The letter of the law
2 Corinthians 3:1-18
– The fat-cat who exploits every tax loop-hole imaginable…
– The hospital which lets pedantic box-ticking get in the way of patient-care…
– The cricketer whose legal ploy is nonetheless “not cricket” (New Zealanders will never forgive Australians for this one! )…
In all these cases we’d say they obeyed the letter of the law but not the spirit.
2 Corinthians 3 seems to be the origin of the phrase. But perhaps even earlier, Christ’s dealings with the Pharisees speak to this theme…
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
These people are fastidious about certain aspects of the law – the parts that are most easily and visibly fulfilled. But they have no concern for “the weightier matters.” The law is concerned with justice, mercy and faith, yet these are too costly and hidden for the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t use the phrase but we might say that they obey the letter but not the spirit of the law. Yet it’s in 2 Corinthians 3 that Paul speaks particularly of the letter of the law.
“[We are] ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
The letter sets out the expectations of the law. And we’re not meant to bemoan its requirements as petty. The law is glorious (v9-10). Yet its effect on us law-breakers is death.
Sometimes I will listen to a sermon that “lays down the law” and then overhear congregation members saying to the preacher “You really stepped on our toes this morning.”
The kind of Christian life preached here is one in which the law inconveniences. It may even wound or weigh down. Yet, fundamentally, I am left alive and kicking. And after my wounding I am resolved to grit my teeth and try harder. Thus I leave church feeling ‘challenged’, ‘rebuked’ and ‘determined to lift my game.’
Yet, according to the Bible, the purpose of the ‘letter’ is not to step on our toes. It is to kill! The old covenant was a “ministration of death” (v7). We don’t simply feel inconvenienced by the letter of the law. We are slain by the glorious law of life which uncovers and judges us. There is no realm of self-respect left by which we pull ourselves together and get back in the game. No, we are obliterated by the law – that is its purpose.
Therefore what is our hope? Well our hope can’t come from ourselves. And it can’t come from the law either. It’s interesting that Paul does not contrast the letter with the spirit of the law. Instead he contrasts it with the Spirit of the LORD (v16, 17). That’s a vital difference.
Paul does not preach against literalistic fulfilment of the law only to endorse another kind of legalism! He doesn’t say “don’t get hung up on details, just obey the vibe.” No, we look away from the law to another Source of life. The Spirit we are to receive is the Spirit of Christ – He is the One who fulfils the law. And He brings life where the letter brought only death.
If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself. Don’t gaze at the law. Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law. Gaze at Christ Himself.
We are not simply to be wounded by the law. Allow yourself to be slain by the letter. And allow the Spirit to direct you to the true Source of your Christian life: Jesus
“We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
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