Alfred Place Baptist Church

3:1-3 God’s Commendations

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

Ministers of the gospel are often asked to write letters of recommendation. Landlords write to ask if people would make good tenants: “Have they faithfully paid the rent on your apartment?” Firms write asking for references for job applicants. Churches and Christian organisations write about the consistency of the lives of those who want to work for them. Sometimes they demand a very thorough statement not only of the strengths but the weaknesses also of a Christian. We personally write a number of such letters of recommendation each year. We occasionally get such letters sent to us, or we request them. There is an essential place for such letters.

A man in South Africa once knocked on the Rev. Martin Holdt’s door and told him that he had recently moved to the town with a new job, and that he was intending to worship with Martin because he knew he loved the doctrines of grace and he himself wanted to hear the whole counsel of God. He had been working with the young people in his former church and would be glad to get stuck into such work in this church. Martin was delighted to hear the news. The man was serious and sincere. To know of such a family soon to join the church was exciting. The man proceeded to tell him that he was having bureaucratic difficulties in transferring his account from a bank to his new bank in the town, but that it would be settled in a couple of days. In the meantime the agency from which he was renting his new house required a down-payment and he was wondering if he could borrow that sum for two days from Martin. The pastor was very agreeable, but before he went for the money a slight niggle made him hesitate. “Could you give me the name of your present pastor and I shall give him a call and tell him that you are with me?” he asked. Immediately a change came over the man. His countenance dropped and he began to accuse Martin of a failure to love and trust a brother. Why did he not take him at his word. Didn’t love believe all things? But Martin stuck by his request, and the man got more angry finally stalking out of the house in a fine rage. Martin later called a pastor in the town which the man had mentioned. He discovered that the man was a rogue, not to be trusted at all, who had behaved like this in other places. He could talk the talk, but he did not walk the walk. Providentially Martin had saved himself being robbed by a con-man.

We find letters of commendation in the New Testament itself. Onesimus, the runaway slave, is commended to his master Philemon by the apostle Paul. Phoebe is commended: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Roms. 16:1&2). There is another example concerning Apollos. He had been working with the church in Ephesus and now he intended to go across the sea to Achaia in Greece. We are told, “the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him” (Acts 18:27). That letter was enough to secure for Apollos the loving trust and support from the church in Corinth. There was no hint that New Testament Christians would know the genuiness of an unknown professing Christian by instinct, or that God in some supernatural way would let them know that someone was one of the elect while another person was not to be trusted. There is nothing like that. Even New Testament Christians needed letters of recommendation, and so such letters are important at every age.

When we write such letters it is the cause itself that must transcend any considerations of being pleasant to one individual. To flatter a man is to do wrong not only to the person being flattered but to the cause which is thinking of employing him. Writing a hundred years ago, at the height of church attendance in the British Isles, Dr James Denney could say, “There is no more ludicrous reading in the world than a bundle of certificates, or testimonials, as they are called. As a rule, they certify nothing but the total absence of judgment and conscience in the people who have granted them. If you do not know whether a person is qualified for any given situation or not, you do not need to say anything about it. If you know that he is not, and he asks you to say that he is, no personal consideration must keep you from kindly but firmly declining … It is wicked to betray a great interest by bespeaking it for incompetent hands; it is cruel to put anyone into a place for which he is unfit. Where you are confident that the man and the work will be well matched, be as generous as you please; but never forget that the work is to be considered in the first place, and the man only second” James Denney, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” p.103).

1. The Apostle Paul Did Not Need Such Letters of Commendation.

He says this very firmly and with deep conviction because there was more at state than a good reference or a testimonial: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of commendation to you or from you” (v.1). The apostle is saying that there are three things he does not need:

i] Paul doesn’t need to begin to commend himself to them. There is something very unpleasant about self-commendation, and when I might wander into those murky waters concerning subjects for prayer and praise at the mid-week Prayer Meeting then you will rightly think, “Geoff does not need to begin to do this.” All our lives we are learning that we cannot glory both in the blood of Christ and in ourselves. If we glory in the cross we pour contempt on all our pride. If you should hear a minister underestimating the number of people who were attending his church when he first went there, and exaggerating the crowds turning up today you are hearing a man commending himself. Preachers do it with their own litanies of self-praise – “I thank God that we were only 40 attending, but now we are 400. I thank God that there are now six young men in the ministry. I thank God that I baptised twenty people last year. I thank God that I have written five books…” And so on. It is all accredited to the Holy Spirit, of course, but that does not help us set the man in a more modest light because then we are being told that he is a unique instrument of the Holy Spirit in God’s hands.

