“Paul's Letter of Recommendation”
“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.”
(2 Corinthians 3:1-3)
A great deal of the space in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians is taken up by some very weighty arguments defending his ministry as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. There were some "false apostles" (11:13) floating around Achaia assassinating Paul's character. Our culture is well aware of how damaging verbal accusations can be, regardless of their veracity. By studying through the letter, we can infer that Paul’s opponents were calling into question the genuineness of his apostleship by drawing attention to his suffering, poverty, and otherwise sorry state of being. Jesus came to take away our suffering so why would his ambassador be enduring such anguish? This was the faulty line of thinking that led some of the Corinthians to buy the lie that Christ really wasn't speaking in Paul (13:3).
One of the best arguments Paul makes to prove his sincerity as a true apostle of the Lord is from the above passage (3:1-3). He poses two rhetorical questions fully expecting negative answers, as if to say, “Do I really need proof? Do you think I need a letter of recommendation to prove my apostleship?”
Paul’s purpose was certainly not to “commend” himself. He wasn’t designing arguments just to make himself look better against his opponents. No, those were the cheap tactics employed by Paul’s enemies who gloried in appearances (2:17; 5:12). In fact, he just got through making the argument that he was not capable by himself to bring about spiritual life to some and spiritual death to others. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:15-16) Obviously, no mere man by himself is sufficient to cause eternal salvation or destruction. Yet God was able to make Paul sufficient by equipping him for a sufficient ministry (the new covenant ministry) with a sufficient message (the gospel of light). So, he says, do you need a letter of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation have great merit. The church in Ephesus sent such a letter along with Apollos when he traveled to Achaia exhorting them to welcome him (Acts 18:27). I needed some kind of referral before I could labor among you. You needed some proof of my sincerity before you would allow me to speak God’s word to you on a regular basis. But Paul is saying that he doesn’t need such a letter written in ink vouching for his sincerity. Why not? Because he already had one and it was far more powerful than any letter written by human hands.
His “letter of recommendation” was the Corinthian church itself, which was nonexistent prior to Paul’s coming to Corinth. He was the very first to bring the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6) to the Corinthians who were “blinded... by the god of this world” (4:4). Indeed, he saw himself as Christ's messenger (3:3). The fruit of his labor should have been proof enough. The eighteen months of blood, sweat, and tears that went into reconciling these idolaters to God, an end he was still determined to bring about (5:20), was all the proof they needed of the effectiveness of Paul’s message and the genuineness of his apostleship (cf. Acts 18:11).
God himself authenticated and endorsed Paul by the fact of the Corinthians’ conversion to Jesus. This “letter of recommendation” was just as much “a letter from Christ” written by God’s hand in the eternal and life-giving ink of the Spirit. Even though Christ never came to Corinth in the flesh, Paul, like an ambassador, “delivered” the message of the gospel for him (5:20). The beautiful story of their conversion was “written” or “etched” on Paul’s heart. Their conversion story was living on in him and he carried it with him wherever he went. How much Paul loved these people!
These Christians were like a living epistle that could be “known and read by all.” The church was like an open book for the unbelievers in Achaia to read and know. Their absence in the idol temples could be felt. Their strange and joyous singing on Sundays could be heard. Their neighbors would learn, through their denial of ungodliness and commitment to love, about the power of God's grace to transform sinners into saints.
Lastly, Paul makes a contrast between the old and new covenants in mentioning letters inked on “tablets of stone,” the medium of the old covenant that kills (3:6), and the Spirit written on “tablets of human hearts,” a life-giving medium of the new covenant (3:6) in direct fulfillment of prophecy (Ezek. 11:19-20).
May we all be filled with such love and devotion to each other! May we all be living testimonies to the transformative work of God! May we always remember that we are being “known and read by all”! May God's living Spirit dwell within our hearts by faith!