Does 2 Corinthians 3 abolish the ten commandments?

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Does 2 Corinthians 3 abolish the Ten Commandments?
by Edwin M. Cotto

THE CHARGE

Paul says in 2 Cor. 3 that the Ten Commandments, which was written in stone (verse 3) were a ministration of death and condemnation that was abolished.

THE SHORT ANSWER

Since the law was written in the hearts of the Corinthians, and they literally became living, moving and walking epistles, it follows that the Law was not abolished, but rather changed from tables of stone to “fleshy tables of the heart” (verses 2- 3). One need not tell them to avoid stealing, killing or lying. So long as they continue submitted to the Spirit, they will live the precepts of the Law in their lives. They are “known and read by all men.” How then, pray tell, has the Ten Commandments been abolished?

Two things are mentioned as done away, the ministration of that which was engraved on stone, along with the glory that was shining on the face of Moses (verses 7-16). The latter was replaced by Christ’s more glorious face, according to verses 13-18. But what does Paul mean by “ministration?” The word holds the original meaning of service towards others. Note that it was not the Decalogue itself, but the ministration of it, or the then instituted manner of  teaching and enforcing it, that was abolished, to be succeeded by the ministration of the same Law by the apostles and the Spirit (3:3, 4:1)!
The ultimate proof that the Ten Commandment are not here being spoken of as abolished is in verse 12:

“Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, [which] put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished.”

In Exodus 34 we read the story to which Paul is referring to. It says in verse 29 that “when Moses came down from Mount Sinai” the “two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand…” Thus they could look at the Decalogue. What, then, was it that they could not look at? “And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face… And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (verses 33-25). What the Israelites could “not stedfastly look” at was the face of Moses when he covered it. That was what was abolished, to be replaced by the face of Christ!
    Unfortunately, this veil still prevented their hearts from seeing the glory of Christ when they read the scriptures. But when that heart is turned to the Lord, “the vail shall be taken away” and they shall behold “the glory of the Lord” (verses 14-18). These same people have the Law in their hearts, manifest it through their actions and as a result do not go around saying that it has been abolished.

THE LONG ANSWER

    2 Corinthians 3 is the critic’s go-to when they want to claim that the Ten Commandments have been abolished, but a closer examination of each text in question reveals a different story.(6)Before speaking of what has been abolished, Paul actually establishes the Ten Commandments by revealing that the Corinthians are living examples of what the New Covenant looks like in living form. They are the epistle because, as the New Covenant promised, the Ten Commandments have been written in their hearts (cf. verses 1-3, Jer. 31:33). In other words, far from being abolished, they are reestablished in a better location, from tables of stone to “fleshy table of the heart” (verse 3). Keep in mind that we are literally talking about the Ten Commandments here, because that is the allusion when the text speaks about “tables of stone.”
    What does the text mean by the heart? Not the literal organ of course. The heart represents the mind, the seat of all thoughts, intellect, passions, desires, affections and endeavors. The mind is what makes who we are in person and character, and dictates our actions in the physical realm. “For as he thinketh in his heart” says the wise man, “so is he” (Prov. 23:7). So then, if the Law was written in their hearts, it has become a natural part of their very being. One need not tell them to avoid stealing, killing or lying. They know the Law, their very impulse, so long as they continue submitted to the Spirit, is to obey God. Their lives demonstrate it’s precepts to the whole world as if they were living, walking, and talking epistles. People can read the Law in their lives and character. They are “known and read by all men.” How then, pray tell, has the Ten Commandments been abolished? Any thinking man with reasoning powers can see that such a claim flies in the face of the very point that Paul is trying to make here!
    With this in mind we know for sure that what follows in this chapter cannot now say that the Ten Commandments have been abolished. Therefore, a critical look at each reference to something being abolished reveals exactly what those things were. Let us do that now:

“But if the ministration of death, written [and] engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which [glory] was to be done away. How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation [be] glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away [was] glorious, much more that which remaineth [is] glorious.” (verses 7-11).

Two things are mentioned as done away with here, the ministration of that which was engraved on stone, along with the glory that was shining on the face of Moses. The latter was replaced by Christ’s more glorious face, according to verses 13-18. But what does Paul mean by “ministration?” The word holds the original meaning of service towards others. Note that it was not the Decalogue itself, but the ministration of it, or the then instituted manner of  teaching and enforcing it, that was abolished, to be succeeded by the ministration of the same Law by the apostles and the Spirit (3:3, 4:1)! It is like taking a man from point A to point B on a bike versus taking him on a car. The car is the better, faster way. But changing the mode of transportation does not change the man being transported. Whereas before of their own strength the people sought to reach the standard of the moral precepts of the Decalogue,(8) now God takes His people there by using His Spirit to write the Ten Commandments in their hearts.
    Recall the New Covenant promise, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.” “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them].” (Jer. 31:33, Eze. 36:26-27). Clearly what was removed was the manner in which that law is given. The ministration changed, not the Law.
    The ultimate proof that the Ten Commandment are not here being spoken of as abolished is in verse 12:

“Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, [which] put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished.”

