The Pulpit Commentary

2 Corinthians 3:1-18 (2 Corinthians 3:1-18)

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2 Corinthians 3:1-11 (2 Corinthians 3:1-11)

St. Paul's ministry is his sufficient letter of commendation.

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2 Corinthians 3:3 (2 Corinthians 3:3)

Manifestly declared. The fame and centrality of Corinth gave peculiar prominence to the fact of their conversion. The epistle of Christ ministered by us. The Corinthians are the epistle; it is written on the hearts of St. Paul and his companions; Christ was its Composer; they were its amanuenses and its conveyers. The development of the metaphor as a metaphor would be somewhat clumsy and intricate, but St. Paul only cares to shadow forth the essential fact which he wishes them to recognize. Not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; i.e. not with visible or perishable materials, but spiritual in its origin and character. The notion of "the finger of God" naturally recalled the notion of "the Spirit of God" (comp. Matthew 12:28 with Luke 11:20 ). Not in tables of stone. God's writing by means of the Spirit on the heart reminds him of another writing of God on the stone tablets of the Law, which he therefore introduces with no special regard to the congruity of the metaphor about "an epistle." But in fleshy tables of the heart. The overwhelming preponderance of manuscript authority supports the reading "but in fleshen tablets—hearts." St. Paul is thinking of Jeremiah 31:33 , "I will put my Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts;" and Ezekiel 11:22 , "I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh." The tablets were not hard and fragile, but susceptible and receptive. Our letters of introduction are inward not outward, spiritual not material, permanent not perishable, legible to all not only by a few, written by Christ not by man.

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2 Corinthians 3:1-5 (2 Corinthians 3:1-5)


"Do we begin again to commend ourselves?" etc. In the early Church it was customary for the member who was travelling into another locality to take with him a letter of commendation from the Church to which he or she belonged. The apostle says he did not require such a document from the Corinthian Church, as some others did, for they themselves were letters written on his own heart; and his ministry was a letter written on their hearts also. They were the living "epistles of Christ,... written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart." Our subject is soul-literature, or Christianity written on the heart; and I offer five remarks.

I. Christianity written on the soul is CHRISTIANITY IN THE MOST LEGIBLE FORM . There are some whose caligraphy is difficult to decipher and whose thoughts are difficult to understand; their ideas are misty and their style involved; but what is written on the soul is written so clearly that a child can make it out.

II. Christianity written on the soul is CHRISTIANITY IN THE MOST CONVINCING FORM . Books have been written on the evidences of Christianity; not a few by the ablest men of their times, such as Paley, Lardner, Butler. But one life permeated and fashioned by the Christian spirit is a far more convincing power than any or all of their most magnificent productions. He who has been transformed by Christianity from the selfish, the sensual, and corrupt, into the spiritual, the benevolent, and the holy, furnishes an argument that baffles all controversy and penetrates the heart.

III. Christianity written on the soul is CHRISTIANITY IN THE MOST PERSUASIVE FORM . There are many books "persuasive to piety," and many of them very powerful; but the most powerful of them are weak indeed compared to the mighty force of a Christly life. There is a magnetism in gospel truth embodied, which you seek for in vain in any written work. When the "Word is made flesh" it becomes "mighty through God."

IV. Christianity written on the soul is CHRISTIANITY IN THE MOST ENDURING FORM . The tablet is imperishable. You may put truth on paper, but the paper will moulder; put it into institutions, but the institutions will dissolve as a cloud; put it on marble or brass, but these are corruptible.

V. Christianity written on the soul is CHRISTIANITY IN THE DIVINEST FORM . The human hand can inscribe it on parchment or engrave it on stone, but God only can write it on the heart. "The Spirit of the living God." Paul was but the amanuensis, God is the Author.

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2 Corinthians 3:1-6 (2 Corinthians 3:1-6)

