2 Corinthians 3:1-5
Letters of Recommendation
Living in an age when we demand evidence and authentication of almost everything from almost everyone, we are no different from the Corinthians in these verses. Remember, they have challenged Paul’s apostleship, and in a long section of the letter (2:14-7:4), Paul defends his right and sufficiency to be God’s apostle. It’s in 3:5 where Paul answers his question in 2:16 (“Who is sufficient for these things?”). It’s not that Paul is enough in himself to become God’s messenger and minister of the New Covenant. It’s not that God looked upon this already qualified man and said, “Yup, he looks good enough. He’s wise enough. That Paul has a rich Jewish background that will help him in the future.” You’ve heard the phrase, “God doesn’t call the qualified but qualifies the called.” That’s the order for God’s calling Paul to become his mouthpiece. That’s Paul’s affirmation as well: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves…, but our sufficiency is from God” (v. 5, my emphasis). Paul, then, is sufficient as an Apostle. That is, the Corinthians do not need or require some other non-apostle to substantiate or corroborate Paul’s testimony. Why? It’s because the word from Paul is the sufficient word from God. The word for “sufficiency” means “qualified” or “fit.” Paul is fit for the New Covenant ministry, but this fitness is not a self-fitness. It’s a God-given fitness. Paul’s God-given qualification points to the biblical truth that every good and perfect thing comes from above (James 1:17). Indeed, Paul had already asked the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). The Corinthians (and we all) need Paul, therefore, as the Apostle from God. Paul is sufficient, because God has made him sufficient.
The gift of ministerial sufficiency is not without its evidential manifestations. So where is the proof of Paul’s ministerial qualifications? That’s that question that stirred in the hearts of the Corinthians. The sad reality is that if they had just looked a little deeper at their hearts and at Paul’s loving heart for them, they’d see that their hearts themselves and Paul’s heart were the very evidence. How so? Look back at the verses. In vv. 1-2, Paul asks whether letters of recommendation are necessary to commend him to the Corinthians. He’s referring to a common practice back then (and even now) of someone vouching for another by means of an epistle. This practice is not unreasonable, to be sure. Paul himself wrote recommendation letters (Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:10-11; Phil. 2:19-25). The Apostle John, moreover, speaks this way in 3 John when he commends the person of Demetrius to his beloved Gaius (v. 12). In Paul’s case with the Corinthians, however, he’s worried that the Corinthians would even ask for that external corroboration, since they are the evidence, and his very heart is the evidence of his apostleship and love for the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor. 4:2). Are they so blind?
Paul is pointing to the Corinthians as the letter of recommendation itself. They are the Spirit-wrought confirmation that Paul is giving them God’s Word. Paul doesn’t need to have someone write a letter in ink. They are the living proof that the living God has qualified Paul to speak to them. Indeed, their hearts show that though they are imperfect, they are growing in godliness. Their conversion is a letter from Christ for all to read and see that the Spirit is at home in the Corinthians’ hearts and at work through Paul’s New Covenant ministry. As one commentator says, “The very existence of the Corinthian church testified to the effectiveness and authenticity of Paul’s ministry” (Kruse, Tyndale, 2 Corinthians, 90).
What Paul is getting at is a basic truth about the sanctifying and authenticating work of God. A justified faith is a being-sanctified faith. When the Living God is at work in the lives of his people, they change for the better. They follow him, the Word of God abides in them, they love God and his children, and they put off wickedness and put on purity. Paul is merely applying that basic Christian truth to his ministry to the Corinthians. Paul is saying something similar to what Jesus says to Philip when the latter asks Jesus to see the Father (John 14:8). You can hear Paul saying to the Corinthians, “Have I been with you so long, and you still don’t know me to have come from God for your very souls?” Paul certainly underwent much heart-affliction on account of the Corinthians. Applying this to us today isn’t hard. Look at the evidence of God’s living and active work in the lives of his children, and praise God for it. And praise God that you yourself are part of that work.