Authentic Christian Ministry (Mike Riccardi)

2 Corinthians 3:1–3   |   Sunday, May 24, 2015   |   Code: 2015-05-24-MR

It was just about seven and a half years ago that I found myself shopping for an engagement ring. It was the fall of 2007. I was just reaching the halfway point in my graduate studies, and Janna was in her final year of college. We had been dating for a number of years, and would both be graduating from our respective programs that following summer. We had talked about getting married after graduation, and I had decided that it was time to buy the ring.


And when it comes to things like these, I tend to be very analytical and methodical in the way that I make my decisions. When I saw that some of the rings I was interested in cost more than what we budgeted for the wedding itself, I knew I had to educate myself as to what in the world I was spending all this money on. And so I read up on the four Cs of buying diamonds: Cut, Carat, Color, and Clarity. The value of any particular diamond varied according to these four characteristics: its shape, its weight, whether it was true-white or had some color to it, and whether it had internal and external blemishes or imperfections. And so, my task was to find the greatest quality stone as measured by the four Cs, but for the best price. And so over a period of weeks I visited every jewelry store I could find to make my comparisons.


But of course, I’m not a gemologist. I had no idea how to judge the color and clarity of a diamond. The jeweler tells you, “This stone is graded F for color and VS1 for clarity, and therefore it’s X amount of money.” And you’re at the mercy of his honesty; you can’t eye-ball the stone and say, “Well, I think that’s more of a G/H color than an F.” The last thing you want to do is buy your future wife a poor quality engagement ring! But you don’t really have any way of authenticating the features of this diamond he’s trying to sell you.


Except: there’s an institution called the Gemological Institute of America (or GIA). And anyone who’s bought a diamond in the last fifteen years or so knows what a GIA certificate is. Expert gemologists make it their life’s work to carefully inspect and grade diamonds according to these four Cs. And reputable jewelers who want to give assurance to their customers send their stones to GIA and pay to have them evaluated and graded. GIA then sends their evaluation back to the jeweler, along with an official certificate that authenticates the color and clarity of the diamond in question. And so as I evaluate the different rings I’m interested in buying, I don’t have to take the jeweler’s word that he’s selling me what he claims to be selling me. With this GIA certificate, I have third-party authentication that I’m getting the real thing.


This issue of authenticity was a significant one for the Apostle Paul and his interactions with the Corinthian church. I remind you that at the time Paul was writing the Corinthian letters, false teachers—claiming to be apostles sent from the church in Jerusalem—had infiltrated the Corinthian church, and launched a full-scale assault on the authenticity of Paul’s apostolic ministry. They threw every accusation at him that they could think of: he suffers too much to have Christ’s blessing; he’s a fickle, unspiritual man who changes his plans on a whim with no consideration for others; he was unskilled in speech and very few people were believing his message. And a particularly stinging accusation was: “This Paul, he’s just a Johnny-come-lately! He wasn’t part of the original twelve apostles! He’s not even from the original church in Jerusalem! What credentials does he have to prove his apostolic authenticity?!”


Now, as we’ve mentioned, to attack Paul’s apostleship is to call into question the very message that he preaches. To denigrate Paul is to denigrate the Gospel of Christ itself. And that’s exactly what these false apostles were doing. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:4 that they were preaching to the Corinthians “another Jesus,” “a different gospel.” And so an attack on Paul’s ministry was an attack on Paul’s message. And so for the sake of the Gospel—for the sake of the spiritual health of the Corinthians themselves—Paul writes the letter 2 Corinthians to defend the authenticity of his apostolic ministry against the accusations of the false apostles.


And that is particularly evident in our passage for this morning. Look with me at the opening verses of 2 Corinthians chapter 3. 2 Corinthians 3, verses 1 to 3. Paul writes, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”


This passage provides us with Paul’s defense of the authenticity of his own ministry, over and against the inauthenticity of the ministry of the false apostles. And as we study these verses together this morning, we will learn about the nature of authentic Gospel ministry.


