We are gathering our thoughts around the fragment in the second letter to the Corinthians in chapter 4 and verse 1: "Seeing we have this ministry". For our present purpose, it is necessary to read a section from chapter 3, at verse 4:
"Such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we
are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from
ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us
sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but
of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
But if the ministration of death, written, and engraven on stones,
came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look
stedfastly upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which
glory was passing away, how shall not rather the ministration of
the spirit be with glory? For if the ministration of condemnation
hath glory, much rather doth the ministration of righteousness exceed
in glory. For verily that which hath been made glorious hath not
been made glorious in this respect, by reason of the glory that
surpasseth. For if that which passeth away was with glory, much
more that which remaineth is in glory. Having therefore such a
hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who
put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not
look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but
their minds were hardened: for until this day at the reading of
the old covenant the same veil remaineth, unlifted, which veil is
done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read,
a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the
Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit: and
where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all,
with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord,
are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as
from the Lord the Spirit. Therefore, seeing we have this
I'd like you just to turn to the letter to the Romans, chapter 2,
verse 27: "Shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it
fulfil the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision
are a transgressor of the law?" Verse 29: "...he is a Jew, who is
one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the
spirit, not in the letter".
Chapter 7, verse 6: "Now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that wherein we were holden; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter". And to add a very familiar clause for the moment, chapter 1 of the letter to the Ephesians, verse 17: "...the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him".
Coming back to our basic fragment "this ministry", you will have noticed that what the apostle means by "this ministry" is very largely, or partly, defined and explained in the immediate context. There is a follow-on from chapter 3 with: "Therefore". Therefore... that links up with what he has been saying about Moses and the veil. And it is, I think, focussed in those words in verse 6: "also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life". That is a tremendous fragment; indeed it is the terminal point of two entirely different dispensations and economies. The phrase: "the letter" represents a past dispensation - the Mosaic economy; "the Spirit" represents the present dispensation, and the economy of Christ personally. The whole section is full of vivid contrasts between those two dispensations, and those two economies.
Paul, as you see, distinguished the difference between these two
by, on the one side the glory that faded; on the other side, the
glory that surpasses and abides. The glory that faded, was
connected with what Paul means by "the letter"; the glory that
surpasses and abides, is connected with what he calls "the
Spirit". So that "this ministry" about which he is writing, and
about which we are thinking, as committed to us, is resolved into
one word; that is:-
That word defines the nature of this present dispensation. It covers a lot of ground. It includes a lot of things, indeed, it includes everything in this dispensation in the purpose of God.
First of all, it relates to the people of God. The people of God
are different in this dispensation from what they were in the
past, in the dispensation of the letter, the dispensation of the
law, the economy of Moses. It is the difference (and it is a very
great difference) between the historical, the sacerdotal, the
sacramental, the ritualistic relationship with God which obtained
under Moses, and the new birth of this dispensation. There is all
the difference between those two things.
That whole system of Moses, comprehensive as it was, and
wonderful in many respects, containing all the vital principles
of God's mind for His people, nevertheless fell short in this one
tremendous thing: it fell short of new birth. It never brought
about regeneration. And that's the difference where the
people of God are concerned.
In that dispensation there was a people of God, but their
economy was that (as I have said) of sacraments, of ritual, and
all that kind of thing. In this dispensation, God has a
people, but the fundamental, basic characteristic of God's people
in this dispensation is that they are born from above: new birth
has taken place. And that is a very great difference. You can have
all the other without this; if you have this, you
comprehend all the other in spirit. The other is in
letter, and killeth; this is in Spirit, and maketh alive; in the
first instance, by birth, by new birth. This is the Spirit which
giveth life, and we know - I trust that we all know - that that is
true in this initial respect: the Spirit giveth life in new birth
and we are able to attest that, and put our seal to that, and say:
"Well, at any rate, that bit of the Bible I know to be
"The Spirit giveth life..." to a new entity, a new person, by new
birth... and Paul points out here clearly, that it is the
difference between two covenants: the old covenant which was of
the letter and wholly outward; and the new covenant which is of
the Spirit and inward. That is what he means in his references to
circumcision, for instance, because that was the sign of the
covenant with Abraham. But the new covenant has now been
instituted and according to Jeremiah 31:31 the new covenant is,
"I will write My laws in their hearts, and on their minds will I
write them". The new covenant is inward whereas the old was
This people, Paul argues in his various writings, this people is the people of the Spirit in this respect: that circumcision is a thing of the heart and not of the flesh, "He is a Jew who is not one outwardly, but inwardly". The difference between the dispensation of the letter and that of the Spirit is in these two covenants, that there has been something done in the heart, which is the spiritual and inward counterpart of the sign of the covenant in the old dispensation.
