Paul said that the old covenant mediated by Moses bore a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). What does this mean, and would Moses have agreed?
The Book of Deuteronomy clarifies three things: 1) Moses’s old covenant plea, 2) the people’s old covenant problem, and 3) God’s new covenant promise.
1. The Old Covenant Plea
Moses called for the right things: “Love the Lᴏʀᴅ your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “love the sojourner” (Deuteronomy 10:19; see Leviticus 18:5). Jesus said that these are the first and second most important commands (Mark 12:29–31). Moses even urged, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). This command sounds just like what is promised in the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33).
2. The Old Covenant Problem
Nevertheless, as loud or as long as Moses talked, the Israelites didn’t listen, for at the core of their being was hardness –– a spiritual disability in need of heart surgery (Deuteronomy 10:16).
The three words Moses uses throughout this book to describe Israel’s state are “stubborn” (Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27), “unbelieving” (Deuteronomy 1:32; 9:23; 28:66), and “rebellious” (Deuteronomy 1:26, 43; 9:7, 23–24; 21:18, 20; 31:27). They occur together in Deuteronomy 9:6, 23–24.
Moses’s old covenant plea was for love-saturated hearts filled with faith in God that overflowed in obedience. But Israel would have none of it. Indeed, they couldn’t, and Moses knew this. Deuteronomy 29:2–4 reads,
You have seen all that the Lᴏʀᴅ did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lᴏʀᴅ has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.
Dull and Condemned
Though Israel knew a lot about God, they didn’t really know him. Though they had seen God at one level, at a deeper level they remained blind. They had heard God’s voice, but in reality, they were deaf. Their hearts were hard, their senses dull, resulting in no passion, no fire, no love. They remained stubborn, unbelieving, and rebellious; they were undisciplined, impure, and condemned.
And they couldn’t change it.
The Gift of Seeing
That is what’s amazing. Deuteronomy 29:4 says that a knowing heart, seeing eyes, and hearing ears are all gifts of God. According to his purposes, in order to show us our need for Jesus, God created a covenant where he called for the right things but did not overcome the rebel spirit of the majority (Romans 11:7–8). The people were hardened, and the old covenant would ultimately bring about their death.
At the end of Deuteronomy, both Yahweh and Moses stress how the old covenant relationship, weakened as it was by the fleshly, hardheartedness of the people, would result in their ruin. Yahweh explicitly proclaimed that Israel’s sin would climax in exile (Deuteronomy 31:16–17), and Moses predicted,
I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lᴏʀᴅ. How much more after my death! . . . I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lᴏʀᴅ. (Deuteronomy 31:27, 29)
Old Means Temporary
Both Yahweh and Moses knew that the old covenant was temporary, bearing a ministry of condemnation. Thus Paul, speaking of God’s ultimate, sovereign purpose for the old covenant, could say in Romans 5:20–21: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass.” That is why God gave the law –– to multiply sin.
But Paul continues, “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
3. The New Covenant Promise
Moses was not only convinced of the death-dealing nature of the old covenant. He also anticipated a life-giving new covenant that would replace the old –– a covenant that would include divine enablement, allowing the world to read the law in human lives.
Moses states that after the curse has been paid, “The Lᴏʀᴅ your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lᴏʀᴅ your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
In the age that we know of as the new covenant, God’s call for us to love him with our everything would be matched by his empowerment. God would enable what he commands, so that the new covenant will not be broken. We are now in the age of fulfillment. The condemning role of the old covenant has been superseded by the righteousness-bringing new covenant. God is inscribing his law on new hearts, and his own Spirit is empowering obedience (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26–27).
Moses himself knew that the old covenant bore a ministry of condemnation, and he anticipated the day when God’s mercy would bring fresh repentance and transformation in the latter days: “When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lᴏʀᴅ your God and obey his voice. For the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is a merciful God” (Deuteronomy 4:30–31).
Thanks be to God for new-covenant grace.