According to the ecumenical crowd, this verse teaches that believers are not obligated to pay attention to the letter or details of God’s Word and to the literal meaning of Scripture, because such a position kills. It is the “spirit” of the Scripture that matters, they say, referring to a loose, tolerant position. They use the verse to defend their philosophy that we should not be too strict about doctrine and practice.
In fact, 2 Corinthians 3 has nothing to do with the interpretation of Scripture and gives no support to the idea that the details of the Bible should not be taken seriously.
In this passage, Paul shows the dramatic contrast between the Law of Moses and the New Testament faith, between the Old Covenant and the New. He is talking about the law that was “written in stones” (verse 7). That is obviously the Law of Moses that was given on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 31:18). That Old Covenant was a “ministration of death” (verse 7) and a “ministration of condemnation” (verse 9) because it required perfect obedience from sinful men who are unable to give it and it demanded death for every infraction (Galatians 3:10-12). The purpose of the Law of Moses was not to save men but to show them their sinful, lost condition before a holy God and point the way to Christ. Compare Romans 3:19-24 and Galatians 3:24-26.
When Paul says that we are “ministers of the new testament; not of the letter,” he is saying that we do not preach the Old Covenant but the New. When he says, “... the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” he is saying that the Old Covenant kills but the Spirit of Christ through the New Covenant gives life. He is not saying that the letter or details of the New Testament are not to be respected and that believers are at liberty to hold to the “spirit” rather than the “letter.” Such an interpretation is contrary to the immediate context of the passage as well as to the larger context of the rest of the New Testament. Elsewhere Paul taught the believers to keep the New Testament commandments “without spot” (1 Tim. 6:14) and to keep even the teaching about such things as hair length and the practice of the Lord’s Supper exactly as they have been delivered to us (1 Corinthians 11:2ff). He also taught that we are to have “no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). That is obviously a very, very strict doctrine of separation.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul was refuting the doctrine of the Judaizers who tried to mingle the grace of Christ with the Law of Moses. Compare Acts 15 and Galatians 1:6-9; 2:16-21; 3:1-3, 19-26.
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