On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs stood on the stage at the Macworld Conference in San Francisco, California, and said, “This is the day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.”
This was classic Jobs—expertly setting the scene and slowly building suspense for a new product release. He wanted everyone to know how great this moment was! The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Some cheered. “Every once in a while,” he said, “a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”
What was this remarkable product he was about to unveil? The first-ever iPhone. He proceeded to extol its key features. Later that year, people waited in day-long lines to get their hands on it. When they finally did, they cheered, laughed, and cried. It seemed this was a product worthy of every superlative and accolade: Unbelievable! Life-changing! Earth-shattering!
Years later, that first-generation iPhone is dead. It no longer supports updated operating systems, rendering it functionally obsolete. It can no longer be used even for its most basic purpose of making phone calls. At best, these phones are now buried at the bottom of unused drawers.
In fact, it is quite surreal for someone who has used a recent iPhone to come across an older version. Now the old one does not seem special at all, and one could almost think it bizarre that at one time, it was deemed so significant. What has happened? The new phone is so much better, and its features so vastly superior, that it makes the old seem useless.
That is, in some small way, a helpful illustration when reading 2 Corinthians 3. Here, Paul is talking about a number of “releases” that are infinitely more important than that of the first and all subsequent versions of the iPhone. First, he speaks of the old covenant.
The Old Covenant: A Key Feature
Paul takes us back to the “release” of God’s covenant with Israel in the book of Exodus. The “stage” was Mt. Sinai, and the occasion makes even Apple releases seem pathetic. God’s glory rested on the mountain, appearing as a devouring fire (Ex. 24:17).
There was thunder, lightning, and the mountain trembled. This was a truly glorious event: God was entering into a covenant with the people He had graciously rescued from the grip of Pharaoh.
In looking back to the unveiling of that covenant, Paul, we might say, highlights its key feature. The word he uses is “letter” (2 Cor. 3:6). God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, with the letters engraved in stone (2 Cor. 3:7). These letters were glorious—written by the very finger of God (Ex. 31:18). The commandments expressed the glorious character of God. These laws were good, pure, holy, and righteous (Rm. 7:12).
While the Old Covenant law was gloriously good, man’s fallen heart was shamefully bad.
However, while the dust from the engraving was still settling, a problem was already becoming obvious. These laws were potent at telling people how they ought to live, but impotent at helping them in their endeavor to do so. This leads Paul to highlight two effects of this covenant. He describes it as a:
- Ministry of Condemnation (2 Cor. 3:9). When people broke this law, it declared a verdict of guilt upon them. While the law was gloriously good, man’s fallen heart was shamefully bad. This “letter,” Paul argues, pronounces a verdict of guilt over every life. We’ve all sinned (Rom. 3:23).
- Ministry of Death (2 Cor. 3:7). Having declared a verdict of guilt, this law sentenced the culprit to death; or, as he dramatically states it, “the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, access into the immediate presence of God was limited to one man, once a year. God’s manifest presence was behind a thick curtain. Before that person could ever get into God’s presence, he had to walk through the squeal of animals sacrificed on the altar, and smell the stench of their death. Sin condemned and killed.
The New Covenant: A Key Feature
Paul then quickly fast forwards us to the fact that there is a new covenant. The key feature of this covenant is the Holy Spirit. What a staggering upgrade, we might say. It is no longer a law written on external tablets of stone with covenant members failing to conform.
This is the Holy Spirit working and living in the believer, succeeding at transforming. It, therefore, is a:
- Ministry of Life (2 Cor. 3:6). In this new covenant, believers are regenerated, born again, and raised to newness of life. We are made new creatures in Christ by the Holy Spirit. God’s laws are now being engraved on our new hearts (Jer. 31:33), and in the Holy Spirit we have the potency of God enabling us to keep them! As Peter puts it, we are “partakers of the divine nature,” where “his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
- Ministry of Righteousness (2 Cor. 3:9). Now, through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, to which those of the Old Covenant pointed, our sins can be forgiven, our condemnation lifted (Rom. 8:1), and our consciences cleansed (Heb. 10:22). His sacrifice is enough, forever enough, and therefore brings an end to all sacrifices!
Entrance into this new covenant comes when one turns in faith to Christ (2 Cor. 3:16). When we take this saving look at Jesus, our eyes are opened to see His glory—the matchless, indescribable beauty of God’s heart, character, and nature. We see a holiness so pure that every one of our sins is punished to the fullest extent.
When we take a saving look at Jesus, our eyes are opened to see His glory—the matchless, indescribable beauty of God’s heart, character, and nature.
We see a love so deep that, instead of giving us what we deserve, He takes it for us! We come into His presence—neither hearing the squeals of animals being slaughtered nor seeing the sight of their blood—through the atoning blood of this spotless Lamb!
The Lamb, so pure, was the final sacrifice for all. His sacrifice is so perfect that the curtain veiling His presence in the Temple was ripped in two, and we are now urged to come into His presence with boldness.
If the iPhone X makes the 1st generation iPhone seem useless, how does this new covenant make the old seem?! Paul describes the new as more glorious (2 Cor. 3:8), much more glorious (2 Cor. 3:11), and far more glorious (2 Cor. 3:9) than the old. In fact, he says, the new covenant is so glorious that when we look back at the old covenant, it seems to have no glory at all (2 Cor. 3:10). Indeed, for those in Christ, the old is obsolete.
The Two Covenants: A Key Contrast
Having outlined the covenants, Paul brings us to another stunning contrast between the two. In the unveiling of the old, there was a particularly eye-catching moment. When Moses came down from meeting with God, “the skin of his face shone” (Ex. 34:29). As he met with God and beheld the glory of God, unbeknownst to him, his countenance was changing.
When he came down the mountain, people were afraid to look at him. While Moses talked with them, he would cover his face. Then, when he went back to meet with God, he would uncover it. As he looked again upon the glory of God, his countenance would once again be changed. It’s a remarkable moment—and all of this is still in the old covenant.
If what happened to Moses in the old covenant caused people to gasp, can you begin to imagine what happens to us in the new? It’s breathtaking. When we as God’s children behold God’s glory, as revealed in the person of Jesus in the new covenant, the Holy Spirit is actively changing us (2 Cor. 3:18).
Moses’ change was typical of the old covenant—superficial, skin-deep, external, and fading away. However, ours is typical of the new—a heart-deep transformation, a metamorphosis of our very character. As we gaze upon the glory of God as seen in the face of Jesus, our hearts are being changed—from glory to glory—by the Holy Spirit.
Changed into what? Into the very likeness of Jesus! A face beaming with the glory of God! Glorious. A life shining, radiating, beaming with the beauty of Christlikeness? More glorious. Much more glorious. So much more glorious that it makes the old seem like it had no glory! How does it happen? It’s the key feature that Paul highlights of this remarkable covenant—the Holy Spirit. He does both the saving work when we “turn” to look at Jesus in faith, and the sanctifying work as we keep looking at Jesus. And, when we finally see Him with our physical eyes, he does his glorifying work, for “we shall be like Him!” (1 John 3:2).
Child of God, in the hustle of life, do you gaze upon Jesus? As we focus on Him, the Spirit transforms us.
Child of God, in the hustle of life, do you gaze upon Jesus? Christianity is far more glorious than a mere focus on our endeavors to conform to a standard. It is to have our eyes open to see Jesus! As we focus on Him, the Spirit transforms us. Listen to these words of counsel from Robert Murray M’Cheyne:
Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in His beams.
Feel His all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in His almighty arms…. Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him.
Revised from an article published in God’s Revivalist.