2 Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 3:2–15, Overview of the Letter Vs. the Spirit of the Torah
In this passage, Paul isn’t teaching against the validity or replacement of the Torah with something else. There is nothing wrong with Torah. How could there be? It is the Word, mind, will and heart of Elohim. Torah shows us how to love Elohim and our neighbor. It shows us how to be blessed, defines sin, shows us how to walk in the paths of righteousness, leads us to Messiah and the shows us our need for him because of our sin and inability to live up to its high standards of holiness and righteousness.
These are just a few of the wonderful benefits of Torah, and I’ve discussed this at length many times elsewhere. The problem with Torah, if you will, is not with Torah itself, but with what sinful and misguided people do with it. Torah itself, like money alcohol or guns, is neutral. It’s the misuse of these things by sinful people that is evil. For example, money isn’t evil; however, the love of it is.
The problem with many people in our day who are returning to a more Hebraic and Torah-centric orientation in their spiritual walk is balance or the lack thereof. Too many people go hog-wild over Torah because the mainstream church system from which they have come has deprived them of it, and when they learn about it, they run to Torah like a flock of starving and half-crazed sheep stampeding from a desert into verdant, lush pasture of grass. They gorge themselves and then get the runs and get all messy. (I know because I grew up on a sheep farm!) Too many people forget about Yeshua and the fact that they can’t even do Torah without him and his Spirit in working in them. Sadly, people forget that we’re “under/subject to the law toward Messiah” as Paul was (1 Cor 9:21). Without Messiah, it’s the dead letter, and as you’ve stated, all you have is a bunch of people trying to earn their own righteousness through their own will power. Can’t be done. The Israelites failed at this and most perished in the wilderness. Why do we think we can do any better?
Please keep this mind, in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul here is largely talking about covenants—both the old and new, which he refers to in verses 6 and in 7 as “the ministration of death,” and which is passing away (v. 11). The Torah itself which remains is still glorious (v. 11). The Torah was merely the terms of the “Old Covenant”, not the covenant itself. Never forget that the “Old Covenant” never promised a person eternal life or ultimate salvation from sin; the New Covenant does. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with the Torah itself, for with it comes many benefits and blessings (if obeyed) and many curses including guilt, shame, condemnation and death (if disobeyed). The problem with a totally Torah-centric orientation, as you’ve correctly identified, is that it overlooks the necessary power of the Spirit of Elohim at work in a person’s life through a relationship with Yeshua. The problem is the rebelliousness of human nature and hard human heart which refuses to be subject to the laws of Elohim (Heb 8:7–8; Rom 8:7; Jer 17:9).
Moreover, the problem has never been with the Torah, or even the letter of Torah-law per se. How could it be? Torah is the instructions in righteousness from Elohim himself and are a reflection of his very mind, will and heart. There can be nothing wrong with this, since this is pure light and Truth! Now I said “the letter of the law per se.” What did I mean by this? Simply this. If one lives only by the letter of the law, and judges others by the letter, and doesn’t bring in the spirit of law, then how are we all to stand? What if YHVH only judged us by the letter and not the spirit? We’d all be grease spots yesterday!!! No! Thankfully, his mercy triumphs over his judgment against our violation of his Torah or else we’re all gonners! There for his grace go all of us. If we get all hung up all the time on every jot and tittle of every point of the law, we’ll be so focused on that and on legalism and judgmentalism that our focus will be on that instead on the love of brethren and the love of Yeshua. We’ll be so focused on a punctilious letter of the law obedience and judging everyone else who’s not living up to our standards that we won’t be doing the great commission and winning the lost and loving one another. That’s the problems with the HR movement and why I’ve stepped outside of it, so to speak. We’ve become so proud of our Torah-obedience that YHVH can’t use us to advance his kingdom. He hates this pride!
