2 Corinthians 3:1-3

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. [1]


Those who were called to minister in the gospel community by teaching and preaching the Word can never perfectly embody the truths that we teach. We must subject ourselves to it, pursue its teachings, live in faith and repentance to make Messiah Jesus and his Word as much a part of our lives as possible. Only with this practice can we hope to teach and preach with all sincerity. In 2:14, Paul began a defense of his New Covenant ministry that will run through chapter 7. He began with the imagery of his being a captured slave to Christ being led to his death. This, he said, was the true mark of his apostolic office.

It’s one thing for teachers and preachers to desire this level of sincerity from themselves and quite another thing to claim to have achieved it as the apostle Paul claimed when defending himself against his remaining critics in the Corinthian congregation. He wrote in 2:17, “17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” Though Paul made a true statement in defense of his ministry, he also knew this opened him up to charges of bragging and being arrogant. So, in these three verses, Paul asks two questions in his defense against the Judaizers who infiltrated Corinth.

3:1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” Paul didn’t believe that using letters of recommendation was wrong. Such letters were common and necessary in the 1st century world where communication was often slow and unreliable. Paul wrote letters of recommendations on several occasions to commend his coworkers to other churches. He wrote them for Timothy (1st Corinthians 16:10, 11), and for Titus (2nd Corinthians 8:22), and Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Timothy and Epaphroditus as a team (Phil. 2:19-30). The entire epistle of Philemon is a letter of recommendation.

Such letters could be exaggerated or misleading, something to which Paul alludes with the use of the anonymous designation “some” in his second question. “Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” Most scholars agree that the “many” who are “peddlers of God’s word” (2:17) and the “some” here in 3:1are the same people – the Judaizers sent from the Jerusalem church for whom Paul is raising an offering. These shady peddlers who reduce the goodness of the gospel by adding works salvation to it are abusing the practice of written recommendations.

Paul’s point, then, is that he needed no such letters of recommendation, and it would be ridiculous to ask for them given his long association with the Corinthian church. His true credentials are credentials of the heart authored by Christ and the Holy Spirit. The apostle presents them with the essential, crucial credentials of all true gospel ministry.


Paul writes, “You [y’all]  yourselves are our letter of recommendation….” As the letter is being read, you can imagine his supporters are cheering at this line. But the Judaizes would certainly be caught off guard. What a strange assertion in a world where documents of introduction were considered essential. What a strange idea that this congregation was Paul’s living, breathing letter of recommendation. Paul constructed a powerful metaphor: people as letters.

The entire sentence of verse 2 is ripe with significance: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” The pleural, “our hearts” indicates Paul has the Corinthians written on his heart, the deepest and most secret dimension of his being. In biblical literature, the heart is the center of all inner life and the seat of all functions of the soul. It is the place into which the Spirit of Life is breathed and begins to speak to believers. Paul is telling the congregation that all of them are at the center of his being. They were inscribed on his heart at the time of their conversion. In fact, the Greek text says they were written permanently on his heart; they could never slip away or be forgotten.

I understand what Paul is writing here. When you participate in ministry, God writes people on your heart. They become your spiritual children and they are permanently there even when the Lord moves them to other parts of the country or the world. They are living validations of my calling and ministry, the fruit of my labors in Christ. You don’t have to be a full-time ordained minister to understand what Paul means. Perhaps you have had the privilege of discipling new believers, and in ministering to them, the Lord has written them onto your heart as well.

The Corinthian believers are clear and convincing evidence of the power of the gospel and the fruit of Paul’s ministry. Written letters may easily mislead but living letters can testify to the truth. Living heart letters are also more intimate. Paul, unlike the Judaizes, is not waving around a written letter. He does not carry letters in his travel bag. His connection to the Corinthians is far more intimate and far more permanent. It could not be forgotten or lost.

Letters of introduction written in pen and ink can only be read by a limited number of people. But lives are read by everyone, even the illiterate. The church in Corinth was an open letter of Christ to the world, a declaration of his power and love for the entire world. This is why Paul was so patient and pursuing with the Corinthians, because, like him, they were deeply flawed people whom Jesus chose to love.

By claiming the Corinthians to be his letters of recommendation, Paul shifted the proof of his apostleship from himself to the shoulders of the Corinthians. If Paul is bogus, then they are bogus also. Paul is no longer on the defensive. Now he is on the offensive and the Judaizes are on the defensive.


Paul made sure the Corinthians understood that he was not the author of the letter. Look at the first part of verse 3: “and you [y’all] show that you are a letter from Christ” (3a). A letter of recommendation must always come from a third party. Christ is the ultimate source of recommendation. By claiming Messiah Jesus as the author, Paul claims higher authority for his credentials than his enemies could claim for theirs with the letters of recommendation from Jerusalem.

Paul’s Apostolic role was secondary. He was merely the spiritual mail carrier delivering what he called “a letter from Christ delivered by us” (3a). The literal meaning of the word translated “delivered” is “ministered,” suggesting that Christ is the author and Paul is the scribe who ministers by the preaching of the gospel. Calvin writes:

He says that it was ministered by him, as if meaning by this, that he had been in the place of ink and pen. In fine, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument, that [his accusers] may understand, that it is with Christ that they have to do, if they continue to speak against him with malignity. [2]

By the work of Christ in him, Paul had the Corinthians embedded as living letters deep in his heart.


Even as the apostle Paul is pointing to Christ as the ultimate author of living letters, he is thinking about the old covenant with its stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. Now, in the face of the Judaizers with their works righteousness teachings, he asserts the glory and superiority of the new covenant: “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.

