HOW ARE WE “ABLE MINISTERS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT?” DOES THAT MEAN WE ARE UNDER THE NEW COVENANT?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“What does Paul mean in 2 Corinthians 3:6 when he says we are ‘able ministers of the new testament?’ 2 Corinthians 3:6: ‘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.’ He can’t mean Israel’s New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, or can he? Testament and covenant seem to be used interchangeably in Scripture but they are also different words. Thanks.”
Friend, this verse once puzzled me for some time. I am sure it has perplexed many others. As long as we are sure to keep definitions straight, the matter is simple. While people use “covenant” and “testament” interchangeably in normal conversation, it would be best just to leave them in their respective verses in the King James Bible. (I am well aware that modern English versions remove all references to the “new testament” and insert “New Covenant” instead. While the Greek word for “testament” is the same as the Greek word for “covenant,” as you pointed out, they are different terms in English. Our 1611 King James translators occasionally used “testament” to emphasize a special teaching; we will see that “nuance” doctrine momentarily. That is why I would not recommend using “covenant” and “testament” interchangeably when it comes to Bible study.).
Our English word “covenant” is a Middle English term from the Old French, present participle of covenir ‘agree,’ from Latin convenire (see convene). “Covenant” (Greek, diatheke) appears in our King James Bible some 295 times (mostly in Genesis through Malachi, but 20 times in the books of Matthew through Revelation). As you can see from its etymology, the word “covenant” is merely a “contract or agreement.” In the Bible, it is usually an agreement that God makes with people (whether Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, national Israel, et cetera). “Testament,” however, is a more specific term.
Our English word “testament” is a Middle English term from the Latin testamentum ‘a will’ (from testari ‘testify’). “Testament” (Greek, diatheke) appears 14 times in our King James Bible—all in the books of Matthew through Revelation. We will take a little time to look at these occurrences:
- Matthew 26:28: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
- Mark 14:24: “And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.”
- Luke 22:20: “Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”
- 1 Corinthians 11:25: “After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
- 2 Corinthians 3:6: “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 3:14: “But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.”
- Hebrews 7:22: “By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”
- Hebrews 9:15: “And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.”
- Hebrews 9:16: “For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.”
- Hebrews 9:17: “For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.”
- Hebrews 9:18: “Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood.”
- Hebrews 9:20: “Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.”
- Revelation 11:19: “And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.”
If you noticed above, “testament” is generally used in conjunction with the death of someone or something (that is, the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ or the shed blood of animals). Perhaps you can reread those verses above as you keep that in mind. Now, pay close attention to Hebrews 9:16-17, about how a testament is of force after the death of the testator. Jesus Christ had to die on the cross before the New Testament could be introduced. In legal terms, we talk about someone’s “last will and testament.” This is a legally binding document that someone makes in order to manage his or her estate (possessions, et cetera) after death. Our King James Bible is using the word “testament” in that sense—it is most often used in connection with Jesus Christ’s death at Calvary.
Now we can go back to 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 to exposit the passage and answer your question about the New Covenant: “ Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?  Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:  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.”
In the New Covenant, God writes His laws in each and every believing Jew’s heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-13; Hebrews 10:15-17). But, contrary to popular opinion, we are not Israel and we are not under the New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31 says the New Covenant will be given to “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah.” We are neither. Never once did Paul quote Jeremiah 31:31 and apply it to us. The closest passage to Jeremiah 31:31-34 that Paul wrote is Romans 11:27, and Romans 11:27 applies to Israel (see verses 25-26). When the writer of Hebrews quoted Jeremiah 31:31-34 twice, on both occasions, it was a reference to Israel (Hebrews 8:8-13; Hebrews 10:15-17). So, what did Paul mean in the above passage?
There was a certain leading faction in Corinth that had turned these believers away from Paul’s apostleship. Throughout this second epistle to Corinth, he had to defend his apostleship (see chapters 10-13). Paul said that he did not need “epistles of commendation to [the Corinthians], or letters of commendation from [the Corinthians].” In other words, Paul did not need proof from others to show that he was a legitimate apostle of Jesus Christ. He did not need letters of approval from anyone, even from the Corinthians. Instead, he pointed to the Corinthian believers’ abandonment of idols and conversion to the living God as proof of his apostleship. Additionally, chapters 4 and 11 of 2 Corinthians document that Paul was legitimate apostle of Christ because Paul suffered greatly for the Gospel’s sake.
In this the Dispensation of Grace, we are the Church the Body of Christ. According to Romans 6:14-15, we are under grace not law. As we discussed earlier, Israel will have God’s laws written in their hearts. Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 that Father God writes “Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery,” in our hearts. The Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17) writes not on tables of stone and He does not write the “letter” (a reference to the Ten Commandments, the Law). Rather, He writes Paul’s epistles and He writes them in our hearts. We are Romans through Philemon, Paul’s epistles. Our salvation in Christ is proof of Paul’s apostleship. The grace doctrine working in us is proof of Paul’s ministry. God has written His words, the message of His grace, in us. In chapter 4, verse 7, Paul will go on to say that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” This “treasure in earthen vessels” is the “life of Jesus made manifest in our body” (verse 10), Him living in and through our bodies as we walk by faith in those epistles of Paul!
By God’s sufficiency, through His Word to us, by power of the Holy Spirit, we are now able to minister (or proclaim) the benefits of Jesus Christ’s death (His finished crosswork). We are not under covenants of any kind in this the Dispensation of the Grace of God. We are simply recipients of God’s grace, enjoying what He wanted to give us, apart from anything He promised us. The grace that God will give national Israel one day, we are enjoying that grace today by way of the Dispensation of Grace! It is through Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection we can receive the forgiveness of sins now (Romans 5:11). National Israel has to wait for until the Second Coming to get that grace and forgiveness through the New Covenant (Zechariah 12:10; Acts 3:19-21; Romans 11:27).
According to Romans 3:19-20, the Mosaic Law (or, Old Covenant) was not made with us Gentiles, and yet it still affected us because it condemned us as sinners before God. Likewise, the New Covenant is not made with us and yet still affects us in the sense that we can use its underlying crosswork to get to heaven (Ephesians 2:13). The Law condemns us to hell as sinners and yet Christ’s finished crosswork saves us by making us saints. In the end, God levels it all out. Because of Adam we are condemned before God, but, because of Jesus Christ, we can be declared righteousness before God.
While “covenant” and “testament” are the same Greek word (diatheke), “testament” stresses a special type of agreement. A “testament” is only valid after the testator dies, whereas a “covenant” is in force while the maker is living. This is why our King James Bible uses “testament” instead of “covenant” in 2 Corinthians 3:6 (and other places). We are not under the New Covenant, but we are affected by the “new testament.” It is for the above reasons that I do not recommend using “covenant” and “testament” interchangeably when it comes to these Bible passages (especially 2 Corinthians 3:6).
Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 that we can now minister to others (saved or lost) in light of Jesus Christ’s death at Calvary. Our sufficiency is of God, and so, we are “able” (equipped) to be “ministers of the new testament.” God the Father has committed unto us Christians the word of reconciliation, the message of how He reconciled the world unto Himself by Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). They can now be made right in God’s sight by simple faith in Calvary’s crosswork (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is all done by the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us to bring them the Gospel, and He works in them that they see the Gospel with clarity.
» Are the books of Matthew through John “Old Testament” or “New Testament?”
» What does 2 Corinthians 5:19 mean?
» Are all Christians “ambassadors,” or just Paul and his ministry companions?