is but an imitation good which comes from the flesh's effort to fulfill the law of God. As hard as it may be to believe, this kind of fleshly "good" is really no better in God's sight than the evil which the flesh manifests. It is but disguised evil.

On the other hand, to be born again only supplies the possibility of living in the Spirit; it does not make authentic spiritual living automatic. The true Christian can, and often does, manifest the phony righteousness of the flesh, though he can also (and does, as he learns to live by faith) manifest the wholesome qualities of the Spirit.

There is a remarkable series of four contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 which Paul draws for us so we can distinguish the result of trusting in the flesh from the result of trusting in the Spirit in our daily lives. When we learn to recognize which force is at work within us, then we shall be ready to change from the flesh to the Spirit.

First, Paul contrasts the immediate effect produced by the flesh with that produced by the Spirit: "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?" (2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

The flesh produces death, the Spirit produces life! Paul has already pointed it out in verse 6: "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." One is a "dispensation of death," the other is a dispensation of "greater splendor," a dispensation of life. The word dispensation is helpful if we understand it in its original sense: to dispense or produce. If we think of a dispensation as a period of time, it will be confusing to use the word here. In fact, a much better word might be ministry. The Greek is diakonia, which is usually translated ministry or service. What is being dispensed in the ministry of the Spirit? It is life! To depend on everything coming from you, in response to the demand of the law, produces immediate death. To depend on everything coming from God produces immediate life.

To think of death in terms of a funeral, as the end of existence, is to miss the point of what Paul is saying here. What is death? It is essentially a negative term meaning the absence of life. When a doctor examines an injured man, he does not look for signs of death; he checks for the signs of life. If he does not find them, he knows the man is dead. Life produces its own distinctive marks; death is the absence of those marks. That being so, the question we must really ask is: What is life?

Well, sometimes we hear a person say, "Man, I'm really living!" What does that person mean? That he or she is experiencing great enjoyment, of course! Enjoyment is a part of life, as God intended it to be. Purpose, meaning, worth, fulfillment, these are all part of life. How about other qualities--joy, peace, love, friendship, power? Yes, that's what life is. The moment we have these qualities, we are living. Surely, this is what Jesus meant when He said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). That is Life with a capital L. Life lived to the full--full of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control--man, that's living!

In contrast then, what is death? It is the absence or opposite of those qualities of life. What is the absence of love? Hate, selfishness, and fear. What is the absence of joy? Misery, weariness of spirit, anger, hopelessness. Thus frustration, boredom, worry, hostility, jealousy, malice, loneliness, depression, self-pity--these are all marks of the absence of life. In short, they are forms of death. We do not need to wait till we die to experience these. For all too many of us, they are a major part of our experience while we yet live. They represent death in the midst of life.

The source of death

Where do these attitudes and passions come from? What is it that suddenly brings them into our experience, often when we least expect them? Jesus helps us answer these questions. "Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matthew 7:16-18). We think these negative qualities in our experience come from passing moods or changing circumstances. Both Jesus and Paul say, no! They come from something deeper, something much more fundamental. They arise from a dependence on the old covenant, the "bad tree" which cannot produce good fruit. They reveal that we are unconsciously or consciously depending on "something coming from me" rather than "everything coming from God."

These negative feelings, then, reveal the flesh in action. Not the flesh in the blatant display of evil which we usually think of--drunkenness, rioting, adultery, thievery, murder, and the like--but the flesh in those subtler displays which we often approve and even seek after: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-centeredness. This is why every biblical counselor learns to look beyond the immediate manifestation of hostility, depression, boredom, and so forth, and to seek the root causes which drive these feelings.

For instance, I have learned in my own life (and also by observing others) that depression is usually caused by some form of self-pity. I become depressed because I suffer some disappointment or rejection and this causes me to feel sorry for myself. I want to be made much of, I want someone to focus attention on me, and when this doesn't happen, I become depressed.

Where does loneliness come from? Most frequently from some form of self-ministry, taking care of myself only. That is why the cure for loneliness is Jesus' word: "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed." In other words, it becomes a lonely. Loneliness is the inevitable result of clutching and clinging to self, and refusing to die to self. Jesus continues: "But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24).

