Those whose historical model of the covenants holds that the New Testament’s contrasting characterizations of the old and new covenants refer to the Sinai covenant and the covenant after Jesus came in history dutifully teach that 2 Corinthians 3:6 means that the Sinai covenant was “a letter that kills,” and the historical new covenant is “the Spirit that gives life.” With all due respect, such teaching turns the Old Testament characterization of the covenant God made with His people at Sinai inside out and upside down! (See lessons 1–5.)
The context of 2 Corinthians 3 provides a different interpretation entirely, one that harmonizes with the scriptural revelation that the Sinai covenant and the historical new covenant share the same spiritual DNA and gospel. In the preface to 2 Corinthians 3, Paul describes his preaching of the gospel as a beautiful “fragrance” to God: “We are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:14). Paul preached the New Testament version of the gospel, the historical new covenant version, which included the incarnation, life, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus as historical facts. Note how Paul describes the results of his own preaching of this superlative expression of the gospel: “To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (v. 16, emphasis supplied)! Did you catch that? Paul’s preaching of the new covenant gospel itself brought “death” to some and “life” to others! How so? Well, even the gospel results in “life” or “death” to people depending on how they respond to it. Rejection of it or purely legalistic adherence to it represents an old covenant experience and leads to “death”; acceptance of it in faith and the obedience that results from faith represents a new covenant experience and leads to “life”!
What about the old covenant veil that covers people’s hearts and blinds their minds whenever Moses and the Old Testament (Greek, “old covenant,” the translation of most modern versions, though likely not referencing the writings of Moses exclusively, but inclusively) is read, a veil that can only be “taken away in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14)? Those who believe that 2 Corinthians 3’s characterizations of the old covenant refer to Sinai teach that this veil represents God’s Sinai covenant itself. For example, some teach that this veil is the “veil of old covenant law,” the Torah, the Sinaitic laws, Sinai itself, the Sabbath, with the Sabbath itself clearly at the bullseye of their Sinai-covenant target.
But again, what does the context teach? As Paul’s preface to 2 Corinthians 3 explained what Paul meant by the “letter that kills,” his postscript, 2 Corinthians 4:1–6, explains what his imagery of the veil means: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light . . . should shine on them” (4:3, 4, emphasis supplied). That is quite a different interpretation from the Sinai covenant blinding people to the gospel! Paul says it was not God who imposed the veil but Satan! And the veil itself does not represent the Sinai covenant or the Sabbath, but rather Satan’s blinding people to the gospel through unbelief!
Second Corinthians 3 does not represent contrasting historical covenants God made with His people at Sinai and with His people when Jesus came. It represents the timeless experiential contrasts between faith and unbelief, righteousness and condemnation, conversion and non-conversion, life and death. It affirms that whenever “one turn to the Lord,” the veil of unbelief is lifted and they pass from death to life, regardless of what historical covenant they lived under (v. 16). To understand 2 Corinthians 3 historically rather than experientially misses the point entirely! Second Corinthians 3 is an evangelistic appeal.