Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Letter From Christ

            I love modern technology. Unfortunately, I’m not very computer savvy, which is why God deserves all the credit for any of the successes of this ministry. My technological expertise ends not far beyond pressing the “ON” button. Nevertheless, I’m thankful to be living in an era when I can communicate with you and share God’s Word with you instantly from thousands of miles away with a simple keyboard stroke and a click of a mouse. However, I had an old professor in Seminary that once talked about the transformative power of a handwritten note or letter. He talked about how he would arbitrarily send handwritten notes to people with some word of encouragement or wisdom that would inevitably be the one thing that person needed to regain their strength or simply to get back on their feet. I decided it was an easy enough exercise and have been practicing it in one form or another for many years. I can confirm my old professor’s experience of the transformative effects of a personalized, handwritten note or letter—those I’ve sent but especially those I’ve received.

            I hope you have all been blessed or will be blessed by receiving a personal note or letter from someone at some point in your life that you receive at just that perfect time in your life when you need it. Can I tell you about a blessing that is even greater than a personal note or letter from another person? A Letter From Christ! Can you imagine what that would be like? Don’t get me wrong, I can very easily make an argument that the Bible is, in fact, a compilation of sixty-six letters from God to each of us. But I’m talking about a letter addressed specifically to you that enters in to the specific circumstances of your life’s complexities; your life’s successes and failures, the brokenness and reconciliation, the joy and sorrow, the sickness and health, the life and death. I’ll let you in on a little secret, I’ve received multiple letters from Christ especially over the last few months since I announced the struggles I’ve had with my health. The letters I received were in the form of His people who love me and care about me.

You can say that those are just good friends but I see each of them as A Letter From Christ. One of those letters from Christ flew all the way across the country not long ago just to spend a day with me and pray for me. Another one of those letters from Christ finds creative ways to provide for a few material needs of me and my family on a regular basis. A few other letters from Christ were from a couple of people who sometimes got me dressed, always helped me to the car, and drove me to the emergency room and then quietly wept next to the hospital bed while I was sick and in pain. A number of letters from Christ always remember when I have my treatments and call to check on me because they know I’m really sick afterward. And recently I received a completely unexpected letter from Christ telling me that he loves me. I can honestly say that there is nothing like receiving A Letter From Christ that comes in the form of His people. I have no doubt that there are people all around you every day who desperately need to receive A Letter From Christ. Here’s my challenge to you: You be A Letter From Christ to someone who is lost; to someone who is broken; to someone who is hurt; to someone who is struggling; to someone who needs a friend; to someone in prison; to someone who is sick; to someone who is dying; to someone who is hopeless; to someone who is struggling financially; to a family member; to a neighbor; to a friend; to a stranger.

            “Remember Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless men [and women] now, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good.”[1]

Subject Text

2 Corinthians 3:1-3

            1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.


            I’ll get into more of the context dealing with our specific Subject Text when we analyze the text more closely but the context for Paul writing the letter generally was to combat false teachers who preyed on immature believers. This letter to the Corinthian church was written around A. D. 55-57 and Paul was constantly having to battle false teachers who threatened the gospel message and the early church with their various false teachings. Although it takes a little reading between the lines, it seems that some of the false teachers were calling Paul’s apostolic credentials into question. Paul was never one to boast about his theological qualifications but it was clearly necessary in this case. There were just too many outside influences in Corinth that constantly threatened to derail the faithful witness of the young church there. However, unlike when Paul outlined his qualifications as a Jew who kept the Law perfectly in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 3:5), here he presents the transformed lives of the Corinthian believers who believed his message as proof of his qualifications.

Text Analysis

1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?

            If you’ve ever engaged or attempted to engage in something really important and worthwhile, you’ve probably had to provide some kind letter of recommendation from someone who could verify that you are who you say you are and have the requisite resources to engage in the subject activity. For example, if you’ve ever applied for a high-level job you’ve probably supplied a letter of recommendation from a former employer or colleague outlining your professional qualifications. When I first applied for acceptance to Seminary, I had to provide personal letters of recommendation, professional letters of recommendation, and ministry letters of recommendation. Suffice it to say, a complete stranger is probably not going to just take your word for it when it comes to trusting you with communicating important information or completing an important task.

            Well it would appear that was the case during Paul’s day as well when he makes reference to “letters of recommendation” in v. 1. However, it appears that Paul had already done that previously when he asks, rhetorically, if they are commending themselves “again.” This isn’t Paul’s first encounter with the church in Corinth. He has clearly moved beyond needing to prove himself to the believers in Corinth irrespective of the fact that the false teachers where calling his qualifications into question. The Corinthian believers only needed to glance in the mirror at who they had become, in large part, because of Paul in order to substantiate his qualifications and authority to communicate the very important message of the Gospel and demand their allegiance to that message.

