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2 Corinthians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Letter of Recommendation

It is unthinkable in our society to present yourself to a prospective employer without a résumé in hand and a list of references at your fingertips. It was much the same in Paul's day. He lived in an equally mobile society that placed similar value on personal achievements and introductory letters. Itinerant speakers, in particular, were expected to carry letters of reference with them as they traveled from place to place. It was often the only means by which they received hospitality and provisions for the journey ahead. Zenon Papyri 2026 is a typical letter of this sort:

Asklepiades to Zenon, greeting.

Philo, the bearer of this letter to you, has been known to me for a considerable time. He has sailed up in order to obtain employment in certain sections of the bureau of Philiskos, being recommended by Phileas and other accountants. Be so good, therefore, as to make his acquaintance and introduce him to other persons of standing, assisting him actively, both for my sake and for that of the young man himself. For he is worthy of your consideration, as will be evident to you if you receive him into your hands.


Paul too wrote letters of recommendation, especially for colleagues who represented his pastoral interests in the various Gentile churches he had founded. A number of his letters bear witness to this practice (e.g., Rom 16:1-2; 1 Cor 4:17; 2 Cor 8:16-24; Phil 2:19-30). He did not, however, personally carry letters of this kind, although he made use of them prior to his conversion (Acts 9:2; 22:5). This gave Jewish-Christian missionaries who were attempting to gain a foothold in the Corinthian community an opportunity to discredit him in the eyes of the church.

At 3:1 Paul attempts to forestall a wrong conclusion. The JB captures the sense admirably: "Does this sound like a new attempt to commend ourselves to you?" Much as itinerant speakers would present their credentials to gain a hearing in a given location, Paul's review of what his ministry entailed, his commissioning by God to be Christ's representative and the divine scrutiny that his ministry undergoes on a daily basis could well have sounded to Corinthian ears as if he were attempting in 2:14-17 to reintroduce himself and his coworkers all over again to the congregation. Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? (3:1) The "many" who peddle the word of God for profit (2:17) begin to take definite shape as the some (tines) who take pride in letters of recommendation that they are able to present to the Corinthians and solicit from them to carry along to the next church on their travel circuit. To you and from you shows that these missionaries were not interested in planting churches through their own efforts but profiting from (2:17) and taking credit for (from you) the efforts of others.

Paul's approach to these intruders is quite insightful. While he does not condemn their use of such letters, he does point out to the church that the reason he and his coworkers had not brought any letters to Corinth was because they had come as church planters, ready to begin a new evangelistic work. So it is the church formed as a result of their labors (you yourselves), not a letter written with ink (v. 3), that serves as their letter of reference.

Two aspects of this letter are highlighted in verse 2. It is a letter written on the hearts of Paul and his coworkers (engegrammene en tais kardiais hemwn) and it is a letter known and read by everybody (ginoskomeno kai anaginoskomene hypo panton anthropon). "Heart" is used here in the Semitic sense of the inmost self and center of the personality, not in the English sense of the seat of emotions and feelings. It is the locus of a person's spiritual and intellectual activity and, as such, the place where God begins his work of renewal (Sorg 1976:181-83). The perfect tense, written (engegrammene), points to a letter that has been indelibly etched on Paul's heart. Known and read is a rather peculiar order of things until one recognizes the play on words (ginoskomeno kai anaginoskomene). The term for read means "to know" something well enough that you can recognize it again (as one does with words on a page). It is similar to our expression "he reads me well" and might best be translated "known and recognized by all."

Paul's first comment is initially somewhat puzzling. While it is fitting to talk of the changed lives of his converts as the only recommendation he requires, it is less clear how this letter can be written on his own heart and, even more so, how it can be known and recognized by all. While Paul might be pushing the limits of his analogy, the point he is making is an important one. By written on our hearts he means that the gospel has an impact not only on those who hear it but also on those who preach it. Known by everybody (v. 2) and you show (v. 3) suggest an obvious and widely perceived impact. By contrast, the Corinthian intruders present pieces of paper that are seen by only a few and have a limited, temporary effect.

The notion of an evangelist who does not become personally involved in the lives of his or her converts is one that is foreign to the New Testament. Unfortunately, it is all too common today. The job of witnessing often amounts to giving someone a tract or telling them that God has a plan for their life.

