Epistle of Christ (2 Corinthians 3)

 •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 10
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul brings Christ before our souls in three ways — first, as written upon the hearts of believers; second, as manifested to “all men”; third, as a living person in the glory — the Object before us. It is God’s intention that, during the absence of Christ from this world, there should be gatherings of believers on earth who have Christ written upon their hearts, Christ manifested in their lives, and Christ before them as an Object in the glory.
As we read the last touching instructions of the Lord to His disciples and reverently listen to His prayer to the Father, we are conscious that underlying both the discourses and the prayer there is always before us the great truth that believers are left in this world to represent Christ — the Man that has gone to glory. It is God’s intention that though Christ personally is no longer here, yet Christ morally should still be seen in His people. All the epistles press upon us our privilege and responsibility as believers to represent the character of Christ to a world that has rejected and cast Him out.
In the addresses to the seven churches in Revelation, we see the Lord walking in the midst of the churches taking account of their condition and giving us His judgment as to how far they have answered to or failed in their responsibility. We learn that the great mass of those who profess His name have not only failed to represent His character before the world, but have become so hopelessly corrupt and indifferent to Himself that in the end they will be spued out of His mouth. Nevertheless, we also learn that in the midst of this vast profession there will be some who, though they have but a little strength, will answer to His mind by setting forth something of the loveliness of His character. Seeing then that it is still possible, even in a day of ruin, to express something of the character of Christ, surely everyone who loves the Lord will say, “I would like to be of the number who, in some little measure, manifest something of the beautiful traits of Christ to the world around.” It is true that it is possible for the world to form some estimate of Christ from the Word of God, but apart from the Word — which they may call in question or fail to understand, even if read — it is God’s intention that in the lives of His people there should be a presentation of Christ “known and read of all men.” Let us remember that whatever the circumstances, our one business should be to set forth the character of Christ.
Christ Written on the Heart
First, then, let us notice that Paul speaks of these believers as “the epistle of Christ.” He does not say the “epistles” but the “epistle,” for he is not thinking simply of what is true of individuals, but of the whole assembly, though, obviously, the assembly is composed of individuals. Then let us remark that he does not say, “Ye should be the epistle of Christ,” but that “ye are the epistle of Christ.” If we entertain the thought that we ought to be epistles of Christ, we will work to become such by our own efforts. This would not only lead us into legal occupation with ourselves, but would also shut out the work of “the Spirit of the living God.” The fact is that we become epistles of Christ, not by our own efforts, but by the Spirit of God writing Christ upon our hearts.
A Christian is one to whom Christ has become precious by a work of the Spirit in the heart. It is not simply a knowledge of Christ in the head (which an unconverted man may have) that constitutes a man a Christian, but Christ written in the heart. As sinners we discover our need of Christ and are burdened with our sins. We find relief by discovering that Christ by His propitiatory work has died for our sins and that God has set forth His acceptance of that work by seating Christ in the glory. We rest in God’s satisfaction with Christ and His work, and our affections are drawn out to the One through whom we have been blessed. “Unto you therefore which believe He is precious.” Thus Christ is written on our hearts and we become the epistle of Christ. If we are not the epistle of Christ, we are not Christians at all.
Christ Manifested to All Men
Having set forth the true Christian company as composed of believers upon whose hearts Christ has been written, Paul presents the second great truth when he says, “Ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ  .  .  .  known and read of all men.”
It is one thing for an assembly of believers to be an epistle of Christ, and quite another for the assembly to be in such a right condition that they manifest to all men something of the character of Christ. The responsibility of any assembly of saints is not to walk well in order to become an epistle, but, seeing they are an epistle of Christ, to walk well in order that the epistle may be read of all men. If anyone writes a letter of commendation, it is to commend the person named in the letter. So when the Spirit of God writes Christ on the hearts of believers, it is in order that they together may become an epistle of commendation to commend Christ to the world around — that by their holy and separate walk, their mutual love to one another, their lowliness and meekness, and their gentleness and grace they may set forth the lovely character of Christ.
Thus it was with the Corinthian saints. They had been walking in a disorderly way, but as the result of Paul’s first letter, they had cleared themselves from evil so that he can now say that they were an epistle “known and read of all men.” The writing may become indistinct, and Christians are often like the writing on some ancient tombstone — so weatherworn that it is hardly possible to decipher the writing. So it may be with us. When first the Spirit writes Christ upon the hearts of a company of saints, their affections are warm and their collective life speaks plainly of Christ. The writing, being fresh and clear, is known and read of all men. But as time passes, unless there is watchfulness and self-judgment, envying, strife and bitterness may creep in and the gathering may cease to give any true impression of Christ.