I suppose Paul’s enemies were attempting to steadily assassinate his reputation: “Have you ever thought that he didn’t bring any letters of commendation when he came to Corinth? That is quite significant, isn’t it? He is just commending himself, isn’t he?” Paul knew that that is what they were saying because he protests his contempt for that sort of thing throughout the letter: “We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again” (5:12): “we do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (10:12): “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved. but the one whom the Lord commends” (10:18).

So he will not commend himself. How does Paul speak? We have seen that he has told us of his integrity by using three prepositions, “in Christ we speak – before God – with sincerity, like men sent from God” (2:17). There were many others peddling the word of God for profit. Nothing was further from his mind. So this question opens this chapter:- “do you really think we are beginning to commend ourselves again?” It is pitiful to see a great generous spirit like Paul compelled to be on guard and watch against those who would misconstruct his slightest word. It prevents him sharing encouragements, and giving them true cause to praise God, because his detractors would turn such reports into accusations that he was boasting. Paul is so concerned that he should not lost the trust of the congregation at Corinth. Once his character has gone in their eyes he has lost everything. It is a humiliating thing to be the object of suspicion – “he didn’t bring to Greece any letters of commendation from anyone, did he?” So Paul begins this chapter by raising the issue of self-commendation, and determining that there was no need for him to begin now to commend himself after mortifying for many years a spirit of self-commendation. But he goes on …

ii] Paul did not need letters of recommendation to be sent on his behalf to the Corinthians. Paul is being ironic. Do they think when he arrived in pagan Corinth – where there were no Christians at all (and so no church) that he needed to brandish to the people of the city a letter from some men who lived in a faraway place called Jerusalem to the effect that this man Paul had authority from them to speak to the citizens of Corinth? To whom would he have shown it? Their names in Jerusalem were as obscure as his. Was he not an apostle, and uniquely the apostle whom God had sent to the Gentiles? Were not all the apostles on the same level? Did he not receive his apostleship and message not from men or by man but by Jesus Christ and God the Father? Had he not seen Jesus for himself on the road to Damascus? Had he not been commissioned by him directly? Had he not been caught up to the third heaven and seen and heard the most wonderful sights and words? Was he not greatly used by God everywhere? Then he did not need men to commend him. He was a divinely commended apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God. That was all the authority needed.

iii] Paul doesn’t need letters of commendation written on his behalf by the Corinthian church if he should move on to Spain or North Africa or Europe. Is he talking about his opponents when he mentions letters of recommendation “from you”? Had they started a counter missionary organisation, and were they sending out their own anti-Pauline preachers? He asks, “Do we need letters of recommendation from you?” They cannot add to his authority by what they write. He does not depend upon them. That is not the nature of the relationship. Does one of the young art-students of Rembrandt add to the greatness of that genius by writing a letter of recommendation saying that Rembrandt is a very good painter? Did Mozart need one of his piano-pupils to speak up for him? Did Shakespeare need a bit-player in one of his dramas to brag up the playwright’s literary skills? Greatness stands by its own achievements. So the Word of God preached and written by Paul, and the effect that it had had on the lives of thousands of people in Corinth and millions ever since is its own commendation to the world. Christopher Wren was the architect who built St Paul’s and a number of other London churches after the Great Fire of London in 1666. There was no monument erected to commemorate Wren, just a sentence, “If you seek a monument, look around you.” That great cathedral of St Paul’s itself is the monument to Wren, not some little plaque. So the church at Corinth and the life and letters of Paul are all the commendation that the apostle needs.

On a far greater scale, the writings of the apostles John, Peter, Matthew, James, Paul and so on, have not needed the councils and the approval of the church fathers of ‘Mother Church’ for Christians to take seriously John’s gospel, or Peter’s epistles, or Paul’s letter to the Romans and believe them, and obey what they read in them. The authority was in those documents already by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Merely to recognise that authority was the duty of the church, and to make sure that they did not add to the apostolic writings their own ideas, so elevating those ideas and making them binding. Today there are fine books written by such scholars as the late F.F.Bruce that defend the truthfulness of the New Testament documents, but professors do not donate any reliability to the Scriptures. The Spirit of truth himself did that. The apostles and their writings have no deficiencies so that they need words of recommendation from men.

