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.
(2 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV)
The Job Market
Anyone who has been in the job market at all has had to navigate the whole uncomfortable question of who to ask for letters of recommendation, especially when they have left, or are leaving, one job to move on to another. Do you ask a co-worker? Your supervisor? The head honcho? Or maybe things didn’t go so well at this job and you need to go out and find character references or go back to a previous (and more successful) job to find a good (read: complimentary) reference.
Apostle for Hire
If the Christians at Corinth are any indication of Paul’s work, I wouldn’t hire him. Here is a group of people who had an inflated view of their own giftedness at the same time they were tolerating gross immorality in their fellowship. They were deeply divided too, and had devolved into partisanship and some sort of leader worship. And yet Paul calls them his letter of reference.
I think there is a tension here that the church today needs to come to grips with. No, we shouldn’t allow stuff like this to go on. But we who lead are shepherds to some very human sheep, and we’re human too. Part of the reason so many pastors and leaders have “fallen” is because it is not a standard of grace from which they have fallen, but a standard of law. The pressure on pastors and their families over the whole course of the modern Evangelical Movement has been intolerable, and we are reaping the results.
So it is kind of heartwarming to hear Paul say that he has a letter of reference in the form of the Corinthians that was written by his Supervisor (Christ) “on human hearts” with the pen of the Holy Spirit, and delivered to the Boss (God the Father). Sure, if you compare this commendation to the one in Philippians (…you are our joy and crown!) it isn’t nearly as glowing. The reason is that Paul has felt the need to remind them that they are his letter of reference, and he doesn’t want to see that letter discredited.
Interview with the Boss
In the wonderful movie Joe vs. The Volcano there is an awesome scene (follow this link to see it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am7qO66kZR4) in which Tom Hank’s Boss is having a one-sided conversation on the phone with someone named Harry about a prospective new hire. The question when thinking about any career move is competence. This one element is either the most freeing or most limiting part of a career search.
Even though the Corinthians haven’t exactly produced the fruit Paul had hoped, he has an amazing amount of confidence in his competency:
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 competent 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 3:4-6 ESV)
The Job: Undersecretary, Ministry of Righteousness
And so Paul is quite secure that he can not only “get the job,” but that he can “do the job.” (“Harry, I’m not arguing that wit you!”) And what is the job? It is to bring about work of the Ministry of Righteousness. Later on in 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul calls himself an Ambassador. His ambassadorship has changed since he came to know Christ. He used to work for what he calls the Ministry of Death:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
This sounds like a resounding condemnation of the Ten Commandments, and of Moses’ ministry in general. But actually it is only the Ministry of Death because of the way the people of God received it. Remember that Paul has already identified the gospel as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:23). The Ministry of Righteousness is only effective for those who will receive Jesus. Yes, Christ crucified is Death to those who are perishing! But, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Christ is speaking to you today: Are you still living in the Dominion of Darkness? As an ambassador for Christ, let me invite you into the Kingdom of Light. God is making his appeal to you right now. Come.