Living Letters – 02/14/16
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
1.Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2. You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 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.
What are the benefits of the gospel? When we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ what happens? What do we receive? Is it simply that we are forgiven our debts and then we go on our marry way just as we were before? This morning Paul shows us that something more happens.
Letters of Recommendation
v1. Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?
First, let’s make sure we understand what Paul is referring to with this idea of letters of recommendation. Just like today when we interview for a job or when applying to a college the company or school often asks for references. They want to hear from people who know you and can bear witness about your character, skills, experience, etc. Its the same concept we apply to purchasing products, we like to read the reviews, or better, talk to friends and family that have bought that product.
It was just the same in the first century. How do you know if this guy that you have never met before is the real deal? How do you know he is who and what he says he is? One way to help you gain confidence in someone was a letter of recommendation. Paul himself sent letters of recommendation. For example in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 Paul commends Timothy to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 8:22-24 Paul commends Titus (see also Romans 16:1,2 and Philippians 2:19-30 and Philemon for other examples). So, Paul is not opposed to letters of commendation per se.
So what is Paul driving at? If we piece together the background here, it is evident that there were some seeking to discredit Paul by comparing him to the paid professional—perhaps the “many, peddlers of God’s word” mentioned in 2:17. And perhaps these so called ministers came to town with impressive letters of recommendation, which would make sense of why Paul says in verse 1 “…do we need, like some do, letters of recommendation to you…?”
So, we know that Paul is not opposed to letters of commendation per se, but in this case, regarding Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church, Paul is expressing amazement that such a thing would be considered even remotely needed. In other words Paul is saying in verse 1, ‘It is utterly ridiculous that I should have to be commending myself to you again! It is preposterous that I should need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or even from you for that matter!’
The question we need to answer is why? “Why, Paul, is it so ridiculous that you should be required to provide this church with references of your qualification and authenticity?”
Well, we know because of Acts 18 that he spent an entire year and a half in Corinth testifying to the gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles so that we read in 18:8, “…many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” Paul was the founding Apostle of the church in Corinth. In Acts 18:9 we read,
“And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
I think it is plain why Paul might be a bit incredulous that some thought he would need a letter of recommendation.
But amazingly, this is not where Paul goes. Instead, he uses this as a teaching opportunity. I love how Paul doesn’t waste any opportunity to teach God’s people and build them up and unfold the glories of God in the gospel. He is belittled and slighted and accused and he patiently responds by pointing the church to the Lord and His glorious work for them and in them. May we become more and more like Paul.
So how does Paul go about explaining that this demand for letters of recommendation is ridiculous? He says in verse 2,
2. You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 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.
A Letter From Christ
Sam Storms paraphrases Paul well the he says, “If it is a letter of recommendation you seek, you are it!”
What an awesome image here. The Corinthian church is his letter of recommendation. And notice who wrote the letter. This letter is, “from Christ” delivered by Paul. Christ is the one who has written Paul a letter of recommendation and He did so when the Corinthians heard the gospel and believed it! Jesus did not use ink to write this recommendation. He used the very Spirit of the living God, not written on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of human hearts.
How do we know that Paul is a genuine minister of God? How do we know that his message is true and from God? Who will testify for this man?
As Paul Barrett says, Paul’s
“…letter [is] 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.”
The very best evidence that Paul is a genuine minister of Christ is the Corinthian church. Their very existence and life in Christ is a clear testimony, first to Paul himself as these people are written on his own heart, but also to everyone looking for his credentials. This church is a letter of recommendation for Paul from Christ to be known and read by all.
I want to make sure we understand the significants of what Paul is saying here. We are going to linger here on verse 3 and tease out some of the implications.
A Living Letter: Christ in You
Look again at verse 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.
So, what authenticates Paul and his ministry in this picture? Paul’s argument is that he was the one who delivered a letter from Christ written, not with ink, but with the very Spirit of the living God, written on the Corinthians’ hearts.
Notice that this implies that what Jesus has written upon the hearts of the Corinthian believers is evident for all to see! Paul says, “you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us…”
When the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to a person and that person believes upon the Lord Jesus Christ, Christ is doing something in them. He is writing upon their hearts with the Spirit of the living God. And Paul says that people like that show, they demonstrate, they make known that this is true for all to see.
When the Spirit of the living God is written on your heart people can tell. Something is different about you. You are not who you were. The Spirit of God does not leave people unaltered.
Sam Storms suggests a helpful illustration. Graphology is the study of handwriting and I guess it claims to be able to discover an individuals personality and psychological tendencies by the distinctive features of their handwriting. I understand that some question the scientific credibility of such an analysis, but regardless, it is a great illustration of what Paul is describing here. Storms explains,
…the personality of Christ can be seen in the letters that he has graciously written – and we are those letters! 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 manifest the moral beauty of Jesus who has, in a sense, penned us.
What Paul is saying has powerful implications.
I think sometimes (or perhaps most times?) we diminish the significants of the fact that we have the Spirit of the Living God living in us. One of the present benefits of the gospel is that we are the temple of the living God. As we saw in Colossians when we studied that wonderful letter the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to God’s saints is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). We have been raised with Christ.