2. Each True Christian is a Letter from Christ to the World.

“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody” (v.2). In the first verse he has been ironical, but here he is not being funny. You see Paul’s argument? “I am not going to commend myself to you at this time in our relationship. We have known one another for some years. Why should I do it now? After all, if I want a letter of commendation all I have to do is to refer to you yourselves. It is you Christians at Corinth who are my letter of commendation. Everyone knows that you were converted under my ministry and that, as a result, I have you on my heart.”

Should Paul be asked in Corinth to present his credentials he could introduce his interrogator to Crispus or Gaius or Stephanas, some of the Corinthian converts. He would say to these men, “Tell this questioner how you came to know God.” Then one by one those men could speak up and say how once their lives were in a great muddle, but they were invited to come and hear Paul speaking, and after some time, in believing the gospel of Christ that the apostle preached, their whole lives had been radically changed. All three men would tell the same story of Christ’s redeeming grace – though personal details would be quite different. Such men and women were Paul’s letter of commendation; they were an open book for anyone to read. Paul had very carefully spelled out the divine message to them, that men were in such a lost condition because of personal sin and guilt, but God in love had sent his Son who had become the Lamb of God who had taken away the sin of the world. By acknowledging their own sin and their need of God’s saving grace and crying mightily to the Lord their lives had been revolutionised. Some letters are very private, but these ‘letters’ were to be made known and forwarded to the whole world. Charles Wesley captures that sentiment when he cries,

O that the world might taste and see the riches of his grace! The arms of love that compass me would all mankind embrace.
So, wherever the apostle might have needed some letters of recommendation it was certainly not in Corinth. There is a most moving sentence in his first letter to the Corinthians where he says to them, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (I Cor. 9:1&2). If there had been a group of Christians in Corinth when Paul suddenly turned up in their fellowship they should have done what Martin Holdt did and checked up on him. Paul himself had warned the churches of the possibility of false teachers arriving unheralded: “I know that after I leave,” he told the elders at Ephesus, “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock … so be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29). So whenever a stranger arrived in the fellowship, though his face shone, and his eyes twinkled, and he spoke of his wonderful experiences with the most mellifluous voice, yet the elders would turn to one another and softly ask, “Might this not be one of those wolves the apostle warned us about, dressed in sheep’s clothing?” They sought letters of recommendation from gospel churches in other places who might know this man. But the Corinthian congregation were in a different relationship to Paul. They owed their Christianity to the apostle. He was their father in Christ. Now to listen to his detractors and to begin to question his ministry was unfilial ingratitude. They themselves were living evidence of the very thing they were being encouraged to doubt – the apostleship of Paul.

Let me turn this passage in a very challenging way – as far as preachers are concerned. There are those of us who preach constantly and yet have seen no results for our work. It is very easy to disparage success, and to doubt the genuiness of the conversions and the growth in other congregations. It is common for us to glorify the ministry which plods on, patiently and uncomplainingly, ever sowing but rarely reaping, every casting the net, but never drawing in a fish. Paul appeals to changed lives as the final and sufficient proof that God had called him and given him authority as an apostle. This is the great mark of a man called to the ministry – changed lives – God’s concurrence with our pastoring and preaching by giving success in evangelistic endeavours and Christian growth. I know just how vulnerable such a sentence makes me. All over the Western world there are gospel churches in their thousands like our own where, in every one, there are few conversions any year even under the most faithful lively ministries. But my concern is not so much with this fact as with a quiet acceptance of it. Our judgment is not that we have failed to submit to this being a day of small things – we know we are living under the judgment of heaven – but our judgment is that we are not also abounding in the work of the Lord, and failing to cry that the Lord of the harvest will send labourers into his harvest fields, and being prepared in season and out of season, and being in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in men. So often at our forefathers’ ordination services the charge given to the new preacher was based upon the text in the prophet Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” It was a challenging and disturbing message, that the proof of a preacher was the activity of the Spirit in his whole ministry. Let the liberal church look at its ministers! Let the sacerdotal church look at its ministers! Let us evangelical churches look at our ministers too! Conversion and spiritual growth is the one thing needful for every preacher. “Tarry,” said Jesus to the first evangelists, “tarry in Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high”; it is of no use to begin without that. But Paul had that in Corinth: “You yourselves are our letter … known and read by everybody.”

