Letters – do you like them or loathe them?
It depends I suppose on a variety of factors:
A real letter or a circular/bill
Good or bad news
The author – how much do I like him/her
Am I receiving the letter or having to write it
The Bible contains many different sorts of letters.
In the OT David wrote a terrible letter which effectively organised the murder of one of his elite soldiers. (2Sam.1).
Jezebel wrote a letter with instructions to bring trumped up charges against Naboth so that her husband Ahab might take over his vineyard. It was a letter that cost Naboth his life. (1Ki.21).
Hezekiah received a threatening letter from the Assyrians and took it immediately to prayer. (2Ki.19).
When we turn to the NT we are well used to finding letters – after all 20 of the 27 books that make up the NT are letters. The Acts of the Apostles contains a number of references to letters and the book of Revelation contains seven letters that the ascended Jesus addressed to seven churches.
Here in 2Cor.3 Paul refers to two different kinds of letters:
letters of recommendation
What was it that brought Paul to do this?
Well Paul had heard good news. Titus had told him that the Corinthians had reacted well to a recent letter Paul had sent to them. The Corinthians were expressing some enthusiasm for Paul once again and for that Paul rejoiced; in fact he praised God for the way in which the Lord enabled him to carry out his apostolic ministry with great effect.
An Anticipated Objection – Where are your credentials?
Paul knew that writing like this would be likely to incite some negative criticism from some in Corinth – along the lines of "there goes Paul blowing his own trumpet again."
We may well wonder why Paul wrote like this if he thought that it would engender some negative responses. Was it a case of hitting the send button too quickly and the email had gone so nothing more could be done?
No, Paul was still concerned with helping the Corinthians to think in a more Christian manner about Christian leadership and how to evaluate it. They had bought into a whole set of wrong values and needed to have them recalibrated.
So instead of trying to chart a course that at aimed at peace at any cost, Paul opened his heart to the Corinthians and was thoroughly prepared to meet the anticipated objections head on.
The matter turns on the question of the authentification of Christian ministry. How is ministry and how are ministers to be recognised as trustworthy? Why should the Corinthians accept what Paul said? Did anyone stand behind him? If so who and what references did he have, if any?
Now we are familiar with this whole notion of accreditation. You want to put in a new central heating system so you check that the man you employ is listed on the Gas Safe Register. We're used to the idea of recommendation too aren't we: when I needed some dental treatment I asked folk for advice and steered clear of those dentists who had a reputation for brutality!
The NT contains examples of letters of recommendation too. Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome for example (Rom.16:1) and Apollos was given a letter of recommendation when he left Ephesus to go to Achaia (Acts 18:27).
But Paul hadn't got any such letter to show the Corinthians and some were questioning his credentials:
"Now he writes to us in this way – it's all a bit of self-
So how will Paul respond?
He responds by inviting the Corinthians to think. How often our problems come about because we refuse to think and if we do think our thinking is sloppy as we fail to consider what is really important.
"Do you think I am setting out to commend myself to you all?" He asks.
The question is an open one – the language doesn't anticipate a "yes" or a "no" but invites his readers to think for themselves.
Did they really think he needed to commend himself? After all wasn't he the founder of the church in Corinth where none had existed before his arrival to preach the gospel? Didn't they owe their salvation humanly speaking to his going and telling them all about the salvation secured by Jesus Christ for all those who repented of their sins and who put their trust in him?
Paul certainly didn't believe he was trying to commend himself or indeed that he should even need too. Had Paul been set on building a kingdom for himself then he would have been interested in self-
Paul wasn't interested in self-
While Paul asked an open question as to whether the Corinthians thought he was engaged in self-
Paul didn't need to rely upon ordinary letters of recommendation either as though he were an unknown teacher recently arrived on the scene. The Corinthians knew him already, had benefitted from his ministry already. Paul ministered amongst them and God had honoured his ministry by causing it to produce fruit. All a man can do is sow or to water it is God alone who gives the increase and he most evidently had in Corinth – the church was testimony to that!
Paul's spiritual authority and gospel success came from God. And because it came from God as the evidence clearly demonstrated Paul did not need any further letters of recommendation either to show to the Corinthians or to receive from them when he prepared to move on to the next sphere of service.
