2 Corinthians 3
I would like to speak to you about letters and what we may understand by the use of the word in Scripture. We may, perhaps, group our thoughts around four or five headings.
- A letter is sent by someone.
- A letter is sent to someone.
- A letter is a message about something.
- A letter is written on some kind of material.
- How can the clarity and intelligibility of the message be preserved?
The idea of a letter is brought before us here in two ways. We are to think of Christ as written on the hearts of believers; in the case in point, on the hearts of the Corinthian Christians. Secondly, the letter so written was intended to convey a message to be read by others. There are some other aspects of this matter to be seen in these verses but we shall limit our thoughts to the four or five topics suggested.
1. I have a letter here which was sent to me by a friend. There is a curious thing about our letters in Europe; you have to read the letter right through to find out who wrote it. It begins, Dear John, but I only discover who sent me the letter when I read the signature at the close. In many African countries, as in Bible letters, the writer tells you at the beginning who he is: "Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ…" and so on. God, by His Spirit, has written a letter in the hearts of His people, (v.3) and it is He who sent the letter. We should note that the noun letter, or epistle, is in the singular. It is not suggested that we are, individually, letters, but that we are, as thought of together, a message from God. No one of us on his own is capable of conveying this message; as together we form the epistle.
We might be thought of, individually, as being characters in the message, each contributing his part to the message as a whole. It is a matter of interest that we derive our English work "character" from the Greek word "charakter," which means to cut or engrave. It came to mean die, and ultimately a letter used in writing, and so the letter written, engraved or printed. A printed character is the image of the die or stamp which printed it. So, though you may not have seen the stamp, the printed character gives you a fairly clear idea what it is like. So the letter conveyed by the saints at Corinth was sent to the citizens of Corinth. When we think of this as applied to us today, wherever we are located, it brings us a deep sense of responsibility. The message which has been written on us is God’s message; He is its Author. Nobody has ever seen God, but you and I as characters in His letter bear His imprint, and together we constitute His message to our fellowmen. They are not able to see Him but they see us, and He has written His message on our hearts for the purpose of it being seen in our lives by others. It must be clear to us all that whatever we value in our hearts is bound to have a profound effect on our lives. It is very awesome to consider this and it would surely deflate us if we were inclined to be somewhat big-headed, but it has pleased our God to make a communication through us to our fellow-men.
2. A letter is sent to someone. In the case of the brethren at Corinth, the message was for the folks of the city and its neighborhood. We sometimes speak about "getting the message." The people around Thessalonica got the message which God sent to them through the newly converted brethren there. From that band of men and women the word of the Lord was sounded out throughout Macedonia, Achaia and into places further afield. In Acts 11 we read that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. The people there got the message. Those believers so accurately represented Christ as His message to them that the saints came to be known as Christians, followers of Christ. The people of Antioch had never seen the Lord Jesus but His testimony had been carried far and wide, and all knew of the Man who had been crucified at Jerusalem, and what was His character. It was clear that the disciples at Antioch were like their Lord so they dubbed them Christians.
Very possibly it was intended to be a mild kind of pun, or term of contempt, but it fitted the saints at Antioch and they bore it gladly. Like their Lord, they were in the world but they were free from the corruptions which abounded in the society around them. In their gatherings they were under the control of the Spirit; the men were under His authority and announced the gospel of God and were guided by the truth. The sisters were controlled by the truth and were not subject to the conventions or practices of the heathen world in such a manner as to demonstrate that God was among them of a truth. People got the message, not simply that they were different or odd but that they were followers of the Man of Calvary and that their lives were controlled and molded by Him. Barnabas and Saul assembled with the brethren there for a whole year, and, along with other servants, taught them the truth. It is evident that they were nor merely hearers of the truth, but that they responded to it positively and that the character of Christ was developed in them in a marked way.
If we might think for a moment of an individual, it can be seen also in the case of Stephen. His contribution to the message of God to Jerusalem can be seen clearly in his life; so plainly that no one could mistake it. They saw his face as the face of an angel and when, in their fierce anger, they laid violent hands on him, his response was so governed by the Spirit of Christ that it has been noted and commented on for centuries. "Lay not this sin to their charge," was the supplication of the dying by victorious martyr. But his was part of the local "epistle." They remarked of the others that though they were ignorant and uneducated men they were with Jesus (Act 4:13). As a company they bore the unmistakable brand of their Lord and Master.
3. The epistle is about Christ. It is God’s message to men, no less, nothing different. Writing to the Romans about the gospel, Paul stated that the gospel of God is "concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Ro. 1:3-4). The whole of Scripture concerns Him. "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." That is, it concerns Him throughout. When God spoke to the fathers in ages past, though He spoke in various ways, indirect speech on some occasions, by parables, in types or symbols, it was the message of Christ that He sent.
When finally the Son came, He was God’s message to men. God spoke IN SON. Since He returned to the Father and the Spirit to indwell believers, it is still Christ who fills the foreground. The Lord said of the Spirit, "He shall testify of ME." So, as constituted to be God’s epistle to the men of our locality, this is our message. We should be able to say, like Paul, "We preach Christ, and He crucified."
4. It is amazing grace that God should choose to write His message, concerning His Son, on material such as we. Paul is thinking of the miracle of this as He writes to the Corinthians: "We have this treasure IN EARTHEN VESSELS, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us" (2 Co. 4:7). He had said in the previous verse: "God…hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the glory of God in face of Jesus Christ." We generally think of this as being a wonderful blessing for us; but the text actually reads, "for THE SHINING FORTH of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Certainly we come into the marvelous blessing of this for ourselves, but it is intended that WE should let it shine out for the benefit of those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. The vessels of clay, like Gideon’s pitchers, are expendable, in order that the light might shine out. Many believe that it was Gideon’s pitchers that the apostle was thinking of when he penned these words. During the war Christians in the forces were sometimes called "crackpots." But this was how the light in those pitchers of Gideon’s little army was able to shine out. The pots were cracked and broken.
5. Finally, how may the message of the letter be kept clear and legible and intelligible? The story is told of a young boy who had been given a luminous watch for his birthday. Some weeks after his father remarked that he did not seem to be using it. He said, "O, I do look at it, but it seems to have lost its glow now." His father said, "Where do you keep the watch?" He replied, "I keep it in the drawer of my dressing table in case it should be damaged in some way." His father explained to him that this was why its luminosity had disappeared. The luminous letters and pointers must be recharged by exposure to the light; otherwise they will cease to emit light.
This could illustrate what we need to know about ourselves as God’s letter. Though we have been given the light of this message once for all time, we need to be taking it in daily, hourly; recharging the luminosity of the divine message which is our privilege to carry, that it may be fresh, clear and readable. Then, too, it should be intelligible. Let us avoid the use of jargon or stereotyped phrases, which may mean something to us but may convey no meaning to those who hear us. This relates, of course, to anything we may say by way of testimony. But what will speak more loudly to those who know us will be the character of our lives. Those brethren at Antioch were known by how they lived. In character, they were like Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ desires that we by his Spirit should represent Him in some way in our locality. Emmerson, the agnostic, said to a neighbor who was a professing Christian and was for ever pestering him, What you ARE speaks to me so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.