The apostle Paul contrasts two ministries: the ministry of Moses and the ministry of the men of the New Covenant. Each ministry expresses the character and will of God, and the glory of those ministries belongs to God. No competent ministry in the name of the Lord brings glory to man. Glory is the unique possession of God. Our creed, our asseveration and confession is – always, absolutely, and exclusively – “Thine be the glory!”. Any excellence in the servants of the Lord is reflected splendour only. Glory cannot be attributed to them.
Moses’ face only shone because he was in the presence of the Lord in the tent of meeting. The radiance of his face would soon fade. Glory did not originate in him. Nor does it in any human being. The ministers of the New Covenant have no cause to boast. Paul the inveterate boaster because of his breeding and attainments frankly admits this: Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant (vv4-6a).
Any sufficiency, any achievement, any good thing in thought or deed is of God. God is the initiator of excellence; man is the instrument. In the service of the gospel this is particularly apparent. To personalise it, Paul and Moses are both servants of the gospel in different phases of its disclosure. They were both preachers of righteousness. It is a simplistic summary, and there is much inevitable overlap, but Moses was the preacher of divine righteousness revealed in the law given to him on tablets of stone on Mount Sinai, and Paul was the preacher of human righteousness wrought on man’s behalf in Jesus Christ.
Both men commenced from the same foundation. The human race has fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We were created in the image of God and that image has been shattered by sin – revolt against God rather than lives lived in harmony with his holy nature. The first reality has to be brought to our understanding. We need to know the law – God’s wholesome rule for our benefit and protection – that we have rejected and broken. We need to be aware of our defection from God and the danger of our situation. To be at war with God is fatal.
Moses was given that law to announce to the people. It was instruction in God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness. The tablets Moses was given drew a contrast between ourselves and the Lord. They revealed that we merited condemnation and walk the path of death.
The law in its brilliant display of holiness – God’s essential and beautiful goodness and our responsibility to reflect it – opens before our eyes the great gulf that separates man from God. The law etched in stone reveals the evil of our hearts through our rebellious lack of conformity and when Moses, on discovering the wickedness of the people during his absence from them threw the stone tablets to the ground forcefully breaking them he was demonstrating a broken law that sentences man to exclusion from the presence and favour of God forever. The letter in stone kills not because of the law but because of our lawlessness. We cannot keep the law and have cast it aside. The ministry of Moses was to awaken us to sin – its horror and horrible result. Our disobedience has nullified the benefits of the law. If we divert from a narrow mountain road we are in trouble. If we divert from the law we fall.
The ministry of Moses was to alert us to the danger that surrounds us and the future peril that lies in wait. Moses informs us of our need of a Saviour and he foreshadows his coming. In declaring the righteousness of God, the responsibility of man, and the promise of a Redeemer the ministry of Moses was truly glorious. We in hindsight see it to be Christocentric, an anachronism to historians, but a wonderful fact to believers who acknowledge Moses to have been in receipt of a divine commission from the God who is directing history and the timeless universe to the ultimate manifestation of his majestic excellence.
The inferiority of Moses’ covenant is not from God but the plight of man that has rendered the law impotent as an instrument of retaining and regaining communion with the Lofty One. Moses had embarked upon an enterprise that was preparatory and promissory in its nature. It required fulfilment. Realisation is greater than expectation: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1: 17). Posting an item of mail is vitally important but the purpose is that the addressee should receive it. Moses ventured to draft the message of grace and Jesus revised and delivered the heavenly news of complete salvation.
That is why Paul can exult: If the ministry that condemns man is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! (v9). The new covenant is not of the letter but of the Spirit. This is not an objection to information in print or an excuse to ignore the Bible, sit loose to the text, and follow one’s wildest and most fanatical impulses. It is simply to say that the message of the gospel must be engraved upon the heart from whatever medium it is received. The Spirit writes the conviction of sin upon our consciences – the interior record of our unrighteousness, and then he inscribes the gospel of our salvation through Christ on the internal page of our understanding. The Spirit through the word illuminates the path of life carved out before us by our blessed Saviour.
By the law we cannot gain the righteousness that makes us acceptable to a holy God, nor can it to the slightest extent win his favour. According to the law we are dead, doomed, and done for, rushing to the second death. According to the gospel, which Moses anticipated, God has provided that missing righteousness for us. It is his own credited to us. It is nothing to be found in or formed by any of us (Romans 3: 10-20). It is a pure gift received through faith – not from faith – in the one who has performed it on our behalf via passive and active obedience. God’s law is glorious. It reflects his goodness and provides his loving guidance. But we have repudiated it. We don’t want God and we despise his instruction. Our breach with him is total. Now the law serves no benefit for our restoration inwardly or to God. But it guides us once we are his. God’s love through Christ, announced in the gospel is supremely glorious. For believers in Christ’s accomplishment on our behalf – who place their confidence entirely in him, renouncing all worthiness and forsaking all self-righteous works in an attempt to please him – Christ’s perfect righteousness is our qualification for access to God, acceptance by him, and everlasting life with him. Our hearts are radiant with gratitude and joy, and our lives, sometimes only dimly, but always partially, reflect the splendour of God in renewed nature created by the Holy Spirit.
We are not creatures of doleful duty striving for righteousness. We are folk of enormous delight in Christ’s righteousness donated to us. The ministry of the law has shown us our spiritual destitution. The ministry of the new covenant has presented us with our restitution – our retrieval to God through a righteousness not our own but accounted as ours by the merits and mercy of the Lord Jesus. How brightly we should shine with the reflection of his glory (Romans 1:17).