Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

 

April 23, 2014

Tom Lowe

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

                                                            

               Lesson II.B.1.a: The Credentials of His Ministry. (3:1-5)

2nd Corinthians 3:1-5 (NKJV)

1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you?

2 You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men;

3 clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

4 And we have such trust through Christ toward God.

5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God,

 

Introduction


Paul has spoken of the triumph of the ministry. Now he deals with the accreditation of the ministry. He will reach the heights in this chapter. Paul is asking, “Do I need a letter of recommendation from my employer? Do I need a letter from God testifying that I am His minister?” Paul says, “No, I don’t need to have that—and he gives the reason in verses 2 and 3.


Traveling Christian evangelists in the first century, according to the custom of the day, carried letters of recommendation. With these a poor preacher would be given, at least, a place to stay, a meal, and an opportunity to speak to the congregation. Apparently some of the false teachers had gained access to the Corinthian church with such letters. But instead of using their influence to further the cause of the gospel, these teachers had criticized Paul’s message and authority. Part of that criticism was his lack of letters of recommendation.


Commentary

 

1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you?

 

Paul was aware of the tactics of his opponents (false apostles, Judaizers) and he realized that the swipe he had taken at them might be turned against him. His first question in verse 1 (Do we begin again to commend ourselves?) suggests that this had happened before (See 1 Cor. 9). The Greek word for “commend” means “to introduce.” Thus Paul was asking the Corinthians if he needed to reintroduced himself, as if they had never met, and prove himself once more. The form of the question demanded a negative answer. In 2 Corinthians 2:17 Paul wrote, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.” He was asserting his integrity in the apostolic ministry and answering the charge that he was merely an egotistical braggart who delights in touting his accomplishments. This is not a new charge since previous statements by the apostle had evoked the same accusation. His “stern letter” to the Corinthians, in which he defended himself, may be what he is referring to here. I don’t think we need to be reminded that Paul, who was only human, always kept completely free from pride. But vicious attacks on him had forced him to defend his record as he does again in 2 Corinthians 4:2{1] and 6:4{2]. Had he not done so, his leadership and his gospel would have been rejected, and the Corinthians, even more than he, would have been the losers.

 

The second question in this verse is a partial answer to the first. In dealing with the Corinthians, Paul, whose work and love for them they knew so well, surely does not need, as outsiders do, to bring letters of recommendation. “Some,” the many of 2:17, who seem to be the same as the “false apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:12-13{3], 22-23{4], evidentially did bring letters of recommendation (which they may have forged) to Corinth (a common practice in the first century); letters written by the “important people” in the Jerusalem church (which they may have obtained under false pretenses), and they pointed out that Paul had no such credentials. Being outsiders, and persons unknown to the church, they had reasons to do so, but Paul needs no such testimonials. Paul had good reasons to doubt the authenticity of their letters (2 Cor. 4:2{1]), for they distorted the Word of God and practiced deception. Moreover, these traveling preachers seem to have asked for such letters from the Corinthians to other places. In all probability they were emissaries of the Jews who had come to undo Paul’s work, and their letters were written by the Sanhedrin. Once Paul had had such letters himself when he set out for Damascus to obliterate the church (Acts 9:2{13]). It is a sad thing when a person measures his worth by what people say about him instead of by what God knows about him. It should be pointed out that Paul had nothing against such letters and he wrote letters of recommendation at various times for those who served with him—“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2; also see 2 Cor. 8:22-24). Paul explains why he doesn’t need such letters in verse 2.

 

Seemingly, some false teachers had started using letters of recommendation to gain a speaking platform in the Corinthian church, and apparently, these teachers had convinced some of the Corinthian believers that their opinion of Paul was true, and they had begun to question their own spiritual father. In essence, they were demanding that Paul present his qualifications to preach. This is apparent, for right from the start of 2nd Corinthians, Paul had to speak in his own self-defense, defending his recent travel plans (See 2 Cor. 1:12-17). He did this so that the Corinthians would not be misled by the false teachers.

