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Servants of the New Deal


Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Some people think of pastors as the only ministers in the Church of Jesus Christ. But this is not how the New Testament views matters. According to the New Testament, every member of the Church is a minister. What makes pastors different is that pastors are supposed to be equippers. In 1 Corinthians we looked at the gifts of the Spirit that are given to all God’s people to carry on ministry in the Church and in the world. Paul also talks about spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4:11-13 where he says…


So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.


In Ephesians 4, the gifts are actually people, offices in the Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Notice, there is no gift of evangelism, just the gift of the evangelist. And notice what apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are supposed to do… equip God’s people for works of service. Another word for service is ministry.


Why do I belabor this point? Because when we read about ministers of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3, we should not think that Paul is talking merely about himself, or about the apostles, or even just pastors. When Paul talks about ministers of the new covenant, he is addressing all of God’s people. 


What is the new covenant? The word covenant appears a whopping 332 times in the Bible, 295 times in the Old Testament, and 37 times in the New Testament. 

The word “covenant” is used to refer to an agreement between human beings, like a treaty or alliance. It is used of a constitution or ordinance between monarch and subjects. It can refer to an agreement or pledge. David and Jonathan form a covenant of friendship. The Old Testament also refers to marriage as a covenant.

But the type of covenant Paul is referring to is a covenant between God and human beings. Such a covenant consists of a divine constitution or ordinance with signs or pledges. In the Old Testament, God makes a covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Israel as a whole at Sinai, and with David, promising to his seed an everlasting kingdom.

But then in Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read, 

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”


This is the new covenant of which Paul claims he is a minister. So, what does Paul say about ministers of the new covenant, what we might call “servants of the new deal”? What does Paul say about all of us and the ministry we all together should be carrying on? Paul makes five points.


First, ministers of the new covenant show concern for the flock.


In verse 12, Paul talks about going to Troas on the coast of Asia Minor and preaching the good news of Jesus Christ there. The Lord opened a door of opportunity for Paul in Troas, but Paul felt unsettled. Why? Because he was worried about the congregation in Corinth. He was hoping that his protégé, Titus, would meet him in Troas and bring him word about how things were going in Corinth. 


The name, Titus, appears 13 times in the New Testament. Nine of those appearances are in 2 Corinthians. Paul wrote an entire letter to Titus which is included in the New Testament. But who was Titus?

  • In 2 Corinthians 8:23, Paul calls him his partner and coworker.
  • In Galatians 2:3, Paul tells us that Titus was a Greek.
  • In Titus 1:4, Paul calls him his true son in their common faith.


So, from these references we can conclude that Titus was a Greek, not a Jew. Paul was his spiritual father who led him to faith in Christ. And Paul used Titus as a coworker and emissary. Paul wrote an entire letter to Titus because he had left him in Crete to “put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town”.


Paul mentions Titus in our passage today because he is hoping to see him. He has obviously sent Titus to Corinth to straighten out the problems there and bring word back to him. But for some reason Titus does not meet Paul in Troas at this juncture. Thus, as Paul is hanging in limbo, he is concerned for the church in Corinth, so much so that he does not have any peace of mind. We do not hear about Titus again in this letter until we come to 2 Corinthians 7:6.


But this passage reveals to us the pastoral heart of Paul. Peter also talks about this pastoral heart in 1 Peter 5:1-6 where he says…


To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.


The elders that Peter addressed were not paid clergy such as we have today. Certainly, it is incumbent upon pastors to show the kind of concern for their flock that Paul demonstrates in his life and that Peter talks about. But pastors are not the only ones who can care for the flock. It is the pastor’s job to equip people in the church for this kind of ministry.


As an example of this, we have a wonderful group right here in our own church. Our visitation committee cares for the flock by visiting people in their homes. We also have the wonderful ladle and loaf ministry which provides food for those in need. This ministry is overseen by Steve Nickerson with much care. We have a whole group of deacons who care for the flock in various ways. Thus, we see that showing concern for the flock does not have to be limited to the pastor, though I know how important it is for me to show that kind of concern and care for all of you. As I said several weeks ago, “People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.”


A second thing we see about ministers of the new covenant is that they spread the pleasing aroma of Christ. Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.”


Despite the fact that Paul was feeling unsettled about how things were going in Corinth, he recognized the fact that God could work through his circumstances to do good things for the kingdom anyway. The image that Paul uses here is of the Roman triumph.


When a Roman general won an important victory in some war, he would be treated to the equivalent of our modern-day tickertape parade. The parade would take place in Rome, with the general leading a parade of captives from his recent battle. Rather than tickertape descending on the crowd, incense would waft its way on the breeze. That incense came as a pleasing aroma to the Romans who were the victors, but to the captives from some foreign war, who were forced to march in chains, that smell of incense was the smell of death, for at the end of the parade they would go to the Circus Maximus where they would be forced to fight wild beasts to the death.