The story is told of a new homeowner who worked fruitlessly for several hours trying to get a broken lawnmower back together. Suddenly one of his neighbors appeared with a handful of tools. "Can I help?" he asked. In toenty minutes he had the mower functioning beautifully.

"Thanks a million," the new homeowner said. "And say, what do you make with such fine tools?"

"Mostly friends," the neighbor smiled. "I'm available anytime."

In a schedule-driven society like ours, the kind of commitment to people that this neighbor evidenced is quickly becoming extinct. Paul, however, became involved in the lives of people to whom he witnessed and in so doing was himself affected. So great, in fact, was the personal impact that no matter where he traveled it was evident to all. Nor was Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church an isolated case. In 1 Thes-salonians 2:8 he says that he and his coworkers shared with the Thessalonians not only the gospel but their very lives, because they had become so dear to them.

And what about a résumé? What credentials does Paul present to prospective listeners in order to gain a hearing? Again, his response is instructive. For the only credential a gospel preacher can in reality bring to an unevangelized field like Corinth is not a list of personal accomplishments but the presence and power of God's Spirit working to convict the listener of the trutes of the message about Jesus Christ. You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written . . . with the Spirit of the living God (3:3).

Four things characterize this letter of reference. First, it is a letter of Christ (epistolh Christou). While Paul could be thinking of a letter "about Christ" (objective genitive; Phillips), in light of the analogy employed it is more likely a letter "from Christ" written on Paul's behalf (genitive of source; most modern translations).

Second, it is a letter that is mediated by Paul. The NIV the result of our ministry is literally "ministered by us" (KJV, NKJV). The aorist (diakonhtheisa) points to a specific ministry occasion, most likely Paul's founding visit. Translations are evenly divided as to whether it is the role of a secretary ("drawn up by us"--LB, JB, NRSV) or the job of a letter carrier ("delivered by us"--TEV, RSV, NEB, REB, Phillips) that is depicted here. In either case, the NJB's "entrusted to our care" catches the sense, if not the picture.

Third, it is a letter written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God (v. 3). Ink, in Paul's day, was a black carbon mixed with gum or oil for use on parchment or with a metallic substance for papyrus. It was applied by means of a reed that was cut to a point and split like a quill pen. The phrase living God, which is a familiar one in the Greek Old Testament, is found six times in the Pauline writings. It is normally employed to distinguish God from lifeless idols (Acts 14:15; 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Cor 6:16). Here it is used of what is animate (God) as opposed to what is inanimate (ink). The new element in verse 3 is the Spirit of the living God. The characteristic mark of Christianity as contrasted to Judaism was, and remains, the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer and congregation. Under the old covenant, God made his will known externally through the law. Under the new covenant his presence is revealed internally through the Spirit.

Fourth, it is a letter written on tablets of human hearts rather than on tablets of stone (v. 3). The word tablet probably describes the form (rectangle) rather than the material. Even so, the introduction of stone tablets is unexpected. The writing implement used with stone surfaces was a chisel, not a reed pen with ink. Letters in Paul's day were written on either papyrus or parchment--or, in a pinch, on a piece of pottery. So why the shift to stone tablets? The contrast itself is betoeen what is pliable ("fleshly," not the NIV human) and internal (hearts) as opposed to what is fixed and external (stone). But the point could have been made by following through on the analogy of the letter of recommendation. What is Paul up to here? The connection is to be found in the idea of a divine composition. Stone tablets recalls the too tablets of the Decalogue inscribed by the finger of God (Ex 31:18; Deut 9:10). "Fleshly hearts," on the other hand, brings to mind the new covenant expectation of God's law written on the heart (Jer 31:33). This feat is accomplished by God removing the "heart of stone" and replacing it with his Spirit (Ezek 11:19; 36:26).

His critics solicited human references. Paul turns, instead, to divine references. For the credential that he has to offer is Christ's own letter written with the Spirit of the living God on the hearts of his converts. His critics boasted, as well, of the presence and power of the Spirit in their ministry. But for them it was the Spirit's presence as manifested in and through the working of signs, wonders and miracles (12:11-12). Paul, on the other hand, looked to the inward change of heart as the primary evidence of the Spirit's presence. It is changed lives, not sensational feats, that are the true sign of a Spirit-directed ministry.

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Qualifications for Ministry

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