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 (2 Corinthians 3:6)
The Bible warns the professing church over and over again that if God’s people persist in sin and abandon close fellowship with him, his Spirit will be quenched and his abiding presence removed. Ichabod will be its new name — ‘the glory is departed’ (1 Samuel 4:21).
Israel in the Old Testament and some of the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 are striking examples of what happens when God finally gives his lukewarm, lifeless, people over to their own ways — ‘Judgement must begin at the house of God’ (1 Peter 4:17).
Perhaps the most astonishing and grievous thing is that those concerned are usually unaware when God’s presence and blessing have departed. Having lost these things they content themselves with artificial programs and imagine that increasing numbers betoken God’s continued favour.
Indeed, the flesh can produce outward results without any need for God. External growth may occur, but for all intents and purposes the church has become a mere religious organisation, using the name ‘Christian’ but having no spiritual substance.
The Bible calls such churches ‘synagogues of Satan’ (Revelation 2:9). They are blind to the reality that God has withdrawn his blessing from them. He has removed their lampstand. What a horrible tragedy!
Many true Christians in dead churches languish under ‘ministries of death’ and cry to the Lord to deliver them from spiritual bondage and bring them back into the land of the living.
When a church’s lampstand is finally removed, it is often due to the failure to maintain a ‘ministry of the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:8). It is much easier to build a church around a teaching ministry, than around the twofold ministry of Word and Spirit — but both are commanded!
Let me enlarge upon our subject of ‘Word and Spirit’ by reference to other Scriptures.
The ministry of life
Firstly, consider life. ‘The letter kills but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). The apostle Paul does not mean that the Word of God is less important than the Holy Spirit. The Word and the Spirit are not in competition with each another. Paul is teaching that both are absolutely necessary for a ministry of life to exist.
To prove this, Paul points to the source of our sufficiency as new covenant ministers. ‘Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God; not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves but our sufficiency is from God’ (vv. 3,5).
The source of our sufficiency is not the Word alone. If it were, Paul would not have said, ‘our sufficiency is from God’ (3:5). Paul ministered Christ to them ‘not with ink’ — that is, not by the word alone — but by ‘the Spirit of the living God’ (3:3).
The living God
If the Holy Spirit failed to give life and power to Paul’s preaching, his words would have fallen on deaf ears. Likewise, if the Word by itself could produce spiritual results then why do we need to cry to God in prayer for the Holy Spirit’s blessing?
If the Word alone could produce converts, why did Jesus teach that the Spirit’s power was needed to make the gospel effective? — ‘Tarry in Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49).
Moreover, Paul’s use of the term ‘living God’ (2 Corinthians 3:3) is not trivial. The Holy Spirit’s purpose in anointing the spoken word is to bring life out of death — for ‘God is not the God of the dead but of the living’ (Matthew 22:32).
New Testament pastors are called ‘ministers of the Spirit’ because the Holy Spirit plants and perpetuates God’s life in his saints through their public and private ministrations. And without the Spirit’s influence the Word of God produces death, not life (2 Corinthians 3:7-9).
Some will misunderstand what we are saying and think we are disparaging the Word of God. On the contrary, we are elevating both Word and Spirit to their scriptural place as the inseparable, God-ordained means of creating and sustaining spiritual life.
Secondly, consider balance. Only Word and Spirit together can provide a vital, balanced ministry in the local church. Without this balance the church will become anaemic, deformed, and dead in some or all of its parts.
Jesus refers to this need of balance in John 6:63: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are Spirit, and they are life’.
Furthermore, balance is necessary if we are to worship God acceptably: ‘God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth’ (John 4:24).
Many churches display an abominable imbalance in their approach to worship. The true believer, who is born of the Spirit and knows God in his heart, will never be satisfied, edified, and nourished by worship which lacks the Holy Spirit’s presence and ministry.
For God to be pleased with our worship he must be worshipped in truth (sound doctrine) and Spirit. We often pay lip-service to this, praying publicly: ‘God help us to worship you in Spirit and in truth’. But deep inside we lack the hunger, thirst, faith, sincerity and purity necessary to bring the Holy Spirit’s blessing to our worship.
God have mercy on us if all we have to offer him are liturgy, rituals, ceremonies, traditions, programmes, religious words and fleshly techniques.
In recent years we have witnessed a mass exodus of people who have left unbalanced churches because of the absence of the power of the Holy Spirit — in teaching, preaching, fellowship, worship services and church life.
The church desperately needs to restore the balance of Word and Spirit so that its glorious doctrines may be adorned with the mighty power of the Holy Spirit! ‘For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Centrality of Christ
Thirdly, consider the centrality of Christ. The Pharisees were experts in the rules and regulations of the Old Testament, yet were almost completely ignorant of its underlying spiritual meaning.
Jesus told the Pharisees the reason for their unbelief and their ultimate rejection of his teachings and ministry: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing’ (John 6:63).
The Pharisees were teachers and caretakers of the law, but the Spirit had not illuminated their darkened minds to comprehend spiritual truth. Only the Holy Spirit can transform dead letters into ‘living epistles’.
Thus, having no capacity to see things with ‘spiritual eyes’, the Pharisees had no other sphere in which to perform their duties but the intellectual, religious and physical realms. Their lack of the Holy Spirit’s illumination and power led to the unthinkable — they rejected and crucified their Messiah.
The absence of the Holy Spirit cast great darkness on the minds and hearts of these men. Jesus identifies this problem with piercing clarity: ‘You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me’ (John 5:39).
They had committed what Adolph Saphir calls bibliolatry (making an idol of the Bible and its doctrines). The Pharisees were professional religionists whose religion, scriptures, system of doctrine and national heritage were ends in themselves.
Let us beware that we do not become like them.
Jesus Christ the only end
Let us be clear. God never gave us any gift, benefit, or privilege as an end in itself — except Jesus Christ! All God’s gifts, means and benefits — including the Scriptures, the church, the ministry and every other spiritual blessing — are but servants to lead us to Christ!
The ultimate purpose of the written Word is to bring us into contact with the living Word: ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes’ (Romans 10: 4). ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3:11).
What about us? What about our churches and ministers? What about you, dear reader? Has the Holy Spirit burdened your heart to see Jesus Christ as the centre and focus of your life and your church?
Without this, we drift towards religiosity and hyper-rationalism. Hold on to your first love, Jesus Christ. If you have wandered from him, be encouraged to return — for God says, ‘If you will return to me, I will return to you’.
May God give us grace to know him in both Word and Spirit!