Again, as we so well know from Paul, where the people of God are concerned, the difference of the dispensations is that of works and of grace. We need not spend time with that, we are so familiar with it, but all this is compassed by the very first aspect of this change-over in the dispensations: it begins in relation to the people of God.
But then, it also, in the second place, relates to:-
The Holy Spirit.
There is all the difference between the Holy Spirit's presence and work in the old dispensation, and in this. That in itself is a subject for more than an hour, because you will call to mind what a lot of time and a lot of care the Lord Jesus took to make His disciples understand this great difference between the old dispensation and the new as to the Holy Spirit. His emphasis and reiteration: "in that day... in that day... in that day..." and it was invariably, "when He, the Spirit, has come..." that's the day. Well, this is "that day", and it is a tremendous change-over from, again, the outward operation of the Holy Spirit, and periodic visitations and inworkings in men by the Holy Spirit and then departing, to the Holy Spirit within abidingly - that's the feature upon which the Lord puts His emphasis: "He shall abide with you for the age... He shall be in you". Tremendous change-over! It is this that defines what Paul means by "the Spirit" as over against "the letter".
The Spirit is the Spirit of Life as different from legalism. Well, we could say that the law was given by God. If you like, we could say that it was given by the agency of the Holy Spirit; yes, but it was a legal system. Now the Holy Spirit does not work legally in that way. The Holy Spirit is now the Spirit of Life. "Legalism" is only another phrase for, "the letter, which killeth", but "the Spirit which giveth Life" is the Spirit of Life, and it is a tremendous difference between economies and dispensations.
Then, in the next place, the Spirit is:-
The Spirit of Truth and Revelation.
We have to put our quotation marks round that word "Truth",
because it represents a particular and peculiar thing in the New
Testament. The Lord Jesus said, "The hour cometh and now is, when
the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit
and in truth". He was making a statement about a peculiar
characteristic of this dispensation. The Spirit of Truth and the
Spirit of Revelation as differing from symbolism without
understanding what it meant, and reality in the
understanding of God's mind. Two different dispensations! That's
tremendous! They had it all in type, figure and symbol,
but it is perfectly clear that they did not understand.
I think it is a tremendous thing that Moses said about this. We
have it in the book of Deuteronomy, a late statement by Moses who
said: "Even to this day the Lord hath not given you eyes
to see, and a spirit to understand..." after all, after all! You
are in the book of Deuteronomy: you've got all the history, you've
got all Exodus, you've got all Leviticus, you've got all Numbers,
you have got it all, and "even to this day, hath the Lord
not given you eyes to see and a spirit to understand". They had it
all, but they simply saw it with natural eyes, observed it
objectively; it was something like that, and they understood none
of its meaning.
Now Truth, in the New Testament sense, is not just symbolism - that is not the "truth", that's only representation, that's not the Truth. It is not the true thing and Jesus was indicating that when He said to the woman of Samaria, "The hour cometh when neither in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem shall men worship God". "In the temple here in Samaria, nor in the great Temple in Jerusalem..." that is not the true thing, that is not the true thing. It may be symbol and representation, but it is only that; it is not the Truth. We have come into the dispensation of the Truth, which is that which is spiritual, and not only in symbol and in type - the dispensation of the Spirit, the dispensation of the meaning of things. The meaning of things! Yes, the meaning of all the symbols and all the types, the meaning of everything that God had foreshadowed in that objective way - we now by the Holy Spirit have come into the meaning of things. When you come into the meaning of things, you can dispense with the childhood object lessons and pictures - if you've got the reality and the meaning - that is the characteristic of this dispensation. The Spirit of Truth and of Revelation!
That's a very challenging thing, dear friends, it is a very challenging thing. It is a sweeping thing; it is almost a terrible thing. One would be tremendously misunderstood, perhaps, certainly very, very hotly taken up, if one were to apply that. If it is true that it is the spiritual and the meaning which is the true, and that is the characteristic of this dispensation, there is something terribly lacking when people cling to, or revert to an Old Testament form of representation in outward things, of ritual and sacerdotalism; all that. You have to ask this major and fundamental question: "Have they seen, after all? Do they know the Holy Spirit?" And it is just there that there is this tremendous uprise of indignation, when you use the word "revelation". Revelation... well, here it is: "That He would grant unto you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him"; Paul is only saying: "that He would grant to you to see the meaning of things - the meaning of things, and be saved from the mere outward representation of things".