And we’ll unfold our passage across three units of thought. We’re going to look at the questions, the qualification, and the qualities.


I. The Questions (v. 1)


First, we have the questions.  Paul begins in verse 1 by asking, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”


Now, where does that question come from? Well, remember that in chapter 2, verses 14 to 17, Paul has just been discoursing upon the glorious nature of true Christian ministry. He speaks about always being led in triumph by Christ, in verse 14. He speaks of being the agent through which the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ is manifested in every place. In verse 15, he refers to himself as a fragrance of Christ that soothes and pleases the God of heaven. And while he is quick to ascribe all the results of his ministry—whether good or bad—to God alone, he nevertheless recognizes that it is through his preaching of the Gospel that eternal destinies are sealed. After hearing his message, sinners are awakened and regenerated unto eternal life, or they are further sealed in their spiritual death.


These are weighty realities! And because they are weighty realities, Paul erupts in a rhetorical exclamation in verse 16: “And who is adequate for these things?!” “Who is sufficient to preach this message, and be the instrument of eternal consequences? Who is sufficient to be the fragrance of Christ to the world, and the fragrance of Christ offered up to God Himself as a sacrifice of worship?” And as we mentioned, Paul’s answer is first to point away from himself, and point to the Almighty, all-sufficient God who gives grace for the ministry He’s called us to. But then, immediately after asking, “Who is adequate for these things?” Paul contrasts himself with the false apostles. In verse 17, he says, “For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” He’s saying, “If the ministry of the Gospel of Christ is such a supernatural endeavor, these peddlers of the Word of God cannot be adequate for it. But I, dear Corinthians, having received my apostleship by the grace of God in truth, I am sufficient for these realities, because God’s supernatural empowering grace has made me sufficient.”


And so the false apostles hear Paul talking about the exalted nature of his ministry, and then even claiming, albeit by God’s grace, that he himself is qualified and adequate to fulfill such a high calling—and they feel the sting of his accusation that they are peddlers of God’s Word—and they say, “You see? What did we tell you? Listen to how arrogant this man is! Not only does he profess to know what’s in our hearts, but just like he’s done on plenty of occasions before, he’s beginning again to commend himself!” “Paul, you’re tooting your own horn!” One commentator remarked, “No utterance of [Paul’s] was safe from perversion at their hands” (Hughes, 85).


Paul knew that anything he said could and would be used against him by these intruding pseudo-apostles. And so he anticipated that kind of a response, and asks in verse 1: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” “In saying what I’m saying here, am I to be rightly charged with the accusation these false apostles have charged me with so many times before: that I’m just vouching for myself because I have no true credentials?” And of course, the answer he expects to this rhetorical question is, “No.” And he’s going to explain why in just a moment.


But before he does, he takes the opportunity to go after the false apostles in another way. He asks, still in verse 1: “Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?” Now, the writing of letters of commendation was a very common practice in the Greco-Roman world. Commentator Murray Harris explains: “Letters of commendation . . . were given to travelers or emissaries to introduce them to persons in another town or country who could provide them with hospitality and meet their particular needs. Since [a] the person recommended was in good standing with the recommender and [b] the recipient was a friend or patron of the recommender, [c] the ‘letter of commendation’ virtually committed the recipient to comply with the request expressed in the letter” (260). And so if you were sent to a city, and were put in contact with a friend of a friend, your friend would write you a letter of commendation to present upon your arrival, vouching for your character and/or your business in that city, and very likely securing much needed hospitality while in a foreign land.


