Paul’s Letter of Recommendation

By Conrad Gempf

If you want to understand the difficulties Paul had in his relationship with the church he founded in Corinth, 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 tells you almost everything you need to know.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:1-6 (NIV)

2 Corinthians is an emotionally turbulent letter, and many of the issues are hinted at here at the beginning of chapter 3. Essentially, the Apostle Paul seems to desire and even expect a relationship with Corinthians that is full of trust and respect. Instead, Paul finds himself thought ill of — unjustly, he feels — and ends up discouraged as well as angry at being made to feel that he needs to justify his actions and status. (Which he does, by the way: in 2 Cor 1:16–2:1, for example, Paul takes pains to explain why he did not visit the Corinthians as he’d planned.)

Paul’s first rhetorical question in 2 Cor 3:1 relates to this explaining himself: do I have to keep defending my actions? That the apostle should need “letters of recommendation” which he refers to next is, of course, absurd. Then as now, letters of recommendation are only needed by strangers — before the two parties involved know each other. The Corinthian believers should know Paul better than that!

Such letters were common in the Ancient World, among both Jews and Gentiles. Two obvious New Testament examples of letters of recommendation are the documents the young Saul of Tarsus received from the High Priest to justify work that he wanted to do in Damascus (Acts 9:1-2), and, more pointedly, the Corinthians will have received such letters concerning Apollos from the church in Ephesus (Acts 18:27). Paul is probably not referring to either of these letters particularly, but they demonstrate the kind of thing he has in mind.

Paul then escalates the matter from trivial explanations, rationalizations, and formulaic reference letters. In a masterstroke of rhetorical strategy, Paul manages to flatter the Corinthians as well as himself. “YOU are our letter of recommendation…”

Paul is saying, “You guys are so good, you make ME look good in front of everyone else, including the Lord!” How amazing, to be able to tell them they are wrong by telling them they are good! Of course, these positive words concentrate on the overall effect their relationship with Paul, and thus urge them to move on from trivial matters of missed visits and so on.

The pair of contrasts that ensue in verse 3 are also remarkable. Paul expands and deepens the theme of written reference letters—not ink but Spirit; not stone but hearts—making a subtle reference to the very nature of Christian faith. Our faith is not about written stipulations, or contracts, or Law (hence the “tablets of stone”) but about the heart and about relationship.

The next paragraph foreshadows the more aggressive elements of Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority in 2 Corinthians 10-13, but also displays his own internal struggle between confidence and humility, which will be a hallmark of the whole book (even to the extreme of the ecstatic vision and thorn in the flesh in 12:1-10). 

Although this humble confidence is undoubtedly true of Paul himself, this attitude of the heart is also what he wishes to see in the Corinthian believers. This humble confidence contrasts with his opponents’ boasting, which Paul will lampoon later in the letter (see especially 10:12-18).

2 Corinthians 3:1-6 is a remarkable window not only into Paul’s difficulties with these people but also into his attempts to be reconciled with them. I find it comforting that Paul went through frustrations with fellow-believers, just as I sometimes do. I also find Paul’s example an encouragement to seek reconciliation with other people through being positive (even if I also sometimes resort to sarcasm, like Paul does. See 11:19-21).

Dear Jesus, Lord of the Church,
I lift up my faith relationships to you today,
especially those that seem fragile or strained.
Where my own stubborn will or hard heart
has added to the discord,
forgive me and renew me.
Where it lies within my power
to restore or renew a relationship,
guide me and use me.
Send your Spirit into my heart.
Give me a humble confidence
that celebrates my relationship
with other people who belong to you. Amen.

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