We come now to 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 and ask what is the "ministration of death" (verse 7) and what is the "ministration of condemnation" (verse 9)? Obviously they are synonymous terms, but how are they to be defined? In view of the fact that the "ministration of death" is "written and engraven in stones" our opponents recognize the phrase as specifying the Ten Commandments. But let us look a little closer: The word ministration comes from the Greek word diakonia (tacmoviot), whith, according to Bagster's Analytical Greek Lexicon, should be translated, "a ministering in the conveyance of a revelation from God," "a ministry," "a ministering," "serving," "service." The "ministration," therefore, refers not to the revelation itself, which was "written and engraven in stones," but to the use that was made of it. But why should Paul say that the ministration of death "was glorious"? Could an incorrect use of the ten-commandment law ever be spoken of as "glorious"? The phrase translated "was glorious" is in the original egenethe, en doxe (ivsviltil iv 861.1), which is better translated "came with such splendor" (R.S.V.) or "came with glory" (Weymouth). The fact now seems unmistakable that the law, which because of their incorrect use of it became to the Jews a ministration of death, was given with attendant glory. But if the glory was there and could be seen, why should the law become to the Jews a "ministration of death"? The whole point is that they "could not stedfastly behold . . . the glory." The glory represents Christ as reflected in the law (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4). Of course, the inability of the Jews to continue to gaze on the shining face of Moses is simply used by Paul as an analogy of their failure to see Christ reflected in and foreshadowed by the law. The law was to them the "ministration of death" because they could not see Christ in all this. They depended on themselves, and their legalism amounted to law breaking. Hence they were condemned to death by the law. Therefore, we define the ministration of death as the administration (use) of the law, the legalistic manner in which it is ministered, associated with a failure to see Christ reflected in it. And this is the definition we gave to the ministry of the letter in verse 6.
Ellen G. White wrote, "The ministration of the law, written and engraved in stone, was a ministration of death. Without Christ, the transgressor was left under its curse, with no hope of pardon."—Review and Herald, April 22, 1902, p. 8. Further she says, "The pardon of sin, justification by faith in Jesus Christ, access to God only through a mediator because of their lost condition, their guilt and sin,—of these truths the people had little conception."Ibid.
Verse 11 speaks of the abolition of the ministration of death or condemnation. We can agree with our critics that "that which is done away" refers not to the glory (2 Cor. 3:7), but to that which "came with glory," the ministration of death. Weymouth translates verse 11, "For if that which was to be abolished came with glory, much more is that which is permanent arrayed in glory." The abolition of the ministration of death refers to the abolition of the old-covenant experience. The ministry of the spirit is the new-covenant experience (verse 6). Therefore, the ministry of the letter, death, condemnation, is the old-covenant experience. The ministration of death is abolished in two senses, experientially and historically. In point of individual spiritual experience the ministration of condemnation ceased for the Jew in Paul's day, as it does for us today, when he saw the glory—Christ reflected in the law. To maintain this experience he must steadfastly behold the glory of Christ and continually appropriate His power. In this connection it is significant that the phrase translated in verse 11 of the Authorized Version "is done away" comes from the Greek word katargoumenon (See PDF), the present passive participle, better translated "is being done away." The abolition of the ministration of death was therefore a continuing process, as Paul indicates in verse 14, "for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ." The veil symbolized the unbelief of the Jews (cf. Heb. 3:18, 19; 4:1, 2; Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 329, 330). It was this that hid from them the efficacy of Christ and rendered the law a ministration of death. We are told, "The veil drawn by themselves in stubborn unbelief is still before their minds. It would be removed if they would accept Christ, the righteousness of the law."—Ibid. The fact that the passing away of the ministry of the letter, death, condemnation, is a continuing process after the cross effectively shatters the dispensationalist position that this ministry is characteristic only of the period prior to Calvary. The old-covenant experience is just as prevalent today as in Moses' day, and it is only by beholding the "glory of the Lord" that we are "changed into the same image" (2 Cor. 3:18) and ushered into the blissful realm of new-covenant victory.
We can, however, agree that in a sense the old covenant was abolished at the cross. It is an historical fact that for the Jews the period prior to the cross was characterized by legalism, the ministry of the letter, death, condemnation, the old-covenant experience. This legalistic Jewish economy received its death blow when Jesus died on Calvary. This doesn't mean to suggest that God instituted or maintained a system of works. We simply recognize that in point of historical fact such a system was traditionally maintained by the Jews. Hence Paul speaks of that part of the writings of Moses which presents the terms of God's covenant as the old covenant (verses 14, 15; cf. Heb. 9:1, 15). To the Jews, God's terms recorded by Moses were the old covenant because the veil was "untaken away." This unbelief and consequent misunderstanding of the deeper spiritual truths in the law were characteristic of the Jews as a nation before Calvary. The imposing structure of works erected and maintained by Israel over the centuries reached its high point and received its surety of destruction when Jesus was nailed to the cross.