Letters of commendation became extremely necessary in the church, because there were many false teachers and self-appointed preachers who would travel from church to church looking to leech off of the hospitality of others. And so it became necessary for members of the church to vouch for other Christians who were traveling for the purpose of ministry. And so we see this practice widely represented in Scripture itself: In Acts 18:27, when Apollos wanted to go from Ephesus to Achaia for ministry, the text says, “the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.” In Romans 16, Paul writes a letter of commendation for Phoebe to the church at Rome. He says, verses 1 and 2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.” And we could go on. Scripture records letters of commendation for Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16, for Tychicus in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 4, for Mark in Colossians 4, for Titus and his companions in 2 Corinthians 8, and the entire letter of Philemon is essentially a letter of recommendation for Onesimus. In each case, those who were recommended were recognized members of a local church, who, when sent to another church whose leadership didn’t know them, were personally recommended by the leadership in the church they were coming from.


And I just need to make a brief aside comment about that. This verifiable practice of writing letters of commendation between churches is one of the strongest arguments for official church membership. People weren’t just floating from congregation to congregation. The sheep were well-enough known to their shepherds that their shepherds could write a personal commendation of their character. And that’s because there was an official recognition of who truly belonged to the church and who was just hanging out on the fringes. And so let me say this plainly: if you consider GraceLife and Grace Church your home, but you are not a member, you need to become a member. You need to pursue this kind of accountability that lets your shepherds know, “Yes, I am here. I am placing myself under your care, and I invite your spiritual oversight into my life.” Some of you need to stop dating the church and make the relationship official!


But others of you need to honor the commitment you’ve already made! Some of you are members on paper, but you still slink around in the background, not involved in any ministry, not going to a Bible study, not really known to anyone. You just stay to yourselves. If you ever had occasion to transfer your membership to another church, there’s nobody in leadership—whether an elder, a pastor, or a Bible study shepherd—that could write this kind of letter of commendation to you, because they don’t know your life. You’ve shielded yourself from any kind of real accountability. But on the night you became a member, you were asked this question: “Will you take seriously your relationship to others in the body of Christ, striving to maintain unity, and doing all you can to stimulate love and good deeds in others, as you seek to exercise your spiritual gifts in faithful service?” And you answered, “I will.” Now, an implication of that commitment is that there are people in this room that know you and who speak into your lives. If that’s not happening, you need to honor that commitment and pursue that kind of accountability. And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the preeminent way that happens at Grace Church is through Bible studies. So if you’re not a part of one, talk to me or Phil or one of the shepherds, and we’ll be happy to get you connected to one.


So as I said, letters of commendation were common even in the church, and Paul even wrote many of them in Scripture, so we know he’s not against letters of commendation in and of themselves. So what’s his point here? Well, look again at the text: “Do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?” Now, it’s plain that the “some” in this verse refers to the false apostles, just as the “many” does in the previous verse. Paul is drawing attention to the fact that when the false apostles came to Corinth, they produced letters of commendation from one of the churches in Judea (cf. Gal 1:22). They were no dummies. They knew that if they were going to pull of their mission of undermining Paul’s authority in the church, they were going to have to produce some authority of their own. They were most likely written by the Judaizers of the Jerusalem church, who, as Acts 15 says, taught that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of  Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; cf. 15:5).


In any case, this is how the false apostles gained the trust of the church in Corinth. Though the letters didn’t come from the official leadership of the Jerusalem church, the false apostles were able to get some of their Pharisaic sect to sign letters of commendation, and so they were able to dupe the Corinthians into receiving them. And when Paul speaks about letters “from you,” he’s implying that the false apostles didn’t only present letters to the Corinthians for access to them, but that their plan was to gain letters of recommendation from them as they went to other churches after they left Corinth.


And so the false apostles could say, “Look, Christianity started in Jerusalem. And so anyone supposedly doing ministry outside Jerusalem needs to be able to give proof of their commission. We’ve got our documentation from these letters of commendation from Jerusalem. But where are Paul’s credentials? He wasn’t part of the original Twelve apostles! Isn’t it plain that he’s an intruder and an imposter? (cf. Harris, 261). Where are his letters to authenticate his ministry?”