 

2 You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men;

 

Instead of a written letter of recommendation from the church at Corinth, this active and well-known church was all the recommendation Paul needs. He was God’s human instrument in converting the Corinthians and founding that congregation, and “all men” throughout the entire church know how effective and fruitful his work was. This widespread favorable report means much more than a formal written recommendation of Paul. “Read” continues the comparison with a letter of recommendation; actually, “known and read” means that others learn of Paul’s work by word of mouth and know that the very existence and vitality of the Corinthian church are a high tribute to him. Paul inserts the phrase “written in our hearts,” to express how deep and constant is his love and concern for the Corinthian Christians. His tie with them is not formal or temporary, but personal, close, and marked by enduring love. The Corinthians have a deep and constant affection for Paul as well.


 

Paul says the Corinthian believers themselves are his letter of recommendation, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” It has been written on their hearts in the transformation which the Spirit of Christ had produced and which was plain for all men to read. The difference Christ had made in them he describes in Galatians 5:19-24{8], where he contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. He sought no other commendation. No other is valid. There is a quality in the genuinely Christian life which nothing but the power of Jesus Christ can explain. This had been revealed to Paul himself as he watched the dying of Stephen and felt the serenity and power of a forgiving spirit. Stephens’ life at that point was a translation of the gospel, seen and read by Paul and resulting in his conversion.

 

Paul was inextricably intertwined with the Corinthian Christians. Their success was his; their sorrows were also his. In this way, their lives of faith were etched in his heart and the hearts of his coworkers, Silas and Timothy. Just as the lives of the Corinthians were an open book to all, the intimate connection between the Corinthians and their founder, Paul, was manifest to all. So anything the Corinthians did would also reflect on Paul and his ministry, and vice versa.

 

3 clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

Paul develops further his statement that the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation. It was “ministered by us,” that is, by Paul primarily; throughout this passage it should be assumed that “we” and “us” refers to Paul and doesn’t include his helpers or apostolic comrades. Here, the word “ministered” refers to the time of the founding of the Corinthian church. The word carries out the idea that Paul was the scribe who wrote down the letter and Christ the One who dictated it and the One whose letter the church really is. Possibly the word includes the idea that the letter was delivered by Paul, since he brought the gospel to Corinth. But before they were saved the Corinthians were not Christians, and so were not a letter of Christ; therefore, the meaning seems to be not that he brought the gospel to their city, but in preaching and converting them Paul was the scribe or agent of Christ, who was the “author” of their salvation. That their Christian faith and position are not due to themselves, nor even to Paul, but rather to God, is expressed by the fact that they are a letter of Christ and written “by the Spirit of the living God;” they were a living document. Paul’s letter was alive, written by Christ’s divine, supernatural power through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4-5{12]; 1 Thess. 1:5{14]). But he contrasts the Corinthians not only with letters “written . . . with ink” that can fade, but also with the Mosaic “tablets of stone” containing the Commandments (Ex. 31:18{5]). He refers to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) as the symbol of the entire Law of God contained in the Scriptures. These tablets of stone were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. Even if the Israelites could read the two tablets, this experience would not change their lives. The Law is an external thing and people need an internal power if their lives are to be transformed. The legalist can admonish us with his, “Do this!” or “Don’t do that!” but he cannot give us the power to obey. If we do obey, often it is not from the heart—and we end up worse than before! The ministry of grace does change the heart. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God and writes it on the heart. The Corinthians were wicked sinners when Paul came to them, but his ministry of the gospel of God’s grace completely changed their lives (1 Cor. 6:9-11{9]).

 

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.


 

·         I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Eze. 36:26-27)



·         "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jer. 31:33)


 

Paul was declaring to the Corinthians that the day Ezekiel predicted had come. The Holy Spirit was writing God’s law on their hearts and changing them on the inside. The New Covenant of which Ezekiel spoke centuries ago was the gospel Paul preached.

 

The idea of writing on the human heart goes beyond the comparison with a letter of recommendation; other men cannot see what is written on our heart. But Christian living has such deep inner roots of faith and dedication that Paul cannot neglect them. Moreover, there no doubt hovers in his thoughts the memory of the assuring promise of Jeremiah 31:33{11], that God would put his law “in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Because the Corinthians are living evidence of the fulfillment of that prophesy, they are an effective letter of recommendation for Paul. By the expression, “On tablets of the heart,” Paul may be alluding to the nature of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33{11]). In contrast with the Old Covenant inscribed in stone (Ex. 24:12{15]), the New Covenant is inscribed on human hearts (Eze. 11:19{16]; 36:26{17]). Just as the New is far superior to the Old, so was Paul’s commendation compared with that of the false apostles. The word Paul uses for new when he speaks of the New Covenant is the same as Jesus used and it is very significant. In Greek there are two words for new. First there is noes, which means new in point of time and that alone. Second there is kainos, which means not only new in point of time, but also new in quality. It is the word kainos that both Jesus and Paul use for the New Covenant and the significance is that the New Covenant is not only new in point of time; it is quite different in kind from the Old Covenant. It produces between men and God a relationship of a totally different kind.


In the case of the Corinthians, Paul could say, “clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us,” that is, by Paul primarily, for it was Paul’s hand which had written the epistle; but that hand was only an instrument of the Spirit carrying the gospel message to those for whom it was intended. No preacher can claim to be more than a transmitter. His power depends on the measure in which he is subdued to the purpose of Christ, as the artistic quality of an artist depends on the measure in which his hand is the instrument of the spirit of artistic creativity. But the members of the church have their responsibilities also. To be a professing Christian means that we offer our lives so that other can read in them the message of the gospel. Every Christian life ought to be a translation of the gospel, because WE ARE THE ONLY GOSPEL SOME PEOPLE WILL EVER READ. There is no other way in which multitudes around us will read it. But for this to happen, it must be written in our hearts.

 

The fact that every Christian life is itself a translation of the gospel—an epistle of Christ to be known and read—does not absolve the ordinary Christian from the duty of communicating his experience in conversation or teaching. The truth that it is the life that speaks must not be made an excuse for cowardly silence, nor for evading the responsibility which rests on all members of the church to spread the message of Christ. The church which is content to delegate its responsibility to a professional ministry is not in the full sense propagating its life and is therefore in danger of becoming sterile. This paragraph by E.F. Scott should be read at this point:

 

During the great age of expansion which followed the death of Paul we do not hear of the name of a single outstanding missionary. The real work was done by countless obscure men and women who made it their first duty to spread the message in their own circle of friends and neighbors. Along with the obligation to follow the gospel in one’s own life Paul dwells on this other obligation to make it known.

 

There is a great truth here, which is both an inspiration and an awful warning—every man is an open letter for Jesus Christ. Every Christian, whether he likes it or not, is an advertisement for Christianity. The honor of Christ is in the hands of His followers. We judge a shopkeeper by the kind of goods he sells; we judge a craftsman by the kind of articles he produces; we judge a church by the kind of men it creates; and therefore men judge Christ by His followers. When we go out into the world, we have the awe-inspiring responsibility of being open letters, advertisements, for Christ and His Church.

 

The proof of the effectiveness of any ministry is whether or not it has a recommendation from God. He is not giving out letters of recommendation; the proof lies in the epistles that are written in the fleshly tables of the heart. I believe I have such epistles, but I would never say that I was the one who wrote them. I have never done anything worthwhile apart from God. If He has blessed my ministry in this way, I give Him all the glory. But they are my letters of commendation.

 

THE SOURCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS THE NEW BIRTH, AND THE REAL TEST OF A MINISTER’S VALIDITY IS THE MEASURE IN WHICH HIS MINISTRY UNDER GOD PRODUCES THIS MIRACLE.


4 And we have such trust through Christ toward God.


The confidence Paul expresses refers primarily to the conviction just stated: since he, acting for Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, has founded the church at Corinth, the very existence and vitality of this church is his letter of recommendation. But this implies, as 2 Corinthians 2:16-17{6] suggested, that he is indeed sufficient and qualified for the apostolic ministry. To that thought he now turns, but not to boast of personal greatness. It is only “through Christ,” through what Christ has done for him and through the assurance he has as he lives in daily dependence on Christ, that he can have such confidence. The grace of Christ helps him feel confident “toward God,” that is, in the presence of God (his confidence can withstand the scrutiny of God), to whom he is responsible and on whom he relies on in all that he does. Paul’s confidence was founded not on human resources but on divine ones. He was confident in the Corinthians because the Holy Spirit had worked in them. Their faith rested in God’s power (1 Cor. 2:1-5{12]).

 

A preacher must have confidence in the adequacy of his message and faith in its power. He cannot otherwise stand up to opposition from without and to the doubts that rise from the lack of apparent results. Paul’s spirit stood erect and firm, like a great tree amid drought and tempest, because his confidence is rooted in the activity of God. He was supported continually by the God who came to him through Christ. He had no confidence in himself apart from God. The qualifications for the ministry are all God-given. Natural gifts are gifts from Him and the full use of them is possible only as they are enriched and directed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12-13). The realization of our own insufficiency is the indispensable condition of the endowment. Whatever gifts we may be aware of possessing, we must realize that they are not inborn or inherited, but are a product of His grace.


This gives me confidence. I know the Bible is the Word of God; I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe that. I think that intellectually it can be proved that it is the Word of God. But today I don’t need the intellectual demonstration anymore. I’ve passed that. To me it is very simple—the proof of the Word of God is what it does. They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. God put it like this: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps. 34:8).


5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God,


What Paul implied in verse 4 he now emphatically states. “We (this essentially means Paul here) are sufficient” for this apostolic task, but not “of ourselves,” that is, not in our unaided human understanding and strength. We cannot consider or look upon “anything” in our Christian perception or confidence as coming “from ourselves.” Paul’s grasp and mastery of his apostolic task finds no explanation in his human resources. All the credit belongs to God. Just as in considering the origin of salvation Paul freely confesses that “all this is from God” (2 Cor. 5:18), just as he has to acknowledge that “by the grace of God, I am what I am,” a forgiven sinner called to be an apostle (1 Cor. 15:10{7]), so here, in explaining his competence for his work, he must say: “our sufficiency is from God.” Paul never said, “See what I have done!” He always said, “To God be the glory!” He never conceived of himself as adequate for any task; he thought of God as making him adequate. And that is precisely why, conscious as he was of his own weakness, he never hesitated to set his hand to any task. He never had to do it alone; he did it with God.


Paul’s strategy with his opponents was ingenious. He refused to stoop to arguing over his own abilities. He freely admitted he was inadequate and incompetent for the delicate task of communicating the Good News faithfully. He knew he preached and ministered in the presence of Christ Himself: “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake” (2 Cor. 2:10). No one could take such a task lightly. Paul’s humility about his own qualifications for the ministry exposed his critics for what they were: loud boasters. At the same time, Paul did not relinquish his authority to these false teachers. He pointed to his commission from Christ—our confidence is from God—to preach the Good News as the source of his competency and his authority.


I’m sure you have already sensed the weakness of the Apostle Paul in this epistle of 2nd Corinthians. But Paul could say, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).


God is not looking for some big something or some big somebody. If He wanted that He couldn’t use me and He couldn’t use you. God chooses the weak things of the world, little things, and insignificant things to accomplish His purposes. Our sufficiency is found in God.


scripture reference and special notes

{1] (2 Corinthians 4:2) Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

{2] (2 Corinthians 6:4) Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;

{3] (2 Corinthians 11:12-13) And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.

{4] (2 Corinthians 11:22-23) Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.

{5] (Exodus 31:18) When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.

{6] (2 Corinthians 2:16-17) To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.

{7] (1 Cor. 15:10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

{8] (Galatians 5:19-24) The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

{9] (1 Cor. 6:9-11) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

{10] (2 Cor. 4:2) Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

{11] (Jer. 31:33) "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

{12] (1 Cor. 2:1-5) When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

{13] (Acts 9:2) and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

{14] (1 Thess. 1:5) because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.

{15] (Ex. 24:12) The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction."

{16] (Eze. 11:19) I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.

{17] (Eze. 36:26) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 

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