Each year as we move into the months of February, March, and April I am asked to write a number of letters of recommendation. Most of these are for students applying for scholarships, though sometimes I have been asked to be a reference for a job or something else. The idea of a letter of recommendation is quite simple—those tasked with picking the best candidate are looking for insight from the people who know those candidates. I take writing letters of recommendation seriously. I know that those reading my letter are trusting me to give them an accurate picture of the person I’m recommending to them, so I strive to communicate my thoughts about the person as best I can in the few words I am allotted to do so, but it’s difficult to get across the whole message in such a short space.
Far better than a simple letter of recommendation is some sort of an in-person interview, whether face-to-face or over the phone. The person conducting the interview can learn a lot more about the candidate by paying attention to not just what you say, but how you say it. They can hear the hesitation or enthusiasm in your voice and they can see the confidence (or lack thereof) you have in this person in your eyes. The “live” recommendation communicates a lot more than a simple written one.
In our passage this morning, Paul talks about how we are living letters of recommendation, and we will see how this truth applies to each of us. This is a difficult passage to understand. The first part (in verses 1-6) is pretty straightforward. The second part (verses 7-18) gets confusing. The key to understanding this passage is to recognize that in verses 7-18 Paul is making a comparison between us as living letters and the Old Testament law, which was not living. The essence of what Paul is saying is this: that the way we live every day is like a living letter of recommendation—for better or worse. This morning, we are going to look at the three different kinds of living letters that Paul describes in this passage.
Those Who Represent Us
The first kind of living letter that Paul talked about was those who represented him. Apparently some people had been attacking Paul’s character by claiming that he should not be trusted because he did not have any letters of recommendation from trusted leaders. It’s possible that other teachers had come to Corinth with such letters and so people were claiming that these teachers were superior to Paul because he did not come with such letters.
Paul pointed out that ultimately, his credentials are not seen in the endorsements he carries, they are seen in the effects of his ministry. We know that earlier in Paul’s life, he did carry written letters of recommendation with him at least once—it was when he was going to Damascus to capture and persecute Christians! He understood that credentials and endorsements alone do not tell the whole story. Instead, he asked the Corinthian believers to look at the effects of his work among them. He claimed that the Corinthian believers were his letter of recommendation, because if he hadn’t preached the gospel to them, they wouldn’t be believers. His effectiveness was seen in the people he had impacted.
There is something that we can learn from this passage for ourselves. We do not measure our success or failure as believers in terms of our accomplishments, but rather in terms of people. There is a temptation to fall back on any number of things as a way of showing our legitimacy as believers. Pastors fall into this trap easily. A pastor might point to his ordination, his advanced degrees, his church’s attendance, the books or articles he’s published, or his years of service to show that he is truly serving the Lord. The truth is, just because a pastor is well-educated, or popular, or has been doing the job for a long time, it does not necessarily mean that he is effectively serving the Lord.
But it’s not just pastors who can fall into this trap. You might point to your church membership, to your baptism, or the fact that you served on a board or committee, or your years of service as a Sunday School teacher or youth leader, or the money or time you’ve given to support the church, or some other spiritual credentials. While all of those things are good things (and are things that should be present in the lives of believers), they do not, by themselves, necessarily mean that we are making an impact for the kingdom of God.
Churches face this same challenge as well. A church is not successful simply because it draws a big crowd on Sundays (by that measure, the NFL is the most successful church in America). A church is successful when it is accurately proclaiming God’s word and leading people to grow deeper in their faith and closer to the Lord. This is difficult to quantify. Attendance, giving, and activity in the church are all affected by spiritual growth, but can also be affected by other things. We must remember that our success or failure in our Christian service is not seen in numbers or credentials, it is seen in people.
In the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, this point is illustrated beautifully. The story is about a young musician named Glenn Holland who decides to take a temp job as a music teacher to pay the bills. His temp job lasts for 30 years, and he comes to love trying to impact his students. At the end of his career, after the music budget has been cut so much that he loses his job, Mr. Holland is depressed, believing that his life was wasted—30 years of teaching with nothing to show for it. What he didn’t know was that waiting for him was an auditorium full of former students who wanted to thank him for his service. One of his former students (who was now the state’s governor) took the podium and said these words.
Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.
In the movie, you can see the pain on Mr. Holland’s face as she says that he thinks of himself as a failure—he does. He thinks about all the things he wanted to accomplish and hadn’t done any of them. But when she asks him to look around, he begins to cry, he sees that his success is not seen in his individual accomplishments, but in the lives he has impacted. Like Mr. Holland, as Christians, we should measure our success or failure based on the lives we impact. We should focus on trying to introduce others to Jesus Christ, helping believers grow deeper in their faith, and demonstrating Christ’s love to others. If we do that, we can be assured success, regardless of our credentials.
Those We Represent
On the one hand we see that the people we impact serve as our letters of recommendation. The flip side of that is that how we live our lives serves as a letter of recommendation for others..Paul alludes to this fact with the Corinthians at the beginning of verse 3: “Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you.”
The way we live reflects on our Christian leaders, on our church, and on our brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t know about you, but I find this to be somewhat of a scary proposition. But scary or not, we understand the truth of this statement.
We see how a single person’s actions color our view of the group with which they’re associated. We look at children who behave poorly and draw conclusions about their parents. We have an experience with an employee who is rude or unhelpful and we draw conclusions about the company they work for as a whole. We look at the actions of a group of students and draw conclusions about their school. We innately understand that our actions can cause others to draw conclusions about the people with whom we are affiliated.
This is especially true when it comes to how the actions of individual Christians impact how people view the Church. How many times have you heard people complain about churches being full of hypocrites? That seems to be one of the chief arguments I hear from people outside the Church. They have concluded that people who go to church are simply playing a game—that we claim to hear the message of the Bible, we claim to believe what the Bible teaches, but we act just like everyone else. Sadly, there is probably more truth in this statement than we would like to admit.
Think about the things we associate with non-Christians. We think of people who party and get drunk. We think of people who are mean-spirited, easily offended, and selfish. We think of people who use foul language. We think of people who “shade the truth” (which is a nice term for lying) in order to get their way. We think of people who are greedy..Here’s the question, don’t we, as Christians, sometimes do the same things? Do you see how people could be confused about what is different about Christians?
The truth is that we can give people the wrong message about Christianity even when we’re trying to stand for the truth. It’s good for Christians to take a stand for God’s Word, but when we use the same tactics that the world does, they simply label us as extremists. How we deal with people who disagree with us is just as important as our stance on the issues. When we get either of those things wrong, Satan has succeeded in helping us give a negative recommendation about Christianity.
We serve as a living letter of recommendation for the community of faith. How we live impacts the way that others view not only us, but other Christians as well. Just as a child who behaves poorly leads some to conclude that their parents aren’t doing their jobs, so too the person who claims to be a Christian and yet lives like the world around them leads some to conclude that Christians are self-righteous, arrogant, and hypocritical. They conclude that the Christian faith is a waste of time and that the Church is certainly not something they want to be associated with.
The way we live can either attract or repel those people from the Church. So we should live in such a way that people are drawn to faith because they see something different in us.
The Message of the Gospel
The third kind of living letter that Paul describes is actually seen at the end of this section in verse 18.
So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NLT)
Paul is saying that not only do our lives serve as living letters for other Christians, but that we are living letters of recommendation for the Lord Himself. We are to proclaim the message of the gospel both with our words and our lives.
In verses 6-17, Paul explains a bit about what we should be representing. There is some confusion amongst scholars as to the precise meaning of this passage, but I want to talk about the gist of what Paul is saying here. Paul contrasts the new covenant and the old covenant. Those terms might sound familiar to you, but you may not understand exactly what they mean. Paul is referring back to Exodus 24, and the giving of the law (The Ten Commandments) to Moses. The law was the old covenant. Under the old covenant God told the Israelites how they needed to live in order to avoid God’s wrath—they needed to follow God’s law perfectly. The problem was that the Israelites couldn’t keep God’s law—as a matter of fact, while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the law from God, the Israelites were down below, making a false idol to worship! They had almost instantly turned away from the one true God.