II. The Qualification (vv. 2, 3a)


And Paul answers that question in verses 2 and 3. We just looked at the questions. Let’s look now at Paul’s qualification. His qualification. He asks, verse 1, “Do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ.”


Paul says, “Dear Corinthians, do you require me to produce third-party authentication of my ministry? Do I need a letter of commendation to you? You yourselves are that letter! There is a community of people in the province of Achaia, in the city of Corinth, who, up until just a few years ago were entrenched in idolatry, consumed with themselves and gratifying their own desires, pursuing sin passionately and proud to be enemies of all righteousness! And then, here came this little, homely, unimpressive man, owning nothing at all that the world esteems, with scars from rods and whips on his back, preaching an utterly foolish message about a crucified Jewish carpenter who rose from the dead. And as a result—not of persuasive words of wisdom—but by the simple proclamation of that Gospel, that community of self-serving, sin-loving pagans, forsook all that they knew and all that they loved, and began putting off unrighteousness. They began mortifying their pride and acting in humility. They began loving one another, and serving one another. They who could never find satisfaction in the gratification of their lusts began to experience what it was to have their hearts filled up with the glory of Christ, and they were full of true joy! They who could never find peace in this world of turmoil came to know the peace of God that surpasses all human comprehension!”


“Dear Corinthians! You are not what you once were! The Good News of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ alone has entirely captured your hearts and transformed your lives! And by God’s grace, that Good News has come to you through my ministry. The Gospel you believed that has effected such a glorious transformation in your hearts was the Gospel that I preached to you! Don’t you see? You yourselves are my credentials!”


Turn to 1 Corinthians 9. Paul makes a very similar argument in the opening verses of that chapter. 1 Corinthians 9, verses 1 and 2. Paul writes, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” You see, the very fact that they were saved through Paul’s preaching of the Gospel meant that they could not deny Paul’s Gospel or the legitimacy of his ministry without, at the very same time, undermining their own status as Christians! Put simply: if Paul’s fake, they’re fake! If Paul’s Gospel doesn’t save, they aren’t saved! But of course they were saved! The radical transformation that had taken place in their lives was evidence of it! Calvin paraphrased Paul, here, by writing, “So long as you shall remain Christians, I shall have recommendation enough. For your faith speaks my praise, as being the seal of my apostleship” (166).


The false apostles produced letters from Jerusalem, written on paper and ink, and of questionable veracity. Who knows if they forged these letters or what? But when asked for his credentials, Paul could produce living letters. Indisputable, living testimony; not contestable written testimony (cf. Harris, 262). As one commentator put it, “Paul’s credentials are not on paper, but in persons” (Moule, cited in Barnett, 166n36).


And that teaches us a very valuable lesson about the authentic Christian ministry. The fruit of an authentic, Christ-certified ministry are the transformed, Spirit-led lives of those who have been impacted by that ministry. It doesn’t matter what a minister’s résumé looks like. It doesn’t matter how many degrees a person has, how many books he’s published, or how many conferences he’s headlined. The measure of a man’s ministry is the holiness of his people. The proof of the authenticity of your ministry is the degree of Christlikness of the people that have been influenced by your ministry. That’s why Paul can call the Thessalonians his “hope [and] joy [and] crown of exultation . . . in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming” (1 Thess 2:19–20). Because the crown of reward that he will receive on that great day will be measured in the spiritual maturity of the lives that have been entrusted into his care. The great Scottish preacher, Alexander MacLaren, said, “The crown of victory laid on the locks of a faithful teacher is the character of those whom he has taught.”


And with that in mind, I want to ask two questions of application. First, since you all, by virtue of being in the body of Christ, have been called to new covenant ministry—in preaching the Gospel to the lost and in laying down your lives in service to your brothers and sisters in the church—are you investing in your crown of exultation? When questioned about the authenticity of your ministry, can you point to living, breathing brothers and sisters in Christ, whose lives have been impacted by your service to them? Are there people who know Christ more truly and intimately because you have invested in their lives? Are you pouring out your lives as a drink offering, as Paul says in Philippians 2:16, upon the sacrifice and service of the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ? And if you’re not, what are you going to do to change that?


