Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).
Somehow, things had gotten worse in Corinth.
A cursory reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians exposes enough problems: flagrant sexual immorality in their midst, Christians taking other Christians to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians still had some respect for Paul and gave him some credence.
Yet by the time of the writing of Paul’s second letter, Paul’s credibility is at stake. We get the impression from comments throughout the letter, but especially in chapters 10 through 12, that certain ones have come to Corinth from among the Jews, perceived to be some type of “super-apostles,” who are undermining the Corinthian Christians’ view of Paul. They challenge his credentials, his manner of speaking, his authority, and thus his message. The Corinthian Christians have clearly been influenced by these people. They begin questioning whether Paul really is who he says he is. They would like to see some sort of commendation for Paul to vouch for his standing.
Paul is thus in quite the predicament. How should he go about justifying who he is and the work he does when the Corinthians should already know better?
Ultimately, Paul decides to highlight the work that has been done among the Corinthians themselves as a demonstration of his commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). What need does Paul have for a letter written by ink on papyrus, one that theoretically could be forged or compromised in some other way? He has a far greater letter of commendation: the Corinthian Christians themselves.
While the Corinthian correspondence highlights the flaws of the Corinthians, it is still good to bear in mind just how far those Corinthians have come. The congregation seems to be made up mostly of Gentiles, people from the Greek world who lived in a city famous for its immorality. Yes, some of them still struggled with the rampant sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20); some struggled with balancing the understanding that an idol is nothing with the weaker consciences of other Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); others had difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). But the amazing thing is that they had been delivered from all such immorality and more through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), having turned from dead idols to serve the living God. If you could get Gentiles in Corinth to seek to try to change their ways and to follow God, you could probably get Gentiles anywhere to try to do so!
And so Paul does have reason to feel that the Corinthians themselves represent a letter of commendation. They are a letter of Christ, not of Paul, as he strenuously emphasizes; Paul is the servant, the minister, whose sufficiency is only from God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The Corinthians testify to the power of Christ to transform people, even if there are many kinks that still need working out. This letter is not written on papyrus with ink, nor, for that matter, by chisel on stone, but instead by the Spirit of the living God on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul and his associates carry this “letter” in their hearts, using their example in their exhortations to others, so that all may know and understand how powerfully God has worked among the Corinthians. With such a testimony and such a “letter,” what good would papyrus and ink, or stone and chisel, really be?
Yes, Paul writes as he does to persuade the Corinthians, and it has strong potential to persuade, since it speaks highly of them, and if nothing else, people always like being spoken of in such glowing terms. Yes, there is also probably a tinge of irony here, since Paul (or Paul’s amanuensis) is writing these words with ink on papyrus. But the point remains powerful: the greatest testimony to the Lord cannot be written down on paper with ink or on tablets with a chisel. The greatest letters of Christ are living letters.
It is the same way today. It is right and appropriate to appreciate Scripture and to use Scripture as the means of coming to a better understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is great power in the message of God (Hebrews 4:12). Nevertheless, the message loses its force quickly when its contents do not lead to transformation of the mind, heart, and deeds of the believer. One can know the Scriptures intimately, but if one is not actively seeking to conform to the image of Christ, all that knowledge goes for nothing (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 8:29, James 1:22-25).
There is unparalleled power in the message brought to life; this is why the revelation of the new covenant is centered in the embodiment of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). The New Testament Scriptures seek to communicate in words who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, what Jesus did, the message of Jesus as it was communicated by His disciples, and the practical ways in which that message is to be lived and communicated. The message always points to its Source– God in Christ– and exhorts everyone to entrust themselves to that Source (Romans 1:16-17). The message lays forth all the equipment the believer will need in order to entrust himself to Christ and to follow after Him (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But that is not enough. The believer must then seek to put it to practice, to become that living letter of Christ of which Paul speaks.
A lot of people know that there are many good teachings in the Bible. Most people do not have a high tolerance for people who push the message of the Bible without living that message. Yet it is amazing to see how people respond when they see the message not just preached by a believer, but also lived by him or her (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 10:14-17). There is no greater commendation of God’s message in the Gospel than to see it being lived by believers submitting themselves in all things to God’s will. It is not enough, therefore, to just tell people about Jesus; we must also show Jesus to people. It is not enough to just point to the letter and the ink; we must embody the message that has been recorded for us by letter and ink.
One of the saddest objections to the Bible is when people believe it to be irrelevant to modern life because of its antiquity. The Bible might be 2,000+ years old, but the message of God is supposed to be always alive through the believer who seeks to embody that message in his or her life. It may be that the last letter of an Apostle was written over 1,900 years ago; yet there should be living letters of Christ circulating around the world today, still proclaiming God’s redemptive work in word and deed, in the form of believers seeking to obey the Christ. Let us be those living letters to a sinful world and commend the faith in our words and deeds!
Ethan R. Longhenry