April 19, 2020 The Ministry of Writing Letters

The Ministry of Writing Letters

Watch Sermon here. 

 

Our scripture reading this morning is 2 Corinthians 3:1-6.

 

In the last part of chapter two Paul and Timothy had compared their ministry to a triumphal procession. Wherever this ministry goes it shows forth the triumph of Christ as the heavenly General. This procession is a celebration of victory – the victory of Christ over rebellious sinners!

 

Paul and Timothy were defeated, subdued, and captured by Christ. They became part of Christ’s triumphal procession. In this procession they were not only Christ’s prisoners but also his incense bearers. Not only his incense bearers, but even the aroma of Christ Himself!

 

This is a high matter. It is so high, and seemingly unreachable, that Paul asks the question, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” Some may have thought, “Paul and Timothy are saying that they are the aroma of Christ, bringing life to some and death to others. They must really think they are something!” So, he asks the question preemptively. Of course, the answer is “no.” Then he asks, “Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” [1] Again, the answer is “no.”

 

The English Standard Version, usually a reliable translation, does a poor job in translating this passage. They add words not found in the original Greek manuscripts. Let us look at this passage, starting at verse 2 in the Holman Christian Standard Bible:

 

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, recognized and read by everyone. 3 It is clear that you are Christ’s letter, produced by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God —not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh. [2]

 

Notice that in verse 2 Paul writes that the Corinthian believers are the letter of Paul and Timothy. (The word “recommendation” is not to be found in verse 2 in the original language.) Then, in verse 3, he writes that they are the letter of Christ. (The word “from” is not to be found in the original language.[3]) Are they a letter of the apostle’s or are they a letter of Christ? Is this a contradiction? No. The simple answer is that they are both a letter of the apostle’s and of Christ.

 

More specifically, who is the writer? Is it Paul or is it Christ? The answer is that it is Paul, with Timothy. This fits the context perfectly. The reason that the apostles do not need a letter of recommendation (vs. 1) is because they themselves have written letters that all people can see. These letters are the Corinthians! As one commentator has well said:

 

“They were the evidence of Paul’s divine ministry.”[4]

 

Verse 3 in the HCSB makes this most clear:

 

“…you are Christ’s letter, produced by us…”

 

Many translations have “ministered by us” rather than “produced by us,” which is also good.

 

“Since Paul had been the human instrument in bringing them to the Lord, they were his credentials. This is the thought in the expression ministered by us. The Lord Jesus is the One who had done the work in their lives, but he did it through the ministry of Paul.”[5]

 

Thus, the writer of these letters are the apostles. The “paper” represents the hearts of people. The ink is the Holy Spirit. And, the composition of the letters is Christ.

 

“A letter of Christ is one composed of Christ as the content to convey and express Christ.”[6]

 

Of course, it is not just the Corinthian disciples. All disciples of Christ should be such a living letter of Christ that others may read and come to know Christ.

 

Let us consider these matters one by one.

 

[1.] The writers are the ministers of the gospel, the apostles. Paul writes that the very letters that the Corinthians were – that these letters were produced by, ministered by, written by the apostles. But, is this ministry only for the apostles? No! The ministry of the gospel and the ministry of composing Christ in people is for every follower of the Lord Jesus. Paul had a ministry of writing letters and these letters were people. Timothy had a ministry of writing letters. But, if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus then you have this same ministry! You must be a letter writer! You have been called to compose Christ in others!

 

Someone is thinking right now, “But, I am not competent to compose Christ in another person. I just can’t do it.” If you are thinking this way then you are thinking the right way! You are thinking the same way that Paul thought:

 

It is not that we are competent in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our competence is from God.[7]

 

It is God through Christ who makes you competent! Guaranteed, if it were left up to you, you would mess it up! If it were left up to me, I would make a ruin of anyone I tried to disciple. But it is not left up to Paul. It is not left up to you. It is not left up to me. God will make you and me competent ministers of the new covenant. He will! It is a promise!

 

You have been called to be a letter writer! Pick up this ministry and run with it!

 

[2.] The paper is the hearts of the people. At the very end of verse 3 Paul writes:

 

—not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh. [8]

 

This is an allusion to the ten commandments which were written on tablets of stone. Paul is saying that, unlike the original giving of the law which was only on the outside of man, the testimony of God – which is Christ – is now being written on the inside of us. The law has always been a testimony of who God is.[9] But in the new covenant this testimony becomes a part of our inner being.

 

[3.] The ink is the Holy Spirit. We are not writing with ink that blots or fades. Nor are we writing with ink that is subject to the sole direction of fallible human hands. The ink with which the apostles wrote was the very Spirit of God. The Spirit of the living God is the element with which the letter is written.

 

“The ministry of the apostles is to write letters with the life-giving Spirit as the essence. The more the apostles minister to you, the more they put into you the element of the life-giving Spirit.”[10]

 

 

As I have said, this is not just the ministry of the apostles. It is your ministry. It is my ministry. We are writing with a supernatural ink! The more we minister to people the more ink that gets applied to their hearts! The more ink that gets applied to their hearts the more that Christ is composed and revealed.