And second, since you are not only ministers, but also those who are ministered to under the leadership of your pastors and elders, are you pressing toward the Christlikeness that will be the crown of those who have labored over you in the Lord? I have never met a group of people that is as earnest and intentional about showing their love and appreciation for their pastors as the people in this room. I’ve observed your esteem for your elders, and by God’s kindness I’ve even experienced that love personally, as you’ve blessed Janna and me again and again with your gracious encouragement and support. And so I know you’re a people who desire to bless your spiritual leaders. Dear friends, the best gift that you could ever give us is to put into practice the Word of God that we teach and preach to you. The greatest blessing I will ever experience is to know that Christ is getting more of what He is worthy of in you because of something He was pleased to do through me. And I know Pastor John agrees, because he wrote this: “The best thing believers can do for their pastors is faithfully to live out the truths of God’s Word that he has preached and taught. . . . The greatest joy of any servant of God is the godly living of his flock. ‘I have no greater joy than this,’ [the Apostle] John said, ‘to hear of my children walking in the truth’ (3 John 4)” (Philippians, 188).


Is your life a letter from Christ, commending the faithful ministry of those who have labored over you? If your pastors and elders were called upon to provide proof of the authenticity of their ministry, would they pick your life as evidence of that reality? And if not, what are you going to do to change that?


III. The Qualities (vv. 2–3)


Well, we’ve seen the questions, and the qualification. Let’s look, thirdly, to the qualities.  And by that I mean the qualities of Paul’s letter of commendation that make it a superior authentication of his ministry, over and against the credentials of the false apostles. And there are five of those qualities that we can observe in verses 2 and 3. Let’s read that again. Paul says, “You [yourselves] are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 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, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”


The Corinthians themselves are Paul’s letter of commendation. And because of the work that Christ has accomplished in their hearts through the Gospel, their living testimony is infinitely superior to any written testimony the false apostles might have been able to cook up. Let’s look at the five qualities of Paul’s letter of commendation that demonstrate the authenticity of his ministry.


A. A Deeper Affection


First, his letter is marked by a deeper affection than that of the false apostles. A deeper affection. He says in verse 2: “You are our letter, written in our hearts.” The heart, of course, is the seat and center of all love and devotion (cf. Hughes, 88).To say something is written on the heart, or is in our heart, is to speak of how very precious and dear that thing is to us. And so here Paul expresses his great love and affection for the Corinthians, whom he considers to be his beloved spiritual children. He calls them that very thing—beloved children—in 1 Corinthians 4:14. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, he speaks of betrothing them to Christ as their husband, as if he were their father and they were his daughter. You see, just as when new parents hold their newborn baby in their arms for the first time their hearts are forever knit together, so also when Christ had so worked to grant spiritual life to the Corinthians, birthing them as it were through Paul’s ministry, they were indelibly and permanently etched in Paul’s heart as his spiritual children.


And so he can speak to them in this deeply tender and affectionate way. Turn over to 2 Corinthians 6, and we’ll read verses 11 to 13. Paul says to them, “Our mouth has spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, our heart is opened wide. You are not restrained by us, but you are restrained in your own affections. Now in a like exchange—I speak as to children—open wide to us also.” And then in chapter 7, verses 2 and 3: “Make room for us in your hearts; we wronged no one, we corrupted no one, we took advantage of no one. I do not speak to condemn you, for I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together.”


You see, people who were to be recommended by a letter from one person to another, they would often carry that letter of recommendation on their person at all times, whether in their pocket or in their luggage or even in their own hand, constantly carrying it around so as not to lose it. This the way the false apostles would have brandished their letters. But Paul says his letter is something far more intimate, and far more permanent, than a physical document of paper and ink (cf. Hughes, 86–87). It’s not in his bag; it’s not in his coat; it’s not even in his hand. His letter is in his heart. The Corinthians themselves had been indelibly engraved—permanently etched—in the very fiber of his soul, for they had been born again of the Spirit through the ministry of Paul’s own labors. The false apostles could produce letters, sure. But the letter Paul could produce was of such deeper affection, that his authenticity was made absolutely plain.


