High Priest in Heaven

40 Letter and Spirit

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. 2 Corinthians 3:3-6

Moses has always been closely connected with the divine covenant given to Israel. The ten-commandment law of God was the basis for the covenant. The ceremonial law illustrated the covenant. The rainbow was the symbol of God’s continued support for His creation. Circumcision was the symbol of adoption, of becoming a member of God’s family. The Sabbath is the memorial of God’s Creatorship and of His power and grace to change our lives. The focus for the everlasting covenant was the death of the Redeemer to pay for man’s sins.

At the time of Jesus and Paul, the “ministry of Moses” had become sterile and corrupt, and the prophesied Messiah had been reduced to a military general. The Jews looked for redemption in meticulous observance of the law of Moses, including the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the many ordinances added to the law by the rabbis. Their descent from Abraham added to their assurance of salvation. It was a pointless, loveless religion (Matt. 5:20).1

What was lacking was grace. Grace is the supernatural power of God given to change the lives of men. It is the creative power of God to recreate humans as a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). After Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, the apostles understood that Jesus’ mission was to establish the kingdom of grace and to change human hearts, saving “his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The messages of the twelve apostles and Paul focused on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3, 4). It was only through the power of the cross and the resurrection that human beings could be saved.

God Takes the Initiative

Jeremiah was first to use the term “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31-34).2 The fundamental principle of the new covenant is that God takes the initiative. By grace, He writes the ten-commandment law in the heart and mind of each believer. “He will so blend our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him, we shall be but carrying out our own impulses.”3 This principle can be found in the new covenant given to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), given to Abraham (Gen. 17), and given to Israel at Sinai (Exod. 19:4-6; 20:1-17).

After Adam and Eve sinned, God took the initiative and “put enmity between” the serpent and “the woman.” This was an act of grace and the first application of the new covenant. Later, God promised Abraham that he would be “a father of many nations” and “all the nations of the earth” would be blessed in his “seed” (Gen. 17:3, 4; 22:18). It was only through grace that God fulfilled these promises.

At Sinai, the preamble of grace came before the terms of the covenant and before the ten-commandment law (Exod. 19:4; 20:2). It was through the power of God to deliver His people from Egypt that they received grace to obey the law, keep God’s (My) covenant, and consent to the promises inherent in the Ten Commandments.

Even in the Old Testament, the people lived by faith in the grace of God. The people were to take by faith God’s promise to “fight for” them in taking the land (Deut. 1:30). God showed His power in battle by defeating Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. The people had to show faith in His promises (Deut. 2:30; 3:4). They were to seek God, and, in turn, He would not forget the covenant nor forsake them (Deut. 5:29-31). The people were to know that there is one God and were to love Him above all else (Deut. 6:4, 5). God chose them for Himself and gave them memorable blessings (Deut. 7:6, 14). These verses are only a partial listing in just one book, Deuteronomy, demonstrating that the people were to exercise faith and receive grace from God in the Old Testament.4 To focus on mechanical observance of God’s commands corrupts His purpose for those commands, and it is the substance of keeping “the letter of the law”-attempting to obey without God’s grace!5

Grace and Truth Came by Jesus Christ

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Now that Jesus had become our sacrifice, risen from the dead, and ascended to heaven, the mystery of Godliness became clear. Paul taught the people to have faith in Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross. Lacking faith and strictly adhering to the letter of the law was to follow the old covenant. While the letter of the law is “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7:12), it can only show a person where he has sinned and bring condemnation and death (Rom. 3:20; 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:56). The law cannot save. It is only by the power of God through the Holy Spirit that a person becomes alive to Christ and can obey the law from the heart.6

Indeed, in view of this fact, what once had splendor [the glory of the Law in the face of Moses] has come to have no splendor at all, because of [compared to] the overwhelming glory that exceeds and excels it [the glory of the Gospel in the face of Jesus Christ]. (2 Cor. 3:10, AMP).

It is God’s plan to write the law in the heart of the sinner, changing him by grace. The Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6; Rom. 8:1-4).

The letter of the law “was glorious” (2 Cor. 3:7, 11). As a sacred document, the Ten Commandments give a picture of the holy life when motivated by love. It was God who gave the Ten Commandments, the civil law, and even the sacrifices and ceremonies. The ten-commandment law-the moral law- reveals sin. The civil law keeps order in society. The sacrifices and ceremonies pointed forward to the promised Messiah.