            “When Paul sought out hosts in the various places where he established his ministry, he probably followed the normal convention of self-commendation, which established bonds of trust. In his first visit he solidified his friendship with them by entrusting himself in person rather than presenting them with written letters from third parties.

            [However,] recent dissension has buffeted the original relationship between Paul and the Corinthians, and some in Corinth may have blamed him for the breach. If he were to commend himself to them again, he would be admitting that he had done something to jeopardize the friendship and must do something now to regain their trust. Rather than Paul’s having to reestablish the ties of friendship by commending himself to them again, the Corinthians should have commended him as the apostle because they have witnessed and have been the beneficiaries of his apostolic work.”[2]

2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

            It can be a little tricky to understand what Paul is trying to communicate in vv. 2-3. The reason it is so tricky is because we don’t know any of the Corinthian believers personally so it’s difficult to understand what it is that makes them not just a letter that can be known and read by everyone but A Letter From Christ no less! There are three elements to these verses: 1) The Corinthians have become a public witness for Christ; 2) Their witness is directly related to the efforts of Paul and those associated with his ministry; and 3) Their witness isn’t valid because they have achieved some impersonal accomplishment like passing a test. Instead, their witness is valid because their lives have been transformed.

            Here is where a deeper understand of the Corinthian context will allow us to make some general assumptions of what the lives of the Corinthian believers might have been like before they became followers of Christ.

           Corinth is in southern Greece approximately fifty miles or so from Athens. It is about two miles south of the isthmus that forms the land bridge between Greece and the Peloponnesus. The Peloponnesus is the large peninsula that linked to the northern territory of Greece. You’ll probably recognize it immediately when you know that it contained many important cities including Sparta. The isthmus was less than four miles across and in ancient days smaller ships were dragged along the paved road that went from one side of the isthmus to the other. Cargo from larger ships was unloaded on one side of isthmus, carried across the isthmus, and then reloaded onto other large ships on the other side. This particular isthmus is one of the things that drew Paul to Corinth because it gave him access on the eastern side of the isthmus to the Gulf of Saronic and access on the western side to the Gulf of Corinth. Corinth controlled the two major harbors and thus command of the major trade routes between Asia and Rome.

            In Corinth you could find the cults of the gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, stood at the summit of Acrocorinth. It had fallen into ruin by Paul’s time but the successors to the temple prostitutes continued to offer their services still during Paul’s day in the city below the once magnificent Grecian temple. Because of its proximity to the two major trade routes in the region, Corinth was a city that catered to sailors and traveling salesmen. Even more than 500 years before Paul’s ministry there, it had earned an unsavory reputation. Even though the region provided Paul with access to a much larger geographical region to spread the Gospel, Corinth’s reputation of immorality provided more than enough ministry opportunity for Paul.

            Corinth was filled with sailors who often spent many, many days at sea and when they made port, they were pretty much interested in one thing—fun! They wanted comfortable surroundings, fine food, a good supply of alcohol, and a full menu of sexual pleasures with prostitutes—women, men, and boys. The name “Corinth” became a synonym for immorality. The temple of Aphrodite gave Corinth its reputation for the gross immorality Paul referred to in both of his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 12:20-21). Corinth was a center for commercial prosperity but she was also a byword for evil living. The Greek word, korinthiazesthai, to live like a Corinthian, became an actual part of the Greek language. It meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery—words you’ll often find in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Eventually, in addition to being synonymous with wealth and luxury, drunkenness and debauchery, Corinth simply became synonymous with “filth.”[3]

            I hope that provides you with a better picture of what Corinth was like. If you live here in America and probably many other affluent countries, you were probably picturing some city you know today that fits the description of Corinth during Paul’s day perfectly. Given that description, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the Corinthian believers engaged in at least a few of these immoral practices before they became believers and were instructed by Paul to live differently. Before they became followers of Christ, you could say they were letters from Corinth. Now think about what that letter would have said about them. Pick out some of the words from the letter—idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, slanderers, gluttons, sex addicts (1 Cor. 6:9-20); defined by discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, gossip, arrogance, and disorder (2 Cor. 12:20-21)—immorality and filth. Wouldn’t those be the words you would find if their lives were letters from Corinth? But Paul says their lives were A Letter From Christ. That means none of those words should find their way into that letter. Instead, the words you should find to describe them as A Letters From Christ should be: peace, patience, kindness, joy, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, righteousness, love, forgiving, generous, selfless—lives washed white as snow; holy (Isa. 1:18; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 1:11).