B. A Greater Accessibility


Well, not only is Paul’s letter marked by a deeper affection. It’s also a letter with greater accessibility.  Again in verse 2, he writes, “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” And this is brilliant on the part of the Apostle Paul. You almost sense an anticipation of an objection here. The false apostles would say, “Oh, well isn’t that sweet! You’re a letter on his heart! It figures he would appeal to something unverifiable. We hold our letters in our hands, but how are we supposed to get at his heart?” And Paul says, “Yes, my letter is internal. The Gospel’s work always begins internally, because the Spirit’s work in the Gospel is entirely supernatural in the soul of man; it is not a mere external, natural reality. But, though the Gospel’s work is internal, as a true work of the Spirit of God, that internal work will always manifest itself externally. And inasmuch as anyone can see the transformed, holy lives of these dear children of God, my letter is open and visible to be read by all people everywhere.”


And it wasn’t even that people had to visit Corinth to read this letter! Everywhere Paul went in his itinerant, missionary ministry, he boasted about the work that God had accomplished in the Corinthians. Turn again to 2 Corinthians 7, this time at verse 14. He says, “For if in anything I have boasted to [Titus] about you, I was not put to shame; but as we spoke all things to you in truth, so also our boasting before Titus proved to be the truth.” Paul says, “I boasted about you to Titus, and when you had refreshed his heart so mightily when he came to you, you proved my boasting correct.” In chapter 8 verse 24, Paul urges them to show the proof of their love to the saints and so confirm Paul’s boasting about them to all the churches. And again in chapter 9 verse 2. He says, “I know your readiness [that is, readiness to give to the saints in Jerusalem], of which I boast about you to the Macedonians, namely, that Achaia has been prepared since last year, and your zeal has stirred up most of them.” He’s saying, “I’ve spoken to the Macedonians about how mightily the grace of God has worked in you, such that, hearing of your readiness to serve, they are stirred up to serve as well!”


So you see, wherever Paul traveled, he boasted of all that God had accomplished in the lives of the Corinthians through the work of the Gospel! And in so doing, his letter was becoming known and being read by all men. The false apostles had letters of paper and ink that they would brandish selectively—only to the people that had to see them, lest by allowing too many eyes on them they be found out to be forgeries! And because nobody ever had access to the writers of these letters themselves, they were always at best unverifiable. But Paul’s letter could be verified, openly—it could be known and read by all men—by simply looking at the holy lives of this once-motley crew of pagans, converted and transformed by the power of God.


C. A Higher Authority


A deeper affection, greater accessibility. The third quality of Paul’s letter that demonstrates the authenticity of his ministry is, number three, it comes from a higher authority.  He says in verse 3, “. . .being manifested that you are a letter of Christ.” That is to say, “You are a letter authored by Christ.” In keeping with the imagery of the Corinthians themselves and their transformed lives as Paul’s letter, Paul here ascribes that work to Christ Himself.


Now of course, Paul understands his own role in the Corinthians’ conversion, but that role was one of instrumentality, not agency. He says, “You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us,” or literally, “ministered by us.” Paul pictures himself as the courier who delivers the letter from another. Or perhaps, as others have suggested, as the amanuensis or the scribe who physically wrote the letter at the dictation of its author. But either way, Paul is clear, Christ is the author of this letter. Though Paul could point to the Corinthians as the fruit of his ministerial labors, he would never dream of robbing Christ of His saving glory by even hinting that he was the one to effect this change in the Corinthians. No pastor or shepherd or minister can ever take credit for the salvation or the sanctification of his people in any ultimate sense. The minister is merely the letter’s courier, not its author. He makes it clear: Christ Himself is the one who has accomplished salvation in the lives of the Corinthians.