But Paul has not completely finished with this idea of letters of recommendation but he gives it a whole new dimension.
If only the Corinthians could see things clearly they would realise that their very existence as Christians were all the "letter of recommendation" Paul needed and how he loved them!
As others heard of the church in Corinth and saw the work of God that was being accomplished amongst them in the midst of such a cosmopolitan such a Bohemian city they could only conclude that it was indeed a true Christian church that had been founded upon the rock of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had earlier taught his disciples they were like a city that is set upon a hill, and such a city could never remain hidden: in other words true disciples of Jesus would be visible for all to see. Paul expresses the same truth while varying the language: these Christians in Corinth were well-
That is what Paul means when he speaks of the Corinthians as his letter of recommendation.
But that is not all that Paul has to say using this picture of living letters. Just look again at v.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."
Paul's description of the church in Corinth is a description that applies to every true Christian too!
The apostle gets himself out of the picture once more. Instead of inflating his own importance Paul sees himself as performing the function of a simple postman. The arrival of the postman at the door may bring some excitement but only because of what he brings. My interest is always aroused when the bell rings and I go down with a sense of expectation – is there a letter for me? Who has written? Or perhaps a parcel? But you know my interest is quickly extinguished when I'm asked if I'll take in a parcel for my neighbours. The postman's visit in itself meant nothing to me!
When the letter or parcel is for me I usually sit down and open it straightaway. I don't think I've ever sat dreamily thinking about the way in which the postman handed me my parcel – he's gone, unimportant now, what interests me is the content of what I've just received.
So Paul the great apostle serves as an eminently forgettable postman but the letter is something else entirely. The letter is from Christ!
Paul mixes up his picture somewhat but we get a sense of what he means.
The Corinthian Christians are a letter from Christ – he has "written them" as it were and the writing has been accomplished not with mundane human matters but with the Spirit of God himself.
If you are a Christian this evening do you realise what you are? If you are a Christian it is because Christ has written you by writing on your heart by the Spirit.
Let us banish for all time from our thinking that being a Christian is a small thing. Let us give up any idea or notion that becoming a Christian lies within our own unaided ability. To be a Christian Christ has to intervene in our lives and that deep inside us. Being a Christian is not about adopting a particular lifestyle, or carrying out a few religious duties, of becoming more moral. In essentials becoming a Christian means being dealt with by Jesus Christ doing something in us and for us which we could never ever do for ourselves!
It came about as Paul "delivered the letter" that is as Paul preached and explained and taught and exhorted the Corinthians to repent of their sin and to exercise faith in a crucified Saviour who had conquered death and was now alive again forevermore.
The central part of Paul's letter is going to be taken up with Paul's explanation of the new covenant of which he is a minister. Here in this paragraph he is taking steps towards this central theme and uses language that does in fact contrast the old covenant with the new and the way in which he does so leaves us in no doubt whatsoever but that the new covenant is superior to the old.
As Christ writes his letter on the Corinthians he does so on their heart and not on a tablet of stone.
Moses received the Law from the LORD God on Mount Sinai and he came down that mountain with the Law engraved on tablets of stone. It was something that spoke to man certainly but remained outside him. The Law written of those tablets was also brittle as is brought home to us when we read of how Moses threw the tablets to the ground and broke them when he realised how the Israelites had so quickly turned their backs on the LORD. The Law itself couldn't be faulted as to its requirements but once broken it was powerless to secure the salvation of the law-
Jeremiah wrote of the day when the new covenant would be brought in by the LORD as he prophesied some 600 years before Jesus came into the world:
Now what Jeremiah had foretold had arrived. With the establishment of the new covenant in the blood, that is in the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ the weakness of the old externally oriented covenant was replaced by the vital internal spiritual reality brought about by the Spirit of God applying the objective merits of Christ to the individual believer.
Are we Christians?
Then let us realise what has happened to us and let us appreciate the fact that God has dealt so wonderfully with us by his grace.
Then let us recognise that as letters our lives too will be read by others and what they read there will encourage them to think well or ill of our Saviour.
Then let us be determined that the fruit of our lives may be such as to cause them to give glory to our Father who is in heaven. Cf. 1Pe 2:12 "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."