God loves visual aids. He has scattered them all over the earth and hung them in the sky. Jesus made rich use of God's visual examples to help His hearers--including you and me--to understand spiritual truth:
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow."
"It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
"Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they turn and rend you."
"You are the salt of the earth."
"I am the vine and you are the branches."
I suspect that the whole world of nature may have been created to illustrate, on a physical and visible level, what is going on all the time in the invisible, spiritual realm. Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it exactly,
Earth's crammed with heaven;
And every common bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit round it--and pluck blackberries!
("Aurora Leigh," book vii)
Two faces of glory
To help the Corinthians (and us) understand what he meant by "the old covenant" and "the new covenant" the Apostle Paul used two very helpful visual aids. They are borrowed from the story of the giving of the law from Mt. Sinai and the subsequent conduct of Moses with the people of Israel. He first calls attention to the glory of Moses' face:
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 old covenant, which Paul calls "a dispensation of death," was aptly symbolized by the shining of Moses' face when he came down from the mountain with the law "carved in letters on stone." There was a certain glory or splendor about the law. It attracted people and awakened their admiration and interest. That's what glory always does; it is captivating and attractive. To this day the law retains that attractiveness. All over the world the Ten Commandments are held in high regard, even by those who regularly break them (which includes us all). Men pay lip service to them as the ideal of life, even though they may say they are impractical and impossible to keep. Everywhere men dream of achieving a dedication which will enable them to fulfill these glorious ideals.
But the point Paul seeks to make is that in the new covenant there is an even greater splendor. It is far more attractive and exciting than the law. As we have just seen, any reliance on the old covenant after we have experienced life in the new is like going back to dung and manure! And just as the glory of the old covenant has its symbol (the shining face of Moses), so the new covenant has its symbol as well. It is given by the apostle a little further on in the passage and is obviously intended to be set in contrast with the face of Moses. He says, "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Here, then, are the two splendors--the face of Moses and the face of Jesus Christ. Both are exciting, but one much more than the other. They stand for the two covenants, or arrangements, by which human life is lived. Both have power to attract men, but one is a fading glory and the other is eternal. The unredeemed world lives continually by looking at the face of Moses. The Christian can live by either, but never both at the same time. It is always one or the other at any given moment of a Christian's life. "No one can serve two masters," said Jesus. "Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24). So in the true Christian's life, the activity of each moment derives its value from whether he is, at that moment, symbolically looking at the face of Moses or at the face of Jesus Christ.
The trouble with law
At this point we must seek to understand more clearly something of great importance. Someone may well raise the question, "Why does Paul link the old covenant with the law and call it a "dispensation of death" when in Romans 7 he says that the law is "holy, just and good"? How could the shining face of Moses--which came as a result of spending forty days alone with God--be a symbol of something which kills? As a matter of fact, Paul himself raises the same question in his discussion of the law in Romans 7 when he says, "What shall we say, then? Is the law sin?" His forceful response is, "Certainly not!" (Romans 7:7). And after showing that it was by means of the law that he found out the extent of his sin, he adds, "So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (Romans 7:12).
It is in Romans 8:3 that the apostle gives us the clue which explains this enigma: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering." The problem, therefore, is not the law; it is what the law must work with, that is, the flesh. The word flesh does not refer here to the meat and bones that make up the body, but is an equivalent term for fallen human nature--human nature acting apart from Christ. The law was given, in any of its forms, only and solely because the flesh exists. There is no need for law if there is no flesh. Paul said to Timothy,
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers-- and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
A walking civil war
These verses shouldn't be read as though Paul were referring only to pagans, heathens, criminals, and perverts. Christians, even the best and saintliest of them, are sometimes "lawbreakers" and "rebels," guilty of ungodliness and sin, adulterous and perverted (in their thoughts if not their actions), and all too frequently "liars" or "perjurers." Certainly, many "Christian sins" are caught up in the phrase, "whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine." Certainly the sin nature is at work in Christians, and whenever it is, the law is required. The law is made for our humanity, our sin nature, and it has no reason for existence apart from it. Human beings require the law, for "by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Since this is so clearly true, it helps us to see that the essential conflict between the old covenant (the face of Moses) and the new covenant (the face of Jesus Christ) is, in reality, the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. Each of us is, in effect, a walking civil war. The flesh wars against the Spirit within us, just as Paul observed in his letter to the Galatians: "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want" (Galatians 5:17). It is because of this inevitable tie between the flesh and the law that Paul, in 2 Corinthians, refers to the law as a "ministration (or dispensation) of death" and says that the "written code kills." In reality, it is the flesh which produces death and which kills, but the law, though it be holy, just, and good cannot be separated from it.
The preceding arguments may seem a bit ponderous, but I urge you to think them through carefully, for perhaps nothing has contributed more to the present weakness of the church than a failure to understand the nature and character of the flesh. It may greatly help us to see this clearly if we go back to the beginning and learn how the flesh came into existence and what its essence is.
When Adam came from the hand of God, he was a perfect man, as God intended man to be. He was, therefore, acting by the power of God. Everything he did was accomplished by the indwelling Spirit of power. We know this from the analogy to Jesus who was the Second Adam. Jesus tells us repeatedly that whatever he did or said was not done out of any energy or might of his own, but as he plainly put it, "the Father, living in me, who is doing his work" (John 14:10). He was living by the new covenant, "everything coming from God, nothing coming from me." In fact, he said, "The Son can do nothing by himself" (John 5:19).