Yet, none of these laws can save (2 Cor. 3:7-11). They can only lead a person to Christ to receive salvation, grace, and mercy in time of need (Heb. 4:15).

Ministries of Moses and Paul Compared

Paul’s exposition on this topic in his second letter to the Corinthians begins with chapter two, verse 14 and runs through to chapter four, verse six. Chapter three contains the main points. The table below, which compares Moses’ ministry with that of Paul, gives needed background. Take enough time to digest what the comparison is saying.

Old Covenant / Moses' Ministry New Covenant / Paul's Ministry
Written with Ink (2 Cor. 3:3) Writen with the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:3)
Written on Tablets of Stone (2 Cor. 3:3, 7, NIV) On Tablets of Human Hearts  (2 Cor. 3:3 NIV)
The Letter Kills (2 Cor 3:6 NIV) Spirit Gives Life and Freedom (2 Cor. 3:7, 9)
Ministry of Death, Condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7, 9) Ministration of Righteousness (2 Cor 3:9)
Glory that was Fading Away  (2 Cor. 3:11, NIV) Increasing Glory, Remains(2 Cor. 3:18, 10, NIV)
A Veil Covers Their Hearts   (2 Cor. 3:15, NIV) The Veil Is Taken Away  (2 or 3:17, NIV)
The comparison is explained in a selection from Skip MacCarty’s book, In Granite or Ingrained?

Many interpreters view this passage from a dispensational, historical perspective, understanding the characteristics in the left column as representative of the teaching of the Old Testament, and more specifically of God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai. These same interpreters understand the characteristics in the right column to refer to the full gospel teaching of the New Testament which was lacking in the Old. But such a strictly historical interpretation would leave all Old Testament people without hope of salvation.

In reality the left-column characteristics describe a lost condition, not a partially enlightened salvation. They describe stone cold hearts that resist the appeal of God’s covenant. And the right-column characteristics describe the results of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of “anyone [who] turns to the Lord” (3:16) and is “being transformed into his likeness” (3:18). This describes a saving condition fully experienced by all believers in both Old and New Testament eras.

In other words, Paul employed these terms primarily to describe experiential, not historical, conditions which apply to all believers (right column) and unbelievers (left column) of all time. Thus, the characteristics in these two columns represent experientially-based, timeless, and eternal truths describing responses to the gospel by believers and unbelievers, rather than different gospels (or even differing levels of understanding of the one true gospel) ordained by God for separate historical eras.7

Moses had a strong faith relationship with God. He talked to God “face to face.” He obeyed God even in fulfilling His most difficult requirement, which was to leave the quiet life of herding sheep and take up the immensely difficult task of leading Israel out of Egypt. He was meek and humble, always willing to listen to people. He selflessly refused God’s proposal to make of him a strong nation. The real Moses was quite different from the notion that later grew in the minds of the Jews. In Moses’ last message to Israel, he reaffirmed the close relationship between love for God and keeping the Ten Commandments.8

The Veil Taken Away in Christ

After Moses had dashed the tables of the law upon the rocks because the people had broken their covenant (Exod. 32:19), he interceded for the people and brought them to repentance. God again called Moses up into the mountain and instructed him to bring two tables of stone that Moses had hewn from the rock. Afterward, God put Moses into a cleft in the rock, and Moses saw God’s back as He passed. Then God renewed the new or Abrahamic covenant with Israel (Exod. 34:9-11). Moses presented the people with the tables of stone on which God had again written the Ten Commandments with His finger.

When Moses returned to camp, his face still shone with the glory of God (Exod. 34:29-33). He had to wear a veil to obscure the brightness while he talked with the priests and elders. Paul used this veiling to illustrate the unbelief of the Jews in his day. Lifting the veil meant understanding the purpose of the sanctuary sacrifices and priesthood. It also meant grasping the effectiveness of Jesus’ true sacrifice and His heavenly priesthood.

In Paul’s day the Jews followed the letter of the law and meticulously performed the sacrifices and rituals for pardon from sin. In addition, they looked to their descent from Abraham and added hundreds of detailed ordinances to the law to assure them of salvation. Their obedience to law, ritual, and the ceremonies was formal and external. This was old covenant living at its worst, which was to bypass grace and attempt to obey the law without a change in their motives. Only God can reach the heart and write His law there. Only by grace can a person truly keep the law from the heart. Truth must be daily applied to the problems of life to be a living, active force.