In the close of the last chapter St. Paul had spoken of men who corrupted the Word of God (retailed it as a commodity for their own profit), and he had put himself and his ministry in contrast to them. Likely enough, this would provoke criticism. The quick interrogation comes - Was he commending himself, or did he need letters of commendation to them and from them? "Ye are our epistle written on his heart, known and read of all men—an epistle coming from Christ, and produced instrumentally by him as Christ's agent; not written with ink, but by the Spirit; "not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart." With regard to the figure, it is probable that there was not another occasion in his life when it would have occurred to his imagination. Circumstances conspired with his state of mind. to produce it, and one can almost trace the sequence of associations out of which it came. What solicitude the former Epistle had given him! What would be the effect? Amid his thanksgiving to God ( 2 Corinthians 11:14 ) it was a matter of joy that he had written this letter, and he could now see God's hand very clearly in its production. Was not that Epistle a new and additional proof that he was Christ's apostle? Yet what was that Epistle, written with ink, to this " epistle of Christ," recorded on the soul, a part of itself, a part of its immortality? It was manifestly declared" that they were Christ's epistle, and it was equally clear that this epistle was due to his ministration. "Ministered by us." Had. they not given a new and striking evidence of the two facts, viz. Christ the Author of the epistle written on their hearts, and he the apostle, the ministerial agent of the work? It was a fresh motive to confidence: "Such trust have we through Christ to God-ward." Are we boasting of the late success of our Epistle—of our former successes? Nay; how can we be "sufficient of ourselves," or rely on our own wisdom and strength, when we have just confessed that we wrote to you "out of much affliction and anguish of heart, with many tears," and while the period of suspense lasted we were unfitted for our work, and at last, to rest in our spirit, we left Troas for Macedonia so as to see Titus the sooner? Nay; "our sufficiency is of God." It is he who also "hath made us able ministers of the New Testament." And wherein differs this new covenant from the old? Already he had spoken of "tables of stone" as contrasted with "fleshy tables of the heart," and the antithesis is resumed and further elaborated. The covenant is new, it is of the spirit, it is of the spirit that giveth life . Opposite in these particulars was the old covenant, the Mosaic Law, its ministers being cheifly engaged in executing a system of rules and ceremonials, adhering in all things to the exact language, and concerning themselves in no wise beyond the outward form. The external man with his interests and fortunes occupied attention. A nation was to exemplify the system, and therefore, by necessity, it largely addressed the senses, borrowing its motives and enforcing its penalties from a consideration of objects near and palpable. If we read Romans 7:1-25 . we see what St. Paul meant by "the letter killeth." On the other hand, the dispensation of the spirit "giveth life." The antithesis is stated in the strongest possible form—death and life. This, accordingly, was the apostle's "sufficiency," a spiritual wisdom for enlightenment, a spiritual power for carrying out his apostolic plans, and an attained spiritual result seen in the recovery of Gentiles from the degradation of idolatry, and in the freedom of Jews from the bondage of the Mosaic Law.—L.

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2 Corinthians 3:3 (2 Corinthians 3:3)

Epistles of Christ

Some teachers had visited the Christians of Corinth, who boasted of the letters of introduction they brought with them, authenticating their commission and their ministry. Paul needed no such epistles; for the members of the Church were themselves his epistles; and better still, they were not only his, they were Christ ' s epistles, manifestly and undeniably such. The same may be said of all true disciples and followers of the Lord Jesus; it is an honourable and an inspiriting designation.

I. THE WRITER CHRIST . Many great men, especially great thinkers, have perpetuated their influence and have served their race by their writings. As poets, philosophers, or moralists, they have made a place for themselves in the mind of humanity. The greatest of all, the Divine Man, wrote nothing. It is greater to be than to write; and the Lord Jesus simply lived and worked, suffered, died, and conquered. He could not compress and limit his mind within the compass of a treatise or a volume. He left his evangelists and apostles to write of him; his earthly manifestation thus spoke a universal language. Yet, in a sense, he has always been writing, and he is writing now. He is still daily issuing epistles to the world.

II. THE EPISTLE CHRISTIANS . As a friend and counsellor, when on a journey and at a distance, communicates by letter with those who need his guidance and the assurance of his interest, so our Lord, though he has ascended on high, is ever sending epistles to the children of men. Every Christian upon whom he impresses his own will, character, and purposes, thus becomes Christ's communication to the world, written by his hand, and authenticated by his autograph. Every individual is a syllable, every congregation a word, every generation of believers a line, in the ever-lengthening scroll, which approaches its close as the ages near the end.

III. THE TABLET THE HEART . God does not write on stone, as men did in ancient monumental inscriptions, or as he once did on the tables of the Law. Nor on waxen tablets, as men wrote of old with the stylus, in notes of ordinary business or friendship. Nor on parchment or papyrus, as perhaps these Epistles of Paul were written. But Christ writes on tablets that are hearts of flesh. The expression, adapted from the Old Testament, is an impressive one. In the Proverbs, Wisdom invites the young man to write her precepts upon the tablets of his heart. By Jeremiah the Lord promised to write his Law upon his people's heart. Christ takes the human soul and works upon it, and engraves there his own characters, sets down there his own signature, and sends the human nature—so written upon—into the world, to tell of himself, to convey his thought, his will.

IV. THE AGENCY NOT INK , BUT THE SPIRIT OF GOD . As in the processes of nature we see the operation of the living God, so in grace we discern spiritual handwriting. The Spirit of God most deeply reaches and most blessedly affects the spirit of man. The Spirit carries truth and love home to the heart with an incomparable power. He writes upon the soul in deep, legible, sacred, and eternal characters.