            The Corinthian believers have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the gospel message and Paul’s hard work of sharing the message with them and teaching them what it means to be followers of Christ. Before they became followers of Christ their lives where letters from Corinth and all the filth and ugliness that was synonymous with Corinth. However, as followers of Christ, their lives are now A Letter From Christ that Paul or anyone can point to and say, “When you witness the actions and attitudes of their transformed lives, it will be like reading A Letter From Christ saying that this is what it looks like to be a follower of Christ.”

            “Paul compared this letter from Christ written on the Corinthians’ hearts to the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God on stone. Paul’s point is clear: The signs of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life are superior to any kind of writing, whether it was a church’s recommendation or the law of God etched on stone. The imagery of writing on human hearts comes from the prophet Ezekiel. This Old Testament prophet had predicted that one day God himself would remove Israel’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, a heart that would follow God’s decrees because God himself had written his law on it (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26-27). Paul was declaring to the Corinthians that the day Ezekiel had predicted had come. The Holy Spirit was writing God’s law on their hearts and changing them on the inside.”[4]

            It is clearly Paul’s “expectation that the Spirit’s presence in the world is not invisible or private, but palpable and powerful. Paul’s ‘holiness’ theology is not a call to pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. The life of faith is a 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.

            Paul would never accept the modern attempt to relegate religion to a private affair of one’s innermost thoughts and beliefs. He casts the purpose of his ministry in terms of unveiling and praising the glory of God. To do so reflects his assumption that God is not an Idea to be believed, but a Person to be encountered and trusted; or better, a Person who encounters us with the same power the raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit raises us from the deadness of our sinful lives and makes us ‘A Letter From Christ,’ who speak of his transforming grace in our own words and display his power by our deeds.”[5]


            I’ll be honest with you, not all of the letter of my life is from Christ. Some of that letter still communicates ugliness and filth. Maybe that describes you as well. Maybe as you’ve been reading or listening to this lesson you’ve been thinking about the letter of your life and it has some words in it you wish you could erase—words like, anger, hatred, sexual immorality (defined as any kind of sexual activity, not just intercourse, outside the context of marriage between one man and one woman), divorce, substance abuse , pornography, abortion, greed, jealousy, glutton, envy, gossip, slander, unforgiveness, deceit, and ___________________, you fill in the blank. It’s there and you’re afraid it says something about you that is either no longer or not always true. If you’re like me, you want your life to be A Letter From Christ but there’s all that ugly stuff taking up space on the paper that is the story of your life of faith. What can you do? Can you start over? Do you want to know why they call the gospel message Good News? Do you want to know why Easter is the penultimate day in all of history? Because Jesus walked out of that grave alive; because of Resurrection Sunday, you have a chance to start over! You have a chance to erase all those things on the letter of your life that don’t reflect Christ. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Spirit can begin to write a new letter of your life. All you have to do is repent (turn away) from all those things that don’t reflect Christ and ask for forgiveness and they will be erased, or more appropriately, washed away by the blood of Christ. In cooperation with the Spirit, you can begin or continue to write the story of your life that reflects Christ. The pages of your life, like mine, probably have some (or lots) of smudges and maybe even some holes where you have to do a lot of erasing, but with the help of the Spirit, you can be confident that ultimately people will read it as A Letter From Christ.

            This is a perfect week for us because it is Holy Week ending with Resurrection Sunday. During this week, start with repentance and ask for forgiveness of all those things in your life that are not a reflection of Christ and then invite the Spirit to begin writing a new letter of your life. This week, here’s what I’d like you to do, ask the Spirit to write these words into the letter that is your life: Forgiving, Selfless, Generous, Patient, Kind, Joyful, Loving, Faithful, Self-controlled, Servant, Peaceful, Gentle, Righteous, and Holy. But you’re not done yet—now give that letter to someone who needs to not just hear the Good News of the gospel but see it in you and feel its transformative power in their lives. This week, find someone; a neighbor, a family member, a friend, a stranger, and you be A Letter From Christ to them not only with your words (we all know words can be cheap) but most importantly with your attitude and your actions.

[1] Mark Guy Pearse, The British Friend, vol. 1, no. 1 (1892): 15.
[2] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 155-56.
[3] David Padfield, “The Biblical City of Corinth,” 2005, accessed April 8, 2017,
[4] Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, Grant Osborne, Linda K. Taylor, and Dave Veerman, Life Application New Testament Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 720.
[5] Scott J. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 123-24.

(Audio Version; Music: "Great Are You Lord" by: One Sonic Society and "Christ In Me" by: Jeremy Camp)