     In Exodus 34 we read the story to which Paul is referring to. It says in verse 29 that “when Moses came down from Mount Sinai” the “two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand…” Thus they could look at the Decalogue. What, then, was it that they could not look at? “And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face… And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (verses 33-25). What the Israelites could “not stedfastly look” at was the face of Moses when he covered it. That was what was abolished, to be replaced by the face of Christ!
    Unfortunately, this veil still prevented their hearts from seeing the glory of Christ when they read the scriptures. But when that heart is turned to the Lord, “the vail shall be taken away” and they shall behold “the glory of the Lord” (verses 14-18).

     Two things remain to be addressed. What did Paul mean when he said that the letter kills, and why did he address the Ten Commandments as the ministration of death and condemnation? One answer will suffice to reply to both these questions. The phrase “letter of the law” is an idiomatic phrase contrasting the spiritual, or principles of the law from the literal keeping of the words of the law. That there are these two aspects to the Law is made crystal clear by Jesus when he used the seventh commandment as an example. One can keep the letter (literally having relations with another woman outside your marriage) and yet break the spiritual aspect (lusting after that woman in your heart).(10) When one tries to keep the letter of the law, without the spiritual principles, you will fail, and thus be condemned to death by it. Moreover, when you are not aware of the Law, it will condemn you once you do become aware of it, because you will see that you are in violation. This is why the Law is called the ministration of death and condemnation, because it kills you and condemns you when you break it, not when you keep it!
    Paul does not go deep into explaining what he means by death and condemnation here, but he does in Romans. Notice:

“What shall we say then? [Is] the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all [manner of evil] desire. For apart from the law sin [was] dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which [was] to [bring] life, I found to [bring] death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed [me].” (Rom. 7:7-11)

It was the moment he became aware that he was in violation of the tenth commandment that the Law condemned him to death. You see the problem was not in keeping the commandment, but in not keeping the commandment! Note the next three verses:

“Therefore the law [is] holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” (Rom 7:12-14).

Three important details I want to highlight here:

  1. The fact that the Law points out his sin places no fault on the law, but on him. Thus the Law is “holy, just and good.”
  2. It was sin that produced death in him. The commandment pointed out his fault, and in this way brings death only when you are in violation of it!
  3. Did the fact that the commandment pointed out his sin mean that he no longer had to keep it? Of course not! He clearly said that that which is good, the Law, has not become death to him.

It would not be the first time that the Law is spoken of in this manner. Notice how David speaks of the Law in the same way but uses that as motivation to actually keep it! 

“All Your commandments [are] faithful; They persecute me wrongfully; Help me! They almost made an end of me on earth, But I did not forsake Your precepts. Revive me according to Your lovingkindness, So that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth.” (Psa. 119:86-88).

    The critics view their inability of keeping the Law as a reason to avoid it or believe it must have been abolished. But the Bible views our inability to keep it as a reason to cry out to God for strength to obey! 

     Now, how can the Law be both death/condemnation and also “holy, just and good?” As explained above, it is death when breaking it, but life when keeping it. The old “ministration” of the Ten Commandments under Moses came with punishments and death when broken. Since the people could not keep the Law (Heb. 8:8), God now has a new ministration, the ministration of righteousness. God is now placing the Law in the heart of the individual who desires it, causing him to obey it, and thus avoiding the penalty that comes with breaking it. It is too bad that the critics interpret 2 Cor. 3 to mean that the Law has been abolished. Not only is that contrary to the context, but it leads the believer to go on breaking a Law he thinks is abolished!
    The very next chapter says that the life of Christ is made “manifest” through the believer (2 Cor. 4:10-11). This is the very essence of the New Covenant. Christ lives His life, a life of obedience, through the acts of the believer, essentially causing him to live the moral precepts of the Law that has been written in his heart. So rather then going around saying that the Ten Commandments have been abolished, the believer, living under the New Covenant, will both manifest obedience to them through his acts and proclaim the importance of obedience to others as well.

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About The Author

Edwin Cotto

With over 12 years of experience in apologetics, evangelism and youth directing, Edwin has worked with various ministries including Our Higher Calling and spanish ministry El Ministerio Internacional Jesús es la Solución. With these ministries Edwin has had the opportunity to travel to various states in the USA, and also to Venezuela and Mexico to conduct evangelistic meetings and outreach efforts. Edwin made his first televised appearance on 3ABN's Celebrating Life in Recovery with Cheri Peters. His education includes training in the Medical Field, Adult Education at Valencia College, Biblical Hebrew with the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and Evangelism with Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism. He is also a Bible Worker for the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, an elder, a business owner, and a family man. His 3 year old boy means the world to him.

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