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2 Corinthians 3:1-3 meaning

Paul notes that he does not need letters of recommendation from anyone to validate his ministry. The Corinthian believers are themselves living letters that show that Christ has worked in their lives through the Spirit, whom Paul first preached to them about. Believers have the Spirit living within them.

Chapter 3 begins in the middle of Paul's assertion that he is an "adequate" example of how to walk faithfully with Christ that the Corinthians should follow (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). He finished Chapter 2 by contrasting his own faithfulness with those who pursue ministry for financial gain. Paul's focus is on walking faithfully in the sight of God, rather than man (2 Corinthians 2:17). He is not interested in meeting man's approval, only God's.

This is a bold statement for Paul to make, that he is an example they should follow. Anticipating what anyone might ask when hearing such a bold statement, Paul begins Chapter 3 by asking another seemingly rhetorical question: Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? (v 1). Paul's additional statements will demonstrate that the expected answer to this rhetorical question ought to be "No, we already knew this."

In asking the question, Paul is moving toward his primary purpose in writing this letter, as he advances beyond his own circumstances and focuses on his ministry, asserting to his readers that he should not need authorization from any human authority: Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? (v 1). We might infer that those "peddling the word of God" from the last chapter might have extracted letters of commendation from the Corinthians, that they might peddle their wares to other places. Or perhaps they came to Corinth bearing such letters, to help "legitimize" their peddling. These might be the as some Paul references.

But Paul asserts that he does not need such letters of commendation, because You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men (v 2). The You refers to the Corinthian believers themselves. In Chapter 1, Paul refers to the Corinthians as the "church of God" and "saints" (2 Corinthians 1:1). Although they have failings, they are still children of God, ransomed from the penalty of sin through the cross of Christ.

Paul had his own experience with letters of commendation and authority. He was given such a letter authorizing him to persecute the church prior to his conversion on the Road to Damascus:

"Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letter from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem."
(Acts 9:1-2)

So Paul is well aware of the mentality of someone abusing his authority. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he specifically cited his own tendency to abuse his authority as a reason why he paid his own expenses rather than accepting offerings from others, what he calls "my right" to be paid as a minister (1 Corinthians 9:18).

Further, in the burgeoning church of Jesus Christ, Paul received a letter of commendation and authority from the elders and apostles of the church (Acts 15:23). Perhaps Paul is referring again to some who came after him to Corinth who carried letters of commendation.

Paul then answers his own questions with a bold statement, You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men (v 2). While bold, the idea of something being written on the heart is not an entirely new thought, especially to the Jewish believers in Corinth. Jeremiah had prophesied about the coming of the new covenant that would be written on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33).

Ezekiel also prophesied concerning this new covenant, "And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them" (Ezekiel 11:19a). Paul speaks not of the new covenant, but of another spiritual application, that the lives and testimonies of the believers in Corinth are like letters of commendation that are written on our hearts and read by all men. A written letter is read only by its recipient. But the witness of a life lived openly is read by all men.

Paul brought the gospel to Corinth, and the changed lives of those who believed are, according to Paul, ample testimony to his apostolic authority and mission. We might ask who Paul has in mind when he says our, speaking of the letter, written in our hearts.

Since he speaks of the testimony of the Corinthian believers' changed lives being read by all men, it would seem that the our here includes the entire family of believers involved. This could include all the Corinthian believers, who are testimonies to one another as well as to the surrounding community of nonbelievers. Paul could also be referencing those who ministered to them, including himself. The Corinthian believers' testimonies were observable to all men living in Corinth. They could observe the witness of their changed lives.

Paul goes on to say that the letter written on their hearts is being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God (v 3).

This letter of Christ speaks of the changed heart of a believer in Christ. Later in this letter, Paul will say that upon being born again by God's Spirit, each believer is made a "new creature" in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:17). When believers are born again by God's Spirit, it is like Christ writing a letter on their hearts with the Spirit of the living God.

Since the context here is "letters of commendation," the inference is one of legitimacy. God's Spirit provides all the legitimacy anyone needs before God by writing a commendation unto God on the heart of each person who believes. And if God has commended a believer, the commendation of man pales in comparison (Romans 8:33).

It is notable that the Greek word translated letter is "epistole" from which we get the English word "epistle." Just as this "epistle" or letter of Paul conveys the heart of Paul to its recipients, so does Christ's "epistle" or letter written by the Spirit of Christ convey His heart. We can surmise that just as Paul exhorts believers to be a living sacrifice to Christ, so he exhorts them to be a living letter written by Christ (Romans 12:1-2). The living letter is not written with ink that will fade in time, but by God's Spirit which is everlasting.

Though Paul considered himself their spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:15), he makes clear that he did not write the letter—meaning, the changed lives of the Corinthian believers. The Corinthian believers are a letter of Christ. Paul's part in this living letter is in the phrase cared for by us. Jesus did the transformation; Paul ministered to disciple the Corinthians to walk in the reality of their new birth. He said something similar in his first letter, saying he was like a "wise master builder" building spiritual lives upon the foundation that is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10).

In his statement written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, Paul is laying the foundation to contrast the old and new covenant. The new covenant is written on human hearts while the old covenant was written on tablets of stone (v 3).

To the Jewish believers, the tablets of stone would bring to mind the Mosaic Law given by God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:12). That evidenced the covenant/treaty between God and Israel (Exodus 19:8). This was in the form of a "Suzerain-Vassal Treaty" which was a format common to the era. It is also appropriately thought of as a covenant of marriage, with God taking Israel as a wife (Ezekiel 16:8).

To learn more about Suzerain-Vassal Treaties, see our article by clicking here. 

Paul is now preparing the way to explain the ministry of the "new covenant" for followers of Christ, which is written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

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