And so Paul doesn’t need to commend himself. By regenerating and then progressively sanctifying the Corinthians through Paul’s ministry, Christ Himself has authored this letter of commendation for Paul. The most the false apostles could do was to appeal to the authority of mere men, represented on nothing more than perishable papyrus. But since the Corinthians themselves are Paul’s letter, and since they were re-created by Christ Himself, Paul has a letter of the highest authority (cf. Garland, 158). And so he can say, in 2 Corinthians 10:12, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.” And then in verses 17 and 18: “But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord. For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” Paul says, “I’m not commending myself; the Lord Jesus commends me, by working through my ministry to save and sanctify these dear Corinthians.” Paul’s letter has a higher authority.


D. A Superior Instrument


The fourth quality of Paul’s letter that demonstrates the authenticity of his ministry is: it is written with a superior instrument . Again, verse 3: “You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.” And here Paul reiterates the contrast between the merely natural ministry of the false apostles, with the inescapably supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit of God, by whom he lived and preached and served. The ink of the false apostles’ letters was a mixture of carbon and gum (cf. Harris, 264). But Paul’s letter—the transformed lives of the Corinthians—was written with the Spirit of the living God Himself.


Physical ink is lifeless. The Spirit of the living God is ever-living—alive and life-giving. Ink is erasable, and perishable. Give it enough time and it will fade away and eventually disappear. The Spirit of God is eternal; His person and work are imperishable. Just as Christ Himself is the ever-living and eternal One, so is His divine writing, dynamic and permanent. And therefore, Christ’s saving and sanctifying work in our hearts through His Spirit abides eternally and vitally in our hearts (cf. Hughes, 89).


“The false apostles have letters on paper written in ink? I have a letter from Christ, written on your hearts with the Holy Spirit Himself.”


E. A Better Administration


And so Paul’s letter is written with a deeper affection than the false apostles could ever hope to have. It is written with greater accessibility than the false apostles’ letters. It is written by a higher authority than any mere man could produce, and it is inscribed with a superior instrument: the living and eternal Holy Spirit Himself. Finally, the fifth quality of Paul’s letter that demonstrates his authenticity is, number five: it is the evidence of a better administration . Look at the final phrase of verse 3: “written . . . not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”


Now, if we’re following Paul’s imagery carefully here, we wouldn’t have expected him to set up a contrast between human hearts and tablets of stone. He’s just spoken of the natural letters written in ink. And you don’t use ink on stone. We would have expected Paul to say something like, “Not on papyrus, or parchments, which fade away along with the ink written on them.” But he doesn’t say that! He contrasts “tablets of human hearts”—literally, “tablets that are hearts of flesh”—with “tablets of stone.”


Now why does he do that? Well, like we’ve said, the false apostles were Judaizers. They were teaching that circumcision and keeping the ceremonial law of Moses was necessary for salvation. And so by changing the contrast from “written on paper” to “written on tablets of stone,” Paul is contrasting the impotence of the law in under the Mosaic Covenant with the almighty sanctifying power of the Spirit under the New Covenant, which has dawned with Christ. What else was written on tablets of stone? The Ten Commandments, Exodus 31:18. But what was the New Covenant promise? Jeremiah 31:33: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people.” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes, “At Sinai the law had been written by the finger of God on tablets of stone; but this was an external law-giving, whereby sinful man was confronted with his awful inability to fulfill the just requirements of his holy Creator. Jeremiah 31:33, however, promises a lawgiving that is internal, namely, the writing by God of His law in the very heart itself” (90).


And how will that come to pass? Turn to Ezekiel chapter 36, and verse 26: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”


And so Paul is saying, when the Corinthians experienced the reality of their conversion through his preaching of the Gospel, this was the reality that was taking place! God, through Christ, and by the Spirit, removed their heart of stone, and gave them a heart of flesh! Christ’s letter of commendation wasn’t written on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablets of the human heart made alive by divine grace!