That is how Adam lived before the Fall. When he tended the garden, he did so by the energy and power of God. When he named the animals, he named them by the wisdom and power of God. Adam brought to each task the fullness of divine resources, available to whatever degree was required by the task itself. This is, of course, what man was and is intended to be, the bearer and dwelling place of God. Adam was the "house" of God, and all that he did was a manifestation of the power of God. The choice of activity was left up to Adam. That was his part. He was the chooser; God himself was the doer. Adam could do anything he wanted, go any place within the garden he chose, eat anything he liked--except one thing. God planted a tree in the garden, and placed it beyond Adam's right to choose--but not beyond his power to choose. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
One day, in connivance with his wife, Adam made that fatal choice. The instant he did so, the new covenant ceased to be active in his life, and the old covenant sprang into existence. Of course, the new was not properly called "new" then, for at the time it was the only arrangement for living that Adam knew. And, of course, the old covenant was not "old" to him, but something brand new which he experienced only after he had chosen to disobey God. The terms "new" and "old" have meaning only in relation to us, not to Adam, but I use them this way to show that they were the same in his experience as they are in ours.
Since everyone who has ever lived since Adam was made in the image of fallen Adam, we can understand something of what happened when Adam ate the forbidden fruit. The Spirit of God was immediately removed from his human spirit. His spirit retained a memory of the relationship it once enjoyed, but it was left darkened and restless, filled with both guilt and fear, and unable to contact the God it knew existed. This is why Adam and Eve immediately hid themselves. They realized they had no defense against attack and were naked. It is into this same condition that every human being has been born. The human spirit longs for God but is afraid to find Him. It is restless and unhappy without Him, but fearful and guilty before Him. That is the agony of fallen humanity.
When the Spirit of God was withdrawn, the human spirit of Adam was left untenanted and unlighted. In this condition Adam would have been unable to move or even breathe, for God had supplied him the power to act. But though spiritually he was instantly cut off from God, physically he did not die, but was able to go on living, breathing, thinking, and working. By what power? The account in Genesis does not tell us, but centuries later Paul makes it clear: Adam was instantly invaded by an alien power which took over the task of supplying the energy and impetus he needed to fulfill his choices. Adam was very likely only faintly aware of the change that came over him. Paul describes that alien power described vividly in his letter to the Ephesians:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-2).
That power which operates universally in fallen human beings originates in some mysterious way from Satan himself. Demonic sin is intimately connected with the problem of human sin. Satan, says Paul, is "the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient." The apostle goes on to describe Satan as working out his effects through what the Bible calls "the flesh" or the "sinful nature." As Ephesians 2:3 tells us, "All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath."
The emphasized words in the above passage make clear that this alien invasion is a condition common to all humanity. No one escapes the effects of the sin nature. Since all human beings are children of Adam by natural birth, it is also clear that this passage describes what happened to Adam in the moment of his fall. James, in his general epistle, speaks also of a wisdom which "does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil" (James 3:15). And Jesus himself confirmed the fact that all men are born into an evil condition when he said to his disciples, "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13).
The splendor of the flesh versus the splendor of God
When we think of the Devil and his relationship to God, the Bible is most careful to make clear that there are not two opposing gods, one evil and the other good. The Devil, too, is a creature of God, and must live by means of the life he receives from God. There is really only one source of life in all the universe, and ultimately every living creature or spirit must derive its life from the one Author of Life, God himself. But by some means not fully revealed, the Devil has interposed himself between God and humanity and takes the pure life (or love) of God and twists and distorts it so that it is no longer outward directed, as it came from God, but it becomes inward directed; that is, no longer other-loving, but it becomes self-loving. Fallen man thus receives the life of God as it has been twisted and tainted by the Devil. That life is called "the flesh."
This, then, is the primary characteristic of the flesh: it is self-serving. It is God's life, misused. It can have all the outward appearance of the life of God--loving, working, forgiving, creating, serving--but with an inward motive that is aimed always and solely at the advancement of self. It thus becomes the rival of God--another god!
This is why fallen human beings, working in the energy of the flesh, can do many good deeds--good in the eyes of themselves and others around them. But God does not see them as good. He looks on the heart and not on the outward appearance, therefore he knows they are tainted right from the start. Thus Paul can say, "The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God." (Romans 8:6-8).
So we come out at the two splendors again. There is a certain splendid attractiveness about the flesh, trying to be good. It strongly appeals to many, but it is like the shine on Moses' face--a fading splendor! But the splendor of the new covenant is far greater. It derives from the activity of Jesus Christ at work within humanity--directly, not distorted by Satan. Thus it is perfectly acceptable to God. It is a delight to Him, for it is the activity of His beloved Son and will ever be characterized by His life--a life of genuine love, faithful work, and unreserved forgiveness; a life that is continually, freshly creative, and humbly given to service to others without thought of repayment or recognition.
That is humanity as God intended humanity to be. That is the humble yet beautiful splendor of authentic Christianity.