Today, when a husband reads his converted wife’s life, he is confronted with the good news of the wonderful change that Jesus Christ makes in one person’s life. Is she deluded? Is this a fantasy? Or is this life the real life? If this is not reality then what is? That was the letter which Christ himself had written on her heart for her family and neighbours to read. You remember Peter’s words to wives whose husbands do not believe, “if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (I Pet. 3:1&2). They do not hear the word but they cannot avoid seeing it day after day. They eat with this word, and sleep with it, and work together with it day by day.

Some of us have letters we treasure which were actually written by Spurgeon, or John Murray or Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They are precious to us because those men were great Christians. But those men are dead. They tell us what those men once were. The letters are curiosities. But Christ lives, and the letter he has written on our lives comes from his very heart and mind, and it proves that he lives today and has that loving influence over men and women at this moment. Jesus chose to write it. It was an utterly voluntary action of his. Jesus was moved by affection to do it. The result is life-enhancing. But there are terrible letters mentioned in the Bible. One was written by King David telling his commander to put brave and godly Uriah the Hittite, the husband of Bathsheba, in the firing line and there desert him. There is a letter of Jezebel to the elders of Jezreel about accusing godly Naboth of blasphemy so that she might gain his vineyard for her husband Ahab. Terrible letters that brought about death. But Christ writes his letters that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Christ writes epistles on our lives, weighty letters that show his mighty mind dealing with eternal themes. Think of the letter to the Romans Paul wrote by the Spirit of the living God. It is utterly comprehensive. So too the letter Christ writes on our hearts. It is as high as the letter to the Ephesians covering every topic and relationship, stretching from heaven to earth. What a privilege to have the Son of God himself writing on our hearts! He never writes illegibly. His message is distinct and lucid. There are the forgeries – like the man who tried to con Martin Holdt – but the day reveals that too. It would be a terrible life if at the end when all must appear before Christ he looked at us and declared that we were forgeries. “Depart from me. I never wrote on your heart.”

We say that every life has a meaning. Every life is a record of what that person has lived for, and what that person has loved. But the Christian life has a far richer meaning. It is an actual statement from the throne of the universe made by the holy gentle Jesus Christ, the Son of God saying to the world, “This is life in its fulness.” That is what Paul is saying so very clearly: “you are a letter from Christ” (v.3). In other words, there is something in the life of a Christian which is not of this world, whose only explanation is that it is from heaven. God is speaking through that person to mankind. You remember the Lord Jesus challenging the scribes who asked him should they pay tax to Caesar. He showed them a coin and asked them whose image and superscription was upon it. So we point out to you scores of men and women in this church, young and old, all very different from one another, and we say to you, “Those features about them, their character, this love and joy and peace of theirs; the way they show such patience and forgiveness; their affection for you – what has caused this? Who has made them like that? Whose image and superscription is this?” You might think it was their parents, but they will tell you that their families were not like that at all. Father was a hard man, and mother had no time for religion. They will tell you that it was the grace and power of the Lord Jesus Christ that has made them the way that they are. I am saying that there are scores of such living letters who are bringing to you that same message which I preach to you of what Jesus has done for these people many of whom you know, and what he can do for you.

The apostle says, “I was just the pen in the Lord’s hand. He used me to write his letter. I told the Corinthians all that the Lord Jesus had taught and achieved. I was under the strictest obligation to do that, not to think I was smarter or more religious than the Lord.” That was the work of the preacher. Then the Lord Jesus sent the Spirit of the living God and he wrote those words of Paul on favoured sinners’ hearts: “you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (v.3).

After Iola and I were engaged we lived for a year in different continents. I lived in Philadelphia and she lived 3000 miles away in Swansea we wrote letters to one another twice a week. Telephoning was difficult and expensive, and the E-mail had not been invented, so every week we wrote back and for to one another. I would go to the mail-room at the Seminary after the first lecture and check pigeon-hole ‘T’ and how excited I would be to get a letter in that beautiful handwriting. Up to my room I would go to read it. Those letters are still in two packets in our house. We never read them, but they are too precious to destroy. Letters from those we love are loved by us because of the writer. The Lord Jesus has written to every single Christian a letter, and it is upon our hearts that that epistle is to be found.

