Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. || 2 Cor. 3.1-2
Paul begins this chapter with a few rhetorical questions which might not be taken as rhetorical within the realm of current ministry trends. Self-promotion in ministry, and clinical, un-relational commendations abound in our day as they did among the false apostles of the first century. But in light of the character of true apostles, and in light of the intensity of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian saints, these opening questions carry a note of bewilderment, even a kind of sanctified sarcasm. The saints are questioning Paul’s apostleship and teaching, and he is being pressed to speak “as one foolish” to deliver his point.
It is telling to consider the nature of Paul’s questions. For a true apostle, one who had become their “father in the gospel”, it seemed a shocking thing that he should be expected to commend himself to them. His apostleship, his “sent-ness,” had already been demonstrated to them through much labor, much fellowship, much service, as the Holy Spirit had borne witness to his life and ministry in Corinth. The dullness of the Corinthian saints had driven him to give a defense of his apostleship, not for his sake but for their’s, even though the fruit of Paul’s character had already been more than well-established.
The self-promoting characteristics of many a modern ministry could not be discovered in Paul. He didn’t need to promote himself, for he had been shaped and sent by God Himself. In truth, he didn’t need a letter of recommendation to the Corinthians- to prove his character to their hearts- nor a letter of recommendation from them, as if he needed their approval to speak into their lives. His very life and teaching had already been displayed to them. Indeed, through the apostle, Christ had been displayed to them.
You cannot improve upon what God has wrought in a man with adornments of self-promotion or commendations of the kind that organizations and worldly businesses often utilize. The only reason we think these kinds of things to be necessary in modern ministry is that we haven’t got the kind of character in the nit and grit of life and faith that was central to ministries of men like Paul. We feel the need to dress up the image of our ministries with “bells and whistles” because we do not have the power, substance, and wisdom of Christ in the real-time obediences of our daily lives.
This was not true of Paul. He was a man who knew what it was to “die daily”, to “suffer all things for the sake of the elect”, to continually carry about in his body “the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be manifested” among those to whom he was sent.
So then, what was the hallmark of his ministry, that which commended him to the saints? He gives the answer in v. 2:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.
Paul mercifully answers his own rhetorical questions; questions which he didn’t need to answer. “You yourselves” commend my ministry. Not your verbal affirmation and acceptance. “You yourselves.” People. Not my name. Not any external thing that I might use as an adornment. Not a professionally drafted letter of recommendation from a super-apostle. “You yourselves.”
“My sufficiency comes from God Himself,” Paul would say, “and the proof is in the pudding of your own faith in Christ— your reception of that which I have proclaimed and given witness to in your midst. You were previously godless idolaters; now you are sons and daughters of God. You were once in darkness, and now you are walking in the light, however congested your faith might be under the influence of the false apostles who have trampled the house of God in my absence.”
God commends His ministers on the basis of what He has wrought through them in the lives of real people. When a minister is a minister indeed, one who walks with God, one who draws wisdom and grace from God in prayer, one who is submitted to the Scriptures, one who is rightly related to the Church, one who is growing in grace and holiness, the fruit of his labors will be a people- however large or small- growing up into Christ. Therefore, it has been wisely declared:
The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness….
In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. || Robert Murray McCheyne
True ministers are shaped by God Himself, and by the grace that has been given, by that which God has wrought in their personal history, they can say, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.”
In essence, Paul is saying, “You are our letter of recommendation, for the Gospel has found its lodging in your hearts- you have passed from darkness to light. Through our life and labor, you have come to revere and treasure Christ. Our only credential is this: ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and now He lives in you. Because He is at work in and through us, you have been redeemed, and with all of your weaknesses, all of your seeing in part, all of your remaining sin, He is yet at work in you. Therefore, do not forsake that which has been delivered to you through our witness. Unlike the false apostles who do not know you by the Spirit, you are most precious to us because of Jesus. They would use you for sordid gain. They would draw you after themselves. They would misuse your gifts to advance their self-seeking ministries. We, on the other hand, became brothers to you in true fellowship, and fathers to you in the Gospel. Return to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and forsake the mixture of man-centered ministry, worldly distortions of doctrine, and a clinical view of the faith. Remember how you heard of Christ and saw Him demonstrated by the manner of our living amongst you. Our Gospel, our King has apprehended you. It is you, not any earthly adornment, which proves the reality of our service to Christ.”
May it be so in our day, that our ministers would be ministers indeed— Brothers with the saints, grounded in Gospel-imbued fellowship. Soldiers, who bear the fruit of the Spirit, who aren’t playing games with sin, and who can be found at the front of the battle line for the harvest of souls and the building up of the “Church which is His Body.” Fathers, full of wisdom, sobriety, and a joy-filled sense of privileged responsibility as they “shepherd the flock of God, among whom the Holy Spirit” has made them to be “overseers.”
O, to not seek or need adornments and worldly recommendations! O, to be true men of God by the grace that He so generously gives to those who ask, and who are willing daily to take up their crosses! O, for God to be so wonderfully preached and demonstrated, as He was through Paul, even in us! O, for Christ to be “all in all” to His people! O, to bear that most precious of fruits, that we would be able to boast, not in ourselves, but in the Lord, as we look with gratitude upon real people who have been redeemed and are being conformed to His own image through our labors. May it be so, Father, for the glory of Your Son.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. || 1 Cor. 15.58