Why does the Bible call the law in Acts 7:378 lively oracles given unto us and calls same the 'ministry of death and condemnation in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9?
Contradictions do appear in the Bible. But the root problem to each one is usually a wrong assumption, a wrong understanding of the context, or an incomplete translation of the original language. One such example is found when we compare Acts 7:38 and 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9. In Acts 7:38 the Law is referred to as “living oracles.” Then in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9 the Law is referred to as “the ministry of death.” This seems to be contradictory. The purpose of this article is to answer the question, “Was the Law abolished since it is living oracles and the ministry of death?”
The Law Contains Oracles
Exodus 19:1-17 records the first time that Moses climbed up Mount Sinai. While he was there, God met Moses and gave him the Law (Exodus 19:18-32:18). Exodus 19:18-19 and Hebrews 12:18-19 tell us that while they met together, there was lightening, darkness, fire, and smoke. During their meeting, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and other laws, which are part of the moral law. God also gave Moses the ceremonial law, which includes the temple and its furnishings, and instructions about the priesthood.
Acts 7:37-38 captures this event and states that Moses received living oracles while he was on the mountain. Here is the verse,
“This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you.” Acts 7:37-38 (NASB)
Here we are told that everything Moses received was from “the angel.” The angel was a theophany of Christ. What Moses received is also called “living oracles.” Romans 3:2 also refers to the Law and ordinances that were given to Moses as oracles. Then in Romans 9:4, Paul praises the covenants and the Law. Maybe the most glorious praise of the Law is found in Romans 7:12.
So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.Romans 7:12 (NASB)
The Law Is the Ministry of Death
But if the Law is holy and living, why does 2 Corinthians 3:7-9 say the Law is a “ministry of death”? Here is the passage starting with verse 5.
. . . God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 2 Corinthians 3:5b-9 (NASB)
Verse 6 says the “letter kills,” that is, the “Law kills.” The law kills because sinners cannot keep the Law perfectly. Romans 3:20 reminds us that we are sinners and Romans 6:23 warns that the wages of sin is death — both physical and spiritual death.
. . . or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . Romans 3:20 (NASB)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23 (NASB)
That is why verse 9 says the Law is “the ministry of condemnation.” Yet, we are also told the Law has glory. It has glory because it helps sinners know and understand they are sinners. That is, the Law condemns men and women to hell because they cannot keep all the list of laws and ordinances.
Galatians 2:19 says that the Law condemns every man and woman because we cannot obey the requirements of the Law.
For through 1the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. Galatians 2:19 (NASB)
Then Romans 4:15 adds that as a result, the Law brings God’s wrath. Sinners will be condemned because they sin.
So, there is no contradiction between the Law being described as “living oracles” and a “ministry of death.” The Law is living and it is also the ministry of death.
Was the Law Abolished?
Yet, Ephesians 2:15 states that the Law was abolished.
. . . by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances . . . Ephesians 2:15a (NASB)
What does this mean? Does this mean that both the moral law and ceremonial law were abolished? The answer is no. The moral law is a living oracle. The moral law exists in both the Old and New Testaments. As already stated, the moral law contains the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, except for the command to keep the Sabbath. It also contains the command to love God and love our neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37-39). God’s moral law is also written in the conscience of men and women (Romans 2:14-15). The command to love God is the perfect fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8, 10). We must understand that God’s moral law is the standard of holiness. That will never change.
So, was the ceremonial law abolished? The answer is, “Yes!” The laws and ordinances about the temple, priests, the food ordinances, and rituals were abolished when Christ died on the cross. John MacArthur explains with this comment:
The whole ceremonial, ritual feasting, fasting, dressing, cooking, all the stuff they had, circumcision. Listen, when Christ died on the cross, He abolished that. It’s called the law of commandments contained in ordinances.
Now, he’s not talking about the moral law. Let me hasten to say this. God has a moral law and God’s moral law never what? Changes, never. It never changes. God’s moral law was not abolished.
So, the moral laws are living oracles! The moral law will never be abolished.
When a person becomes a Christian, they are no longer under bondage to the moral law. A Christian is freed from being condemned by the moral law (Roman 6:14-15), because we are now under grace. Romans 8:1 says we are no longer under condemnation because we are in Christ. So, Christians are no longer condemned by the law. That is, because Christ died for our sins, Christians can no longer be condemned by our failure to keep the law. But that does not mean we are not called to love and be as holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Just read the book of James. In that book believers are repeatedly called to obey the moral law.
So, the moral law contains living oracles that apply to believers today. We are not to worship other gods. We are not to lie. We are not to murder, for example. The Law is also the ministry of death for unbelievers as they violate it. But by faith in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven once for all. Therefore, Christians are no longer under the condemnation of the law, yet we are called to live holy lives that observe the moral law. May God bless.
1. John MacArthur. The Unity of the Body, Part 2. Grace To You. March 12, 1978.
Suggested Links:What is the definition of theophany? What is the definition of Christophany?
Did the pre-incarnate Christ speak in the Old Testament? – Theophany
Was a Christophany and the incarnation of Christ different?
Picture of Jesus
Do we have to keep the Ten Commandments given in the Old Testament?
Which Old Testament laws can we ignore?
Is it a sin to eat unclean animals today?