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. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered 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.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 ESV
Paul ended the last chapter with the words, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He can’t help but feel a bit frustrated at having to defend himself and his ministry yet again. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he found himself having to deal with those who were questioning his authority and his apostleship. But as far as he was concerned, it was only God to whom he had to answer. “As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NLT).
Much of what Paul writes in this letter is not new news to the Corinthians. He had said it all before, in writing and in person. He wants them to know that he is not attempting to prove himself to them again. As far as he is concerned, he does not need a letter of recommendation, either from himself or anyone else. If they wanted proof of the effectiveness of his ministry, all they had to do was look at their own lives.
The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you.– 2 Corinthians 3:2-3a NLT
Paul’s ministry had been fruitful. It had produced results. Lives had been changed. And there should have been no reason for him to defend himself. The believers in Corinth were his letter of recommendation “written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3b NLT). There was no greater proof of the validity of Paul’s apostolic ministry than the transformed lives of those who made up the church in Corinth. The amazing thing about what had happened in Corinth was not that Paul had arrived in town and was able to wow the people there with his oratory skills. He didn’t blow them away with his eloquence and powers of persuasion. In fact, just the opposite was the case.
When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT
The establishment of the church in Corinth had been the work of the Holy Spirit, not Paul. He had simply been a conduit through which the Spirit had worked. He had been an instrument in the hands of God. Paul could look at the changed lives of the people in Corinth and know with confidence that his work had been effective. And he also knew that it had not been because of his own skills or abilities. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a ESV). Any success Paul had enjoyed was the result of God’s power, not his own. “We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:4 NLT).
It is important to note that Paul, while viewing himself as a servant of God, did not really believe that he was working on behalf of God as much as he was being used by God. He truly believed that God was working through him, not that he was working for God. Sometimes we can easily begin to think that we are doing God a favor by serving Him. We can believe that we are doing all the work and He is sitting back eagerly watching and waiting to see what it is we accomplish. But Paul knew that, without God’s power, all his efforts would have been in vain. God is not dependent upon us. It is the other way around. It was Paul who proudly proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). It was God who said to Paul, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).
It is the Spirit who gives life, Paul asserts. It is God who makes possible the salvation of men. We have a role to play, but we must never forget that our role is as servants of God. We are tools in His hands, empowered by His Spirit and obligated to do His will His way. Paul will emphasize his understanding of his God-given role later on in this same letter.
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” –2 Corinthians 5:18-20 NLT
We are conduits of God’s grace. We are PVC pipes carrying the live-giving message of the good news to those who are spiritually thirsty and starving. And we can be confident that God can and will use us as we make ourselves available to Him. Our weakness does not disqualify us, it makes us perfect candidates for God’s service.
God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 NLT
So, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31 NLT). He can and does use you. Your value to Him begins with your recognition of your absolute dependence upon Him. Your greatest use to Him starts with your understanding that you are useless without Him. When we understand that God is power behind our effectiveness, we can become confident conduits of His grace.