Tattoos are so common these days, and one reason for this is the rarity of God the Son writing on people’s hearts. Men are looking for beauty and meaning in the outward rather than the inward, but beauty always comes from within a life. Today many men and women are having pictures and words written indelibly on their bodies. God writes on our lives, but Paul makes clear “not with ink.” “Of course,” we think, “God would never use ink.” But he has used ink. God has written a book. Christianity speaks not only of the Word of God, but it speaks of ‘Scripture.’ A script is something written, and God has superintended the process of writing his Word, Jesus has said, to the jots and tittles of Old and New Testament. There was a time when the apostle John on Patmos was about to write something in the book of Revelation when a voice from heaven said, “Do not write it down” (Rev.10:4). So God did use ink very carefully. But when he applies the written word to our lives he does not use ink.

There is a fine sermon on Francis A. Schaeffer called “The Mark of the Christian” (“The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century,” Norfolk Press, 1970, p.160) which begins like this, “Through the centuries men have displayed many different symbols to show that they are Christians. They have worn marks in the lapels of their coats, hung chains around their necks, even had special haircuts.” But Schaeffer shows that there is a much better sign, and that is that we love one another as he has loved us, and this is how all men can know that we are Christ’s disciples.

That is the same point that Paul is making here. A baptismal certificate, a form of church membership, a certificate of graduation from a distinguished seminary, a pocket New Testament – all these things are written with ink. A T-shirt announcing that I am a Christian; a tattoo with John 3:16 written across my chest – again these are written in ink. All they prove is that you may be able to read and that you possess those things. Anything that can be written with ink, however much learning or literary gifts or acquaintance with Scripture it indicates, cannot prove that a change in human nature – in the depths of our lives – has taken place. And without that change we are as lost as Judas.

There must be a letter from Jesus. He must write with the Spirit of the living God on the tablet of the human heart. Now when we see that phrase our minds turn immediately to Mount Sinai where Moses was summoned to receive the ten commandments from the Lord. They were written with the finger of God on tablets of stone. They were the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. That was the old dispensation, and Paul is preparing us for some of the contrasts on which he going to elaborate at length concerning life under the new dispensation. The new covenant is made in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ whereby he has obtained for us a reconciled God. However, Paul’s great concern is this, that men and women show that they have entered into the blessings of the new covenant by the Spirit of the living God writing a letter from Jesus upon their hearts.

The letter of the living Christ is not written on dead matter like a stony tablet, but on human nature at its deepest and finest. The Holy Spirit goes in and in and in to the very centre of that dispositional complex that the Bible refers to as the ‘heart.’ As he is penetrating our inner being there is nothing unfamiliar to him there. He can distinguish between our bones and marrow and even our soul and spirit. So, God is not interested in superficially changing our church-going and recitation of prayers and our keeping resolutions about stopping smoking and drinking and swearing and taking drugs. All those things can be done without any change of heart but the Spirit of the living God can find access to the most secret places of the human spirit, the hidden recesses of our nature, parts of ourselves which we did not know existed and which we find it hard to access. The Spirit writes there a letter from Jesus to ourselves. On the very core of our beings he writes such truths from the Bible as, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or, “Let not your hearts be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me.” When Jesus met this very man, Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus, he wrote a unique letter on Saul’s heart. He wrote very specific words to him because he was an apostle, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18). Now we do not get specific instructions like that when we become Christians because we are not made apostles and prophets, but the Lord must write his words of holiness and heavenly life on our hearts from the very beginning of grace, and start to change us.

Has the Lord Jesus written his letter on your heart? In other words, I am asking you have you become a Christian, because I am saying that there is no person who is a Christian on whose heart Jesus has failed to write his letter. There was once a woman who met Jesus at a well and she obviously needed the Lord to write a letter on her heart because she had had five different ‘husbands’ and yet even the man she was living with at that time was not a legal husband to her. She needed a letter about forgiveness of sins, and righteous living and how to keep your marriage vows and live at peace. She needed the Lord Jesus to wash away all the handwriting of shame, anger, lust and many falls that she had written on her heart – all that had to be erased and new writing from Jesus himself to replace it. I am told that Christians in the medieval period, before the invention of the printing press, could take old faded parchments which had been inscribed with foolish poems and doggerel, and they could remove the writing and write in their place New Testament gospels and letters.