When the Jews spoke of following “Moses,” they referred to the moral, civil, and ceremonial law in Moses’ writings, including the sacrifices, rituals, and feasts (Luke 16:29). Paul compared the veil that obscured Moses’ face to the difficulty of ancient Israel to find Christ through the sanctuary services. They had perverted the gospel into a system of righteousness by works (Rom. 9:31-33).

But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. (2 Cor. 3:14, 15)

Sacrifice and temple ritual were intended to illustrate the work of the coming Sin Bearer. As with any illustration, it was limited-as if looking through a veil at best. Even more, the unbelief of the majority of the people in the redemptive work of Christ obscured the meaning of the sacrifices and temple services. Unbelief led people to go through round after round of sacrifices and temple services, expecting that these exercises, in themselves, would provide pardon for sin and salvation.9

For some Jewish Christians, continued dependence on temple ritual became a veil obscuring the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. Christ had already fulfilled the purpose of the sacrifices and ceremonies, which were now no longer needed. Jesus Christ is the glorious reality and the full revelation of the love of God.

In fact, their minds were grown hard and calloused [they had become dull and had lost the power of understanding]; for until this present day, when the Old Testament [the old covenant] is being read, that same veil still lies [on their hearts], not being lifted [to reveal] that in Christ it is made void and done away. (2 Cor. 3:14, AMP)

Two phrases in the statement, “when the Old Testament [old covenant] is being read, that same veil still lies [on their hearts],” need to be explained. First, what is meant by the old covenant? For the answer to that question, see chapter 15, “The Historical Old Covenant.” Second, Hebrews 8-10 describes the Jewish perception of the earthly sacrificial system and priesthood as the “covenant,” which was faulty, decayed, and about to vanish. It was the ceremonial law that was composed of ordinances of divine service and an earthly sanctuary with holy furniture and the ark of the covenant. Nowhere in Scripture is the idea that the sacrificial system and priesthood are the covenant.10

Hebrews 8-10 describes the Jews dependence on temple rituals and sacrifices for their salvation. Associated with this was circumcision, meticulous keeping of the “law of Moses,” and their lineage from Abraham. Paul describes this as the “old covenant.” While all these things pointed to the true sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary for pardon and salvation, many Jews forgot their Redeemer. Continual dependence on these things was to deny what Christ had done on Calvary and to fall into “temple idolatry” and lose salvation.

The earthly sacrificial system is compared to the true sacrifice of Christ, and the earthly priesthood is compared to Christ’s heavenly priesthood and mediation of the new covenant. The veil of unbelief hid the true meaning of the sacrifices, which was to illustrate the true sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, paying the penalty for our sins.

Sacrifices Illustrate the Covenant

The sacrifices and the ceremonies were to illustrate the mission of the coming Sin Bearer. The glory of the Mosaic dispensation in sacrifices and rituals was only the reflected glory of Christ, which was not fully revealed until Christ came to earth. The reflected glory of Christ is also the veil through which people looked to see the coming Redeemer. To continue looking through the veil of the sacrifices and ceremonies after Christ had come was to deny the full disclosure of His glory. Even worse, the unbelieving majority had neglected the Messiah, to whom the sacrifices pointed. Forgetting the Messiah in the Old Testament writings was what prepared them to reject Jesus as the Messiah.

At the time of Paul, some Jewish Christians continued to “look through the veil” of the ceremonial law. The ceremonial law, splendid as it was, obscured the glorious truth of Jesus Christ and the full revelation of the love of God. Christ removed the veil and fulfilled the sacrifices and ceremonies. They are no longer needed. “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:15, 16, NIV).

Now that Jesus has come, there is freedom from the burden of ritual and ceremony. The sinner can now see Jesus directly by faith and can more fully understand the character of God. Beholding Him changes the sinner.

But we all, with open face [unveiled vision] beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18)

When Jews, led by the Spirit, believed on Christ, they could then understand the true significance of the Jewish economy and realize that Christ, in His own person and work, constituted the essence of the sacrificial system and the entire law of Moses.