V. THE HANDWRITING AND SUBSTANCE OF THE EPISTLES . What difference there is in the appearance and in the matter of the letters we daily receive! They vary in handwriting, in style, in tone, in matter, according to the character of the writer, the relation of the writer to the reader, the business upon which they treat. But there is something characteristic in all—all tell us something of our correspondents, and of their mind and will. So is it with these living epistles described in the text. Every epistle tells of the Divine Writer, bears witness to the Lord from whom it emanates, is evidently written in his handwriting, and reveals his mind and heart. Every epistle must be so authenticated by his signature that it cannot be suspected to be a forgery. Spirituality, holiness, obedience, meekness, benevolence,—these are the proofs that the epistle is the composition of the Christ. This is to be manifestly, unmistakably, declared.

VI. THE READERS ALL MEN . There is some writing which only a few can read; the characters may be ill written and illegible, or they may be in cipher, or the language may be scientific and technical. There are letters of private business or of personal friendship, only intended for certain individuals. But there is literature, such as the Bible or the law of the land, intended for the instruction and benefit of all. So, whilst there is religious language only fully understood by the initiated, by a select class—e.g. doctrines, meditations, prayers—there is language intended for all mankind. The Christian character and life can be read with profit by all men. They can comprehend the virtues which adorn the Christian, and which are the manifest signs of the Lord's spiritual presence. If we are truly Christ's, then his handwriting will be legible to all men, and all men who know us may gain some advantage through reading what the Divine hand has inscribed upon our nature.—T.

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2 Corinthians 3:3 (2 Corinthians 3:3)

The Christ-letter.

The people of God are set forth under various figures in Scripture. For example—as corn ripening for harvest; as Lebanon's cedars, standing like rocks under fiercest blasts; as stars fixed in heavenly places; as the sun climbing the heavens, enlightening the world; as purified gold, fit for the King; as jewels flashing forth tints of loveliness, prepared for regal crown; as vine branches richly laden; as pomegranates and figs, sweet and refreshing; for might, the lion and eagle; and, great paradox, for weakness, the defenceless sheep and lamb; for humility, the lily; for dignity, the palm tree; for usefulness, the salt of the earth. Here, as "the epistle of Christ." A singular but impressive title. And this sets forth what each individual believer should be—a Christ-letter. We have been accustomed to regard epistles as certain books of the Scripture or letters passing between men. The apostle leads us to this thought— men are epistles . Apart from nature and providence, we have regarded the Bible as God's only book. Now we are directed to other books of God, volumes of redeemed humanity. We speak of the Epistles of Scripture as inspired; men who are the epistles of Christ are inspired by the same Spirit. Of the former we think as testimonies for God, for Christ, for religion; the latter are equally so. And, as though God were not content with Wing to mankind silent and secluded epistles, he has placed in the midst of the world living epistles, moving amongst men, unobscured, ever beheld and perused. We regard the Scriptures with reverence. What a thought that we, if we are truly of Christ, constitute part of the great Scriptures of God! The Bible we esteem as sacred; if of Christ, we are sacred, appointed to bear a like witness to the verities of the Christian faith. It would seem as though there could scarcely be a more honourable designation than this—"the epistle of Christ." If we are to be the epistles of Christ—

I. GOD MUST WRITE OUR LIVES . The epistle, to be worth anything, must be dictated by God. We say Paul's Epistles, Peter's Epistles, John's Epistles; but, if this adequately represents them, they are nothing. If they are anything, they are God ' s Epistles—God's Epistle to the Corinthians and to the Romans, and so on. So with us. If we are epistles of Christ, we must be "of God," "written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God" (verse 3); and the writing must be, not on "tables of stone " for us, but in "tables that are hearts of flesh" within us. The work of the Divine Spirit in our natures and in our lives can alone make us epistles of Christ. This is the highest form of human life, when it is made by God, day by day, hour by hour—the will of God finding expression in conduct, thoughts, motives, being. Free will is the glory of man, received by the fiat of the Eternal; but the noblest act of free will is its voluntary subjection to the will of God. We are highest when we are willing to become most completely the servants of God. Satan tempted our first parents to pass from under the will of God by the promise, "Ye shall be as gods." There was wonderful deceit here. The temptation found them as gods, it left them as devils. To live otherwise than in subjection to the will of God is to go down. The way upward is, "Not my will, but thine, be done." To consult the Divine wish in all our undertakings, to follow the Divine instruction in all our deeds, to wait upon the Divine purpose in our whole being and course, is for God to be writing our lives . How different, alas! is our experience! How often we have taken the pen out of the Divine hand, that we ourselves might write a little! How often, by our wilfulness, our self-seeking, our sin, we have rendered the Divine writing blurred, and the manuscript of our life blotted and defaced! How often have our foolish insertions entirely altered the meaning of what the Divine fingers were tracing! What chaos, confusion, disaster, have come into the epistle of our life because it has been largely of ourselves and not of God! How poor has been the influence of the life-letter because it has not been inspired of the Holy Ghost!