In answer to those who on the authority of Deuteronomy 4:13 completely identify the Ten Commandments and the old covenant we would ask for the evidence that "his covenant" referred to in the text is the old covenant. In point of fact, the terms that God offered Israel at Sinai were the identical terms that He offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Gen. 17:7, 9, 19; Gal. 3:16-18; 1 Chron. 16:14-17; Ps. 105:8-11). This same covenant was the everlasting covenant which God repeatedly renewed down through the history of Israel (cf. Jer. 11:1-7). And for our own benefit we can remind ourselves of these words of the Spirit of Prophecy: "The covenant that God made with His people at Sinai is to be our refuge and defense. . . . 'And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words.' And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.' This covenant is of just as much force today as it was when the Lord made it with ancient Israel."—Ellen G. White Comments in The SDA Bible Commentary, p. 1103. If God had intended this to be the old covenant of works, then we are confronted with the embarrassing doctrine that the Lord today is reinstituting a covenant of works. Obviously the Lord's terms to Abraham, to Israel, and to us are identical, righteousness by faith in Christ, deliverance from condemnation and death. It was Israel's failure to recognize Christ that effectively perverted the covenant relationship, producing what Paul chooses to call the old covenant (cf. Gal. 4:22-26; Heb. 8:6-13).
Further, in connection with Deuteronomy 4:13 we would answer our critics by pointing out that Exodus 24:8 says, "And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words." "These words" refer to the Ten Commandments and the seventy laws and judgments previously given. The law here is not identified with the covenant; it is that concerning which the covenant was made. A similar figure of speech to that used in Deuteronomy 4:13 is used in chapter 9:21: "And I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small." The calf, of course, was not the sin itself but that concerning which they had sinned. Just so in chapter 4:13 the law is the code concerning which the agreement was made. And it still is. Under the new covenant before and since the cross, the law is written on the heart of the genuine believer in Christ (Deut. 6:4-6; 30:11-14; Heb. 8:10; 10:16, 17).
It was never God's will that the minds of His people before the cross should be "blinded," veiled by unbelief. It was never His intention that they should live under the ministry of the letter, death, condemnation—under the old covenant. In Isaiah 1:10-14 we have the remarkable account of the Lord's rejection of Israel's observance of the very laws He had instituted. Why? Because their observances were outward, their hearts were not in their service, they were wedded to a ministration of death. We can thank God that He is unchanging (Mal. 3:6). His strong opposition to the ministry of the letter of 2 Corinthians 3 is but a reiteration of similar opposition down through the history of Israel.
There is something else apart from the ministration of death abolished in 2 Corinthians 3. The glory on the face of Moses is said to be "done away" (verse 7). It is done away in the sense that it is rendered powerless, superseded by a more excellent glory (verses 9, 10). The glory, as we have seen, represents Christ reflected in the law (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4). The veil of unbelief hiding the glory is done away in Christ (verses 14, 15). Christ is the glory. The teaching of the Spirit of Prophecy is clear at this point: "The glory that shone on the face of Moses was a reflection of the righteousness of Christ in the law. The law itself would have no glory, only that in it Christ is embodied. It has no power to save. It is lusterless only as in it Christ is represented as full of righteousness and truth."—Ibid.
Christ was especially reflected by the ceremonial law. This law was the gospel before the event. Verse 13 speaks of the fading of this partial reflection of the glory of Christ. The R.S.V. translates the text, "Not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor." And Weymouth translates it, "Unlike Moses, who used to throw a veil over his face to hide from the gaze of the children of Israel the end of the vanishing brightness."
The word end (Telos) used in the original of the text may mean "termination" or "object." At the termination of the ceremonial law, the partial glory, was Christ, the surpassing glory. This is one of the two senses in which Ellen G. White uses the text: "To Moses was unfolded the significance of the types and shadows pointing to Christ. He saw to the end of that which was to be done away when, at the death of Christ, type met antitype."—Ibid. "End" is also used in the New Testament in the sense of "object." Christ was the object to whom the ceremonial law pointed. And this is the second sense in which this writer uses the text. "It was seeing the object of that which was to be done away, seeing Christ as revealed in the law, that illumined the face of Moses. The ministration of the law, written and engraved in stone, was a ministration of death. Without Christ, the transgressor was left under its curse, with no hope of pardon. The ministration had of itself no glory, but the promised Saviour, revealed in the types and shadows of the ceremonial law, made the moral law glorious."—Ibid.
We conclude by saying that Paul's burden in 2 Corinthians 3 is twofold. First, he very ably demonstrates that the new covenant is God's covenant, the old is the ministration of the letter, death, condemnation. The Spirit of Prophecy says, "Paul desires his brethren to see that the great glory of a sin-pardoning Saviour gave significance to the entire Jewish economy."—Ibid. At this point we pause and I ask you frankly, "Reader, are you living under the ministration of death?" As Seventh-day Adventists it is easy for us to conform to a stipulated round of observances and lose sight of Jesus as the answer to the sin problem. Let me urge you to behold the "glory of the Lord," to live by faith in the Son of God, to accept the immutable terms of the new covenant of grace, which offer you, because of Calvary, forgiveness, power, and the promise of life for the future.
Second, Paul's purpose in 2 Corinthians 3 is to emphasize that the ceremonial law, the partial glory of the gospel before the cross, is now superseded by the full blaze of the "glorious gospel of Christ." And the Spirit of Prophecy, in the same passage as quoted from above, clearly states that to have been Paul's second objective: "He desired them to see also that when Christ came to the world, and died as man's sacrifice, type met antitype."—Ibid.