Obedience Through God’s Grace and Love

As part of His answer to an inquiring scribe about “the first commandment of all,” Jesus said:

“| thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:30, 31)

The essence of the ten-commandment law is that we love God and then love our neighbor as ourselves. Actually, loving like that may be more difficult than keeping the Ten Commandments. Let us take this a step further: If a person does not love God, he is proud and unbelieving. If he does not love his fellow man, he is selfish. Pride, unbelief, and selfishness make up the sinful nature. Such a person cannot do merciful things except by his own sinful motives. It is only by the grace and power of God that a person can be lifted out of his pride, unbelief, and selfishness. It is only through grace that a person can truly observe the law of God.

Faith does not eliminate the ten-commandment law. Hear what Paul says: “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a living principle, not a dead system of rules. Through faith in God and our consent to the work of grace, people can obey the law, making the law even more splendid. The sacrifices and ceremonies were superb, even if temporary. That which is lasting and real-the sacrifice of Jesus and His resurrection-is even more majestic. Through Jesus, the law becomes a reality in the life. The true sacrifice of Christ provides pardon for sin and salvation for humankind. Our victory is available only through the grace and power of Jesus Christ.11


1. Before meeting Christ, Paul measured himself by Jewish qualifications. The list he gives illustrates what Jews trusted in. “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).

2. Jeremiah’s contemporary, Ezekiel, describes the New Covenant, including the covenantal promise of the Lord’s being their God: “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. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:26-38).

3. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898), p. 668.

4. In Israel’s trek through the Sinai desert, God was dealing with an uneducated group of people who had lived alongside opulence and idolatry for 215 years. The people of Israel were decidedly concrete in their way of thinking. They could understand the visible presence of God and His power in giving them victory over their enemies. They could understand the requirement to obey the Ten Commandments and avoid idolatry. They had difficulty with abstractions. The abstract term “faith” occurs just twice in the Old Testament (“no faith,” in Deut. 32:20, and the “just shall live by his faith,” in Hab. 2:4) By contrast, it occurs 229 times in the New Testament!

5. Paul also used “letter” and “spirit” in Romans 2: “Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:26-29).

6. The law cannot provide salvation. “By the law, is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Salvation is given only through the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary (Rom. 3-5, Heb. 9:26-28, John 3:16). It is by grace, mediated by the Holy Spirit, that lives are changed.

Neither can people change their motives of themselves. Should people attempt to change their life and be saved- even by engaging in religious activities-they will only be acting out the faulty and ineffective old covenant. Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant. If people consent to the work of grace, God will write His laws in their heart and change their motives.

The law continues to have an essential function. It is the ten commandment laws of God that are written in the heart. The ten commandment laws are the law of love, the law of liberty. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3). “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James1:25).

7. Skip MacCarty, In Granite or Ingrained? (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2007), pp. 119, 120.

8. Love was to be the motive for keeping God’s law (Deut. 6:2-5; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). Jesus cited the “[law of] Moses” regarding offerings after purification (Matt. 8:4; Luke 2:22; 5:14); a woman’s rights in divorce (Matt. 19:7, 8; Mark 10:3, 4); the law of the Levirate marriage (Matt. 22:24); the authority of Moses (Matt. 23:2; Mark 7:10; Luke 16:31); prophecies about the Messiah (Luke 24:44); and caring for matters of health on the Sabbath (John 7:23). Paul declared that no one is justified by “the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). Circumcision was linked at the Jerusalem counsel with keeping “the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). The Pharisees considered themselves to be “Moses’ disciples” while accusing the parents of the man born blind, whom Jesus healed, of being Jesus’ disciples (John 9:28). Jesus explained the prophecies in “Moses” concerning Himself (Luke 24:27) and declared that Moses wrote of Him (John 5:46). Philip considered Jesus to be the Messiah, based on the prophecies in “Moses” (John 1:45). “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

9. For an explanation of the veil of unbelief and the veil of the ceremonial law, see F. D. Nichol, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), vol. 6, pp. 842-851; and E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, (Berrien Springs, MI: Glad Tidings Publishers, 2002), pp. 237-243.

10. Yet, it would seem that Paul is describing more than just the ten-commandment law. This is the only place that the exact phrase “old covenant” (Greek tÄ“s palaias diathÄ“kÄ“) occurs in the New Testament.

11. It is a distinct problem when God’s people “fall away” (Heb. 6:4-6). One who is born of God-a new creature “in Christ”- overcomes the world through faith, needs not sin, does righteousness, and keeps God’s commandments (1 John 5:4, 18; 2:1, 5, 29; 3:6, 9, 24; 1 Peter 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:17).