The problems with Torah is humans, which isn’t a problem with Torah at all. It’s deceitful, deceived humans who twist Torah for their own purposes or who misunderstand its full purpose. Remember what Hebrews 8:8 says? The problem was with them—the Israelites—NOT the Torah. That’s one reason YHVH needed to make a new covenant and why the old one is passing away (v. 13). The remedy? As Jeremiah prophesied, YHVH this time will pour out his Spirit and change the hard and disobedient heart of faithlessness and unbelief (Heb 4:1–7) of man and give him a new heart (Heb 8:7–13; Jer 31…31–33). Again, as you’ve correctly stated, this can only happen as Yeshua lives out his righteousness in a person as the Spirit changes the heart. Again, we’re subject to the Torah through Messiah (1 Cor 9:21). This is the miracle of a transformed heart that not only wants to but is empowered to comply with the Torah. It truly is a miracle that we can’t fully understand or explain. But the fruits of it are evident in a person’s life—called the fruit of the Spirit. All the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5 are the fruits or manifestation of Torah obedience out of a heart of love and faith. At the same time, the works of the flesh are the manifestation of Torahlessness which is sin (1 John 3:4), and is the opposite of righteousness, which Torah defines (Ps 119:172).
What is the blindness Paul refers about in 1 Corinthians 3:14? It’s the blindness of a hard and disbelieving heart. It’s the blindness of human pride in self and one’s ability to live up to Torah by one’s own strength. It’s pride in thinking that we’re better than the next guy who’s not living up to our Torah standard, whatever that may be. It’s blindness based on a letter of the law approach to Torah instead of both a letter AND a spirit of the law approach. And yes, there can be the blindness due to the guilt and shame of failing to live up to the high moral and spiritual standards. When we obey Torah out of fear of Elohim instead of love for him, this too is blindness and bondage.
2 Corinthians 3:4–11, Ministry of death. Is this a reference to the Torah law that YHVH gave to Moses and the Israelites (and which was passed on down to us)? If so, which aspects of it are the “ministry of death”? Just previously in verse six, Paul is speaking about the new covenant and the letter bringing death and the spirit bringing life. What is he referring to here? Is the spirit of the Torah-law all that is applicable to the believer today, and not the letter?
If the Torah has been done away with, then why did Yeshua in his Sermon on the Mount excoriate the Jews for keeping the letter and not the spirit of the Torah? In fact, he strongly affirmed that his disciples must keep both the letter and the spirit of the Torah. To keep only the spirit would be tantamount to saying it’s all right to murder as long as you don’t hate the person, commit adultery as you don’t lust in the process, and so on. It should be plain to see that his notion is absurd. Yet this is what many Christians believe. They assert that they only have to keep the spirit of the law, but don’t have to keep the letter of the law (except the so-called “moral law”; i.e., don’t murder, steal, lie and commit adultery, etc.), and they will use this passage of Scripture to justify their belief. If this is not what Paul meant here, then what is he talking about when he is favoring the spirit of the Torah over the letter? If Paul is not referring to the Torah as the “ministry of death” in this passage, then to what is he referring?
Paul references the stone tablets containing the Torah that Moses brought back the second time from Mount Sinai. Some aspect of this Torah (i.e. “the ministry of death”) brought the curse of death. Was it the Torah law itself, which tells man how to love Elohim with all of his heart, soul and strength and his neighbor as himself that brought death? It seems inconceivable and counter to the Torah itself that Paul would be referring to the aspect of the Torah that tells a man how to love his Creator and fellow man as causing death. After all, the Torah itself tells us that if a man follows the Torah, he will live and that Torah brings life (Deut 30:15, 19) —not death.
Conversely, disobedience to the Torah (or Torahlessness) is considered death (ibid.). So, in Paul’s mind, if he is to stay consistent with the Scriptures, Torah-obedience can’t be considered causing death. So what aspect of the Torah is Paul referring to then that kills? He must be referring to the penalty imposed on one for violating the Torah. Violating the Torah brings penalties and curses and sometimes even the death penalty (Deut 27 and 28). Elsewhere, the Scripture tells us that sin is Torahlessness (1 John 3:4). Moreover, the person who sins ultimately brings on himself the death penalty (Ezek 18:4; Rom 6:23) if he fails to place his faith in Yeshua and repent of his sins or violation of YHVH’s Torah-laws (Rom 6:23–26; 1 John 1:9).
