Is the Old Testament a Ministry of Death?

old-testament-ministry-of-deathThe following is an excerpt from volume 4 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel (hardcopy).


The Future Conversion of the Jews Examined in Light of 2 Corinthians 3

Proof #2: This proof of the anticipated conversion of the Jews we derive from 2 Cor 3. This conversion is emphatically affirmed in verse 16: “Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.” In order to understand the thrust of this verse, one needs to consider the context. The obscurity some consider to be in this text proceeds from a misunderstanding of the word “veil.” They understand this “veil” to refer to the ceremonial worship, and “the end of that which is abolished” (vs. 13) to Christ. The extent to which this misses the mark will become evident by examining the context.

The apostle is generally engaged in showing that the justification of the poor sinner cannot be acquired by the law—neither by the moral law nor the ceremonial law when considered in and of themselves without being united to the antitype Christ, who is the soul of the ceremonies. The Jews understood the ceremonial law as such, considering it to be of the same nature as the moral law and therefore sought their justification in its observance. This is also the apostle’s objective in this chapter, where he speaks of the ministry of death and condemnation, and of the ministry of righteousness.

In this chapter, the Old Testament and its administration according to God’s institution is not contrasted with the New Testament and its administration. It will become evident that the entire contents of this chapter contradict this; and the matters which are contrasted contradict this as well. Who would dare to say that the Old Testament and the administration of the ceremonies, the ceremonial worship as instituted by God, were a ministry of death and condemnation? Could the holy and good God bind man to such a ministry? Far be this from the Almighty! When the ceremonial worship was performed according to God’s institution—that is, by faith, leading the type to the antitype, and uniting the antitype, Christ, with the types—believers served the Lord in a spiritual sense, and that ministry was unto life for them. On the contrary, to those in the New Testament who cling to external matters, not progressing to the exercise of a true faith in Christ, the ministry of the New Testament is a ministry of death and condemnation—a savor of death unto death (2 Cor 2:16). The old administration could be performed in a spiritual manner, and the new administration can be performed in an external manner. Thus, the contrast here is not between the Old and New Testaments, but between the letter and the Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit is exalted above the ministry of the letter.

The elevation of the ministry of the Spirit above the ministry of the letter occurs in three ways: 1) relative to what follows (vss. 6-7,9); 2) relative to its glory (vss. 7-11); and 3) relative to its manner (vss. 12-18).

First, that which emanates from the letter and the Spirit is the following: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (vs. 6). “The letter” is not to be understood to refer to the Old Testament and its administration (that the Old Testament is neither an external covenant, nor consists in the inheritance of Canaan, has been demonstrated at the appropriate place), for the Holy Spirit was also present in the Old Testament and that administration was also spiritual. Else no one in the Old Testament could have been saved nor would have been able to please the Lord—not even Abel, whose sacrifices pleased the Lord (Heb 11:4). Thus, the Old Testament cannot be contrasted with the Spirit. Nowhere is this done, just as the Old Testament is never referred to as the letter.

“The letter” is also not to be understood as referring to the ceremonies, for in this chapter the apostle is specifically and literally focusing upon the moral law: “But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones …” (vs. 7). When the countenance of Moses shone as he descended the mountain, he held two tables of stone upon which the moral law had been recorded (Exod 34:29-30). However, by “the letter” the apostle understands the moral law in 1) its demand, “do this,” 2) its promise, “the man that doeth these things shall live by them,” and 3) its threat, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” If man adheres to the external aspect of the law and if he seeks his righteousness and salvation in this law, he cannot be saved. The ministry is a ministry of death and condemnation for him. If we assume (even though it is not true) that the apostle understood “the letter” to refer to the ceremonial laws—like the Jews considered them, namely, as being of one and the same nature as the moral law, divorced from the antitype, their observance consisting in external deeds—then the ministry was indeed a ministry of death and condemnation whereby no salvation could be obtained.

Therefore, “the letter” is to be understood as referring to the moral law in its demands, promises, and threats—as being a condition of the covenant of works. Add to this the observance of the ceremonial law in regard to the external deeds, divorced from the antitype. It is this letter the apostle refers to as “the ministry of death” (vs. 7), and “the ministry of condemnation” (vs. 9), because man is not able to keep it, but transgresses it and thereby brings the curse due upon transgressors upon himself.

Over against this, he posits that which emanates from the Spirit. By “the Spirit” he understands Christ (vs. 17). “The Lord is that Spirit.” As Surety, Christ has rendered payment for all guilt by His suffering and death, and has by His obedience merited perfect holiness for His own. The ministry of the Spirit is the gospel in which Christ is offered and men are allured to come to Christ to be justified by His merits. This ministry makes alive. Hereby man is regenerated, justified, sanctified, and led to eternal salvation. By the covenant of works, that is by the law, no flesh can be justified. This is an impossibility as far as the law is concerned, for the law has been rendered ineffectual by the flesh (Rom 8:3). However, through Christ the ministry of the gospel has been held forth unto justification and life—in the Old Testament in its promise, and in the New Testament in its fulfillment. This is the first contrast, by which the ministry of the Spirit, that is, of Christ, is so eminently elevated above the covenant of works—its condition being the law of the ten commandments, engraven with letters upon tables of stone, and considered in its internal demands. As such there is no comparison, for the one kills and the other makes alive.

The second distinction between the letter and the Spirit by which it is evident that the ministry of the Spirit is more excellent than that of the letter is the glory which is manifested in its administration (vss. 7-10).