The presence of these marks of death gives us the clue as to when the old covenant is at work. Whenever these negative qualities are there, the old covenant is working, for that is what produces them. On the other hand, whenever the qualities of joy, trust, confidence, beauty, worth, and fulfillment are present, they can only come from the new covenant. It is the Spirit of God who produces them.

Paul reminds us that there are two glories or splendors involved here. There is a certain glory about the "death" which the old covenant produces, but there is a greater glory about life. There is a certain attractiveness about the marks of death. We take a morbid pleasure in them. Have you ever caught yourself wallowing in a morass of self-pity and resisting all attempts to bring you out of it? You wanted to be let alone so you could have a good time feeling sorry for yourself. It gives a perverse feeling of pleasure. James says, "Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice" (James 3:15-16).

The amazing thing is that we prefer these temporary, fleeting pleasures to the glory which accompanies real life. Often, we naively assume we can enjoy both. But if we insist on having the momentary pleasure that comes from the old covenant, then we cannot have the lasting pleasure that comes from the new covenant. No man can serve two masters, remember? So the first contrast the apostle draws, by which we can recognize the old or new covenants in action, is that of the immediate effects produced in life.

Stones or hearts?

The second contrast is associated with the first. It has to do with the material substance with which each is concerned. In 2 Corinthians 3:3 the apostle has already referred to these differences. The new covenant, he says, is "written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." Twice in this passage he stresses the medium by which the old covenant came: "Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory..." (verse 7). The law was written on stones; the Spirit writes on human hearts. The old covenant is concerned with stones, with dead things; the new covenant is concerned with hearts, with living people.

One mark, therefore, of false Christianity is that it is always deeply concerned with the importance of things: stones, rituals, ceremonies, buildings, stained-glass windows, spires, organs, proper procedures. The emphasis is put on these at the expense of people. But when the new covenant is in operation, it is the other way around. People are the important matter. Things are only useful as they help or do not help people.

Look at Jesus. See how utterly careless he was about the precise regulations of the Pharisees when those regulations stood in the way of healing people. Even the sabbath was set aside when it stood in the way of meeting the needs of people. Jesus said that his disciples ate grain on the sabbath because the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. The ultimate concern of the new covenant is always for people. The old covenant puts things first.

A number of years ago, a church in California hired a young man to "reach youth and bring them into the church." He was so successful that soon the auditorium of the church was filled with young people--but in the eyes of the church elders they were the wrong young people, because they were for the most part "street people" with bare feet, bizarre clothing, and untraditional ways. Eventually the youth leader was let go because, as he was told, "You are bringing this trash from the streets into our nice sanctuary." That is an extreme form of the old covenant in action.

The world of business and politics almost always operates on the basis of the old covenant. That is why money is usually more important than people. When vested interests are at stake, the rights of people usually suffer. Let a company face a drop in sales or production and what happens? Management takes up the axe and heads begin to roll with but little regard to whether people are going to starve or not. Profits come first. And how much of this attitude is also seen in the church! Reputations often come before people. Programs and customs are perpetuated, not because they meet needs, but because status and acceptance are at stake--a dead giveaway that dependence is on "everything coming from us" rather than "everything coming from God."

Guilt or righteousness?

A third contrast is found in 2 Corinthians 3:9, marking the difference between freedom and guilt: "If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!" Here we find another mark of the old covenant in action. It inevitably produces a sense of condemnation--or to use a more modern term, guilt. But the new covenant produces quite the reverse: The feeling engendered is one of righteousness.

Unfortunately, "righteousness" is one of those great biblical words which is little understood today. Most of us think of it as "doing what is right," and certainly that is part of its meaning. But the essence of the term goes much deeper. Its basic idea is "being what is right." One does what is right, because one is right--that is the biblical idea of righteousness. Righteousness is the quality of being acceptable to and accepted by God--fully and without reserve.

Perhaps we will get the sense of it better if we substitute the word "worth." The righteous man is the man who is valued. All his internal struggles are resolved. He is no longer troubled with guilt, inadequacy, or hostility. He does not struggle with himself to produce anything, for he knows he stands accepted before God, pleasing to God. Therefore he is free to act with respect to the situation in which he finds himself. He is able to reach out to others who hurt or are fearful or feel condemned because he himself is free from these things. To depend on "everything coming from God, nothing coming from me" produces that sense of worth. That is righteousness.

