The Ministry of Death

I listen regularly to the Pray as You Go podcast. Last week, one of the passages featured was the passage below from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!

2 Corinthians 3:4-9 (NRSV)

In this passage Paul contrasts two covenants—first, the giving of the law through Moses; and second, what he calls “a new covenant…of spirit,” which “gives life.” Paul goes on to refer to the first covenant as “the ministry of death,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”

His meaning here seems to be the idea he fleshes out more explicitly elsewhere (e.g., in Romans 7:7-13 and Galatians 3:19-29) that God’s aim with the first covenant—”the law”—was to show us our sinfulness. In this way, the law condemned us to death, which is the “wages of sin” (as Paul puts it in Romans 6:23). And so, on Paul’s telling, the first covenant is the “ministry of death” and the “ministry of condemnation.”

In listening to this passage, I was struck by the contrast between the two terms “ministry” and “death.” “Death” has clear negative connotations. But, the word “ministry” derives from the Latin term for “service,” which has the positive connotation of something helpful. So, as a “minister” of the new covenant, Paul views himself as a servant of that covenant, and ultimately as a servant of the author of that covenant, God, and its recipients, us. But, how could death be a service to us?

In the past couple of years I have struggled with a dead end in my life. In 2015, I finished a Ph.D. in philosophy, and at the time I had hoped to become a professor at a university or college. After three years of trying, however, it just didn’t work out, so I was left to grieve the death of a dream and to puzzle over why God would have led me to this place in my journey.

In pondering Paul’s phrase, “ministry of death,” I was reminded that sometimes God leads us to dead ends or experiences of death in order to show us things or to grow us. The showing and the growing don’t necessarily make the pain of dying any less; Jesus’s suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross remind us of this.

But, the death can still be a kind of service to us. As I work on my first novel and ruminate over other writing projects to follow, it strikes me that I never would have pursued these projects had I been an academic. My writing would have been participation in a range of philosophical disputes, and quite rightly and valuably so, I think. But, I would have missed the lightness and joy of story writing, and my audience would have been narrow and specialized.

Looking back, then, from a slightly elevated vantage point—though still not from a birds-eye view—I can begin to see how this recent painful death has indeed been a service to me, a kind of ministry of death wrought by God. Without the death, I’m not sure I would appreciate or even grasp the path of life that lies before me. Thanks be to God.

What do you think?

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