The Credentials of His Ministry: Part 2 of 3 (series: Lessons on 2 Co.)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

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 prophecy, 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 others 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.


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