On the other hand, how many Christians live continually under a sense of condemnation? When the basis for our Christian activity is dependence on something coming from us (our personality, our will-power, our gifts, our money, our courage), there is no escape from a sense of guilt, for we can never be certain when we have done enough! Around the world that basis of performance is driving Christians into frenetic activity that can result in nothing but sheer exhaustion.

I was once in an American city where a woman stood up and told how her performance was being challenged in her church, and she confessed how inadequate and threatened she felt. She was almost in tears, feeling she had not done enough for God, not knowing what else to do. The despair she exemplified is a far cry from the joyful word of Romans 8:1-2, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." How much this woman needed to see that God already loved her as much as he ever will, and nothing she could ever do, or not do, would change that fact. To really believe that truth would make her free to "do"--not in order to win acceptance, but because she was already pleasing to God.

The frenzied activities of Christians have become a joke. Someone has revised the old nursery rhyme to read:

Mary had a little lamb,
'Twas given her to keep;
But then it joined the Baptist Church,
And died for lack of sleep!

Many churches judge their success by the number of activities they have going. For many, it comes as a great shock to learn from the Scriptures that it is possible for a church to be an utter failure before God and yet be occupied to the full every night of the week--teaching the right doctrines and doing the right things. On the other hand, a church whose people are living by the new covenant can also be fully occupied with many and varied activities. It is not the level of activity which marks the success or failure of a church. It is what the source of that activity is. Is it the flesh, or the Spirit? Is it my background, my training, my education, my personality? Or is it God--at work in me through Jesus Christ?

Surpassing glory

Remember, there is a certain glory about the activity of the flesh which is very attractive to people. Dedicated activity always gives one a certain sense of worth--for awhile! It produces a kind of self-approval which is very pleasant to experience--for awhile. Paul says that "the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory" (2 Corinthians 3:7), yet it is far surpassed by the glory and splendor of the ministry of righteousness. In fact, the apostle enlarges on this. He says, "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." (2 Corinthians 3:9-10, emphasis added).

This is undoubtedly an oblique reference to Paul's own experience which we have already traced in a previous chapter. The pleasure which he derived from his dependence upon his ancestry, his orthodoxy, his morality, and his activity soon came to have "no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory." To trust in Jesus Christ, at work in him, as he describes it in Galatians 2:20, is to experience a sense of fulfillment and worth that is infinitely beyond anything he had ever experienced before. It was to be free! Little did he care what men thought of him, since he was so fully aware of what God thought of him--in Christ. Little did he care what appraisal men (even other Christians) might make of his ministry, since he fully understood that whatever Christ did through him would be approved in the eyes of God. That is why he was able to say, "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Fading or permanent?

The final contrast Paul draws relates closely to the previous one. He says, "And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!" (2 Corinthians 3:11). The contrast is clear. The old covenant produces that which fades away, but the new produces that which is permanent. When Moses came down from the mountain with his face aglow, he found that the glory faded. Relatively soon it disappeared completely, never to be recovered. But the glory of the face of Jesus never changes. Those who are expecting him to be at work through them in response to the demands that normal living makes upon them will experience eternal results. They will never fade or lose their value. They are treasure laid up in heaven--not upon earth.

Once again Paul reminds us of the attractiveness that accompanies dependence upon the flesh. Challenging people to rely upon their natural resources and abilities can often whip up a tremendous wave of excitement and enthusiasm. From such a meeting everyone goes home saying, "Wow, what a tremendous meeting! I can't wait to get started on this new program. This year we are going to make it." But every leader of experience knows what will happen. Soon the enthusiasm will begin to ebb (it might not last beyond the next morning!). Those who go around later to collect on some of the promises made will find that people have grown dull and apathetic. By next year it must all be done over again, with new approaches and more powerful presentations, in order to stir up the same degree of excitement and commitment. Sound familiar?

"But," you might say, "that's just human nature. We humans are just made that way. It is only realism to take it into consideration and make plans to overcome such apathy repeatedly." This statement is true--it is human nature. But it is fallen human nature: in other words, the flesh!

But have you ever met anyone who has learned to function on the basis of the new covenant? They don't need repeated meetings to whip up their enthusiasm. After twenty-five years they're still just as fresh and vital on the same job as they were the day they started.

