Notes on 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

2 Corinthians 3:1‑6  •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 12
From this the apostle turns in a peculiarly touching way to the saints at Corinth. His spirit felt that his last allusions to a triumph, in contrast with those who trafficked in truth (never then given out with genuine purity), might expose to unkind personality. He therefore, in disclaiming the need of human commendation, in any form, lets out what grace forms in the heart before contrasting the law with the gospel.
“Begin we again to commend ourselves? or1 need we, as some, recommendatory epistles unto you or2 from you? Ye are our epistle inscribed in our3 hearts, known and read by all men, being manifested that ye are Christ's epistle ministered by us, having been inscribed, not with ink, but [the] Spirit of [the] living God, not on tables of stone, but on fleshy tables of [the] heart (or, hearts)4. And such confidence have we through the Christ toward God; not that we are competent from ourselves to reckon anything as of ourselves, but our, competency [is] of God, who also made us competent [as] servants of [the] new covenant, not of letter but of spirit, for the letter killeth but the spirit quickeneth.” (Vers. 1-6.)
It is plain that there was then, as now, the practice of giving and receiving letters in commending stranger brethren to the assemblies. And a valuable means of introduction as well as guard it is, provided we hold it in spirit, not in letter: otherwise we might fail doubly, in refusing those who ought to be received, where circumstances have hindered the requisite voucher, and in receiving those who, being deceivers, can supply themselves with any letter which may the more effectually mislead. The aim of all such provisions is to afford adequate testimony to the assembly of God, which is in no way bound to a form however excellent, if wanting, provided perchance other means of godly satisfaction leave no reasonable hesitation to those who judge fairly and in love. It is mischievous when that which God uses for our mutual comfort is perverted by legalism into an instrument of spiritual torture, as may be sometimes the lack of a commendatory note, or some kindred informality.
But the apostle turns, from the supposed imputation of seeking to commend himself, to foster in the Corinthian saints somewhat of the love which burned so warmly in his own bosom. If he, if an apostle, could be supposed to need a commendatory epistle, surely not Paul to or from the assembly in Corinth! As he adds, with as much beauty as affection, “Ye are our epistle,” not in process of being “written,” but this already done, and abidingly (ἐγγεγραμμένη) “in our hearts,” whereas it was but becoming “known and read by all men,” as was also their manifestation that they were Christ's epistle, “ministered” as a past fact (διακονηθεῖσα) by us, “written” as it has been and was (ἐγγεγραμμένη) “not with ink, but the living God's Spirit,” not on tablets of stone, but on fleshy tablets—hearts, or of the heart.
It was a wonderful thing to call any company of saints in this world Paul's epistle, that which set forth his mind and heart, the fruit of his testimony in the Spirit to the world. Such he declares the Corinthian assembly to be, no mere tongue-work this, but “written in our hearts,” yet without doubt intended for men generally to learn by, as he says, “known and read by all men.” Such is the church, not a thing of creedism, or a subscription to paper-and-ink articles, however pure in their place, but an epistle to set forth livingly what the apostle taught and felt. Here he goes farther still; for even of those saints, who had caused him such shame and pain, but now consolation and joy, he does not hesitate to say that they were manifestly showing that they were Christ's epistle ministered by him. Paul might be the means, but Christ was the end; and just as God wrote the law on stone for Israel, so now does the Spirit grave Christ on the fleshy tablets of the Christian's heart, that the world may read Christ in the church. It will be noticed too, that this epistle says they are; it is no mere question of a duty, but of a positive relationship which is the ground of the duty. If we are Christ's epistle, as the apostle declares to the Corinthians, we should assuredly convey His mind and affections truly and without blot. The truth abides for us, which wrought on them; and so does the Spirit of the living God; and thus we are inexcusable in our failure. At least may we own and feel it, that grace may work in us as in those who had fallen so short!
“And such confidence have we through the Christ toward God.” Christianity not only excludes despair but gives assurance, and this on the firmest ground with God, even Christ, whose work puts the believer into the same acceptance, nearness, and favor as our Lord enjoyed through His own personal relationship and perfection as man. This is the meaning, aim, and effect of a Savior such as He is: less than this would be to slight Him and His work, and the new creation and relationships which are the fruit of it. But here the apostle speaks of confidence as regards his ministry, which is no less true and flows from the same grace. For it is all the expression of God's love in Christ to us and to Christ in the delight of His glorification of God; and in the power of one so able to give it effect as the Holy Spirit. Therefore the apostle could not doubt, but cherishes a confidence, measured by God's estimate of what was due to Christ whom He had sent to testify and prove His love, and now had glorified on high in witness of the perfection of His work, But along with it goes the most earnest disclaimer of any intrinsic competency, while owning it given of God to serve in new covenant order, but even here of spirit, not of letter. For literally it remains to be applied to the house of Israel and of Judah, though the blood is shed and accepted, on which its efficacy rests. But this only the more suits the genius of Christianity, where the principles stand out in the light, and the truth is told plainly as here: “for the letter killeth, but the spirit [that is, the mind of God couched under the forms which unbelief never seizes] quickeneth.” And this is universally true; for if the letter were more glaringly perilous of old, there is always the danger of deserting the spirit for it, even under the gospel.