1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
Salvation and our relationship to our Father are described in a number of different ways in the New Testament, using a variety of images, metaphors, analogies and descriptions. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. God is the giver of life and we are born again. He is the compassionate Father and we are the adopted sons. God is the righteous judge and we are the justified. The Spirit is an indwelling presence and we are His temple, and the list goes on and on. One that particularly stirs my heart is the one Paul uses the most “in Christ,” that short phrase blows my mind.
One of the more intriguing and interesting descriptions is that of Christians as a letter which Jesus himself has written, the Holy Spirit being, as it were, the pen or instrument by which he has authored us.
Verse 3 says And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Paul says, “you show…..that you are a letter from Christ.” Before we get into this unique description let’s look at the context.
You will remember that Paul has just defended the integrity of his Apostleship at the close of 2 Corinthians 2. Unlike those who peddle the word of God for financial gain, he speaks sincerely as one “commissioned by God”. He ministers “in Christ” as one who is ever under the scrutiny of God himself (vs 17). Paul may well have feared that when those opposed to him heard those words they would again accuse him of boasting and self-promotion. Perhaps they would gossip and spread rumours about him with comments like, “well, there he goes again, commending himself to you, just like we told you.” Possibly anticipating this he writes verses 1 to 3.
The many in 2:17 who peddled the Word of God are probably the same in 3:1 who promoted themselves and gained a foothold in Corinth on the strength of so called letters of commendation.
Paul does not say that the letters are not genuine, but he explains that he does not need them when it comes to his relationship with the Corinthians. He knows them, they know him. He does not need to prove himself to them. After all, he had devoted eighteen months to living in Corinth, serving and ministering to them (Acts 18:1-11). How could they possibly now require such letters from him before they acknowledged his apostolic gift? Come on guys we know each other well!
Paul’s use of the word “again” in verse 1 does not mean he was actually guilty of self promotion on some earlier occasion, but that his opponents had accused him of it, possibly because of his choice of words in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1 “be imitators of me”. This may have fuelled some to question.
Back to Paul’s reference to “letters of recommendation.” I have as a pastor, on several occasions been asked to write letters of recommendation. I have done many references for folk I know as part of their application for a new job, or seeking voluntary work or study courses in a variety of places. It is an acceptable practice in today’s world of work. In Paul’s world the need for letters of recommendation indicated that someone lacked sufficient evidence on their own to back up whatever claims they were making for themselves. It was a usual practice.
Paul’s point is, that the Corinthians themselves, their very existence as believers and the transformation in their lives, was sufficient recommendation in itself. He didn’t need additional proof of the authenticity of his calling. How could the Corinthians cave in to the pressure of the false teachers and demand from Paul that he bring with him letters that proved his apostolic gift? The Corinthians need only look at their own changed lives and their experience of Christ to realise that Paul was precisely who he claimed to be and that he ministered in the power and authority of Jesus himself. We could say it like this, “If it is a letter of recommendation you want then you are it!” In other words, the best evidence of Paul’s apostolic gift is the Corinthian church. The letter written not on a parchment scroll but in people’s lives was visible for all to read. They themselves were the visible recommendation.
That was a bit long! That is the context for verse 3. Using the same words Paul tells the church in Corinth that they themselves are a letter written by Christ. Their salvation is likened to the Lord, through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, writing a document that testifies to his glory and beauty and life changing power! Love it!
The implications of this are stunning. I have very curly handwriting, but as an old engineer I was also taught to write flat and square using the top of a ruler. Many have tried to interpret both of the methods I use over the years which has amused me. At the age of 11 whilst still in primary school we had a lesson on ‘creating a signature’ mine is much the same today. I believe the study of handwriting is called Graphology. from which you can discover a persons character. Some say that curly or flat writing has no meaning and no scientific credibility, others say that the shape, size, and other distinctive features of one’s personal writing reveal much about an individual’s personality and psychological tendencies . Oh dear!
I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it provides a helpful illustration of what happens when a person is born again and begins to grow and change into the image of Jesus Christ. My point is that the personality of Christ can be seen in the “letters” that we are. We can be read. Just as handwriting may well reveal the character and emotions of the person writing, so too should the work of the Holy Spirit produce a work in our hearts and behaviour that says, it is Jesus who has “penned us.”
If we, like the Corinthians, are truly “letters ” written by the gracious hand of Christ himself, we will progressively display his glory and the shape of his personality. If the “letter” that goes by the name “Christian” sounds or looks nothing like the person who “penned” it there is reason to doubt if Christ is the author of their life.
Let’s remember and be challenged by Galatians 5
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:16-24
The life of faith, is the work of the Spirit, so there will be fruit that can be easily read. So, what do people discover when they “read” your life or my life? If we asked someone to read my letter or your letter what would they read. Would it compare to a tabloid newspaper, a comic, a theological work or a work of fiction or something reflecting the one who penned it? Would it point to evidence by the way we live, by the way we speak to an author whose merciful and gracious penmanship has written our lives. Do our lives tell great stories of a great God?
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Hebrews 10:15-17