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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:A Letter from Christ
Text:2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2018
Added:2019-12-11
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


 
A Letter from Christ”
2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6

Some Christians are accused of having roast preacher for their Sunday meal after church. I first heard the term when I was in seminary. I heard it from a minister who was sure that many in his congregation spent time around the dinner table after church criticizing him and finding fault with his sermons.

I hope that wasn't the case for him, but it certainly was the case for the apostle Paul. Few other ministers, either in the pages of Scripture, or in history, faced the amount of criticism that the apostle Paul faced in his day. And many today still look down in ridicule at the ministry of the apostle.

One of the main criticisms of the apostle Paul is that he was arrogant and boastful. That charge is based on many factors, including that he often wrote in the first person. He frequently pointed to his unique conversion, and he told others to follow his example. Because of those reasons, and more, the apostle Paul often had to defend himself against those who accused him of being boastful and who put down his ministry.

God’s Power and Our Inadequacy

We see some of his defense in this passage. In this passage the apostle freely admits his inadequacy to minister the Word of God apart from God's enabling power. For instance, Paul recognized that God must open the door for ministry.  He recognized that it is not pastors who have the power to open the door for a successful ministry. It is not pastors who can change the heart of people. Rather it is God and God alone. We read of that in verse 12 where Paul writes, “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ (I) found that the Lord had opened a door for me…”

The apostle frequently alluded to God opening the door because he acknowledged that he had no ability or power in himself; he acknowledged that God had to open the doors for his ministry. Because of that, he wrote to the Colossians and asked them to pray that God would open a door for them (Colossians 4:3), and he used the same expression in 1 Corinthians 16:9.  Luke also, in the book of Acts, frequently described how it is the Lord who opens the door to ministry, and at times closes that door as well.

But as the Lord works in sovereign grace he also uses us, even when we have no peace of mind. We see that in verse 13 where Paul explains, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

Some commentators question why Paul didn't stay in Troas since the door was open for him there. Some of them have a little bit of “roast preacher” questioning why he didn't make more use of that open door. Others point out that undoubtedly there were other Christians who carried on that work in Troas. The Lord also obviously had an open door for Paul in Macedonia, and by going there he was able to encourage Titus as well. God is sovereign within the church, opening and closing doors, but he also uses our thoughts and feelings, even – or especially – when we have “no peace of mind.”

The apostle Paul recognized God's sovereignty in his ministry; he recognized that the success of his ministry didn't rest on him, but on Christ alone. And we also see that wherever Paul served the Lord, whether in Troas, Macedonia. Corinth or elsewhere, he realized that in himself he was not up to the task of ministry.

After explaining how there is a twofold reaction to the gospel – it is either received as a sweet aroma, or as a stench – he goes on to ask this rhetorical question at the end of verse 16: And who is equal to such a task?”  The answer is that no man is equal to such a task. The apostle answered his own question, in chapter 3:5, where he acknowledges, Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.”

From these verses it should be clear that the apostle Paul, far from being the boastful preacher that many accused him of being, recognized that apart from the Lord he had no ministry. He recognized that his competence, and that of any pastor, comes not from the man but from God.

And that is still true today. There are some ministers who base their competency on their Master of Divinity or their doctorate. They base their competency for ministry on their seminary education and their grasp of Hebrew and Greek, systematic theology and apologetics along with other seminary courses. And all those things are so important. We are greatly blessed to have many biblical and reformed seminaries that faithfully prepare men for ministry.

But because our human nature has a way of twisting even that which is good, there is always a danger that some who are in ministry will base their competency on their training and education instead of humbly acknowledging that the competence of any pastor comes not from man, but from God. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “…By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

The apostle Paul pointed out his own inadequacies, not only to counter the criticism that he faced by those who accused him of being boastful, but also to contrast his ministry with those described in verse 17: Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”

There were many false teachers in Corinth, and throughout all the New Testament churches. They used the gospel for their own financial gain. In the words of verse 17, they peddled the word of God for profit. As they did so they would receive a letter of recommendation from those whom they had misled which they could bring from church to church.