That is what Christ can do to you. You too may have lived a life of obvious sin in your past. Your conscience may accuse you of many things that are tawdry and pathetic which show just how morally impotent you are. We are here to say that all that can be dealt with, and the record of it all wiped away – every spot, every blot, every stain, every single blemish all gone. You can have a cleaned up heart. There can be totally new life begun in Jesus Christ. The gospel offers a new beginning and a new birth. But interestingly, the Lord Jesus did not tell this woman that she needed to be born again, even though she had that need. He told a very different man. Who was that? It was man called Nicodemus. You would think that he must have been a particularly bad man for Christ to tell him that he needed a new birth. No, he was morally a good person, a deeply religious person, but even he had to be born again. The significance is obvious. If this kind of person needed to be born again then every human being needs it. “You must be born of the Holy Spirit,” the Lord told Nicodemus.

Jesus was implying that all Nicodemus’s knowledge of the Scriptures was inadequate, and that he needed Jesus to write his letter on his heart. That is what happens at the new birth. We are given a change of heart and the Lord Jesus writes on that new heart. We are born of the Spirit and at that same time the Spirit of the living God writes a Jesus-letter on our hearts. There is an old chorus which you can make your prayer. It is the chorus, “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.” The Spirit fell first from Jesus at Pentecost, but since that time he comes upon every Christian heart. So you should pray that he will come upon you too:

“Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.
Take me: melt me: mold me: fill me.
Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.”

How can you tell that this has actually happened? You will start to be drawn to the language Christ writes. Just like immigrants move into a new country where they discover that there is a community of people from their home land in a certain town and they want to live there with them. They go to Chinatown perhaps where they will hear their own Cantonese spoken and they will feel at home again. So it is with Christians. When we start to hear of Jesus Christ and become drawn to him we want to be present in church each Sunday. We want to hear Christians pray and sing and talk of Christ. We want to hear the teaching of Christ’s apostles explained to us. This shows that Jesus has been writing his letter on your heart. This is the language and the themes and discourse you want to hear about from now on. These are your people who have the same God as you have.

It is very interesting to see how Paul describes this here: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts” (v.2). Paul could never forget what happened when he went to Philippi, how Lydia listened to them by the river side, and received the word and was baptized. He could never forget the deliverance of the slave girl from dreadful evil influences. He always had a soft spot for the old jailer whom he saved from suicide and told, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Those people were engraven by Paul himself upon his own heart in marks of indelible grace. Every Christian knew of the wonderful change that had taken place in their lives. Every Christian read the new life of love and service which came from those three founder members of the church at Philippi. But Paul carried them about with him throughout his life; they were his very own personal letter because they had been converted though him, and so he had written them on his heart, but they were no secret. They were known and read by everybody. “Give us a letter of recommendation,” cried Paul’s opponents. “Here it is,” says Paul, “Lydia, a business woman; a former slave-girl; a former jailor. Those three are the letter of commendation, and where is the letter written? On my heart.”

You might think it is a wonderful thing to have such people written on your heart, but it was not all warm’n’fuzzy to have, for example, two difficult women like Euodia and Syntyche written on your heart when the two of them were like wild cats towards one another, and the church taking sides, and you had to pray for them and plead with them to be of one mind in the Lord. It was not easy to have the Corinthian congregation in its fickleness and waywardness written on your heart. Sometimes they did not reciprocate his love. Sometimes the pain of knowing about them was intense. He could never leave them. They were written on his heart.

It is part of Christian maturity to carry fellow believers about with us constantly on our very hearts, not just the sweet and earnest ones who give us not a moment’s concern but the wayward, the sheep who gets lost, the prodigal son, the weak brother, Mr Fearing. There is one place they must be, and that is written on your heart, and God will give you strength to carry them there and not give up, and not despair. There are times when you will cry for those on your heart, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (Roms.9:3). That is the reality of being a Christian, and it is a very poor life if we try to escape from all those burdens and let other people in the fellowship carry them as we move to the fringes into some imagined safe haven where no Christian gives us any trouble because we know and love so few of them.

Samuel Johnson once turned to his biographer and companion Boswell and said to him: “A curious thought strikes me. We shall receive no letters in the grave.” True. The days to speak of our affection for one another are now while we live. So too Christ shall write on no soul after death. He writes while we are alive, while there is the slightest longing that Christ will hear our prayer, while our hearts stand in need of washing away the old statements of our condemnation and new declarations of forgiveness be written in their place. Write on my heart, Saviour, your own letter, before I die!

17th December 2000 GEOFF THOMAS