In studying the Scriptures to get a clear understanding of the New Covenant, or the New Testament, we come to a passage that seems completely out of place and if we are not careful, we will make a mess of things. This passage is found in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians:
2 Corinthians 3:4–7 — “And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; 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. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away…”
Now for any that consider God’s people of the present dispensation to be His New Covenant People, or His new Covenant People¹, there is no difficulty here. In much of this line of thinking, all of God’s plans and purposes find their fulfillment in the church of the present day, and they do not see any (and God forbid that you see any) distinctiveness in the Apostle Paul’s ministry as Christ’s chosen apostle of the Gentiles and the minister to whom the Lord gave the dispensation of His grace. Most will think of Paul as one of Christ’s apostles, but not as distinctively having delivered God’s will for the Church which is Christ’s body.
The difficulty comes when we understand that Body of Christ is not the Nation of Israel, and then we realize that it was to the Nation of Israel that The Lord Jehovah promised a new covenant:
Jeremiah 31:31 — “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah…”
Then we come to this passage in 2 Corinthians, in which Paul, the apostle called to the Gentiles with the gospel of the grace of God, states that “…God… made us able ministers of the new testament”, testament here being a translation of the exact same Greek word that is elsewhere translated “covenant”, as in Hebrews 8:8, which is a quotation of Jeremiah 31:31.
As I stated in previous writings, their are several dispensational interpretations of the new covenant and its relation to the church of the present dispensation. These are, in no particular order:
- Single covenant, Israel only. The new covenant was made with Israel and has nothing to do with the church of the present dispensation
- The new covenant was made with Israel, but the church is partaker in one way or another of the spiritual blessings component of it.
- That there is a new covenant with Israel and a different new covenant made with the church.
- That the new covenant has been transferred to believers of the the present age but will also be ultimately fulfilled to Israel during Christ’s kingdom reign on earth.
Each of these has its arguments, some better than others, but this passage that is in 2 Corinthians throws a monkey wrench into the machinery of at least the first in the list, while numbers 2, 3, and 4 are attempts to deal with this problem.
Number 2, making the church a partaker of part of this covenant has a flaw in if God gave us part of the new covenant but not all of it, he did not give us the new covenant. He gave us something else that has commonalities with the new covenant, but not the new covenant.
Number 3 has the problem that, quite simply, we nowhere find anything in scripture of a new covenant being made with “the church”. The Church which is Christ’s body is “one new man”, and “new creature” not created under covenants but created in Christ Jesus. I get what L.S. Chafer and John Walvoord are getting at in this position, but we must be careful to not create something that is not there.
Regarding number 4, this would make us a temporary Israel. This is practical covenant theology that at least rightly teaches a future for Israel as a nation. This does not deal with the fact that what God is doing now was a mystery kept secret since the world began (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:1–12, Colossians 1:25–27).
As for the “single covenant, Israel only” (SCIO) argument, most attempts to deal with this problem only lead to worse problems. Before moving ahead, however, I must say that there are very good scriptural reasons for the SCIO position.
- The clearest first mention² of this new covenant³: Jeremiah 31:31 — “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah…”. Can it be made any clearer to whom that new covenant is made?
- Acts 3:25 — “Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.”. This is Peter talking explicitly to “men of Israel” (Acts 3:12), and Gentile believers of the present dispensation, or, said even more explicitly, the church of the present dispensation is not part of Peter’s audience. He is talking to Israelite unbelievers, bringing them in guilty for crucifying God’s Messiah, yet he is still calling them the children of the covenant.
- Romans 9:3–5 — “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
- Ephesians 2:11–13 — “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” It is important to note here what this says, and what it does not say. The uncircumcision, or Gentiles, are not said to be made nigh by being now included and covered under the new covenant, but that they are made nigh by the blood of Christ. Yes, this is the blood of the new testament, or covenant, but it does not say here that his blood now puts these strangers under the new covenant so that they now are included in the new covenant promises.
Those that hold this argument make excellent points, but what happens when we come to our passage under consideration can really mess things up. Among these are the “Acts 28” dispensational position, the “2 sendings” position that states Paul was sent twice, and the “dual-ministry” theory that holds that Paul had a different ministry to Jews related to the Gospel of the Kingdom than he did to the Gentiles related to the Gospel of Grace. There are probably other ways that are used to deal with this, and it is true that none of the above stated positions come from this passage alone, but it definitely is a big part of it. Here is a better approach, although I would not say that I agree with it entirely 4.
A year or so ago I heard a local “Mid-Acts” pastor speak on this passage, and he probably would hold to the SCIO position. What he said on this, at the time, I thought to be a bit of a “cop-out”. He said that the new testament in this passage is simply “grace” and did not go much further.