The letter had glory relative to:

(1) the matter itself, its contents being love and pure holiness unto the glory of God;

(2) its being given upon Mt. Sinai, which in every respect was awe-inspiring: the voice, the fire, the annunciation, and the inscribing upon tables of stone; and

(3) its messenger, Moses, whose face shone to such an extent that when he came down the mountain with the tables of the law, one could not endure the shining of his countenance.

The Spirit had glory relative to:

(1) The Person of Christ, the express image of His Father’s glory, of whom the Father declared with an audible voice from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” He revealed a glimpse of this glory upon the holy mountain.

(2) The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost upon the apostles, whereby they proclaimed the great deeds of the Lord in various languages, inspiring awe in all who heard them; as well as thereafter upon believers, whereby the assembly of believers inspired such fear that no one else dared to join with them.

(3) The matters related to His administration; that is, the justification of the sinner to the glory of the righteousness, wisdom, and free grace of God.

(4) The efficacy of His ministry in illuminating, converting, and rejoicing souls.

Consider these two and compare them with each other. You will find that whatever is glorious has not even been glorified when considering how eminently the glory of the Spirit excels the glory of the letter. The glory of the letter, when compared with the glory of the Spirit, is extinguished, obscured, and becomes black, so to speak.

The third aspect in which the Spirit is more excellent than the letter is the manner of administration. Moses’ administration of the letter was accompanied by a veil (vs. 13), whereas the ministry of the Spirit consists in an uncovered countenance, observing not the glory of Moses, but the glory of the Lord in the face of Christ (vs. 18). The apostle dwells on this veil a bit longer in order to demonstrate the difference between the letter and the Spirit— between the law and Christ.

By the veil one is not to understand the ceremonies, for:

(1) the literal reference here is to the moral law inscribed with letters upon tables of stone (vs. 7);

(2) the ceremonies were not given to cover or conceal their antitype, Christ, but to reveal Him and by them to lead men to Christ;

(3) Old Testament believers were strongly encouraged to look to Christ—yes, not to do so was sin.

Evasive Argument: It was indeed not the objective of the ceremonies to conceal Christ, but the outcome was such due to the foolishness of men.

Answer (1) This is contrary to the text, which does not speak of an outcome due to chance, but of a deliberate purpose and objective, using the word “that.”

(2) Many looked unto Christ through the ceremonies, doing so with intensity, longing, and yearning. Thus, the ceremonies did not have this effect with all. The best among them were those who “could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished.” Thus, one cannot understand the veil to refer to the ceremonies, and the most significant purpose of the ceremonies was therefore not the concealing of Christ. Instead, the veil upon Moses’ countenance was a depiction of the veiling of the glory of the moral law as to its demands, promises, and threats, lest one would cling to that and seek his justification and salvation thereby. This would be ruinous for them and therefore the covering of Moses’ countenance was a blessing; it kept them from a way which would not lead them to salvation. There was indeed glory in the law, but it could not justify man, as it had become ineffectual through the flesh. One may thus not cling to the law in that manner.

“The end of that which is abolished” does not refer to Christ, for:

(1) Christ is here contrasted with the letter, and thus He cannot be the end of the letter.

(2) They were indeed permitted to look intently upon Christ. They were obligated to do so, for to forbear doing so was sin. The purpose of this veil, however, was not to look steadfastly to the end, but to restrain anyone from doing so. Instead, “by the end of the letter” one is to understand the justification of man by the works of the law. To that end the law had been given to Adam, and in the keeping of the commandments is eternal life. The man who does these things shall live by them. That end neither can nor may be pursued in living according to this rule, for man cannot attain that end by the keeping of the law. If he were to cling to such keeping of the law, he would find himself deceived at last.

That which is abolished is the letter, that is, the moral law—not as far as its end is concerned whereto it had been given upon Sinai—to be a rule of life for the partakers of the covenant, who do not seek their justification in the law, but rather in Christ. Instead, it is abolished by believers as far as:

(1) Being justified thereby, justification being impossible by way of the law due to sin. In this respect Christ takes the place of the law, relative to which the apostle says: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom 10:4).

(2) Its condemning power over all who transgress the law—as believers have done and do daily. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Moses’ veil was an indication that they had to look away from the law so as to be justified thereby. Instead, they had to be led by the law as a schoolmaster to Christ.

The apostle applies this to the present state of the Jews in their blindness, doing so by transposing this to another matter (vss. 14-16). The apostle does not understand the veil to refer here to that which was upon Moses’ countenance, but by way of analogy he refers to something that lays upon them as a covering veil. This veil is not upon their countenance, but upon their heart, intellect, and will. He understands hereby the ignorance and blindness of the heart of which the prophet speaks: “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Isa 6:9-10). The apostle applies this to Israel and its blindness during his time (Acts 28:26). This darkness lies upon them as a veil in the reading of the Old Testament, wherein Christ is clearly portrayed. They do not see Him there, however, and this veil remains upon them until this present day, and will remain upon them until it is done away for them in Christ. And indeed, it will once be taken away. They will one day turn to the Lord, as the apostle states in plain language in 2 Cor 3:16: “Nevertheless when it (the people of Israel, and not this or that person) shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.” They will then know Christ, receive Him, and believe in Him, and with us “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” will be “changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord,” Amen.


Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 4, pp. 520-525

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