I once met an old man who had been a missionary to the loggers in the back woods of British Columbia for forty years. Recently he had been retired by his mission, but his zeal and enthusiasm for the Lord's work were unflagging. He had never grown weary of his work, though he was often weary in it, and if the mission would let him, he wanted to go back to the woods again with confidence and courage, knowing that the Lord who worked through him was perfectly adequate for whatever would happen.

The new covenant refreshes the spirit continually. When the human spirit weakens in the face of continued demand (as it was meant that it should), it looks immediately to the indwelling God, to Fountain of Living Water, receiving vigor and vitality to meet the day's demands with eagerness and enthusiasm. People who live on that basis are a delight to work with. They do not require continual encouragement and outward motivation (though they fully appreciate the kind words people say to them), for they know the secret of their activity is "nothing coming from me but everything from God." That is the permanent glory which never fades. The activity of the flesh is always a fading glory.

The big push

With these four contrasts Paul seeks to impress us with the total inadequacy of the flesh, despite appearances, and the total adequacy of the Spirit, despite the evaluations of men, whether of ourselves or others. It is the energy of the flesh versus the power of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, as Paul puts it in Romans 8. If, as a Christian, you are seeking to live by your own resources rather than by the life of Jesus within you, you are like a man who goes down to buy a car and doesn't know that it comes equipped with a motor. Naturally, a man buying a car on that basis would have to push it home. When he gets there, he might invite his family out for a ride, so the wife gets in behind the wheel, the kids in the back seat, and he starts pushing from behind. At that point you might come along and ask, "How do you like your car?"

"Oh, it is a tremendous car. Look at the upholstery, and get an eyeful of this color, and, oh yes, listen to the horn--what a great horn this car has. But, I do find it rather exhausting! It goes downhill beautifully, but if there is even the slightest rise in the pavement, I find myself panting and struggling and groaning. It is very difficult to push it uphill."

"Well, my friend," you may say, "you do need help. You know, at our church we are having special meetings this week. Our speaker is speaking on the very subject you need to hear: 'How to Push a Car Successfully!' On Monday night he is going to show us how to push with the right shoulder. On Tuesday night he will illustrate the techniques of pushing with the left shoulder. On Wednesday night he has colored slides and an overhead projector to show us how to really get our back into the work and push. On Thursday night he has committees and workshops organized that will help us all push more effectively, and on Friday night there will be a great dedication service where we all come down in front to commit ourselves anew to the work of pushing cars. Come every night next week, and learn all there is to know about how to push a car successfully!"

That is exactly where much of Christianity is being lived today. We spend hours seeking to teach people how to mobilize all their human resources and try harder to get the job done for God. But all we are mobilizing is the flesh. We seek to build up their confidence in the power of numbers, the hidden resources of the human spirit, and the possibilities of a determined will.

But if we really wanted to help the man who is pushing his car, we would say something like this. "Look, come around here in front." We would lift up the hood and say to him, "Do you see this iron thing with all the wiggles coming out of it? Do you know what that is? It's a motor. A power plant. The maker of this car knew you would have the problem that you've been having and so he designed a power plant that would enable you to go uphill as easily as downhill. When you learn several simple things about operating the motor, you will begin to experience the power. Just turn this key and the motor will start. Then you pull down that lever and step on the pedal on the floor and away you go. You do the steering, but the motor supplies all the power. You don't have to push at all. Just sit back and you can go up the highest hills with as much ease and relaxation as if you were going downhill. You don't need to worry for the motor is equal to whatever demand you make."

Now that is what authentic Christianity is all about. God knew that we human beings aren't adequate in ourselves to meet the demands life makes upon us so he supplied a power plant--the life of Jesus himself. It is perfectly adequate for the task. Our part is to learn to operate it correctly, then make the choices necessary to steering. When we do, we experience the restfulness of activity in the strength of Another. That is, indeed, a surpassing glory!

Let's get going

Perhaps many of you feel you would like to quit reading at this point. The truth you have already learned is so exhilarating that you're anxious to stop reading and start living. I don't blame you. The adventure of new covenant living is wonderful to experience. But the Apostle Paul does not let us go at this point. He has much more to say, and what he says is absolutely necessary to experiencing what God would have for us.

Title: Ch 5: Death Versus Life Author: Ray C. Stedman
   Date:1975
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