“Dear Corinthians, all that these Judaizing false apostles commend to you, is the same old law, etched on tablets of stone, which could never take away the sin so securely rooted in hearts of stone! The Mosaic administration had its purposes in the redemptive plan of God, absolutely. But all it could ever do was to inform you of your duty, and demonstrate how powerless your heart of stone was to ever attain to the righteousness that God requires of us. And so when these Judaizing false apostles insist that you need to receive circumcision to be true beneficiaries of Christ’s work, they are simply regressing and devolving and reverting back to the ministry of death (cf. 3:7)—the ministry of condemnation (cf. 3:9)! Dear friends, the ministry of life has come! The day of the ministry of righteousness (3:9) has dawned with the coming of the Christ who is the fulfillment of Moses’ Law! With the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, who is now shed abroad in your hearts! And God has promised to His people, that by the work of that very Holy Spirit, that He would remove your spiritually dead heart of stone, and would give you a heart of flesh! And that He would put His law within you and write it on your hearts—so that with the Spirit dwelling within you, and the law written on your heart, God’s commandments would no longer be pressure from without, only and ever informing you of what you must do but can never do, but that they would be power from within, empowering you to live a life of joyful obedience to God, with eagerness and gladness!


Moses gave you instructions for worship in the tabernacle, which was a mere copy and shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. But now, Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better administrationa better covenant—which has been enacted on better promises (Heb 8:5–6).




 “Dear friends, the New Covenant is here. The letters of the false apostles commend to you a ministry that could never save you, could never sanctify you, and so pointed you to the ministry that was to come. This is the very Gospel I preached to you: regeneration—the new birth—effected by the Holy Spirit Himself permanently dwelling in you, all received by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone.”


GraceLife, have you received this Gospel? Have you believed this Jesus? Have you partaken of the glorious ministry of this New Covenant that has come in Christ? Have you owned and confessed your guilt and unrighteousness before a holy God. Have you acknowledged that your sins have violated God’s law, have separated you from Him, and have earned for you the just judgment of eternal punishment? Have you confessed to Him that there is nothing you could ever do to pay the penalty your sins incurred? Not Bible reading, not prayer, not church attendance, not any kind of good work! Have you abandoned pursuing a righteousness of your own, derived from any kind of commandment-keeping (cf. Phil 3:9)? Dear friend, if you haven’t, I beg you to do that now. Turn and put your trust in Christ alone for your righteousness. Look and see this promised Messiah, crucified and killed, and buried—and resurrected!—conquering over sin and death! Look and see in Him all the righteousness you will ever need to stand in the presence of God Almighty! And count on His righteousness alone to get you there.


And for my dear brothers and sisters who have done that—who know Christ and the sweet saving graces of the New Covenant—does your life reflect the Gospel that you are saved by? Is your life a letter of Christ? Does your life bear the marks of Christ’s own handwriting, penned with the ink of the Holy Spirit Himself? Is your life a letter of commendation for the ministerial labors of your pastors and shepherds? And is it legible? Is it known and read by all men? Can people look at the transformation of your life—at your speech, at your actions, at your attitudes—and say, “There is a man who has partaken of the New Covenant! There is woman upon whom the promise of the ages has come! In whose heart the law of God has been written, so that she delights to obey His commandments! In whose heart the Spirit of God reigns, so that he delights to put off sin, and walk in the way of righteousness!”


Oh, I pray you can answer yes. And to whatever degree you come short of that, I plead with you just the same to find all the strength and the motivation for the pursuit of that reality in the glory, and the loveliness, and the delightfulness of that sufficient Savior Himself—that mediator of a better covenant, enacted upon better promises—who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without blemish to God, to cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb 9:14). Dear friends, look to Christ, and be saved! And look to Christ, and be sanctified!