 

Before Josie and I were married we were pen pals. We were pen pals for a long time – four and a half years. Those were the days before internet and email. And, although there were telephones back then, they were on the wall (no cell phones) and long-distance was very expensive. So, we rarely talked on the phone. We wrote hand written letters to one another. Some of my letters were long. Many times they would be six or seven pages. The more ink I used, the more I revealed who I was. I wrote about what I was enjoying in God’s word that week, but I also wrote about my daily activities, my friends, even some of my private thoughts. She wrote back but her letters were shorter. They were usually just three pages. I still looked forward to them. I think she got to know me better than I got to know her through those letters. Why? Because I used more ink. The more ink you use the more revealing you are.

 

So it is with the letter writing ministry. The more you minister to others, the more they receive the element of the life-giving Spirit into them! Remember! It is not because you are competent! It is because you are using a supernatural ink – the life-giving Spirit.

 

Neither does it depend on how you feel. I will never forget the time I went to visit my cousin, David. Although he was eight years my senior, he was not mature in the faith. I was about 30 years old at this time and I had a reputation for being knowledgeable in the Bible. I had been a Christian about ten years and I took my faith seriously. However, at this time I was going through a very difficult time in my life. I was struggling with a problem. I felt as if God had forgotten me and I was not doing well. When I went to his house I was hoping that he wouldn’t ask me any questions about the faith. After catching up on events in our lives (because I had not seen him for a long time) he asked me a question about the faith. I answered him as best that I could. But, while I was answering him, I felt dead inside. I also thought that the content of what I actually was saying was not very helpful. When I got done answering I apologized to him. I said, “David, I am really sorry. I know that is not a good answer and I have been having some issues of my own that I have been dealing with.” He replied something to the effect of, “Are you kidding? That was the most profound and helpful thing that I have ever heard! It’s exactly what I needed.”

 

You see, it wasn’t me. I was a mess when I answered his question. It was because I was using the supernatural ink. It was the life-giving Spirit going from me to him. You are not competent. I am not competent. But the Spirit is! If you will be faithful to open your mouth or to write a missive then the Spirit will work! Letters will be written!

 

[4.] The composition of the letters is Christ. When the apostles preach Christ or minister Christ, they minister Him into the heart and spirit of the believers. Christ becomes the living of the believers and this living is seen by others. First, Christ as the life-giving is ministered into a person’s spirit. This means that Christ is written in the spirit of that believer. Then by further ministry Christ spreads from the spirit into the mind, emotion, and will. Eventually, Christ will be written into every part of our inward being.[11]

 

It is so easy, is it not, to think that this is impossible for you to do? I think we are still tempted to think that someone like Paul or Timothy could have such an exalted ministry but not you. Not me. Because this thought is so common and persistent Paul addresses it three times in the short passage from 2:12 to 3:6. In verse 6, for the third time:

 

He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life. [12]

 

God is the one who makes Paul confident, sufficient, and competent. And God is the one who makes you confident, sufficient, and competent! Paul is repeating himself; therefore, I am repeating myself. Paul thought it important to emphasize this, so do not forget it! If you forget everything else in this message, remember this – God is the one who makes you competent! It does not depend on you! You will have a divine sufficiency and confidence as soon as you open your mouth.

 

The letter kills. What does this mean? It means that the old covenant, based on the law, was powerful to communicate God’s will – through having God’s laws inscribed in stone as well as inscripturated in the writings of Moses – but it was powerless to produce renew a person’s life.

 

But the Spirit gives life! He is a life-giving Spirit! This is Who we minister! We minister the life-giving Spirit! You can and will minister the life-giving Spirit!

 

Are you ready to take on this ministry? Are you ready to write letters? I am not asking if you are competent. You aren’t! I am asking if you are ready. To be ready is just to be willing. This means, practically, that you must be done with lesser things. Turn off the television. Get off the web. If you are being entertained then you are neither being prepared nor are you writing letters.

 

If you are in Christ’s triumphal procession then you are not only an incense bearer. You are a letter writer. It is time to get out of the stands in Rome and enter into the procession. Bear the incense and start writing letters!

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Co 3:1). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian standard version. (2009). (2 Co 3:2–3). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.

[3] The case form is genitive. In order for it to be translated “from” and to take on an ablative meaning a preposition is needed. The preposition apo (from in Greek) would need to be present, but it is absent.

[4] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (A & O Press, Wichita, Kansas. 1989) 643.

[5] Ibid. 644

[6] Witness Lee, Life-Study of Second Corinthians (Living Stream Ministry, Anaheim, CA. 1984) 47.

[7] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian standard version. (2009). (2 Co 3:5). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.

[8] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian standard version. (2009). (2 Co 3:3). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.

[9] see Exo. 16:34; 31:18; 32:15; 40:20; 25:21-22; 38:21; 20:1-17; Psa. 19:7.

[10] Lee, 49.

[11] Ibid, 49-50.

[12] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian standard version. (2009). (2 Co 3:6). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.