Paul said that the old covenant only brings death, because no person is capable of keeping God’s law perfectly. He contrasts that with the new covenant, which says that if we will trust in Jesus Christ, He will forgive our sins. Under the old covenant, we were left to keep the law for ourselves (and we all failed at doing so), but under the new covenant, Christ has kept the law for us, and made it so that our sin can be erased. Under the old covenant, we were separated from God because of our sin, but under the new covenant our relationship with God has been restored because the penalty for our sin has been paid in full.
Paul continues his comparison between the old and new covenants by talking about Moses wearing a veil in verses 12 and following. This section about Moses covering his face with a veil is also a reference back to Exodus 24. When Moses met with God, the Lord revealed a glimpse of His glory to Moses. When Moses came down the mountain from meeting with God, his face was literally glowing. It scared the people, and so Moses covered his face with a veil to cover God’s reflected glory. Paul goes on to say that some people still try to cover God’s glory (“a veil covers their minds”, v. 14). They cover their hearts and minds because when we encounter God, we realize how inadequate we are—and as human beings, we don’t like that.
The new covenant is great news, but we cannot embrace the new covenant until we understand the consequences of the old covenant. People don’t like the idea that they are sinful, so they look at God’s law as a measuring stick. They see all the ways they have kept it and declare themselves to be good. The problem is that they don’t see the ways they have broken God’s law. As long as a person refuses to see their own sin they will try to hide from God, and cover their minds with a veil. But we cannot understand the glory of the new covenant until we understand the condemnation we deserve under the old. But Paul reminds us that if we are under the new covenant we do not need to hide from God’s glory because our sins have been forgiven.
Not only do we not need to fear God’s glory, we should be vessels of it. Under the new covenant, believers have the Holy Spirit living within them. Where before there was separation from God, now there is true communion with God! Because the Holy Spirit lives within us, people should see God’s glory shining through us! As we grow in faith, we should also reflect more and more of God’s character. People draw their picture of God from the actions of Christians, and our lives should paint a picture of who He is.
If you’re like me, hearing all of these things about how we are supposed to live is a little overwhelming. Though I want my life to point others to Christ, I don’t feel as though my life could ever give the kind of recommendation that the Lord, the gospel message, and other Christians deserve. But Paul actually addresses that concern as well—I think he felt a similar sense of inadequacy.
It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. 6 He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a)
Paul emphasized that Christians do not feel as though we are somehow qualified to represent God. We do not look at our lives and conclude that we are the best people to represent the gospel message. That shouldn’t dissuade us from doing so, however. Paul said, “He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant.” We are reminded that we are qualified for the task of being living letters of recommendation not because we are somehow better than others; we are qualified for the task because God has qualified us. Though we are not adequate on our own, when we rely on the Lord, He gives us the help we need to serve Him as we should.
Think about how many examples we see of this in Scripture. Some of the greatest examples of spirituality in the Bible were people who told God that they weren’t up to the task He had called them to. Moses told God that he wasn’t a good speaker. Gideon told God that he was too weak and unimportant. Isaiah told God that he was too sinful to be used. Each of these men trusted God to do what they couldn’t do—they simply did the best they could and trusted God to do the rest. I challenge you to do the same.
What task is God calling you to? Could it be to start a ministry, lead a Sunday School class, start a Bible study at work, invite your neighbor to church, begin the process of forgiveness with someone who has wronged you, or love someone who you feel doesn’t deserve your love? Maybe God is convicting you of the way you live. Maybe as you’ve been sitting here you have realized just how similar your life looks to the world around you. Maybe you’ve realized it’s to make some changes in your life and be obedient to the Lord’s commands, so that others cannot look at you and claim that you are no different than those outside the church. Whatever task God has laid before you, just because you don’t feel like you can do it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it! It is often in those times where we act in obedience to the Lord even though we feel like it is beyond our ability that we see the greatest results. God’s power is most clearly seen in the times of our weakness.
If we hear what Paul is saying we need to do some personal evaluation. Look at the people around you—what message are they getting about your faith from the way you live your life? What kind of an impact are you having on others?. I don’t know if you will ever be asked to write a letter of recommendation. I don’t know whether you will ever need to ask for a letter of recommendation. I do know this: you ARE a letter of recommendation for the kingdom of God by the way you live your life. The question is, are you giving a positive recommendation or a negative one?
 Quote taken from the Internet Movie Database at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113862/quotes (accessed on January 27th, 2014).