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Ministers of the New Covenant?

 
 
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(By Mark Fontecchio)

An often overlooked subject of theology centers on the fulfillment of the New Covenant. The ramifications affect both the nation of Israel and the Church. Confusion abounds, and even thoughtful Christians are left struggling with the implications of this covenant upon the life of the believer. Therefore, it becomes a necessity to closely examine the teachings presented in Scripture concerning the New Covenant.

Much of the confusion enters the picture because of the prominent misunderstandings within Christianity regarding the distinctions between the Church and Israel. The failure by covenant theologians to recognize these given distinctions in Scripture means that the Church and Israel are both generally seen as the people of God. Gary Gilley explains, “That is, Israel was the people of God under the Old Covenant and the church is the people of God now. Israel was the church under the Law, and the New Testament church is spiritual Israel today. Therefore since there is no real distinction between the two people groups, the issue of whom the New Covenant addresses is moot.”[1]

For dispensationalists the point is certainly not moot. This, however, does not mean dispensationalists are united in their understanding of the New Covenant. Healthy discussion has centered primarily on two important points:

1. Is the Church directly related to the New Covenant?

2. Is the New Covenant being fulfilled today?

    This discussion has arisen primarily because an examination of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 reveals a reality that is quite different from what is witnessed in the Church today.

    Three Views

    Traditional dispensationalists typically view the New Covenant in one of three ways.[2] Some dispensationalists (most notably Lewis Sperry Chafer) historically took the view that there are actually two New Covenants, one for Israel and one for the Church. Today, most dispensationalists hold a second view, which teaches that the Lord established the New Covenant with the nation of Israel and it was ratified by the blood of Christ. However, it is said that, “the church (composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians) participates in the spiritual blessings of the Covenant now.”[3] A final view is that there is one New Covenant that was ratified with Israel. This was the position held by John Nelson Darby. This particular view teaches, “Accordingly, the Church is unrelated to the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31. The Church comes between the ratification and inauguration of the New Covenant, but we are not the fulfillment of it. The Church and Israel are each independently connected to the Mediator of the New Covenant. We receive similar, but not identical blessings.”[4] This is the view upheld in this article.

    2 Corinthians 3

    It is certainly not the intent of this present work to comprehensively examine each passage in Scripture related to the New Covenant. Instead, the focus is specifically on how the phrase, “ministers of the New Covenant” in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 should be understood in relation to the New Covenant. This text is at the center of the discussion of whether or not the New Covenant is being fulfilled today within the Church of Jesus Christ.

    The Apostle Paul taught, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from 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” (2 Cor. 3:5-6). The context is certainly the key to rightly dividing this section of Scripture. It becomes evident in 2 Corinthians that Paul was defending his ministry from the attacks of the critics. These negative attacks on Paul’s ministry appeared to originate because his plans to visit Corinth had not materialized (1:15-2:2). This, in turn, led to other criticisms of Paul.

    Paul sought to defend himself not for the sake of pride, but for the benefit of the believers in Corinth. It is imperative to remember, “Paul’s main concern in defending himself is that the Corinthians were adopting a faulty standard of judgment—a fleshly standard, not a spiritual one. In the end, Paul defends himself, not so much out of a concern for his own reputation, but in order to get the Corinthians to examine themselves (12:19-21; 13:5-6) so that they might be approved at the judgment seat of Christ (5:10).”[5]

    Eight Metaphors

    A closer examination of Paul’s defense brings forth some interesting facts that shed some light on 2 Corinthians 3:5-6. From a broader context of 2 Corinthians 2:14-5:5 we see eight metaphors given by the Apostle to explain the conduct of his ministry. The metaphors are clearly taken from the Old Testament, including the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31. The metaphors are:

    1. The Triumphal Procession, 2:14a

    2. The Odor of Life and Death, 2:14b-16a

    3. Letters Written on Stone vs. on the Heart, 3:2-3

    4. New Covenant Ministers, 3:6

    5. The Veil Removed, 3:14-18; 4:3-4

    6. The Light of Creation, 4:6

    7. Earthen Vessels, 4:7

    8. Earthly House vs. Heavenly House, 5:1-4

    Metaphors #3–8 appear to be drawn from Jeremiah 31-32. The 3rd and 4thmetaphors are clearly drawn from the Jeremiah 31 New Covenant passage (as well as Ezek 11:19; 36:26).[6]

    An analysis of the wording of these metaphors demonstrates that the mere mentioning of the New Covenant does not necessarily mean an actual fulfillment of this covenant. We must look closely at the way that Paul used the wording of the Old Testament to understand his intent in mentioning this covenant. By using the specific wording of the New Covenant text of Jeremiah, Paul was simply using it as a metaphor for his own ministry. This is to say, he was not describing a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah. Instead, he was merely comparing his ministry to being more like the type of work of the Spirit that will be seen during the fulfillment of the New Covenant, rather than being like the type of ministry witnessed under the Mosaic Law. In other words, “what Jeremiah was describing provides a suitable figure to describe his ministry. Consider how Paul uses the passages from Jeremiah: A letter written on the heart is reminiscent of the New Covenant’s provision of God’s law written on Israel/Judah’s heart (Jer 31:33).”[7] It is not that the New Covenant was now in force. The character of Paul’s ministry was more like what will be seen under the New Covenant rather than ministry that took place under the Mosaic Law. Under the old covenant, ministry was much more focused on the externals. Paul sought to explain to the Christians at Corinth that his ministry was directed by the Spirit, not the externals.

