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II Corinthians 3: 6-9

       Notice the following passage:   “[God] who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Cor.3:6).    Then, the next verse (verse 7) speaks of “the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones.”

       Many people think that Paul is here speaking of the Ten Commandments being “written and engraved on stones”--- and that trying to obey the Ten Commandments “kills” or brings “death.”   Is this, in fact, what Paul is saying?

        First of all, when Paul refers to the ministry of death (verse 7), that phrase is better rendered as the ministration of death---as it is rendered in the following translations:  KJV, KJ21, YLT, ASV, WYC, TMB, Douay-Rheims.    Clearer still, is the rendering in Moffatt:  the administration of death.     (Similar renderings are in The New Jerusalem Bible and in Phillips.)

       Likewise, in verse 9, where it speaks of the ministry of condemnation, that is better rendered as the administration of condemnation.

 

   

What Is This “administration of death written and engraved on stones”? 

       First, notice verse 3:  “clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone [speaking of the Ten Commandments] but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.”   The word “stone” here in verse 3 is from a different Greek word than the word “stones” in verse 7.   In verse 3, the Greek word is “lithinais,” which means “formed of stones”---whereas in verse 7, the Greek word is “lithais,” which refers to whole stones. 1

         So, verse 7 speaks of whole stones, on which the administration of death was “written and engraved.”   What were these whole stones? 

       As we’ll see shortly, these were massive stones---actually stone walls---on which the entire civil law of ancient Israel was written. 

       The Ten Commandments are listed in Deut. chapter 5.   Then, chapter 5 continues:  “These words [the Ten Commandments] the LORD spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more.   And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me”  (verse 22). 

       Yes, the Ten Commandments were complete.   God added “no more.”   These two tablets of stone were written and engraved with the Ten Commandments and nothing else.

       However, God did also give Israel a “glorious” system of civil law---a system of statutes and judgments, which were based on the principles of the Ten Commandments.

        The statutes and judgments were spoken by God to Moses in chapters 12–27 of Deuteronomy (also in Exodus chapters 21-23 and in Leviticus chapters 10-27).    Moses wrote these statutes and judgments in a book---"the Book of the Covenant" (Ex.24: 3-7).    So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying: ‘Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside [in the side of-- KJV] the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there as a witness against you’”  (Deut.31:24-26).

        So, Moses wrote down the civil law code in a book, and this book was placed in the side of the Ark of the Covenant--- unlike the Ten Commandments, which were placed inside the Ark.

      Furthermore, not only did Moses write this civil law in the Book, we will now see that the words of that book were to be later written on massive stone walls.

       Notice Deut. chapter 27:   “Now Moses, with the elders of Israel, commanded the people, saying:  ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you today.  And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime.  You shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have crossed over, that you may enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you, “a land flowing with milk and honey,”  just as the LORD God of your fathers promised you.  Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, and you shall whitewash them with lime.….And you shall write very plainly on the stones all the words of this law’”  (verses 1-8).

       So, Moses instructed that this should be done at the time when they entered the Promised Land.   Let’s now read where these instructions were implemented:   “Now Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: ‘an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool.  And they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.  And there, in the presence of the children of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written”  (Joshua 8: 30-32).

       Yes, Joshua wrote on these massive stones the words of the law of Moses---or Book of the Law, as it’s referred to in verse 34.

       Now, back to the subject of what Paul meant by his phrase the administration of death, written and engraved on stones. 

       The people ‘administered’ the death penalty for certain violations of this national law2 ---this civil law of statutes and judgments.   “The government of Israel had church and state combined….The ministration of death functioned only as long as the civil government of Israel.”   The passage in II Cor. chapter 3 is not doing away with the Ten Commandments---God’s spiritual law---the law which defines sin;  rather, it is speaking of the termination of the God-ordained system in Israel of having a church related administration carrying out penalties for infractions of the statutes and judgments that God gave to Israel.   

       “God’s ministers today do not administer death.   They administer life!   How?   By teaching people how to escape the ultimate death penalty through Jesus Christ and teaching them, in Christ’s own words, If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments’  (Matt. 19:17).” 2

       “In Romans 7:10, Paul shows that God’s commandments were given to bring LIFE.   They only seem to bring death because, as he explains in verse 11, SIN deceives people into believing that, and then SIN kills them [as also shown in Rom. 6:16].   The Ten Commandments should never be thought of as the administration of death.  That’s what Satan wants us to think.” 1

 

  

Verses 7-9

       Let’s now look at verses 7-9, which also causes confusion:   “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?   For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.”

       In reading the above passage, one might think that there is some close connection between the administration of death and the glory of Moses’ face.  Actually, there is no connection.  Rather, there is a parallel.  In verse 7, where it says, “so that the children of Israel,”  the word “so” is translated from the Greek word hoste, which in some contexts, can mean ‘as’---as it certainly must in this case.  Paul was using simile (showing similarity using ‘like’ or ‘as’).   For instance, if someone says, Bill stared at that glass of water like a lion stalking his prey, that doesn’t mean there is a connection between Bill and the lion.  There is simply a parallel.  So what was Paul saying?   He was pointing out that, just as the glory of Moses’ face had a brilliant glory, even though it was only temporary, so the civil administration of death at that time had a brilliant glory even though it [too] was only temporary.   But, as he goes on to show, that pales beside the much greater, permanent glory of the spiritual administration of righteousness (or commandment-keeping:  All Your commandments are righteousness---Psalm 119:172). 1

       So, what was Paul saying in verses 7-9?

       Peter mentioned that Paul sometimes wrote in a complicated style that was “hard to understand”  (II Peter 3:15-16).   With that in mind, here is an expanded paraphrase of what Paul is most likely saying in 2 Corinthians 3:   But if the administration of death---written in the Book of the Law and eventually engraved on massive stone walls---was glorious, even though it would one day pass away (just as the Israelites couldn’t look at Moses’ face after he had beheld God because of the glory of his countenance, even though it was also a mere passing glory), wouldn’t the administration of the Spirit, which remains forever, be much more glorious?’”1       

 

  

Conclusion

       We have seen that when Paul spoke of the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, he was not referring to the Ten Commandments!   Paul did not teach that the Ten Commandments or God’s spiritual law is no longer in force.   Rather, Paul taught that Christians must strive to obey God’s commandments!

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

1.  “QUESTIONS & SHORT ANSWERS,”  The World Ahead,  July-August 1995, p.19

2.  “QUESTIONS & SHORT ANSWERS,”  The World Ahead,  May 1995, p.19

3.  “Is OBEDIENCE to God Required for Salvation?”  The Plain Truth,  September 1956,  pp. 15-17, 24