Nevertheless, in spite of all our failure, Christians are the epistle of Christ, and it ever remains true that it is God’s great intention that all men should see the character of Christ set forth in His people. Here, then, we have a beautiful description of the true Christian company. It is a company of believers upon whose hearts Christ has been written, not with ink, but “with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” As in the tables of stone of old, men could read what the righteousness of God demanded from man under law, so now, in the lives of God’s people, the world should read what the love of God brings to man under grace.
Christ the Object in Glory
How then is the writing of Christ on the hearts of God’s people to be kept clear and legible, so that the character of Christ can be manifest to all men?
The answer to this question brings us to the third great truth of the chapter. Christ will be manifested to all men only as we have before us the living Christ in the glory as our Object. So the Apostle writes, “We all, looking on the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18 JND). There is a transforming power in beholding the Lord in glory. This transforming power is available for all believers — the youngest as well as the oldest — “we all,” not simply “we apostles,” beholding the glory of the Lord “are changed into the same image.” This change is not affected by our own efforts, nor by wearying ourselves in trying to be like the Lord, nor is it achieved by seeking to imitate some devoted saint. Rather, it is by beholding the glory of the Lord. There is no veil on His face, and as we behold Him, not only every veil of darkness will pass from our hearts, but morally we shall become increasingly like Him, changing from glory to glory. Gazing upon the Lord in glory, we are lifted above the weakness and failure that we find in ourselves and the evil around, to discover and delight in His perfection. As the bride in the Song of Songs can say, “I sat down under His shadow with great delight, and His fruit was sweet to my taste.”
The Love of Christ
In the course of this epistle Paul gives us a taste of some of this precious fruit. Turning to 2 Corinthians 5:14, we read that “the love of Christ constraineth us.” Here the love of Christ is presented as the true motive for all ministry, whether to saints or sinners. With such love before his soul the Apostle can well say “that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again.” In the light of this Scripture we may well challenge our hearts as to the motive that actuates us in all our service. Is it the love of Christ that constrains us, or is it the love of self? Another has said, “Alas! how often we have to reproach ourselves with going on in a round of Christian duty, faithful in general intention, but not flowing from the fresh realization of the love of Christ to our soul.”
The Grace of Our Lord
Passing to 2 Corinthians 8:9, we come to another lovely characteristic of Christ. There we read of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is pleading on behalf of the poor Jewish believers, urging the richer Corinthian saints to help in meeting their necessities. In both verses 67, he speaks of giving as a “grace.” Then he sets before us Christ as the One in whom we have a transcendent example of the grace of giving. He was rich, surpassingly rich, and yet to meet our deep needs He not only gives, but such is His grace that He becomes poor to give. “For your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” The very moment when He is enriching us with a fountain of water springing up unto eternal life He Himself has become so poor that he has to ask for a drink of water (John 4:7,147There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (John 4:7)
14But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)
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The Meekness of Christ
Turning to 2 Corinthians 10:1, we find some more refreshing fruit that marked the life of Christ. First we read of the meekness of Christ. The Apostle is correcting the spirit of rivalry that had been working among the Corinthian saints, whereby some of the gifted servants were measuring themselves with one another and seeking to commend themselves. To correct their vanity and self-assertiveness, he brings before them the meekness of Christ who never asserted His rights or defended Himself. It would be good for us if, in the presence of defamation and insults, we could catch something of the spirit of the Lord and show the meekness that refuses to assert our rights, stand upon our dignity or defend ourselves.
The Gentleness of Christ
Then the Apostle speaks of the “gentleness of Christ” (vs. 1) — another lovely quality that He ever exhibited in the presence of opposition. If we seek to maintain the truth, we shall soon find that there are those who will oppose and raise questions that lead to strife. But the servant of “the Lord must not strive” but seek to act in the spirit of the Lord and be “gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient.” The gentleness of Christ speaks of the manner in which He acted and spoke. How often, with ourselves, even if our motive is right and the principles we stand for are true, all is spoiled because our manner is lacking in graciousness and gentleness. Let us remember the striking words of the psalmist. “Thy gentleness hath made me great” (Psa. 18:3535Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great. (Psalm 18:35)). Our vehemence may easily degenerate into violence by which we belittle ourselves in the eyes of others, but gentleness will make us great. Violence draws out violence, but gentleness is irresistible. “The fruit of the Spirit  .  .  .  is gentleness.”
The Power of Christ
Finally, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, we read of “the power of Christ.” Paul is speaking of bodily infirmities, insults, necessities, persecutions and distresses. He learned by experience that all these things only become an occasion for the manifestation of “the power of Christ” to preserve the believer through the trials and lift him above them. Thus we learn that whatever the trial, His “grace is sufficient” and His “strength is made perfect in weakness.”
As we look at Christ in the glory and admire these lovely moral traits, set forth in all their perfection in Christ, we find His fruit sweet to our taste and, almost unconsciously to ourselves, we shall begin to exhibit something of His gracious character and thus become changed into His image.
H. Smith, adapted