God promised Israel, through the prophet Ezekiel, that he was going to change the hearts of the people:

19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. [3]

This was not a promise God made once. Ezekiel restated this promise (36:26), making it even more personal with the use of the second person plural (“your;” “y’all”):

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you [y’all], and you [y’all] shall be clean from all your [y’all’s] uncleannesses, and from all your [y’all’s] idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you [y’all] a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you [y’all]. And I will remove the heart of stone from your [y’all’s] flesh and give you [y’all] a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you [y’all], and cause you [y’all] to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You [‘y’all] shall dwell in the land that I gave to your [y’all’s] fathers, and you [y’all] shall be my people, and I will be your [y’all’s] God. [4]

There is another old covenant prophetic promise in Jeremiah 31 to which the apostle Paul makes specific reference. Jeremiah’s prophecy came during the reign of King Josiah in 600 BC. After the Israelites had rediscovered God’s Law while renovating the temple, and had experienced a season of national repentance, and made a public covenant to keep the entirety of God’s Law, the people again proved they were unable to keep it. Because of their failure, God promised a new covenant that would be unconditional, rather than the conditional Law of the old covenant. The new covenant would be completely independent of human action and dependent upon God’s promise:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.[5]

The old covenant Law was external. It was written on tablets of stone (Ex. 16:15-16). It provided no personal human power to live out its requirements. It offered benefits to the people who bothered to study it. It revealed God’s moral and righteous character. It showed the Israelites what their father, Adam, was like in the Garden of Eden before he rebelled. It provided curbs on the people’s life-roads. It could guide the human heart and influence the human heart. But it could not carve itself into the human heart. Even worse, the human heart was not capable of accepting the gift of the law. Something far more radically powerful was needed: a spiritual heart transplant.

This is the effect of what Christ does as the minister of the new covenant. We remain the same people, but our hearts become new. Although God’s Law is known to every human heart (Rom. 2:15), only those who receive his radical heart surgery can begin to want to keep his Law. As Peter puts it, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). That doesn’t mean we will not battle with our sin nature. However, as members of Christ’s body, we receive new affections reflecting God’s Laws. As Paul will write in chapter 5, “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.[6]

But the new covenant promised even more than a new heart. It promised a new relationship, a new knowledge, and true forgiveness. God promised, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the promise of divine intimacy first given to Abraham, repeated by the prophets, fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation as Immanuel (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14), and culminated in Revelation 21:1-3:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.[7]

  1. Kent Hughes writes:

In a transcendent sense, God is God to everyone who lives as he sustains them in all of life. But there is a tender, truer relationship of heart to heart, spirit to spirit — so that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” is true in a deeper, more soul-satisfying way than those on the outside can imagine. “I will be their God” means God gives himself to us. And “they shall be my people” means he takes us to himself.[8]

Along with writing God’s Law on our hearts, Jeremiah proclaims God gives a new revelation of himself. “34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” [9] The old covenant was given corporately to the entire nation of Israel, including those who did not know God personally. But those who experienced the new covenant come one-by-one as they are born of God by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit’s radical heart surgery. In John 17:3, Jesus defined eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Those who partake of the new covenant all know Christ “from the least of them to the greatest.” No one needs to say, “Know the Lord” even to the least of those whom God has called to himself. At the same time, however, we who have been called continue to invite the entire world to know the Lord and the forgiveness he freely offers.

In the new covenant, written on hearts of flesh, there is true and lasting forgiveness: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34b). This is something the old covenant could never do. Under the old covenant sins were never completely forgiven. Sinners were only covered by the blood of sacrificial animals that pointed forward to the true forgiveness that only came when the sinless Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, the Lord Jesus Christ offered up his life as an atonement for sins once for all. What good news the gospel is!

God offers a new heart, a new relationship, a new knowledge, and true forgiveness. This is what Paul brought to the Corinthians as he preached the full-blown realities of the new covenant. The Judaizes brought with them from Jerusalem a false gospel of circumcision plus “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant loyalty” that sprinkled Jesus-language on a works-righteousness program. They shrunk the holiness of God into keepable regulations. They shrunk the sinfulness of humanity into a mere obstacle that people could overcome with a little inspiration and a lot of elbow grease. In other words, they shrunk the cross of the new covenant, regardless of their letters of recommendation from people in Jerusalem.

The Apostle Saul Paulus of Tarsus needed no letters of recommendation from anyone. The Corinthians were his letter written in the very depths of his soul, eternally. They could not be removed from his heart. He would never forget them or forsake them. Their salvation validated his ministry. More than that, these Corinthian living letters were “known and read by all.” As living letters, the Corinthians were authored by Christ himself; they were living epistles of the Messiah.

The long-awaited ministry of the new covenant came in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. In verses 4-6, the apostle goes on to write:

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. [10]

Paul began his ministry in Corinth by embracing his place in the triumphal procession to his death. As he will later write, he was, “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (4:11). Paul was a slave to Messiah Jesus. He dared not speak his own words, but only those of his master. And so must we all as we proclaim the new covenant to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.

Paul’s life was fragrant with the aroma of Christ. As Paul marched behind the Messiah in his victory parade, Paul was the fragrance of life to those who believed and the stink of death to those who rejected Christ. So must we, who trust into the perfectly lived life and sacrificial death of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, be as well. Paul did not pedal God’s word but preached it purely and sincerely. As he will write in chapter 5:

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. [11]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 3:1–3.

[2] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 167–168.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eze 11:19–20.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eze 36:25–28.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Je 31:31–33.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:17.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 21:1–3.

[8] Hughes, 2 Corinthians. Kindle Edition.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Je 31:34.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 3:4–6.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:14–15.