When was the last time you received a handwritten letter? Has it been so long ago you can’t remember? Never? Letter writing is a dying art in our digital age.
If you’ve ever received a handwritten letter, you know how special it makes you feel. I’ve received emails and texts that encouraged and blessed me, but not in the same way a handwritten letter does. Maybe I’m showing my age by that statement. That’s probably true. All I can say is, if you’ve never received a handwritten letter, you won’t know what I’m talking about.
In my mind, there’s a personal investment in a handwritten letter that’s missing in electronic forms of communication. When someone takes the time to sit down and put pen to paper, it says something about the value they place on the person they’re writing to. And a personal letter encapsulates the personality and character of the writer.
Aren’t you glad that God revealed His Word to holy men of old as the apostle Peter tells us? Aren’t you glad that as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, they wrote down His message? And so, today, you and I have before us the Word of God in written form. And the apostle Paul tells us this Word of God is given for our benefit and to equip us for every good work.
So then, we turn our attention to the Word of God again today to discover some of that benefit and to see how it equips us to better serve the Lord. Our text is Second Corinthians 3:1 to 6. Listen carefully as I read and see if you can pick out the benefits we receive from letters.
“Living Letters” is the subject of our text, and today we want to explore the VALUE we give and receive through those letters.
The First VALUE of Living Letters is,
They Provide Information
That’s pretty simple, right? Why else do you write a letter? You have ideas you want to communicate to the person or persons receiving the letter. When my wife and I were dating, there were a couple of times when we were separated by distance for several weeks. So, we wrote letters to each other. We still have them, and occasionally we’ll get them out and reread them. It was the way we communicated our interest in each other and our growing love story.
Before we dive into the teaching from this text, let’s consider some background here. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church and, as we learned earlier, he’s defending his apostolic authority. Evidently, there were those at Corinth who were questioning his authority.
Paul talks about letters of commendation, or recommendation. I understand this was a common practice of that day. One example is Acts 18:27, where the Ephesian elders wrote a letter of recommendation for Apollos to carry with him to Achaia. So, a letter of recommendation said that the bearer of the letter was trustworthy and should be treated accordingly.
Today, we might call this a referral letter. If you leave your job on good terms with your employer, you can ask for a referral letter–a letter of recommendation. In it, he tells your prospective employer what your strengths and weakness are and how you’ll be an asset in your new workplace. It would seem weird to write your own referral letter, but Paul does it because he feels forced into it by his critics.
Paul’s critics wondered where his letters of recommendation were. It’s believed that some of the false teachers in Corinth actually forged letters from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They did that so they would have standing in the church.
Paul asks the Corinthians “do I need letters of recommendation for you to accept me? Or do you need to provide letters of recommendation for me to other churches? No, of course not. You yourselves are our letter of recommendation. You’re written on our hearts!” Remember, Paul and his team had spent 18 months in Corinth.
In other words, Paul was saying “if you want a letter of recommendation, just look at the impact of our ministry in Corinth! The existence of the church is proof of our divinely sanctioned and faithful ministry.” Changed lives are a powerful living letter of recommendation.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.” Many will never pick up a printed copy of the Scripture, but they will notice its truth being lived out in your life! Has anyone ever asked you what’s different about you? I had a man ask me one time, “What’s different about you, you look so peaceful?” Those kinds of questions open the door for us to share about what Christ has done in us and for us.
Your life is a living letter. What kind of information does it give to those who observe your lifestyle choices and the way your respond to the circumstances of daily living?
Another VALUE of Living Letters is,
They Provide Explanation
The opening of a letter often starts with an overview of the main idea. Then, later in the letter, that idea is explained in more detail. That applies more to business letters than personal ones. At any rate, Paul takes time to enlarge on what he means by calling the Corinthian Believers living letters. He says, “you are a letter of Christ written by the Spirit of God through our ministry.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. The Holy Spirit, through the ministry of Paul and his team, brought about a transformation in the lives of the Corinthian converts. That transformation was undeniable, living proof that documented the work of Christ in their lives! And you know something, it still works that way today. If we are genuinely converted, we can’t hide the results. People will see the difference.
The reason this is true is that, as Paul says, the Spirit of God writes the person and character of Christ on our hearts. When something is written on our heart, that means we have a conviction or belief that is based on our inward experience. The truth engages our conscience and is empowered by the Holy Spirit; it enables us to make godly choices.