II. OUR LIVES WILL THEN TESTIFY OF CHRIST . This must be our supreme aim if we desire to be epistles of Christ. He is to be the one conspicuous feature in our life and being. Epistles we are to be, which, when men read, they shall find that they are reading of Christ . Many professing Christians are anything but epistles of Christ. There are some very great epistles of doubt, read and known of many men, telling us that they do not claim apostolical succession, and proving this with conclusiveness by being anything but fully persuaded in their own minds; epistles of dismalness, epistles of idleness, epistles of delay, epistles of change, epistles of frivolity, epistles of self, epistles of quarrelsomeness, and others who seem to be epistles of nothingness. In contrast to the true consistent believer—Christ manifested in his actions, Christ breathed forth in his influence, Christ the utterance of his life. To him " to live is Christ ." If we are the epistles of Christ:

1 . We must allow men to read us . We must not be too reserved. We must not hide our light.

2 . We should not be too forward . Much talk of our attainments and graces will convince most men that we have not any. A book is not instructive which has the most of the printing outside.

3 . Men will be willing to read us when very unwilling to read the Epistles of the Scriptures . There are two things which men are very fond of reading—their newspaper and each other. The true epistle of Christ is likely to have wide circulation and large usefulness.—H.

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2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The best commendation.

It was an early custom in the Christian Church for teachers to carry with them "letters of commendation" when they passed from town to town. Of this custom we have an indication in Acts 18:27 , "When Apollos was disposed to pass into Achaia [Corinth], the brethren [of Ephesus] wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him." And the thirteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon ordained that "clergymen coming to a city where they were unknown, should not be allowed to officiate without letters commendatory from their own bishop." It seems to have been made a charge against the apostle that he never presented any credentials, but assumed an authority for which he had no warrant. The apostle is here replying to such a charge, and his plea is that, having so manifestly received the greater commendation of God's witness with his work, he in no sense can need man's good word. His converts were the best possible commendation. His letters were those written by God as truth on human hearts. From the Christian standpoint the only satisfactory proof of call to ministry is the Divine seal set on the work of the ministry. It was the plea of St. Peter, when accounting for his admitting the Gentiles into the privileges of the Christian Church, that the "Holy Ghost had fallen upon them, even as upon us at the beginning." And that was felt to be an all-sufficient attestation of the work which St. Peter had done. In the same way St. Paul pleads that spiritual results had followed his ministry among the Corinthians. God had set his seal upon it, and that was his wholly satisfactory commendation, and the basis of any authority he claimed. Speaking in a figure he says, "The Corinthians are an epistle ." He regards Christ as the Author, and himself as the amanuensis. The characters of this epistle were preserved by no visible or perishable medium, but by the invisible operation of the Spirit. We consider—

I. THE USEFULNESS OF HUMAN COMMENDATIONS . Such are found to be necessary in the intercourse of nations. The ambassador is duly furnished with his credentials; and the representative of the business firm carries with him his authority to act in the name of the firm. So it is found of practical value that clergymen and ministers going to other districts or countries should have such attestation as will win for them the confidence of those to whom they may happen to minister. Several questions of interest arise in connection with this subject.

1 . From what central bodies, or from what individuals, should such letters of commendation come?

2 . What should they properly concern? And can they ever wisely go beyond the attestation of personal character and ministerial efficiency? Men must be judged by their works rather than by the opinion which others may have formed concerning them. Still, in every age, Churches have needed to be guarded against plausible but unworthy men, who force themselves into positions of influence unawares. And this has been the special trouble of all smaller Churches, and those existing apart from Christian organizations. Every ordinary man should depend for his acceptance upon his letters of recommendation.

II. THE LIMITATION OF THE DEMAND FOR SUCH LETTERS . Sometimes they are merely vexations. The demand for them is a mere piece of officialism. Some men so stand before the world that no letters about them can be necessary. And the letters may only. concern

They should not deal with disputable opinions. A full and fair estimate of character is sufficient to give confidence that a man's work will be honest and faithful. Commendations of so called "orthodoxy" or "heterodoxy" can never be anything but mischievous. We may commend the man; we had better take care not to commend his opinions. Of these let those to whom he ministers be the judges.

III. GOD 'S WAYS OF MAKING SUCH LETTERS WHOLLY UNNECESSARY . From the case of St. Paul we learn that God may so manifestly show his acceptance of a man and a man's work that no other credential can possibly be necessary. A man's labours and successes may sufficiently declare that he is a man of God, a messenger of God. Illustrate by such cases as Luther, Whitefield, Brainerd, etc. We must well apprehend that, because a thing is unusual, it is not therefore untrue . And in every age men have been raised up whose strongly marked individuality leads them to take fresh lines of thought and of work. Men may hesitate to give such men their credentials; it is enough if God manifestly accepts them.—R.T.

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