As an example, a pastor who was only looking out for himself would take a letter from those whom he had misled in Troas and bring it to Corinth and say, “Here is my letter of recommendation from the church at Troas. You can see that they highly recommend me and that I'm worth a good wage.”

They were insincere, but Paul points out in verse 17 that he and the other faithful apostles “speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” He points out that they didn't need a letter of recommendation from another church because they were faithful before God. As he would write later in this letter, in 2 Corinthians 10:18, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

Letters from Christ

The concept of not needing a letter of recommendation, the way the false teachers used letters of recommendation, forms the context to chapter 3:1, where he asks, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?”

And then he goes on to point out that the Corinthians, even though they were sinners saved by grace, with many sins and problems, were yet letters from Christ. He writes: You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 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” (v. 2, 3).

Did you notice in those two verses the apostle Paul gives all the glory to Christ? The believers in Corinth, just like you and me today are letters from Christ, not from Paul. Philip Edgecombe Hughes, in his commentary on this passage, writes: “The fundamental humility of the apostle Paul shines through these words: he makes no claim to be the author of this living letter; it is the writing of Christ and he is merely the instrument used by the Divine Author…”  

By God’s grace, the Corinthians, although fraught with many sins and problems, were yet “letters from Christ” a result of God’s grace in Paul’s ministry.  And as letters from Christ, verse 2 tells us that they, and we who believe in Jesus today, are known and read by everyone.

In that way our life as a Christian is unlike many letters which are never read. How many letters end up in the recycle bin without being read?  Most of us are all too familiar with “junk mail”; it often gets tossed into the recycle bin without ever being opened. The same is true for many e-mails; just from the subject heading those e-mails will get deleted without ever reading them.

There are many letters that go unread in life, but if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, then others are going to read your life like a letter.  Others are going to want to know whether your faith in Christ has made a difference in your life, or whether your profession is just on your lips but not evident in your actions. The letter of your life and my life will reveal to others whether our profession is truly written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

A Two-Fold Reaction

And as you live your life as a letter from Christ you will find a twofold reaction. Admittedly there will be some who are apathetic, too busy in their lives to really respond, but most people will respond in one of two ways.

They will respond to the witness of your life the same way they respond to the proclamation of the gospel. In chapter 2:15-16 the apostle explains, For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”        

To the saved we are an aroma. That is one response.  Have you had the experience of meeting another Christian for the first time? You may not know much about their background or their family history, but in talking about the Lord you find a common bond. And, as you see that they are a letter from Christ, it seems as though you have known them all your life. The “aroma” of Christ is a wonderful blessing to those of us who believe in Jesus.

But that same gospel, likened to an aroma to those who believe in Jesus, is a stench to those who are perishing. In recent years, as well as throughout history, Christians have been characterized as bigots, hatemongers and extremists. Those characterizations simply bear out the truth of God’s word. There are two reactions to the gospel. Either it is a sweet-smelling savor, or it is the stench of death to those who are perishing.

The Holy Spirit’s Work in the Letter of Our Lives

That we are letters from Christ is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work, for the letter of our lives is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (v. 3). He is the One who works in our hearts, and in the hearts of those who read the letter of our lives. Two people can sit in the same service. Both hear the same proclamation of the gospel. One of them may believe in the gospel and the other is hardened by it. Why is that? Why does the same gospel – whether it is preached from the pulpit or presented in the life of the believer as a letter from Christ – why does the same gospel bring salvation to some and hardness of heart to others?

It is because the sovereign grace of God is evident as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of God’s elect. Verse 3: 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.”  And verse 6 also describes how it is the Spirit who gives life.

As the Holy Spirit regenerates with spiritual life from above, giving us the rebirth that is necessary for salvation, he works within our heart. When God gave the law at Mount Sinai, he wrote his law on tablets of stone. But he gave the promise already in the Old Testament that he would write his word on the hearts of his people. In Jeremiah 31:33 God gave this promise: “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.”