He contrasts the Mosaic Law, which was written or engraved on tablets of stone, with the law of Christ which is written or engraved on our hearts. And it’s interesting that when Paul says the Spirit of God has written on our hearts, the grammar indicates that this writing is the finished result of a previous action. At the point in time when we allow the Holy Spirit by faith to engrave the work of Christ on our hearts, we become a letter of Christ to the world around us. We become, in the words of Second Corinthians 5:17, a new creation in Christ.
The Mosaic Law was engraved on stone by the finger of God. It revealed the requirements He put in place for His people to approach Him in His holiness. But according to the biblical record, that engraving didn’t make it from the stone tablets to the hearts of the people. Because it was an external law it only exposed sin, it didn’t have the power to bring about life change. Why? because of the weakness of our sinful flesh, our sinful human nature, according to Romans 8:3.
Now, the Corinthians whose lives had been transformed by the power of Christ became, as it were, an engraving to those around them. The indelible imprint of Christ was on them, and people could see it.
Notice verse 4, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” Paul is appealing to the Corinthian Believers through his confidence in Christ. In spite of their weaknesses and divisions, there was evidence of Christ’s presence in them. As their spiritual father, he is deeply concerned about their spiritual well-being, but he realizes that ultimately, the person and power of Christ will bring about life change.
We too need to remember that all Believers are on a journey. We’re not all at the same level of maturity. Just because someone is immature doesn’t mean they’re not a Believer. We need to learn to be patient with them just as others were patient with us.
Does your life letter give an explanation to the world of what has happened inside you through Jesus?
A Final VALUE of Living Letters is,
They Provide Affirmation
A few years ago, I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write several letters to people who had a major impact on my life as a young man. I thanked them for the time and energy they invested in my life and for their patience with me in my immaturity.
Some of them sent a written reply. But I learned later, through the grapevine as we say, that one of those who didn’t respond in writing received my letter at a time of much discouragement. Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” My letter encouraged them and affirmed the value of their ministry. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians was meant to do that for them too.
When I study the Scriptures, I keep a lookout for things that are emphasized by repetition. In just three verses, Paul uses the same word, or a variation of it, four times! You’ll find it in chapter two, verse sixteen, and here in our text, verses five and six. KJV translates it as sufficient, sufficiency, or able. Bill Mounce, a Greek scholar whom I’ve learned to appreciate, translates it as adequate or adequacy. It includes the idea of being able or competent.
For any minister of the Gospel, or any Believer, for that matter, our confidence shouldn’t rest in our adequacy for the task of being a living letter. If you and I feel like we’re sufficient to serve the Lord with our talents and abilities, we only kidding ourselves.
It reminds me that J. Oswald Sanders, a godly man, and former director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, once wrote about a position he desired. As he contemplated lobbying for the position, at one point, while he was walking through the city of Auckland, New Zealand, part of a verse of Scripture from the prophet Jeremiah came to his mind, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them…”
Sanders later said, “The words came to me just as though it was God speaking. There were crowds all around me, and no one else heard the voice, but I heard it all right!” He said, “I believe that was a real turning point in my service to the Lord.” As a result, he never sought the position, but later it was opened for him, in God’s timing. It is much better for us to wait for God’s timing in expanding our area of service because His call and timing bring affirmation to us.
So, our sufficiency, or ability, our competence is from God! You and I don’t have the power to bring about life change, only God can do that. So, Paul says that God made us, (in the context, that’s the apostles), but it includes you and me, sufficient or competent ministers of a new covenant that was inaugurated by Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means that God has equipped you and me for the work of sharing the Gospel. As we acknowledge Him and serve under His inspiration, He makes our service fruitful in His kingdom.
And then, notice how Paul contrasts the letter and the spirit. He says the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. If you had a choice of which of those you would serve and promote, which one would you choose? I know, that’s kind of a silly question.
The old covenant was a covenant of externals and only served to remind those under it that they could never live up to it. It made heavy demands but provided no inner power to live in obedience. It commanded and imposed punishment for disobedience, often death; but it gave no power or encouragement to obey. That’s the record of what we call the Old Testament.
In contrast, the new covenant is a living force. Instead of attempting to suppress sinful behavior through the threat of punishment, it brings about change within us. That change sets us free from the controlling passions of his flesh. It provides both the desire and the power to live in obedience to Christ, the One who sets us free. And in that way, it gives life, abundant life!
Have you experienced the reality of the new covenant? Has your life been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit living in you? If so, then you are a living letter bringing the information, explanation, and affirmation of the abundant life to those who are watching you. May God continue to write your living letter for His glory!