It is the violation of the Torah that condemns or kills. We see this to be true in that Paul goes on to equate “the ministry of death” (v. 7) with “the ministry of condemnation” (v. 9a), and contrasts both terms to “the ministry of righteousness” (v. 9b), which he declares is more glorious. He affirms that the ministry of death or condemnation is passing away and that which remains—the ministry of righteousness—is much more glorious (v. 11).
What is Paul saying here? Quite simply this. YHVH gave to the children of Israel a glorious legal system at the birth of that nation. A nation needs a legal system to be a nation of law and order. No other nation to that point had ever received such a legal system directly from the Creator of the universe himself. Not the Egyptians, Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greek, Romans or anyone else. How glorious is this that the Almighty would give humans a legal code, so they wouldn’t have to figure one out themselves by trial and error, or borrow a flawed one from some other nation?
At issue here is that this legal code, as do the legal codes of all nations, came with penalties for violation of it. Depending on the crime, the Torah prescribed different penalties for different crimes. Some penalties were minor, some were intermediate, and some crimes carried the death penalty. Every crime or sin had a punishment. This penal system was “the ministry of condemnation.”
This penal system changed with the arrival of the new covenant. Yeshua who ushered in the new covenant died in our place to pay the penalty for all of our sins. How did this work? Simply this. If a man places his faith in Yeshua and repents of his sins, he can have all of his past sins washed away along with the penalty for those sins, which is eternal death in the lake of fire. Through faith in Yeshua, the cleansing of sin, and having Yeshua’s righteousness imputed to a person along with the help of the Set-Apart Spirit living inside of a person, one can actually live a Torah-obedient life. If one stumbles along the way and sins, all one has to do is repent of that sin and go forward endeavoring not to sin again with YHVH’s help (1 John 1:9). How glorious is this?
As glorious as the previous Torah legal system was under the former covenant, the new covenant is much more glorious, since it allows humans to attain to immortal life and inclusion in the kingdom of Elohim as his spiritual sons and daughters. That’s why Paul could say that “the Spirit [referring to the YHVH’s Set-Apart Spirit] gives life” (1 Cor 3:6). Paul goes on to say that “where the Spirit of YHVH is, there is liberty” (v. 17). Liberty from what? From the Torah, so now we can now violate the Torah with impunity without suffering the consequences, or liberty from the ultimate penalty of violating the Torah, which is death? To be consistent with the Word of Elohim, only the later can be true, not the former, or else the Word of Elohim is inconsistent and is a lie and we’re all lost spiritually and without any hope of redemption.
2 Corinthians 3:11, Passing away. This is not a reference to the Torah-law itself, but to the old or former covenant (i.e. the agreement or contract YHVH and Israel made with each other) as it phases into the new or renewed covenant. Yeshua initiated the new covenant at his last supper, but it will be finalized with the two houses of Israel (see Jer 31:31, 33 and Heb 8:8) at his second coming when the two sticks or houses of Israel are reunited (see Ezek 37:15–27) at which time he will finalize the new covenant with a reunited Israel (v. 26; see also Isa 54:10; 55:3; 59:21; Ezek 34:25; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Hos 2:18–23). We are presently in the intermediate phase between the two covenants. To view it differently, Yeshua betrothed himself to his spiritual bride (redeemed Israel, spiritual Israel or the Israel of Elohim, see Gal 6:16) at his last supper, but will marry her at his second coming. The saints who are now in Yeshua are under the new covenant as the betrothed bride of Yeshua, but all Israel will be brought into the new covenant at his second coming at which time he will finalize the covenant that he initiated with his disciples before his death.