As I consider this now, I think that he may have been on to something, and maybe it should have been explained further. Or maybe I didn’t hear the further explanation. In any case, the consideration of this subject has let to my own further study on this subject and now I agree that grace is what Paul was talking about. Let me further explain…
In the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is writing about the subject of his ministry. During the same time period (although arguments from chronology are not definitive) that he wrote this epistle, he had this to say to the elders of the Ephesian church:
Acts 20:24 — “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
So according to Acts 20:24, Paul’s ministry is to testify the gospel of the grace of God. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, he (and Timothy with him, the “us” used in this passage), is an able minister of the new testament. He is testifying the gospel of the grace of God. That is his ministry. He is not speaking about future kingdom blessings to Israel, or testifying the gospel of the kingdom. Yes, Paul does testify the kingdom of God (Acts 28:23), and preach the kingdom of God (Acts 20:23, 28:31, etc.), but this is not the same as the gospel of the kingdom that John the Baptist, Christ our Lord, and the twelve apostles preached.
In the third chapter of 2 Corinthians, he is contrasting his ministry with the law. In fact, while it is interesting that some, in attempt avoid offending Jewish folks by calling what we call the Old Testament the Old Testament, in this chapter the Apostle Paul calls what many would change to say “the Hebrew Scriptures” the Old Testament. He is not talking only about the testament, or the covenant from Mt. Sinai, which he calls the first covenant, or that which is made old in Hebrews 8:13, but really, what the Lord called the Law and the Prophets, or what we refer to as the Old Testament:
2 Corinthians 3:14 — “But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.”
What makes this the old testament? It is that God is sending a new message, or making a new declaration of will, or a new testament. What is this new testament? It is the gospel of His grace. The new testament that Paul is talking about in this chapter is not what God will do regarding His covenant people in the future, but it is about the ministry that Paul is ministering now.
- Not of the letter but of the spirit
- Not the ministration of death but the ministration of life
- Not written in tables of stone but in fleshy tables of the heart
- Not a ministration of condemnation but a ministration of righteousness
- Glory that excelleth
While there is some commonality in this with the new covenant as stated in Jeremiah 31, some commonality does not make it the same thing. The new covenant promises to Israel also include land promises (Jeremiah 31:38–40, Ezekiel 36:24–38) that have nothing to do with the present dispensation of the grace of God, of which Paul was made minister (Colossians 1:25).
So when Paul says in his first epistle to the Corinthians regarding the cup, the communion of the blood of Christ that we indeed do share (1 Corinthians 10:16), he reveals how the Lord revealed to him that He said “this cup is the new testament in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25), and in this the Lord is making a new declaration of His will.
His blood avails to redemption. Israel, under the old covenant, failed, and is (still) in desperate need of that redemption. The promises of the new covenant will only be possible because of that redeeming blood. The church of the present dispensation made up of Jew and Gentile on equal footing, made nigh by the cross, is purchased by that same blood (Acts 20:28). His blood is God’s declaration of His will.
It is this very testament of which Paul is the minister. And the Lord made him the able minister of it, and we rejoice in the grace that we are under.
We are not under law, or covenant, but under grace. We are under a new dispensation, the dispensation of the grace of God.
Romans 6:14 — “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
Colossians 1:14 — “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins…”
In all, we find this not a monkey wrench in the machinery at all, we just need to understand what we are talking about. Just because we see διακόνους καινῆς, we do not have to assume it means only what it means in Jeremiah 31. And it is good to study these things on our own, to weigh all teachings in light of the full revelation in the scriptures, and never stop learning from the Word of God.
I am certain that many will find disagreement with the things here stated. I hope that we can at least still find fellowship, or communion, in the blood of Christ our Savior. His blood is our communion, and we rejoice in that blood that speaks much better things!
- There is a distinction here in the capitalization. Saying that believers today are God’s New Covenant People keeps intact the fact that Israel is God’s Covenant People, while saying that we are His new Covenant People implies that Israel is no longer His Covenant People, and that “the Church” has superseded Israel and is now the sole recipient of all the promises to Israel. I hold to neither of these positions, but they are out there.
- There is a common concept out there called “the law of first mention”, which states something to the effect that the first time that a word, phrase, or concept is stated defines it from there forward. We should be careful in invoking this rule, because there are enough exceptions to make it not binding on anything. Better yet, we should discard this rule entirely, because it leads to more problems than it solves. The best way to understand the word, phrase or concept is to observe how it is used in the particular context that it is used so that we do not import meaning that is foreign to the immediate context.
- This new covenant and the future blessing of Israel under it is taught throughout the Old Testament. This is the first place that we see the phrase new covenant, but when we read even beginning in the books of Moses, the concept is there. It is throughout the Psalms and Prophets. See Deuteronomy 30:6, Isaiah 59:21, etc..
- This is from Grace Ambassadors, who I would recommend to anyone even if I do not agree with everything from them. “Study to shew thyself approved…”
Husband, father, engineer...Enjoys fishing, archery, guitar, running, and lifting, but most of all reading and studying God's Word.