6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Verse 6 presents the nature of gospel ministry—New Covenant ministry. This is a ministry of the Spirit, not the law. This ministry is not the fulfillment of the New Covenant referred to in Jeremiah but rather a contrast to the character of his ministry.
Paul replied to two groups of critics in 2 Corinthians. In chapters 1-9 he answered criticisms directed toward him from the Corinthian congregation. In chapters 10-13 he replied to his false apostles’ critics. The criticism from the congregation consisted of character issues and not the content of his message.
The parties to the covenant in Jeremiah 31:31 were God, Israel, and Judah. The church was not brought as a new party into this agreement anywhere in Scripture.
6 who [God] also made us sufficient as ministers [servants]
The word “ministers” occurs five times in verses 6-11. A minister here is one who transmits the message of the New Covenant. He is an intermediary enabled by God and charged to present His Word.
of the [a] new covenant,
The “of” here means “new covenant-like” (genitive of description). The issue is not the content of the New Covenant but a description of what it is like to minister in the economy of the Spirit and grace. This is how Paul conducted himself in ministry. There is no “the” in the Greek text, making the word “covenant” indefinite (anarthrous)—“a new covenant.”
God empowered the gospel team to be sufficient ministers of the New Covenant (prophesied in Jer 31:31, 33). The implication is that the gospel team’s opponents were ministers of the Old Covenant.
The Greek word for “new” means new in quality. The emphasis is on the word “new,” which does not mean new in time but new in kind. The New Covenant is completely new and better from the old and obsolete Mosaic law. The dynamics of the New Covenant were dramatically different from the Old Covenant.
not of the letter but of the Spirit;
The ministry of Paul’s team was by the Holy Spirit rather than the “letter”; that is, the legalistic application of the law of Moses by Judaizers. The law cannot justify or sanctify; it simply identifies sin.
The “letter” refers to the Old Covenant law, whereas “the Spirit” refers to New Covenant grace. The “letter” then references the Ten Commandments within the Mosaic Covenant written in stone (2 Co 3:7; Ro 7:6-8). That ministry “kills” because it declares what God demands without giving sufficient power to fulfill it, and then pronounces the death sentence on all those who break it.
for the letter kills,
The “letter” kills because it gives external commands without the ability to fulfill it (Ro 7:9-11; Ga 3:10). The law slays by knowledge of guilt and the consequence of failing to live up to the commandment (2 Co 3:7). Believers in the Old Testament did not possess the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit; thus, the law killed their attempt to keep the law. Paul’s opponents attempted to impose the burden of keeping law in their own strength upon the Corinthians. The fallen nature of man is too strong against the demands of the law.
The thrust is not that the Old Testament law was a mistake or unimportant. The idea is that a legalistic use of the law is what “kills.” The law itself does not kill.
The law “kills” because no one can keep it perfectly (Ga 3:10). All it takes to suffer God’s judgment is to break one law one time.
There is a great difference between the code of laws and the gospel.
Our verse is often wrongly interpreted to mean that God encourages us not to give attention to the text of Scripture but to its spiritual meaning. Worship, for example, without content, or something for which we appreciate, is not worship at all. It is abortive worship and something reduced to engagement with the self. Man is restless until he comes to grips with who and what God is. No person is self-contained or complete in self. We are not complete until we engage with the greatness of God. Religious experience without revelation is hollow (Mt 4:4).
The contrast is not between the literal and the spiritual. Instead, the contrast is between Moses’ Law in the Old Testament and the dynamics of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. There is a new manner of ministry in the church economy; it is the life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit.