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 everybody. 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.
4Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. 5Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
I had spent years learning and teaching about Abraham Lincoln and the events in history that surrounded his life, but I would never say all that much about his personal abhorrence of slavery. It never needed to be addressed much; his personal dislike for the institution of slavery could be assumed. At least that’s what I thought. Then one day I met someone who challenged that. He began to argue that Lincoln hated slaves and could not have cared less about what happened to them. It wasn’t until he began to challenge this common assumption that I had to really research and defend the point of view that he did care and he personally hated slavery. That’s often the way it is with matters of theology as well. Things are often assumed but not vehemently defended or explained until someone comes along and challenges those assumptions. In that way, heresies and false teachings often help develop sound and proper doctrine.
Paul, in fact, had never gone into great detail about what it meant to be an apostle, but now his identification as an apostle has been challenged by some critics in Corinth. Much of what this letter is about, in the face of this opposition, is Paul’s explanation of what it means to be apostle. But we should not think that Paul’s defense of apostleship is a personal defense of his own actions. Paul’s defense of his apostleship has everything to do with the gospel. Paul is not concerned with what they think of him personally but is extremely concerned that they understand the nature of the kingdom of God and the gospel that God has given to be spread. If they have an improper understanding of his apostleship and apostleship in general, then they will never understand the incredible gospel which had been proclaimed to them and which they were to, in turn, proclaim to the world around them.
It was a common practice in the ancient world to expect a letter of recommendation from another person or group of people detailing their qualifications to do whatever it was they were coming to do. This was often necessary without means of mass communication such as we have today. We can learn from the late first century Christian writings, the Didache (pronounced dee duh kay), that letters of recommendation were common in the early Christian world as well. If a teacher or evangelist came to a town where they were not known, it was common for them to bring a letter from another congregation, recommending the spiritual qualifications of the individual. This was necessary as even Lucian, the pagan satirist, noted that any con-artist could rip off Christians because they were so hospitable, inviting, and simple-minded.
Up to this point, Paul has argued that the legitimacy of his apostolic ministry is based on his sufferings. The Messiah suffered, and what is true of him is true of his people, so Paul’s sufferings demonstrated the source of his ministry. Now he will switch that argument to answer the ongoing challenges to his authority. Paul will begin to argue for the validity of his ministry based on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He will do this in a line of reasoning that will continue all the way through 4:6, in which he will compare and contrast the Old and New covenants as a way to demonstrate the difference between his type of ministry and that of others.
Those in Corinth who were challenging Paul’s legitimacy were evidently claiming that some of the material in 1 Corinthians in which Paul is defending his ministry, was serving as his attempt to recommend himself. They were likely claiming that Paul could only recommend himself and had no such verification from anyone else. He was not, according to their arguments, an apostle at all. Thus, Paul is a bit sensitive, and a bit sarcastic as he asks if his defense of his ministry in chapters 1 and 2 are sounding like another self-recommendation. Paul’s point is that in the ancient world, letters of recommendation showed that someone lacked their own evidence to back up the claims they were making. They were a substitute for credibility. Paul doesn’t need that because the existence of the Corinthian Church is his letter of recommendation. They are the source of his credibility, which nicely puts them on the spot. If they are the verification of his ministry, if they are his letter, then the inherent question is, are they acting like it? What would people know of Paul based on the way they were acting? Paul has basically told them that what is true of them is true of him. Thus, if they question his legitimacy and his ministry, then they call themselves and their faith into existence. If Paul is not a legitimate apostle, then they have just cut off the branch they’re sitting on.
We shouldn’t just skip by passages like this without making them deeply personal for ourselves, though. Imagine the situation. Paul planted these churches and has labored, toiled, and prayed without end for the welfare and benefit of the Corinthians. He had poured his very life into them and now some of them had begun to question his very legitimacy as an ambassador of the gospel. Surely this had the the potential to be deeply painful for Paul and we might understand if he launched into an angry tirade, but Paul does nothing of the kind. Instead, he calmly and lovingly works through his own hurt and lets his concern for the Corinthians take precedence over his own feelings. What a challenge for us to remember that even when we’ve been hurt or wronged we are still called, as Jesus’ people, to work for the benefit of others, including those who have hurt us. This is equally true of our children, our siblings, our parents, our co-workers, our friends, our church family. Just as Christ hung on the cross and asked forgiveness for those who were killing him and Paul can calmly and lovingly deal with those who were attacking him, we are called to remember that we died to ourselves when we entered the life of Christ and we are to embody that life of Christ and his love in our own actions. This is a stiff challenge but one that cannot be dismissed or ignored.
Returning to our passage, Paul has two primary passages in mind as he makes the case for his apostolic ministry, beginning in verse 3. One is Exodus 34:29-35, the account of Moses and the stone tablets, and Jeremiah 31:31-34, the promise of the new covenant that would be written on the hearts of God’s people (although Paul certainly makes allusions to Ezek. 11:19 and 26:26-27 as well). Paul is contrasting the Old Covenant with the New, promised Covenant, saying that his ministry is the fulfillment of the promise. It is the ministry that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and is written on the hearts of people. What Paul is saying is that his God had promised a time when He would give a covenant that would be written on hearts not stone tablets. His ministry is the fulfillment of that promise, and so cannot be defined by written letters. He is making a connection between the need for letters and the Old Covenant Law (we have to be careful to realize that Paul is not denouncing the entire practice of letters of recommendation, he is making a point about his ministry and the specific demand of some in Corinth that he produce such a letter.)
Rather than questioning his legitimacy, the Corinthians should realize that Paul’s letter, which is the Corinthian Church, shows himself to be quite legitimate and competent. Of that he is quite confident, which shows his confidence not only in his own ministry, but also in them. This does not build himself up, though, or say anything wonderful about Paul the man. Every aspect of Paul’s ministry comes from God. It is God who has chosen Paul and made him fit for duty as a minister of the New Covenant. Just as God called men like Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and made them sufficient despite their insufficiency, so He will do the same for Paul. In contrast, though, the Old Covenant law was expressed in writing and was not kept by men, leading to their death. Now, however, Paul’s ministry is sufficient because it is powered by the Spirit; The Spirit that empowers God’s Word to be obeyed from the heart.
Just as Paul says in Romans 8 that the Spirit has now done what the Law couldn’t, here he says that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The resurrection of Jesus has made life available to the world. Paul, the apostles, and all Christians since then, are simply servants and stewards of this new life. Have you been a good steward of it this week?