One of the most famous Roman triumphs was the one held to honor the Roman general Titus who conquered Jerusalem in AD 70 during the Roman-Jewish War. An arch was erected in his honor and still stands in Rome today. On that arch is pictured some of the booty brought back to Rome from the Jewish Temple, including a menorah.


Well, Paul is writing 2 Corinthians about 15 years before Titus conquered Jerusalem. But Paul uses the Roman triumph as an analogy of the Christian life. Christ is our conquering general and we are his captives being led in triumphal procession. However, instead of being led to our death, we are led by Christ into ultimate life. And through us the aroma of Christ wafts its way through the world. To some it is the fragrance of life. To others it is the odor of death. But we have a choice about how the aroma of Christ smells to us.


Many years ago, we were on a family trip in California. Our first morning there we were driving from our hotel to see my mother when suddenly a distinct fragrance met my nostrils. I said, “Wow, there must be a Starbucks that we just passed because I smell coffee!” My family laughed and said, “We smelled it too. That was a skunk!” From that day to this, whenever they smell a skunk my family says, “Dad smells Starbucks!”


Now, here’s the thing. I have done research on this. There is a chemical reason why the smell of coffee, which is a pleasant smell to most people, is similar to the smell of skunk spray, which is not pleasant to most of us.


But it illustrates my point. As we spread the good news of Jesus Christ, we are a pleasant fragrance to some, and a stink to others. The choice is theirs as to what they smell.


A third thing that Paul says about ministers of the new covenant is that they speak before God with sincerity. Christians are not peddlers of the word of God, trying to make money off of the Gospel. No, we speak with sincerity.


The word is an interesting one in Greek. ελικρίνεια means, literally, “to be judged in the light of the sun”.


It makes me think of the challenge of trying on clothes in the department store. It is always hard to tell how an article of clothing is going to look in different types of light, whether outdoors on a day of full sunshine, or indoors by lamplight for a special dinner or some such activity.


As Christians we need to live our lives and speak as ones who are going to be judged by the light of the Son. That is, we need to live and speak not so much with our eyes on this life, but with our eyes on eternity. How are our words and actions going to be judged, not by other human beings, but by the light of the Son, Jesus Christ?


A fourth thing Paul tells us about ministers of the new covenant is that we have the only letter of recommendation that really counts. 


Apparently, some other teachers had come to Corinth with letters of recommendation and perhaps the Corinthians were speaking ill of Paul because he had no such letters of recommendation. Such letters were just as important in the first century as they are today.


Paul argues in an ingenious way. In effect he says, “I don’t need a physical letter of recommendation because you are my letter of rec! You are a letter from Christ. You are the result of my ministry in Corinth. And that is the only letter I need.”


Furthermore, Paul takes this opportunity to contrast the new covenant with the old. The Corinthians, he says, are letters of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit, not on tablets of stone, like the ten commandments, but on human hearts.


I wonder, will each of us have such letters of recommendation when we get to heaven? Will there be people in heaven who are there because of our ministry, because we shared the good news of Christ with them?


Finally, Paul tells us that ministers of the new covenant have competence from God.


Paul asks, “Who is equal to the task of being a minister of the new covenant?” Paul’s answer is that none of us are equal to this task in and of ourselves. Our only competence and therefore our confidence as well, comes from God through Christ. We are not self-confident or competent. We are God-confident and Christ-competent.


Many years ago, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote a bestselling book entitled The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. One of my favorite quotes in the book is this one…


Spiritually evolved people, by virtue of their discipline, mastery and love, are people of extraordinary competence, and in their competence they are called on to serve the world, and in their love they answer the call. They are inevitably, therefore, people of great power, although the world may generally behold them as quite ordinary people, since more often than not they will exercise their power in quiet or even hidden ways. 

I think that is a fabulous description of ministers of the new covenant, a wonderful delineation of what being a Christian is all about. One of the interesting things about M. Scott Peck was that he was not a Christian when he wrote the book, but he became a Christian as a result of writing it. Peck became the kind of “spiritually evolved” person he was writing about and was used by God to help many people throughout the world.


In closing, let me ask you to consider this question: Do you see yourself in any of these five descriptions of ministers of the new covenant? Do you care for God’s flock, the church? Are you spreading the pleasing aroma of Christ? Do you speak before God and others with sincerity? Are you a letter from Christ that others would like to read, and are you helping others to become similar letters from Christ? You may say, “Well, I would like to be such a minister, a servant, of the new covenant, but I know I am not competent in and of myself.” If that is your attitude, it is a good one, because it shows you are ready to ask Christ to make you competent as a servant of his new covenant.


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