    The Church at Corinth

    This, however, raises an interesting question, “How would the first century Christians at Corinth have understood the reference by Paul to the New Covenant?” Nearly 2,000 years have passed since Israel first rejected her Messiah. Therefore, we know that the fulfillment of the complete restoration of Israel, the Messianic Kingdom, and the New Covenant promises have been delayed for at least this long. It may seem difficult to see how the early Church would have been looking forward and recognizing that the New Covenant could have been fulfilled soon. We do ourselves a disservice to assume that the first century Church would have understood this in the same way. This is a presupposition that cannot be justified. It is better to recognize that first century Christians had no idea how long the Church Age interval would last. Further, we have a great number of examples from the New Testament that demonstrate the early Christians were living in anticipation of the return of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom. Even before Christ had ascended the disciples asked Him with great expectation, “Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6). It only stands to reason that if the Apostles and the early Christians were expecting Christ to return at any moment (1 Thess. 1:10), that the fulfillment of the New Covenant was viewed as just over the horizon. The Apostles surely remembered fondly the words of their Savior in the upper room when He said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Given that the imminent return of Christ was very much on the mind of believers, it would have been fitting for the Apostle Paul to use this apt metaphor to describe his ministry. Perhaps it is because much of the modern day Church does not, in fact, live in light of the imminent return of Christ, that this metaphor has been so often misunderstood.

    Quite frequently it is assumed that because Paul mentioned the New Covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that he did so in reference to the content of his message. In other words, Paul is said to have been teaching that to some degree the New Covenant is being fulfilled. However, the context certainly does not demand this interpretation. A better understanding demonstrates that Paul was simply stating that his ministry was more like the type of ministry that will be seen when the New Covenant is fulfilled, rather than what was witnessed under the old covenant.

    The New Covenant Fullfilled

    Clarity is brought to this entire subject when we remember the unmistakable words of Jeremiah 31:31, “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” The New Covenant is directly stated to be between God and the houses of Judah and Israel, not the Church. Therefore, even though, “Christ’s blood has been shed for the ratification of the New Covenant, the realization of its blessings awaits that time when God brings Israel and Judah into the covenant. Until that time, others (viz. the Church) may be benefitting from the same blood that ratified the New Covenant, but there seems to be no exegetical necessity for seeing the Church as having been brought in as a new party to the covenant.”[8] The Church should not confuse the blessings we now receive in Christ with participation in the future fulfillment of the New Covenant. This covenant is:

    fundamentally a legal instrument whereby God will contract specific indivisible benefits with national Israel exclusively, the covenant being formally ratified by the oath of the stated parties once in human history at a clearly specified eschatological time and place yet future to today precisely as foretold in prophetic Scripture. The church has no legal relationship to the new covenant; the new covenant is not in force today; the church does not participate in the new covenant.[9]

    The Church shares the Savior with Israel. Even though the New Covenant does not relate directly to the Church, it should be recognized that many of the blessings we experience today because of our redemption in Christ help us look forward to the time when the Mediator of the New Covenant will fulfill His promises to the people of Israel. Christians should take comfort that the covenant ratified with Israel by the very blood of Christ will one day be fulfilled completely and exactly as prophesied.

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    Endnotes

    [1] Gary Gilley, “Laying the Groundwork for Understanding the New Covenant,” in An Introduction to the New Covenant, ed. Christopher Cone (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013), 16-17.

    [2] It should be noted that Progressive Dispensationalists teach that there is a fulfillment for the Church and a future fulfillment for the nation of Israel. Thus, there is said to be one New Covenant, but with a two-fold fulfillment. For a critique of this troubling position, see What Lies Ahead: A Biblical Overview of the End Times.

    [3] Gary Gilley, “Laying the Groundwork for Understanding the New Covenant,” in An Introduction to the New Covenant, ed. Christopher Cone (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013), 18.

    [4] J. B. Hixson and Mark Fontecchio, What Lies Ahead: A Biblical Overview of the End Times (Brenham, TX: Lucid Books, 2013), 143.

    [5] Gary Gilley, et al., An Introduction to the New Covenant, ed. Christopher Cone (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013).

    [6] George Gunn, “Second Corinthians 3:6 and the New Covenant,” in An Introduction to the New Covenant, ed. Christopher Cone (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013), 215-216.

    [7] Ibid., 217.

    [8] Ibid., 234-235.

    [9] Roy E. Beacham, “The Church Has No Legal Relationship to or Participation in the New Covenant,” inDispensational Understanding of the New Covenant, ed. Mike Stallard (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 143.

     

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