Well, that is the second thing about the change-over, and you see all this is included in this phrase: "we have this ministry". We are defining "this ministry" and this is it: it is the ministry of an entirely different kind of person from those who were the people of God in the old dispensation and it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in an entirely different way, as within the life of such people, particularly and peculiarly as the Spirit of Truth and of Revelation.
In the third place, this connects with the Kingdom.
In the old dispensation the ideas of the kingdom were those which were entirely temporal, earthly, and by force; by outward force - force of arms. That's the old dispensation; literally fighting with flesh and blood to establish the kingdom, a temporal kingdom, with a throne on this earth, and a political regime. "Like the other nations..." but a bit better! Certainly above them. An earthly thing... that is the Old Testament situation where the kingdom is concerned, and that whole mentality was the mentality of the people of God, then was carried over into the New Testament. And it was with that that the Lord Jesus probably had His greatest difficulties where His disciples and followers were concerned - this mentality. But this is a part of the new dispensation, and the new people, and the new Spirit: that the conception and mentality of the kingdom is entirely changed, entirely changed! In this dispensation it is not temporal, it is spiritual! That, to you, does need no emphasis, I am sure. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of Heaven, is a spiritual thing in this dispensation.
And yet... and yet, in saying that, it's set right over against some of the greatest Christian (so-called) systems, on this earth! That is the tremendous contrast between the true church of Christ, and that false one of Rome and Rome's sisters. That is a temporal thing a political thing, an earthly thing, and a thing which will be established by force of arms, if needs be - standing at nothing: persecution and crushing to establish, what it would call, the kingdom of God. But no, no! The Kingdom is not like that, not like that. It is spiritual, not temporal; it is heavenly, not earthly; it is Divine nature, not force. Divine nature: righteousness, holiness, peace, purity, and such like. The kingdom and patience of Jesus. This Kingdom is the Kingdom of the Divine nature, and oh, what a contrast it is with that other which is so hateful in its moral or immoral life (using that word in its largest sense).
Once more, this change-over, this difference between the letter
and the Spirit relates in the fourth place to:-
The Church Itself.
Here, very little need be said. All that is necessary is to
underline one thing: the church in this dispensation is not
an institution; it is not an earthly system; it is not
something national; it is not sectarian; it is not
denominational, interdenominational, or undenominational. The
church in this dispensation is a Person - it is Christ and it is
the extension of that Person - that is the church. It is not a
hierarchy at all; it is certainly not a clerisy; it is Christ!
And, I said, the extension of Christ, of the Person - that
is, a people, a people in whom Christ dwells, in whom Christ is
Lord, and over whom Christ is Head - that people and no other, is
the church. It is not a name; it's not a name - far better to
avoid all names. Immediately you put names on something that is
the church, you bring it to earth and divide it from all others.
It's not a name, it is not a tradition. It is not a place, and it
is not a form. It is a people whose basis of life and sum-total of
life is Christ Himself!
The church is Christ. This church is not something that you can see in its entirety; it is not apparent. It is no use going here and there looking for it to find it. You may find a greater or lesser approximation to it here or there; but you will not find this church in fulness anywhere on this earth. But wherever you find Christ in men and women, there you have the church at least in its foundation, and the measure of the church depends upon the measure of the Christ. Well, you've heard that so often, but we are redefining "this ministry"; this ministry.
Of course, you have a very large context for all that I have just been saying. You realise, don't you, that the letter to the Romans is occupied with this. The letter to the Galatians is Paul's mighty... shall I say, "sledgehammer" on this change in dispensations. And, the letter to the Hebrews is the classic in the New Testament on this difference in economies from the Mosaic to that of Christ; from the past to the present.
Well now, we can come for a few minutes to this great
illustration that the apostle takes up and uses:-
Moses and the Veil...
Which he put on his face. This is not so easy to interpret as might be thought, because Paul changes his own position on this matter, as a close observer would recognise, and he has, in so doing, created a bit of a problem. However, we tackle it. Let's analyse it.
There was a derived reflection of God's glory on the face
of Moses. Now, I put that very carefully - a derived
reflection of God's glory on the face of Moses - it did not come
from within Moses; it was not the glory of Moses. It was borrowed
glory, it was derived glory. Howbeit, it was the glory of God
which he carried on his face from the Divine presence on the
mountain. But the point is, to begin with, it did not come
from within Moses; it came from without. But even so, being
the Divine glory on his face, it was something that the natural
eye of man could not endure. That is the first argument of Paul
(he changes it in a minute) but note that: this derived, reflected
glory, which was not inherent and intrinsic where Moses was
concerned, but only mirrored glory... was something which the
natural eye of man could not look upon. A veil therefore was used
and in the first instance that veil became the symbol of man's visual
disability as to God and His things. Do you get that? It
signified that man had not the ability, the capacity, to look upon
what was of God; and that veil declared that: man's inability or
disability in the presence of that which was of God. The veil
But then, in the next place, that reflected glory faded... and this is where Paul makes the transition which creates the difficulty. It has puzzled many, and many interpretations have been given, but as the glory was fading and Moses subsequently read the Law to the people, and the glory had gone, he put a veil on so that they shouldn't see that the glory had gone! Now that's a problem, a difficulty! It's stated here, quite definitely, that he put the veil on latterly, so that they should not see that the glory had gone. So that, when the reflected glory faded, the veil took another significance: it became the means of hiding, not the presence of the glory, but the absence of it, the departure of it. Now, what does it all mean?
