August 7, 2015

The Living Letters of the New Covenant

by Mike Riccardi

“You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
– 2 Corinthians 3:3 –

2 Cor 3;3As false apostles in Corinth are challenging Paul’s credibility, they object to his authority and promote their own on the basis of letters of commendation. They’ve got doctored letters from some church in Jerusalem, and they’re calling Paul out because he has none. Paul responds by saying that Christ Himself has written him a letter of commendation. And it wasn’t written with mere ink or on stone, but by the Spirit on human hearts. The salvation of the Corinthians themselves was all the commendation Paul needed.

If we follow Paul’s imagery carefully, we wouldn’t have expected him to set up a contrast between human hearts and tablets of stone. He’s just spoken of natural letters written in ink, and you don’t use ink on stone. We would have expected Paul to say something like, “Not on papyrus, or parchments, which fade away along with the ink written on them.” But he doesn’t say that. He contrasts “tablets of human hearts”—literally, “tablets that are hearts of flesh”—with “tablets of stone.”

Why? Well, the false apostles (i.e., those whom Paul was defending himself against in 2 Corinthians) were Judaizers. They were teaching that circumcision and keeping the ceremonial law of Moses was necessary for salvation. And so by changing the contrast from “written on paper” to “written on tablets of stone,” Paul is contrasting the impotence of the law in under the Mosaic Covenant with the almighty sanctifying power of the Spirit under the New Covenant, which has now dawned with Christ.

Think about it. What else was written on tablets of stone? The Ten Commandments (Exod 31:18). But what was the New Covenant promise? Jeremiah 31:33: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people.” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes,

“At Sinai the law had been written by the finger of God on tablets of stone; but this was an external law-giving, whereby sinful man was confronted with his awful inability to fulfill the just requirements of his holy Creator. Jeremiah 31:33, however, promises a lawgiving that is internal, namely, the writing by God of His law in the very heart itself” (90).

And how will that come to pass? Ezekiel 36:26 says,

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”

When the Corinthians experienced the reality of their conversion through his preaching of the Gospel, Paul says this hundreds-of-years-old promise was coming to fulfillment! God, through Christ, and by the Spirit, removed their heart of stone, and gave them a heart of flesh! Christ’s letter of commendation on behalf of Paul wasn’t written on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablets of the human heart made alive by divine grace!

All that the Judaizing false apostles could commend to the Corinthians, was the law etched on tablets of stone, which could never take away the sin so securely rooted in hearts of stone. The Mosaic administration had its purposes in the redemptive plan of God, absolutely. But all it could ever do was to inform us of our duty, and demonstrate how powerless our hearts of stone were to ever attain to the righteousness that God requires of us.

When teachers insist that you need to do something to be true beneficiaries of Christ’s work—whether it’s receiving circumcision, doing penance, or just keeping a list of man-made rules—they are simply devolving and regressing back to the ministry of death (2 Cor 3:7)—the ministry of condemnation (2 Cor 3:9). But, dear friends, the ministry of life has come! The day of the ministry of righteousness (2 Cor 3:9) has dawned with the coming of the Christ who is the fulfillment of God’s law, and with the coming of the promised Holy Spirit who is now shed abroad in your hearts (Rom 5:5).

Ezekiel 36;26 - New Heart

And God has promised to His people, that by the work of that very Holy Spirit, that He would remove your spiritually dead heart of stone, would give you a heart of flesh, and would put His law within you and write it on your hearts—so that with the Spirit dwelling within you, and the law written on your heart, God’s commandments would no longer be pressure from without, only and ever informing you of what you must do but can never do, but that they would be power from within, empowering you to live a life of joyful obedience to God, with eagerness and gladness.

Moses gave instructions for worship in the tabernacle, which was a mere copy and shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. But now, Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises (Heb 8:5–6).

Paul says, “My Corinthians, the New Covenant is here. The letters of the false apostles commend to you a ministry that could never save you, could never sanctify you, and so pointed you to the ministry that was to come. This is the very Gospel I preached to you: regeneration—the new birth—effected by the Holy Spirit Himself permanently dwelling in you, all received by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone.”

Dear reader, have you received this Gospel? Have you trusted this Jesus? Have you partaken of the glorious ministry of this New Covenant that has come in Christ? Have you owned and confessed your guilt and unrighteousness before a holy God. Have you acknowledged that your sins have violated God’s law, have separated you from Him, and have earned for you the just judgment of eternal punishment? Have you confessed to Him that there is nothing you could ever do to pay the penalty your sins incurred? Not Bible reading, not prayer, not church attendance, not any kind of good work! Have you abandoned pursuing a righteousness of your own, derived from any kind of commandment-keeping (cf. Phil 3:9)?

If you haven’t, do nothing else before you do that now. Turn and put your trust in Christ alone for your righteousness. Look and see this promised Messiah, crucified and killed, and buried—and resurrected!—conquering sin and death. Look and see in Him all the righteousness you will ever need to stand in the presence of God Almighty, and count on His righteousness alone to get you there.

For my dear brothers and sisters who know Christ and the sweet saving graces of the New Covenant, does your life reflect this Gospel that you are saved by? Is your life a letter of Christ, bearing the marks of Christ’s own handwriting, penned with the ink of the Holy Spirit Himself (cf. 2 Cor 3:3)? Is your life a letter of commendation for the ministerial labors of your pastors and shepherds? And is it legible? Is it known and read by all men? Can people look at the transformation of your life—at your speech, at your actions, at your attitudes—and say, “There is a man who has partaken of the New Covenant! There is woman upon whom the promise of the ages has come! There is a heart in which the law of God has been written, so that she delights to obey His commandments! There is a heart in which the Spirit of God reigns, so that he delights to put off sin, and walk in the way of righteousness!”

I pray you can answer yes. And to whatever degree you come short of that, pursue it all the more, strengthened by the glory, loveliness, and delightfulness of that sufficient Savior Himself—that mediator of a better covenant, enacted upon better promises—who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without blemish to God, to cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb 9:14).

Look to Christ, and be saved. And look to Christ, and be sanctified.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • kevin2184

    Thanks again, Mike, for always stating things so clearly and in such great perspective.

  • tovlogos

    Thanks Mike — perfect.
    “Can people look at the transformation of your life(?)” That results from a genuine immersion in the Spirit.

    “I pray you can answer yes. And to whatever degree you come short of that, pursue it all the more…” To our last breaths.