Salvation and our relationship to the Lord are described in any number of ways in the New Testament, using a variety of images, metaphors, and analogies. 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 adopted. God is the righteous judge and we are justified. The Spirit is an indwelling presence and we are his temple, and the list could go on without end.
But one of the more intriguing and instructive images is that of Christians as a letter or epistle which Jesus himself has written, the Holy Spirit being, as it were, the pen or instrument by which he has authored us. “And you show,” writes Paul, “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 Cor. 3:3).
Before we explore this rich metaphor, let me set the context in which it is found.
You will recall that Paul has just defended the integrity of his ministry at the close of 2 Corinthians 2. Unlike those who peddle the word of God, no doubt 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 (v. 17).
Paul may well have feared that when his enemies heard those words they would once more accuse him of boasting and self-promotion. Perhaps they would say: “Well, there he goes again, commending himself to you, just like we warned.” Anticipating this possibility, he writes:
“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 Cor. 3:1-3).
The “many” (2:17) who peddled the Word of God are probably the “some” (3:1) who promoted themselves and gained a foothold in Corinth on the strength of letters of commendation. Paul does not altogether deny the validity of using such letters in certain circumstances, but insists that he does not need them when it comes to his relationship with the Corinthians. After all, he had devoted eighteen months to living in Corinth, ministering daily to their needs (cf. Acts 18:1-11). How could they possibly now require such letters from him before they acknowledged his apostolic office?
Paul's use of the word “again” in v. 1 does not mean he was actually guilty of self-advertisement on some earlier occasion, but simply that his opponents had accused him of it, possibly because of his exhortation in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1 that they “be imitators of me.” But let’s take note of Paul’s reference to “letters of recommendation.”
In my capacity as a pastor and professor these many years of Christian ministry, I have been asked to write dozens of letters of recommendation. Most were on behalf of prospective students seeking admission to a college or university or to a graduate program of study. A few were written as part of their application for employment.
There’s nothing wrong with this practice today. The nature of our society and the world of business and education often require it. But in Paul’s world the need for letters of recommendation could easily indicate that someone lacked sufficient evidence on his own to back up whatever claims he was making for himself. They were viewed by many, therefore, as “a substitute source of credibility” (Hafemann, 116).
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 yield to the pressure of the false teachers and demand from Paul that he bring with him letters that testified to his apostolic authority? The Corinthians need only look at their own experience of Christ to realize that Paul was precisely who he claimed to be and ministered in the power and authority of Jesus himself.
“If it is a letter of recommendation you desire,” says Paul, “you are it!” In other words, the best evidence of Paul's apostolic credentials is the Corinthian church. As Paul Barnett has said, "The 'letter' written not on paper but in people –the Corinthian messianic assembly – is Christ's visible commendation of Paul, the church's founder. The church is the Lord's commendation of him" (166).
This, then, is the context for the remarkable statement that we find in v. 3. Taking advantage of his earlier reference to “letters” or “epistles” of recommendation, he describes the Corinthians themselves as a “letter” written by Christ! Their conversion 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!
The implications of this are stunning. Consider, for example, the contemporary discipline known as Graphology, perhaps better known simply as hand-writing analysis. Although some have questioned its scientific credibility, others contend that the shape, size, and other distinctive features of one’s personal script reveal much about an individual’s personality and psychological tendencies.
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 in conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. My point is that the personality of Christ can be seen in the “letters” that he has graciously written, which letters we are! Just as the physical dimensions of a person’s handwriting may well reveal their character and emotional state of mind, so too the spiritual contours of a Christian ought to be a manifestation of the moral beauty of Jesus who has, in a sense, “penned” us.
If we, like the Corinthians, are truly “epistles” written by the gracious hand of Christ himself, we will progressively display his glory and the shape of his personality. If the “epistle” that goes by the name “Christian” is illegible or looks nothing like the person who “penned” them, there is reason to doubt if Christ is truly the saving author of their life. Scott Hafemann is certainly correct when he writes the following:
“In view of Paul’s teaching, we simply must not continue to deceive ourselves into thinking that lifestyles of self-serving greed, sexual impurity, self-preserving dishonesty, and prestige-seeking careerism are merely the result of ‘not yet becoming who we are in Christ.’ Nothing less than the integrity of our message is at stake in the manner of our lives. Our actions are a manifestation of our moral condition” (122-23).
The life of faith, says Hafemann, is the work of the Spirit. “But the Spirit does not invade our lives in order to go on vacation! For those in whom the Spirit dwells, we must be able to taste the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22) or ‘the fruit of righteousness’ (Phil. 1:11) in our attitudes and actions” (123).
So, what do people discover when they “read” your life? If asked to describe what they learned from the “script of your soul”, would they compare it to the National Enquirer or some other cheap tabloid? Or would they point to evidence in you of a transcendent scribe, an author whose merciful and gracious penmanship has made himself known in how you speak and live and minister among others?