That is the promise of the new covenant, the promise that God’s word will not be written on an external tablet, it won't just be on the printed page of the Bible, but it will be within us, written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Because the Holy Spirit writes the word upon our heart, it transforms our life. The heart is the center of our being. When the Holy Spirit transforms your heart, it will transform your life. And that transformation will either be received as a wonderful aroma of Christ by other believers, or a stench by those who are perishing. But either way, as verse 15 points out, “we are to God the aroma of Christ” regardless of whether the letter of our lives is a stench to others or the aroma of salvation.

Legible Letters

Seeing that we truly are letters from Christ, known and read by everybody”, a real challenge is put before us. We must ask ourselves, “What does my letter – my life – say to others?”

First, ask, “How legible is the letter of my life?” Years ago, I used to receive letters from a distant friend that were so nice to receive, but so very hard to read. His writing made a doctor’s prescription look like good penmanship! I really wanted to read about what was going on in his life, but it was difficult because the letters were not legible.

What about your life? And what about mine? Is your life, and is my life truly legible as a Christian? After visiting with you, or doing business with you, or being your neighbor or fellow student, would someone say, “That person is a Christian. Their life makes me want to know more about Christ?”

We also must ask ourselves, “Is the letter of my life filled with dark spots and smudges?” On occasion when I use the copier to make copies, there is a smudge on the glass of the copier. Even though the original outline is smudge free, and even though the copy paper is white, the outlines come out of the copier with big blots and smudges.

All of us have the darkness of sin within us, and it so often comes to the surface as a dark smudge on the letter of our lives.  We are polluted with sin in every cell of our being, but by God’s sanctifying Spirit, do we earnestly strive to live a life that isn't filled with the obvious smudges and blots of sin?  Or is your life and mine characterized by those big blots? Maybe some repetitive words from our mouth? Or fits of anger? Or lust? Or greed?

There is a spot remover; there is a white-out that never fails. It is the precious blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses. And where there is cleansing from sin, there is also the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. We all have sin in our lives, but knowing that we are cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus, we must then, out of gratitude, seek to live pure, holy lives in obedience to God’s word.    

And then, most importantly, we must also ask, “Does the letter of my life bear the signature of Jesus Christ?  Or is the letter of my life just a carbon copy – just going through the motions of religion – without  the signature of Jesus Christ?” The signature is what makes a letter authentic. All legal letters must be signed. And the same is true with our salvation. Has Jesus Christ truly signed the letter of your life? By his grace and enabling Holy Spirit, have you committed your life, your heart, your soul, to him?

We who believe in Jesus truly are “letters from Christ.” Consider that when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror. Remember that you are a letter from Christ. How you present yourself throughout the day will give others an indication of what Christ means to you. Paul Gilbert noted:

“You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By deeds that you do,
By words that you say.

Men read what you write,
Whether faithless or true;
Say, what is the Gospel
According to you?”

May you and I, like the apostle Paul, recognize that we are nothing apart from Christ. When we see that we are only saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, then out of deep and sincere gratitude we will strive to live a life that is a letter from Christ, a letter that is a legible and loving witness to those around us, this week and always! Amen.

 

- bulletin outline -

 

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.2 Corinthians 3:3
“A Letter from Christ”
2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6
 
I. The Apostle Paul recognized his inadequacy to minister God’s Word:
     1) God must open the door for ministry (2:12, 13)
 
 
 
     2) Whether in Troas, Macedonia or Corinth, Paul realized that in himself he was not up to the task of ministry (2:16d)
 
 
 
     3) His competence, and that of any pastor, comes not from the man but from God (3:4-6)
 
 
 
II. By God’s grace, the Corinthians – although fraught with many sins and problems – were yet “letters from Christ” a result of God’s grace in Paul’s ministry (3:3). 
    We who believe are also “letters from Christ”:
      1) We are known and read by everybody (3:2)
           a) To the saved we are the fragrance of life (2:15-16)
 
 
      
           b) To the unsaved we are the stench of death (2:16)
 
 
 
       2) We are a result of ministry blessed by the Holy Spirit who works within the hearts of His people (3:3, 6)
 
 
 
III. The challenge: By God’s grace and sanctifying Spirit we are called to live as legible, loving “letters from Christ” (3:3)

 

 

 

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Ted Gray

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