Covenant Connections in Paul (2)

Part One

Paul’s Understanding of God’s Covenants

            Let me begin by again stating that the Apostle Paul saw himself as an ambassador of the New covenant. (2 Cor. 3:5).  Even though he rarely refers to it by name, it has become clear to many scholars that Paul’s theology is steeped in the New covenant.[1]   In the passages I cited above we can see this.  And it is true to say that without this comprehension of his mission Paul’s theology is difficult to pull together.  When one thinks of the matter-of-factness with which he deals with the Church, his future hopes for the nation of Israel, and his characterization of the OT Law as existing without the provision of grace, the New covenant work of God in Christ brings it all into reasonable clarity.  The key Pauline phrase “in Christ” means “in the New covenant.”  The Christian is in that blood bond as well as mystically in Jesus through the Spirit.  This qualifying distinction is all-important for Pauline thought about law and grace.    

            If we return to the three passages above, we can see this.  In Galatians 3:17 he says, “the law…cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.”  What is this “covenant” that is said to be “confirmed” in Christ?  It is of course the covenant with Abraham that he has introduced in Galatians 3:5-9, and 14.  Now the Abrahamic covenant has three branches to it; the promise of literal descendants to through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the promise of a homeland, and finally that through Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed.  It is crucial that we get the proper part of the covenant right.  Paul is not talking here about either the physical seed or the land promises.  He is focused on the third branch; the blessing upon the nations.[2]  The blessings of this third branch of the covenant are said to be “in Christ.” (Gal. 3:14, 17). 

            What we have here is Gentile Christians being told that they are children of Abraham through the promise that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”  He is not saying that Gentiles have entitlement to the other two parts of the covenant. 

            If we now move on to 2 Corinthians 3 we bring in the New covenant.  Paul begins this great epistle by speaking about suffering and the consolation of God (2 Cor. 1:3-11), and then refers to what he calls “the day of the Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:14), by which he seems to point to the judgment seat of Christ. 

            The opening two chapters of 2 Corinthians are quite self-referential, with the apostle saying much about his circumstances and his attitude to the ministry.  In chapter 3 he turns this focus on afflictions to appeal to the church at Corinth concerning his credentials as an apostle.  The Spirit of God has made His mark in them (2 Cor. 3:3), and it is the same Spirit who enables Paul and his helpers to be “ministers of the new covenant.” (2 Cor. 3:6).  Paul’s New covenant ministry is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 8!    Hence Paul’s contrast of the “old covenant” (palaios diathekes)[3] with the New covenant in the second half of the chapter makes perfect sense.  It also shows how deeply the theme of covernance lay behind his thought.   

Is the New Covenant For The Church?

            Who cannot see the continuity and semblance of thought here?  The Holy Spirit is the cause both of the new life of the Corinthian Christians and of the ministry of the New covenant to them!  If, as some insist upon, the apostle did not believe the New Covenant was for the Gentiles, then why on earth did he tell them he was ministering it?  Why speak of it to them?  And supposing his “New covenant ministry” was another ministry than the one Paul had in Corinth, why did he draw so close a connection between his non-covenantal Corinthian ministry to them and his supposed “other” ministry (i.e., of the New covenant)?.[4]  One would only minister the New Covenant to the party involved.  With all due respect to those who wish to snip off “New covenant” from Paul’s ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles this beggar’s belief!  What has happened to the “plain sense”?  Pray, what is the difference in the context between what Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 3 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9) and “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 6?  If Paul wished to create befuddlement in the minds of his Corinthian readers, inserting the New covenant into a letter which had nothing to do with it would certainly be going about it the right way![5]

But it could be argued (and has been) that all Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is drawing a kind of parallel.  The argument goes that “ministers of the new covenant” (diakonous kainēs diathēkēs) does not in fact mean that Paul and his companions are actually ministering the New Covenant, only that their ministry resembles the future New Covenant dispensation.  I struggle a bit here.  For the NC work of the Spirit at the second advent is a complete work resulting in complete obedience (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:25-27; Zeph. 3:13), which is quite unlike what we experience today.  Still, if that is what Paul is doing one has to ask in interrogative tones, “Why even say such a thing?”  How is the argument helped by dropping a “by the way, our ministry is sort of like what the NC ministry will be like” in at verse 6?  Why make a comparison of covenants here at all?  It surely looks like Paul views “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) as synonymous with his present work “as [a] minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” two verses earlier.  And even if the definite article is missing so that it actually reads “a new covenant” in verse 6, how far does that take us?  The contrast is between the Mosaic covenant and some covenant – a covenant involving the Spirit’s gift of new life.  Which covenant could that be?  The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants do not include the Spirit’s saving action in their terms.  The answer is staring us in the face: the New Covenant.[6]

[1] See for example, Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.  James P. Ware, Paul’s Theology in Context, esp. 104-110.  

[2] The same thing is to be seen in Romans 4. 

[3] I realize that many take this phrase in 2 Cor. 3:14 to mean the Old Testament, but this spoils the contrast.  The correct translation of diatheke in that place is “covenant” not “testament.”  See e.g., NASB, ESV, NET.

[4] Or even of some eschatological ministry of which he would not be a part?

[5]I feel I need to offer the reader my apology for that last paragraph.  

[6] Cf. David K. Lowery, “2 Corinthians,” in BKCNT, edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, Victor Books, 1997, 560-561.

5 thoughts on “Covenant Connections in Paul (2)”

  1. With all due respect to those who wish to snip off “New covenant” from Paul’s ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles this beggar’s belief! What has happened to the “plain sense”?

    Indeed! I have the same bewilderment when I hear people assert that the Church is not participating in the New Covenant. It seems that many dispensationalists have lost sight of the principle of progressive revelation when they cite Jeremiah 31:31 as proof that the NC is uniquely Israel’s. Of course the Church is not found there — just as the Church is absent elsewhere in the OT.

  2. I think I see what you’re getting at WRT Gal. 3:17. Would you be able to back up one verse and throw a bit of light on that? I have never been able to understand the statement that that the promises were spoken to Abraham and a single seed, meaning Christ. Many thanks as always!

    1. I mean, if (as I’ve seen it explained before) this is referring to the promise made in Gen. 22:18, I get that and it fits perfectly- other than that in Gal. Paul says “promises” not “promise”, and it feels a bit like “looking hard for a verse that fits”..

  3. Bart,
    I tend to believe that Paul mainly had Genesis 22:18 in mind. Gal. 3:8 fits it (as well as some other passages). I don’t struggle with “promises” since, well, promises were made (cf. Gen. 22:17). I don’t think Paul is being confusing while only dealing with one of the promises (cf. Gal. 3:6). Perhaps I’m being too simplistic? I just don’t see a problem.

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