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Does 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 invalidate the Ten Commandments? What are the tablets of stone and what is the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones? What is the context of Moses’ glorious face?

A: The entire passage of 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 has been very confusing to many, and most commentaries use it to teach that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding for us today. We discussed this question in our Q&A, titled, “Does 2 Corinthians 3:3-11 teach that the Ten Commandments have been abolished?”.

We will summarize below some statements in the above-mentioned Q&A and then proceed with answering further questions and objections to our explanation.

In the Q&A, we pointed out that verse 3 addresses indeed the Ten Commandments, stating, “… 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.”

This statement merely explains that we are to internalize the Ten Commandments. It is not enough to have them in our Bibles or written on posters or on tablets of stone, but they must be part of ourselves. They must be in our hearts, on the tablets of our flesh. This passage does not even remotely suggest that we are no longer obligated to keep the Ten Commandments; just the opposite is the case.

God’s Law must be in our hearts (Isaiah 51:7; Hebrews 10:16). In the context of this Q&A and 2 Corinthians 3, the following passage in Ezekiel 36:26-27 is especially telling: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”

Some turn to 2 Corinthians 3, verses 7-8, 11, for their claim that the Ten Commandments have been abolished. However, these verses don’t talk about the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments had been written. They state:

“(7) But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, (8) how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?… (11) For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.”

Let us compare the different Greek words which are used in verses 3 and 7, when describing the “tablets of stone” and the “ministry of death… engraved on stones.” The Greek word for “of stone” in verse 3 is, “lithinos” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, No. 3035), and means, literally, “made of stone” or formed out of stones. The word is used in Revelation 9:20, describing idols made out of stone. The Greek word for engraved “on stones,” in verse 7, is, “lithos” (Strong’s No. 3037), and it describes complete stones–not something made of stone. It is also rendered as “millstone” in Luke 17:2. The tablets with the Ten Commandments, as mentioned in verse 3, were taken from stones–the tablets did not constitute complete stones. But verse 7 speaks of complete stones.

This distinction is important as much later, massive stones would be used on which the entire Law of Moses would be engraved. The Law of Moses had been written in the “Book of Moses” or the “Book of the Law of Moses” or the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:4, 7; Deuteronomy 28:58-61; 29:20-21, 27; 30:10; 31:24-26; Joshua 1:8; 8:31, 34). This Book was also called the “Book of the Law of God” in Joshua 24:26. While God wrote twice the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18; Exodus 34:1, 28), He instructed Moses to write all the commandments in a Book (Exodus 34:27). This Book included the Ten Commandments and other spiritual laws which are still valid today, but it also included ritual laws, sacrificial laws, and the penalties or “curses” for disobedience such as the death penalty for capital sins and crimes.

ALL the laws that had been written by Moses into the “Book of the Law” were later engraved by Joshua on massive stones (Joshua 8:30-32, 34), pursuant to the word of Moses (Deuteronomy 27:2-3, 8). These are the stones Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 3:7-8 (“… if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious… how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?”). The reference to the ministry of death includes the death penalty for violating God’s spiritual law. The ministry of death referred to the Levitical priesthood. They had to carry out the execution of those guilty of death. They had to apply the letter of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6); there was no room for mercy due to repentance. The Levitical priesthood was also a ministry of death for the additional reason that people would still not be able to obtain eternal life, even though they brought sacrifices, as sacrifices did not forgive sins, and the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

God’s true ministers today do not administer the death penalty for sin–they don’t fulfill the ancient Levitical priesthood’s role and function of a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). Rather, God’s true ministry today teaches that sinning man can receive forgiveness of sin, through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God’s ministry today also teaches that man must keep the Ten Commandments. Man can only do this, however, through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within him, which is received after repentance, belief and proper baptism and the laying on of hands. In other words, God’s ministry is a “ministry of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 3:9), teaching man how to obtain righteousness and how to live righteously.

The penalties were first written in the Book of the Law of Moses and then engraved on massive stones. Note that the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments did not include any death penalties. But the massive stones with the entirety of the Book of Moses surely did.

The Ten Commandments, as well as other permanent and temporary laws, were WRITTEN in a book–the Book of the Law of Moses. Verse 7 makes reference to this fact, when it says, “…WRITTEN and engraved on stones.” Quite literally, the meaning is that all of the laws were first “reduced to writing” (“en grammasin” in Greek) and then “engraved” (“entupoo” in Greek) “on stones” (“en lithos” in Greek).

It must be admitted that the literal rendering in verse 7 does not include the word “and” in the phrase, “written and engraved on stones”, but it was supplied by the translator of the Authorized Version and the New King James Bible. But the supplication is correct; otherwise there would be doubletalk, because “written” and “engraved” means the same thing in the context. But it was first written in the Book of Moses and then engraved on stones. The tablets with the Ten Commandments were “written” with the finger of God, but the clause “engraved” is not used in regard to the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments (but compare for example Exodus 28:9-11).

