Ministry of the Letter and of the Spirit
2 Corinthians 3:6
Who also has made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills…


1. The ministry of Moses was a formal ministry. It was his business to teach maxims and not principles; rules for ceremonials, and not a spirit of life. Thus, e.g., truth is a principle springing out of an inward life; but Moses only gave the rule: "Thou shalt not forswear thyself," and so he who simply avoided perjury kept the letter of the law. Love is a principle; but Moses said simply, "Thou shalt not kill, nor steal, nor injure." Meekness and subduedness before God — these are of the spirit; but Moses merely commanded fasts. Unworldliness arises from a spiritual life; but Moses only said, "Be separate — circumcise yourselves." It was in consequence of the superiority of the teaching of principles over a mere teaching of maxims that the ministry of the letter was considered as nothing.

(1) Because of its transitoriness — "it was to be done away with." All formal truth is transient. No maxim is intended to last for ever. No ceremony, however glorious, can be eternal. Thus when Christ came, instead of saying, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself," He said; "Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay"; and instead of saying, "Thou shalt not say, Fool, or Raca," Christ gave the principle of love.

(2) Because it killed; partly because, being rigorous in its enactments, it condemned for any nonfulfilment (ver. 9). "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy." And partly it killed, because technicalities and multiplicities of observance necessarily deaden spiritual life. It was said by Burke that "no man comprehends less of the majesty of the English constitution than the Nisi Prius lawyer, who is always dealing with technicalities and precedents." In the same way none were so dead to the glory of the law of God as the Scribes, who were always discussing its petty minutiae. Could anything dull the vigour of obedience more than frittering it away in anxieties about the mode and degree of fasting? Could aught chill love more than the question, "How often shall my brother offend and I forgive him"? Or could anything break devotion more into fragments than multiplied changes of posture?

2. Now observe: No blame was attributable to Moses for teaching thus. St. Paul calls it a "glorious ministry"; and it was surrounded with outward demonstrations. Maxims, rules, and ceremonies have truth in them; Moses taught truth so far as the Israelites could bear it; not in substance, but in shadows; not principles by themselves, but principles by rules, to the end of which the Church of Israel could not as yet see. A veil was before the lawgiver's face. These rules were to hint and lead up to a spirit, whose brightness would have only dazzled the Israelites into blindness then.


1. It was a "spiritual" ministry. The apostles were "ministers of the spirit," of that truth which underlies all forms of the essence of the law. Christ is the spirit of the law, for He is "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." And St. Paul's ministry was freedom from the letter — conversion to the spirit of the law. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.

2. It was a "life-giving" ministry.

(1) Note the meaning of the word. It is like a new life to know that God wills not burnt-offering, but rather desires to find the spirit of one who says, "Lo! I come to do Thy will." It is new life to know that to love God and man is the sum of existence. It is new life to know that "God be merciful to me a sinner!" is a truer prayer in God's ears than elaborate liturgies and long ceremonials.

(2) Christ was the spirit of the law, and He gave, and still gives, the gift of life (ver. 18). A living character is impressed upon us: we are as the mirror which reflects back a likeness, only it does not pass away from us: for Christ is not a mere example, but the life of the world, and the Christian is not a mere copy, but a living image of the living God. He is "changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."

3. Now such a ministry — a ministry which endeavours to reach the life of things — the apostle calls —

(1) An able — that is, a powerful — ministry. He names it thus, even amidst an apparent want of success.

(2) A bold ministry. "We use great plainness of speech." Ours should be a ministry whose very life is outspokenness and free fearlessness, which scorns to take a via media because it is safe, which shrinks from the weakness of a mere cautiousness, but which exults even in failure, if the truth has been spoken, with a joyful confidence.

(F. W. Robertson, M. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

WEB: who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Letter and Spirit
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