Summary: We often measure our success by how closely we stick to a set of expectations - whether on the job, at home, or in our walk with the Lord. We do good, we feel good - we do bad, we feel bad. But measuring success is really much different in a relationship
When you apply for a job you supply your resume—it’s that collection of information that tells why you are qualified for a particular position. Until not too long ago, a very important thing to have when going to a new area was a letter of recommendation. We still use them occasionally. When Pastor Gideon visited us last year I had to provide a letter of invitation for him to use in order to get a visa.
In Paul’s day, letters of recommendation were commonly used by Christian preachers as they went about ministering. It would get them a place to stay, food, and a chance to teach at the local church.
As Paul begins to really lay into the false apostles that had infiltrated Corinth, he suggests that they had somehow come with letters of recommendation and once installed at Corinth, began to bad-mouth Paul in part of his lack of such letters.
So the Apostle uses it as a way to show that the real power of ministry comes not in letters or programs but in the work of growth that occurs in the heart. We humans so much concentrate on that which we can count—so many people attending, so much in the budget, so much size of our building project. But the real important growth factor doesn’t happen there, but in the hearts of individuals.
Paul then goes on to show how when we focus on such things we end up like the Jews who looked to Moses, rather to what Moses preached—the coming Messiah. Apparently these false teachers were relying on Moses as a role model for spirituality, so Paul knocks that one down pretty strongly.
1 – 3
In verse 1 Paul is saying that, unlike the false teachers that had come into town, he did not need to defend himself to the church that he himself founded. It seems as if the false apostles had brought letters of recommendation with them, forged or real, and that made the Corinthians question whether Paul had such letters.
So in verse 2 he says “we don’t need a letter written in paper, we have all the letter we need—penned by the Holy Spirit through a changed character in your lives.” It is “written on our hearts” suggesting the intertwining of Paul and the Corinthians. It is “Christ’s” letter—Jesus is doing the work, but “produced by us” in that Paul and his co-workers were the agents of Jesus’ work in the believer’s heart.
In verse three Paul introduces what will be a major topic of this chapter—the superiority of this kind of writing (the Spirit internally in the heart) over the kind of writing typified by the Law (on stone tablets-external).
This idea was first introduced by Ezekiel in chapter 36:
Ezekiel 36:26-28 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.
The false teachers were confident in their human-based commendation. Paul says his confidence towards this work of God in the hearts of the Corinthians comes from another source.
4 – 6
The false teachers relied on human traits like wisdom, great speaking ability, their letters of recommendation, even their ancestry, to prove they were superior to Paul. Paul smartly doesn’t take them on (though he could easily win on all counts) but says “we are not competent for this work, only God is, and it is His work through us that makes us able to do this.”
This is so key to success in ministry and life for the believer. As humans we naturally want to rely on and flaunt those things that make us feel more important: our wisdom, our degrees, our power, our position, our abilities to communicate, our physical prowess. Even Christians do this, but (John 15:5-6 )
“… you can do nothing without Me.” And again: Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” NKJV
So measure success by the subtle changes of life you see in the lives of others.
Even as God made Paul competent to be a minister of this new covenant, so too He has made you able to minister for him. How does that happen? Mainly it is through the same process he outlines here: the Holy Spirit writes God’s character on our hearts and changes us into people that think, speak, and act like Jesus. This becomes the “scent” of Christ to the world around us—that double edged sword that for those who respond means life and to those who reject means death.
Yes, we should learn God’s Word, we should seek to be presentable to people and not a “put off”, but those are merely icing on the cake of the Spirit’s work deep inside and empowering us on the outside.