Well, the Law was real; it was real, it was from God. It
contained the mind of God, it was not something unreal. Yes, it
has in it the glory of God - the very Law itself has in it the
glory of God, but... but that mind and glory of God became hidden.
It became hidden. These were statements, yes, statements of the
Divine mind but, because, because of a state of the
people, a state of the people, there is no apprehending, indeed
there is no abiding presence of the glory of the Divine mind.
There was no heart revelation. There was no capacity for
receiving and understanding the mind of God, therefore the glory
could not be present.
Now, in principle you can see how true that is even now. If there is not the Spirit within, as the Spirit of Truth and Revelation and Life, there may be present a ministry of Truth, of the Word, of the mind of God, but there's no glory. No glory. If you, dear friends, were here tonight as a group of unsaved, unregenerate people, and I were talking to you like this, well, if I'm speaking the truth, if this is all the truth, you'd all be looking bewildered, and dark and heavy, and wondering what it is all about, and longing for the moment to come when you could go home! No glory, no response, if the Spirit is not there. There is a veil; the glory is not there though the Truth may be there, because of the state of the people. "But when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away... Now the Lord is the Spirit", and where the Spirit is Lord there is release from this condition, and the glory comes in.
I take it that as we read this evening that whole section, you in
your own mind and with your own eye were underlining that word
"glory, glory, glory". The difference, you see! Now Paul argues
that, even today when Moses is read, the veil remains, simply
because of the state of the people themselves. But we have "this
ministry" - what? "God hath shined into our hearts to
give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ". "We have
this ministry"! It's a ministry resultant from the
in-shining, in other words, the Revelation of Christ in our hearts.
It's there in the Word, but the thoughts of God were in
the words that Moses spoke! The mind of God was just as much there
in the Law, as it is in the New Testament! It is the mind of God -
He is the same God - it emanates from the same God. It is no less
truth, and meaningful, than anything subsequent - but, you
see, lacking in a spiritual condition and capacity in the people,
it went for nothing! The veil remains.
"When it shall turn to the Spirit..." and the Spirit is Lord, and God hath shined into the heart, the veil is gone; it is removed! A ministry of inward revelation of Jesus Christ - "we have this ministry..." This is release from "the letter" and when Paul speaks about the letter killing, he does not mean that it is not the Word of God - something less as to the Word of God - he does not mean that at all. He is not contrasting between what God said then and what God says now. He is saying that then it was "letter" in this sense: that it could only be given objectively; read to the people from the outside, but now it is revealed to the heart, and has become Life. So it is Spirit now plus the Word, or the Word plus the Spirit. Then it was "the letter" and no indwelling Spirit. Now we are released into the glory of the unveiled face of Jesus - we have this ministry.
What does it mean? What does it mean for you and for me? It should mean this: that you and I have got the meaning of things - they only had the things, we've got the meaning of them. That meaning is given to us by the Holy Spirit within... not all at once, but progressively. A mark of the Holy Spirit's abiding and of our life in the Spirit is that we are progressing in the meaning of the things of God: Life and Glory!
But it's like that, isn't it? It's like that with all of us. No matter how many times we have read it and thought we had got it and knew it, there comes a new flash and that old, old truth, that old statement, those old words... a flash, and it means to us new life, new glory - we never saw that before! That's a mark of the life in the Spirit. That is what we mean and what Paul meant by "revelation", not extra to the Word, not apart from the Word, not our private revelation, but what the Spirit Himself is teaching and showing according to the promise of the Lord Himself.
Well now, you see, this is what Paul means when he says, "made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life". "We have this ministry..." and therefore, seeing we have this ministry, even as we have obtained mercy, "we faint not". We faint not.
Dear friends, I trust that, although I have said nothing new to you, you are able to recognise, perhaps in a fresh way, if not in a new way, what it is the Lord has called us to; what the nature of our life and ministry is. May He open the eyes of our hearts, and give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.