In the Bible it is written: “For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.” (2Co 3:11) Something glorious is done away, and something even more glorious remains. What is this text about; what does it mean, and how does it affect our lives today?
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and began presenting God’s Law to the children of Israel, the skin of his face shown in such a way that all the people were afraid to come near him, even his own brother Aaron. So Moses put a veil over his face while he explained God’s laws to them. The account of this phenomenon is given in Exodus 34:29-35.
29And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.
30And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him.
31And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them.
32And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai.
33And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face.
34But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded.
35And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
In 2nd Corinthians 3:7-14 the apostle Paul provides some additional insight, and reveals that the glory of Moses’ countenance was so bright that the people could not stare directly at him. Paul finds in this an expression of the majesty and glory of God’s Law, the Torah, to help us appreciate its role in defining the terms of God’s Covenant with Israel. Yet even as Paul does this he calls it “the ministration of death … (and) … condemnation.” (vs 7, 9)
7But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
8How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
9For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
In referring to the giving of Torah to Israel (and through them to all Mankind, De 4:6) as “the ministration of death,” Paul reminds us that God’s Law makes no one righteous (Heb 7:19); the holy standard does not, in itself, transform anyone. In defining holiness for us and revealing the nature of God, Torah also exposes the sinfulness of Man and calls for his condemnation (Rom 3:19). Thus, due to the depravity of Man, the ministry of Torah is necessarily one of death and condemnation, an important and glorious ministry yet one that is very difficult for the unrighteous to apprehend. Yet in comparing the glory of Torah with that of the Gospel, Paul shows us that they are ultimately incomparable.
10For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
11For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
This glory of the ministry of Torah is concealed; being overshadowed by the surpassing glory of the Gospel, and not at all obvious to those outside of God, so Paul finds in Moses’ veil a symbol of this concealing since it obscures the face of Moses, whose brilliantly radiant countenance expressed the glorious end or goal of the Law. (vs 13) It is only in Christ that this concealing of (the ultimate goal of) Torah “is done away.” (vs 14)
13And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
14But 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.
15But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.
16Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.
So this veil-like concealing of the end, or the nature and goal of Torah (1Ti 1:5), persists among all who are unregenerate, those who do not know Christ; it is only when the heart turns to the Lord that He begins to take this veil away and reveal the glory of Torah as He writes it in the mind and heart. (Heb 8:10) Those in Christ begin to see His glory more clearly through Torah, “for Christ is the end (or goal) of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (Rom 10:4) The believer begins to see in Torah a light to expose all that is contrary to God: “The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Rom 8:7) Believers find that where they are contrary to Torah they are contrary to God, and so discover in Torah a plumb line, a compass, a level, a guide, “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105), helping them draw ever nearer to God in their journey in holiness. They find Torah to be powerful in “converting the soul … making wise the simple … rejoicing the heart … enlightening the eyes.” (Ps 19:7-8) Believers begin to say of the laws of God, “more to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the honey comb.” (Ps 19:10) What is removed in Christ is not Torah itself but our inability to see its true power and glory: as Christ transforms the heart in sanctification one has more and more a tendency to say, “Oh how I love thy Law, it is my meditation all the day!” (Ps 119:97)
It is in the midst of helping us understand the relationship between the covenants of promise that Paul mentions the temporary nature of Torah; he says that it “is done away” (vs 11) and that it “is abolished.” (vs 13) Many take from this wording that the finished work of Christ has already rendered most (or all) of Torah irrelevant, such that it is no longer pertinent or applicable for believers today.
On the surface this may seem a reasonable conclusion, if we are thinking that the only purpose of Torah is to show Man his need of Christ, and if we think this task is now fulfilled and no longer needed. Yet when we consider that Paul is also saying in the same context that when we turn to Christ the veil over the glory of Torah is removed, such that believers begin to love and value Torah in purity of heart, how could he then also be teaching that Torah is no longer relevant to believers?
To understand what God is saying here we must carefully note Paul’s deliberate use of tense; he does not say that Torah has been done away or that it has already been abolished: Paul consistently uses present tense rather than past tense. What is Paul saying?
As an illustration of this use of tense, suppose we are looking at a map of an old section of a city marked out for renovation. As we note which of the various buildings have been selected for demolition or renovation, we might say of the former, these are destroyed; they are still standing but they have been marked out, destined for destruction. And of the various city ordinances which will be removed from the books, no longer enforced as a result of our renovation project, distinguishing them from the remaining city ordinances that will survive, we could say they are abolished: they are presently being enforced but they will soon become obsolete.
Similarly, if we step out of time with God and look at the whole of history from an eternal perspective, we can see Him classifying all things as either temporary or permanent, temporal or eternal. (2Cor 4:18) In this sense the earth itself and the heavens are destroyed (2Pe 3:7), they are temporary, along with the world’s system and values. (1Jn 2:17) Of any rules or laws that will eventually become irrelevant and obsolete, including Torah itself, we can say, “they are done away, abolished .” God often speaks in this way; He “calleth those things which be not as though they were.” (Rom 4:17, e.g. Jer 22:20, Zep 3:6, John 3:13,18, 8:58, Eph 2:6) This is how Albert Barnes understands this text (see notes on verses 11 and 13, though he himself believes Torah has already been abolished.)
So it is true that Torah, this ministry of death and condemnation, is not eternal; it is temporary, destined to become obsolete. But when does this obsoleting or abolishing of Torah occur? Christ said it as plainly as it can be said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Mat 5:17-18) The Law has not been destroyed or abolished yet: it is still God’s definition of holiness, and anyone who violates even the least of His commandments is in sin. (Matt 5:19, 1Jn 3:4)
As further proof that Torah has not yet been abolished, we may turn to a similar text in Hebrews 7:18-19, which speaks of “a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.” Yet in the immediate context, in Heb 8:4-5, we find that Christ cannot now be a priest on earth, “seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things.” This text states that the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system is still being honored by God, to the point that if Christ were to return to Earth now He would not be qualified to be a priest in His own temple. This text may only be true if the entire Torah is still applicable and in force in God’s spiritual economy. For further insight, please see Keep My Commandments.
The giving of Torah was a glorious ministry of death and condemnation to reveal and judge the depraved nature of Man, and we should continually cherish this affect of Torah in our lives as it exposes and sheds light on our sin nature, and continually reveals the precious righteous nature of Christ to us. The New Covenant in God, the ministration of the spirit, is of a more excellent and surpassing glory where God gives men new hearts and spirits, transforming them so that His righteousness is formed in them and the formerly obscure beauty and purpose of the Law is then plainly revealed to them. Torah’s function to define and point us to the holiness of God will be fulfilled and complete when His elect have finally become righteous like He is, when there is no more sin defiling and corrupting the corridors of time. At that time Torah will no longer be needed, and so it will be abolished and done away, but not until then.