Another objection is as follows: If 2 Corinthians 3:7 makes reference to the massive stones which were mentioned by Moses and later erected under Joshua, why then do verses 7-8, 11-14 refer to Moses’ shining face when he returned from the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments? In order to answer this question, let us quote these particular verses in context:

“(7) But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, (8) how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?… (11) For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. (12) Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech—(13) unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. (14) But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ…”

The argument is that Moses’ face had a glorious appearance when he had returned with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, proving that Paul is referring here to the tablets with the Ten Commandments and NOT to the massive stones with the entire Law of Moses, including its ritual and sacrificial laws and its penalties.

Some who understand that Paul was NOT speaking about the Ten Commandments in verse 7 try to explain this verse by giving an interesting rendition of the words “so that” in the phrase, “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance…”

The argument goes like this (quoted from the Internet):

“In reading the above passage, one might think that there is some close connection between the administration of death and the glory of Moses’ face.  Actually, there is no connection.  Rather, there is a parallel.  In verse 7, where it says, ‘so that the children of Israel,’  the word ‘so’ is translated from the Greek word hoste, which in some contexts, can mean ‘as’—as it certainly must in this case.  Paul was using simile (showing similarity using ‘like’ or ‘as’).   For instance, if someone says, Bill stared at that glass of water like a lion stalking his prey, that doesn’t mean there is a connection between Bill and the lion.  There is simply a parallel.  So what was Paul saying?   He was pointing out that, just as the glory of Moses’ face had a brilliant glory, even though it was only temporary, so the civil administration of death at that time had a brilliant glory even though it [too] was only temporary.   But, as he goes on to show, that pales beside the much greater, permanent glory of the spiritual administration of righteousness…”

 The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon defines the word “hoste” as: “so that, insomuch that, so then, therefore, wherefore.”

The total of the King James Word Usage of the word “hoste” is 83, as follows: “‘so that’ 25, ‘wherefore’ 17, ‘insomuch that’ 16, ‘therefore’ 9, ‘that’ 6, ‘so then’ 5, ‘to’ 3, ‘as’ 1, ‘insomuch as’ 1.”

However, no commentary has been found agreeing with the explanation that “hoste” can mean “as” in the sense of a comparison or a simile. They all say, it can only convey the concept of expressing the effect or result of anything (cp. Vine’s Expository Dictionary).

In looking at the passages where “hoste” is used, none seems to give the meaning of conveying a comparison. Rather, the synonyms are, “in so much that; so that; therefore; wherefore.” Even when “as” may be used in some (modern) translations, it is not to be understood as a comparison, but only as an expression of the effect.

We do not have to decide whether the meaning of the word “hoste” in the context of 2 Corinthians 3:7 can convey a comparison or simile. The reason is that an incorrect assumption was made regarding the timing of the shining face of Moses.

Let us note that the face of Moses shone with glory after he saw God in His glory (Exodus 33:18-23) and after he had been with God a second time for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the second set of the tablets of stone, containing the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:29-30). His face did not shine when he received the first tablets with the Ten Commandments which he broke in anger because the Israelites had built a golden calf and committed idolatry.

The Soncino commentary points out that “these rays of glory originated with Moses at the time he stood in the cleft of the rock and God covered him with His hand.” Most commentaries conclude that his glory continued to shine throughout his life, and that he continued to put a veil on his face when he showed himself to the Israelites (Exodus 34:33-35).

The Nelson Study Bible states that Moses’ “glory was enhanced on each subsequent encounter with the LORD.”

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says: “The brightness of Moses’ face… remained henceforth a property of his countenance.”

The Benson Commentary states: “He carried his credentials in his very countenance; some think, as long as he lived he retained some remainders of this glory, which perhaps contributed to the vigour of his old age; that eye could not wax dim which had seen God, nor that face wrinkle which had shone with his glory.”

Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, writes: “For the rest of the narrative in Exodus (and in the next three books of the Hebrew Bible), he is to be pictured wearing a veil.”

In fact, Paul does not mention the timing as to when the face of Moses was shining with glory. He does not say that Moses’ face shone only when he returned from the mountain with the tablets of stone, and that therefore, Paul had in verse 7 the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments in mind. Rather, it appears that Moses’ face still shone when he spoke about the massive stones on which the entire Law of Moses would be engraved. So, Paul’s point is still well taken that when Moses announced that the ministry of death (reduced to writing in the Book of Moses) would be engraved on massive stones, the face of Moses was still shining, but that was temporary because Moses would die soon thereafter. In the same way, the ministry of death passed away and ended when Christ died on the cross.

We should also note again that verse 7 talks about the “ministry of death.” The tablets with the Ten Commandments did not include the death penalty or any punishment at all. But the ministry of death, as described in the Book of Moses, did not and could not forgive sin. Animal sacrifices could only provide physical reconciliation with God. The comparison is between the ministry of death, as the letter killed and the Levites had to fulfill their task according to the letter, and the ministry of life, as repentance and forgiveness of sin through Christ’s Sacrifice frees us from death. (Note that Christ refused to stone the woman caught in adultery, when He saw her repentance.)

Paul did not in any way teach that the Ten Commandments were abolished. But he did teach that the “ministry of death” with its rituals, sacrifices and penalties had come to an end. Today, God’s true Church has received the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21) and not of condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:9), as Christ Himself did not come “to condemn the world,  but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link