Notice in verse 6 that Paul says God has made him sufficient to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Next week, if the Lord wills, we will unpack this contrast between the letter and the Spirit, but for now just mark that the new covenant, the new relationship that God set up in Christ Jesus, is not of external letter which kills, but of the Spirit which gives life.
The New Covenant, which we remember and celebrate every week at the Lord’s Table, is a covenant of the Spirit and gives life! When the Spirit of the living God is written on your heart you are given life. And Paul here says that the Corinthians show the evidence of that Spirit wrought life.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
I think it is very important that we pause to examine our own lives. Do we have the evidence of the Spirit in us? Could Paul say that we demonstrate that Jesus has written the Holy Spirit on the tablets of our hearts? What kind of fruits are we producing?
We should not assume that because someone comes to church gatherings that this automatically means that they are a Christian. Keith Green was right when he said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.” Something supernatural must happen in you.
This is so important that I want to pause here and go to Galatians 5 for a moment.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Does this passage say Christians will be sinlessly perfect? No. If fact it says that if you are a Christian there will be conflict within you. We have seen that Christians have the Spirit of the living God written on their hearts and we see here in Galatians that we have something called the flesh – the sinful nature. And these oppose each other. So, Paul is not saying that when you become a Christian, that is a member of the New Covenant, your sinful nature is taken away and you are fully glorified. Not so.
Instead, what happens in the Spirit of the living God enters is written upon your heart. And the Spirit of the living holy, holy, holy God does not live in harmony with sin. So if we have the Spirit Paul says in Romans 8:13-14 we are led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of our sinful bodies. It was John Piper who said, Christianity has a mean streak because Christians make war on the sin in their own hearts.
So, what should we expect to see if someone is a Christian? Perfection? No. But neither should we expect a life given over to gratifying the desires of the flesh because those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Meaning you have renounced those desires and daily put them to death. And because the Spirit of God is present in us we will produce evidence – fruit. If the Spirit is planted in your heart love will be produced. Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – you are a new creation.
Putting It Together
In 2 Corinthians Paul was amazed that people wanted letters of recommendation to prove he was the real deal. His ministry spoke for itself. The gospel he proclaimed produced people with the Spirit of the living God, and so their lives were a commendation of Paul for all to see. Something supernatural happened in Corinth — something never before seen in human history. God wrote Himself onto the tablets of human hearts. And it could be seen by everyone.
How about here? Do we show that we are a letter from Christ written with the Spirit of the living God on tablets of human hearts?
Scott Hafemann comments,
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 …we must be able to taste the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22) or the ‘fruit of righteousness’ (Philippians 1:11) in our attitudes and actions.
I want to make sure we are hearing the point this morning: Gospel people look a certain way. They produce fruit.
What if I asked you to tell me the gospel what would you tell me? What is the gospel? This is what I would say:
The greatest problem in ever person’s life is that God is holy and just and we are utterly sinful. So, when we stand before the just and holy God we will be condemned if we are judged based on our own righteousness. But the good news is this: that God sent his unique Son, Jesus Christ, who lived a perfectly righteous life before God, not for Himself, but for a sinful people. Jesus did for them what they could never have done for themselves and He offered Himself at Calvary on a cross as the perfect sacrifice to absorb and completely satisfy God’s justice. And God showed that He was fully satisfied by raising Jesus from the dead. That is good news. But how do we become partakers and receive the benefits of Christ’s work? The Scriptures are clear that we are justified, declared righteous not by works, not by any effort of ours, but by faith alone – by trusting in Christ and in Him alone. If you do that you are declared righteous, forgiven of all your sins, an eternal home and reward secure in heaven and adopted into God’s family having received from Christ the very Spirit of God written on your heart.
In the Lord Jesus Christ we receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of righteousness and an inheritance kept in heave for us and many other blessings of the New Covenant, but not least of which is the Spirit of the living God.
The point this morning is this: is it evident that you have believed, been forgiven, and are being led by the Spirit of the living God given in the New Covenant? Are we, as a church, an indisputable living letter to be read by all?
“…the integrity of our message is at stake in the manner of our lives.” – Scott Hafemann
The effectiveness of our witness in Windham and the surrounding area starts with each one of us truly being believers and Spirit led people. Let us examine ourselves and see if we are walking by the Spirit of the living God.
We are not talking about sinless perfection. We’re talking about fruit. In the weeks to come Paul will unpack how we grow from one degree of glory to another. And he will say it is by holding the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.
If you hear this morning that there ought to be fruit in your life, evident for all to see, if you are a Christian, but you look at your life and fruit is sparse or small or non-existent, what do you do? Do you take out the Law or make ever more detailed lists of what is right and wrong and review the list every five minutes? No! Do you despair? No!
We will see that the fruit of righteousness grows, not as we look to ourselves and our work or dig deeper and sweat more and whip ourselves into shape, rather is is as we turn away from ourselves – turn away from our ability and wisdom and goodness and admit our desperate need and inability and foolishness and sinfulness and turn, instead, again and again to the only One who is strong and wise and righteous and all ours to live upon.
It is as we look to Jesus Christ again and again and again offered freely and abundantly to us in the New Covenant and we bank out souls on Him and embrace Him as our treasure, beholding His glory, that we will bear much fruit and become more and more like Him.
Gospel people bear fruit. Are we Gospel people? People who live upon Christ, feasting on Him and Him alone every hour.