I love sending and receiving handwritten letters through the mail. You could call me an old soul, for in our modern technology age of emails, calls, Facetime, and text messages, I don’t think anything quite measures up to the written word contained in a cheery birthday card or an encouraging note from a friend. As Oliver O’Toole so aptly asserts in the film Signed, Sealed, Delivered, “The thoughtfully composed, well considered, addressed, stamped, professionally postmarked, and personally delivered letter is still the gold standard of human intercourse.”
2 Corinthians 3:1-3 has always intrigued me because here, Paul compares the Christians living in Corinth to actual letters: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 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.” (ESV, emphasis added)
Upon first reading, this passage may seem a bit puzzling and abstract. Why did Paul call these Christians his “letter of recommendation” and “a letter from Christ”? A brief look at the context and insights from other Bible scholars can help us understand what application these Scriptures may have for us today.
Brother Wayne Jackson, in his work A New Testament Commentary, gives some useful background to this reading.
“Some expositors believe that verse one contains a hint concerning some of the false teachers who were troubling the Corinthian church–perhaps Jews from Jerusalem who had brought ‘letters of commendation’ from the holy city. Paul asks (with a question that expects a negative answer): ‘Do we need to introduce ourselves again to you for your approval? Do we require (as some apparently do) letters of commendation [cf. Acts 18:27; Romans 16:1] to or from you? Surely not!’ The Corinthian Christians themselves were like an epistle, dear to Paul’s heart; their transformed lives testified to the power of Christ and the credibility of Paul’s ministry (vs. 2-3).” [emphasis added]
Commentator F.B. Meyer further summarizes this passage:
“The Apostle fancies himself challenged to furnish letters of commendation and he repudiates the claim. ‘No,’ he cries, ‘the lives and testimonies of those whom I have won for God, are all the credentials that I require!’ Every Christian should be a clearly written and legible tractlet, circulating for the glory of God. Men will not read the evidences for Christianity as contained in learned treatises, but they are keen to read us.”
Letters of Recommendation
In the first century, letters of recommendation or commendation were most needed for those who did not possess the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, in order to prevent the churches from receiving false teachers unknowingly. Paul and the other apostles had no need for these because they brought their own testimony: the Holy Spirit actively working in their lives and in the lives of the Corinthian Christians. As commentator Matthew Henry notes, “The Corinthians themselves were Paul’s real commendation, and a good testimonial for him, that God was with him of a truth, that he was sent of God.”
Letters from Christ
Recall the verses leading up to chapter 3, in which Paul reminds Corinthians, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-17) Paul didn’t need to use persuasion alone to convince and teach others of his message; he could use the live example of the Corinthian church’s conversion and faith as evidence. Their lives demonstrated the change that Christ can make in good and honest hearts.
In the same way, we don’t need anyone or anything else external to persuade others that we are messengers of the truth – His Spirit dwells in us! (1 Corinthians 6:19). Brother Wendell Winkler notes about this idea,
“Epistles are read, with the reader being influenced thereby. Yes, just as men read letters, they will read us.”
Just as the Corinthians showed in their lives how Paul and the apostles’ message is true, so our lives are letters filled with proclamations of the living Christ, declarations of His saving grace, and unmistakable reasons for our heavenly hope that resides in us (1 Peter 3:15). Our conversion to Christ is such an evident seal to our ministry that it leaves no doubt that God is with us and that we carry His truth.
The most important point to grasp from this passage is to realize Who these letters are from. In other words, Who is responsible for how we influence the world? Brother Winkler further writes that
“Epistles convey the expression of their authors. As epistles of Jesus, we are to give an expression of Christ to the world. We are to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). We are to have Christ living in us (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27). We are to magnify Christ in our lives (Phil. 1:20). Our lives are to be transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18)… [t]o see a true Christian is to see Christ. Question: can others see Christ in me; in my speech, in my dress, in what I do, in my attitude, in where I go, etc.? What impression of Christ do others get through my expression of Him?”
Written on the Heart
The heart is living proof to the world of what Christ has done in one’s life (Matthew 12:34). We can exhibit God’s message of truth for the world only if our hearts are willing to display that message. If our lives are letters from Christ, our hearts are the blank pages, ready for His Spirit to write His story of redemption there. When we receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts through baptism (Acts 2:38), that salvation embodies every area of life: our desires, affections, and dreams. Such a change within cannot help but be so clearly manifested without.
Let us ask ourselves, can others read our hearts and be assured of the gospel? Will the way we live our lives confirm God’s message of truth?
Though Paul addressed the church in Corinth, the metaphor he brings still rings true for the church today. It all comes down to our influence – as we live from day to day, we proclaim to the world who we believe God to be and the impact Christ has had on our hearts. Our lives are letters from Christ to the world, and it is up to us how others will read it.
There’s a sweet old story, translated for men,
But writ in the long ago;
The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Of Christ and His mission below.
You are writing a gospel, a chapter each day,
By the deeds you do, by the words you say.
Men read what you write, whether faithless or true,
Say! What is the gospel according to you?
‘Tis a wonderful story–that gospel of love,
As it shines in the Christ-life divine;
And O, that its truth might be spoken again
In the story of your life and mine!
You are writing each day a letter to men!
Take care that the writing is true.
‘Tis the only gospel some men will read–
That gospel according to you.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke
A New Testament Commentary, by Wayne Jackson
Through the Bible Day by Day; A Devotional Commentary, by F. B. Meyer
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Matthew Henry
The Christian and His Influence, by Wendell Winkler