Comparing Religions: Go Ahead and Do It.

“For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.” (II Corinthians 3:9)

Going forward into an unknown future is scary.  Going back into a known yesterday is safe, feels secure, and quietens unsettled nerves.

Churches trying to retain the trappings of a 1955 faith and worship services will resist modern developments such as projection screens, PowerPoint, wireless microphones, digital drums, and choruses. Many would rather argue points of theology than face contemporary issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.  They speak of former days as though there once was a golden age of Christianity in this country, and they despair at the form of today’s church.

The politician who can promise his constituents all the glories of an imagined utopia of yesterday–”the Reagan years” or “the prosperity of the Clinton administration” are current favorites–will always find a following. The candidate who insists we deal with today’s realities by plunging headlong into the challenge not so much.

Israel in the wilderness could not visualize the blessings of Canaan, a land only promised but never seen by any of them. And since getting there was proving to be harder and taking longer than they ever expected, many wanted to go back into the slavery and misery of Egypt.  Better the drudgery that we know than the uncertainties we don’t (see Numbers 11:5 and chapter 14).

In the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews particularly, but also here in II Corinthians 3, we are given a striking contrast between the “old system” (called variously the Old Testament, the old covenant, or simply Judaism) and the new way, which is in Jesus Christ.  

(We always want to emphasize that this “new thing” which God did in Christ was His plan from the beginning and not an innovation which He concocted when the original scheme failed, as some accuse. Jesus fulfilled the Old and brought forth the New.)

“(He) also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory…how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?

For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. (For indeed, what had glory, in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it.) For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.” (II Corinthians 3:6-11)

What Paul is attempting in these few verses, the writer of Hebrews devotes the entire book to: showing the superiority of the salvation which is in Jesus Christ to the old system.  The OT gave us shadows, the NT gave substance. The Old had its rituals; the New has its realities. (Hebrews 8:5)

To the Corinthians, Paul is simply telling them how good they have it in Christ. There seems to be no threat of anyone deserting the faith and retreating into the past system of sacrifices and holy days. After all, his audience is Greek Christians, who for the most part had not been Jews and thus not a part of the OT system.

Note the contrasts between the Old and the New Ways–

1) The Old was “of the letter;” the New is “of the Spirit.”

Anyone doubting whether the Old system produced legalists–whether that was the intent or not is pointless–should look at the accretion of laws and rules and regulations that came about over the centuries to apply the Law to every area of people’s lives. By the time Jesus arrived, groups like the scribes and Pharisees were pushing the letter of the Law to ridiculous extremes, and thus were missing the point of God’s revelation altogether.

Take the treatment of the Sabbath. When our Lord began ministering, the religious authorities insisted that no one do anything on the Lord’s Day–not even heal the sick or raise the dead. (As though they could!) Jesus rebuked such an interpretation of God’s revelation by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (See Matthew 12:8 and Mark 2:27).

The New Covenant–this recent thing God has done for mankind in Jesus Christ–is not about keeping the minutest point of the law but “of the Spirit.” The best interpretation of what that means is the prophecy made concerning this very point. The Lord said through Jeremiah that “the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with (my people)”–but not like the old one with their fathers, which they broke. “This is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The Holy Spirit, the Great Lawgiver, now dwells inside each believer.  So, instead of God’s people having to carry around an encyclopedia of rules and regulations, the Lord Himself takes up residence inside each believer. That is “the mystery hid from the foundation of the world: Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27).

Christ in you, the Holy Spirit in you. Same difference.

2) The Old kills; the New gives life.

The Old message certainly did have its emphasis on love and grace, make no mistake about that. Grace is found throughout the Old Testament. Anyone denying this has chosen to ignore some of the richest passages in Scripture (see Exodus 34:6-7 for starters).  However, the stark reality of its message is summed up in Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul that sins, it shall die.”

That’s not what we would call good news. Sin and you’re gone.

And since everyone sins, all are “dead in trespasses and sin” (Ephesians 2:1).

That’s why we love the opening of Romans 8 so much. Feast on these words:”There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

How good is that? Paul feels a need to explain how this “setting free” occurs: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us…”

Why would anyone want to return to a system of “disobey this law and you are dead?” That question comprises the thrust of Hebrews. Surely no one who thinks the matter through would make such a choice.

To our shame, some even try to make the Christian faith such a legalistic monstrosity. I can recall being told that a cigarette can send your soul to hell, or that profanity can, or some other sin will. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear some say abortion or homosexuality is “the” sin that damns one’s soul.  Each generation, it would appear, finds its own “unpardonable sin” and tries to impose that on God’s Word and His plan.

He doesn’t play that game, of course. “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive” (I John 1:9). There are no hidden conditions and no fine print in that promise, either.

Thank you, Lord.

3) The Old was a ministry of death; the New is a Ministry of Life.

The message of Jesus is called good news. Euangelion literally means a good message. The angel told the shepherds the night Jesus was born, “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior….” (Luke 2:10-11)

One of my favorite sermons takes for its text Romans 1:16 where Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes….” I raise two questions: 1) Why is the message of Jesus such good news? And 2) if it’s such good news, why aren’t people breaking the doors of the church down to get in on it?

I will leave the reader to answer those questions for yourself. (Anyone wishing my treatment of it should google “McKeever/Romans 1:16″ and dig the sermon out of all the stuff that comes up. Smiley-face goes here.)

Our Lord wanted to make this point also, that it’s the thief who comes “to steal, to kill, and to destroy. But I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Get straight on that,Christian.  And preacher, get doubly straight on it or you will seriously misguide the people of the Lord–as well as those coming into the Kingdom.

4) The Old had a certain glory about it; the New has far more glory.

In fact, compared to the glory that is in Christ, the Old actually can be said to have no glory at all.  Comparing the two is pointless. The New blows the Old out of the water.

Old Glory. (No, we’re not talking about our flag, which, for reasons unknown to me, goes by that epithet.) There was a glory to Sinai, a glory to the Tabernacle, and a glory through so many of the wonderful stories and miracles of the Old Testament.

But that was nothing in comparison.

Here is how the writer of Hebrews puts the contrast. “(In Christ) you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them.”

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus–the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18-24)

The point of it all being what?

“Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech” (II Corinthians 3:12).

Don’t keep this a secret. As our Lord told the disciples as they were about to leave for a preaching mission, “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light. What you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).

Don’t hedge on it. Don’t hold back. Don’t fear lest someone show you something better, because there is no such thing.

Don’t come in here with something lame like, “Well, I’m not a speaker. I’m not eloquent.”  It’s not about you, friend. (See God’s word to Jeremiah in 1:8,17, when he tried that tactic.)

In the early 1990s when President Bush (the elder) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were about to begin Operation Desert Storm to push Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the two leaders were back and forth on the phone. Finally, just before giving the signal to begin, Mrs. Thatcher said, “Now, George, don’t go wobbly on us.”

Indeed. Be strong in the Lord and be of good courage. We have the message of life, and there is no other one.

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