Our Letter of Recommendation – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Unlike other peddlers of the Gospel, Paul does not need “letters of recommendation” to introduce himself to the church (2 Cor 3:1-3). This is a metaphor drawn from the common Roman practice of having a letter of introduction when visiting someone, especially if you intended to instruct and correct the new group. A letter of recommendation or introduction was common in the ancient world. A letter (συστατικός) would confirm a person’s identity and qualifications.

If a Christian teacher arrived in a church, it would not be considered rude at all to ask to see a letter of recommendation in order to confirm they are a legitimate teacher and qualified to teach. In the modern world, we might ask a pastor where they were educated and through what organization they were ordained. This confirms they are trained and authorized in a particular denomination. Paul wonders (sarcastically) if he needs to get a new letter of recommendation to the congregation, as if he were coming to the church as a complete outsider for the first time. This is to say, “Are we starting all over again”?

Instead of physical letters of recommendation, Paul says the church at Corinth itself his recommendation. He calls on the church to remember the fact he was the one who brought the gospel in Corinth in the first place and established the church. He spent eighteen months training the leaders of the church before moving on to Ephesus. He does not need a letter of recommendation, since the people in the church itself are his letter! The whole world can read Paul’s letter by looking at the Corinthian church.

“Written with ink” would refer to a letter written on papyri, but written on stone would recall the Law of Moses to a Jewish reader. If a Gentile was unfamiliar with the story of Moses receiving the Commandments in Exodus 31:18, then they might have thought of a physical inscription on a monument. These were so common they could not walk through Corinth without seeing an inscribed monument, placed in a public place for all to see.

Rather than written in a physical form, God has written this letter of recommendation in the hearts of the Corinthians by the Spirit of God. “Engraved on hearts of flesh not stone” is an allusion to Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26. In Ezekiel, the new covenant would be written on the heart, not stone as the old covenant was.

Paul has moved from a letter of recommendation to the idea of the covenant. He does not need a physical letter to be qualified to minister to the church because he has been appointed a minister of the New Covenant, which the Corinthian believers themselves participate in by having the Holy Spirit.

Rather than having authority coming from a letter of recommendation or a document like the Torah, Paul’s authority come from God through the Holy Spirit. God himself has recommended Paul through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and he has enabled him to be a ministry of this new covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about the metaphor of a letter of recommendation, the content of the letter is usually your qualifications and accomplishments. Paul has already said he does not have any personal qualifications to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet God called him anyway; now he denies any accomplishments since God has done everything, and apart from God Paul has done nothing!

If Paul were writing a letter of recommendation for himself, it would be something like: “I am not qualified for this job, but God thinks I am and he will accomplish the tasks assigned.” This is the opposite of the way the Roman world would think about leadership. For the Romans, one was worthy of respect because they had accumulated honors and held the right offices. For Paul, he is a minister, a servant, of the New Covenant rather than the Apostle to the Gentiles appointed personally by God, with 30 years experience as a church planter, and all the other resume-padding typical of the world.

Humble leadership like this is something often talked about in the contemporary church, but it is not as often practiced. It is easy for the leader to think too highly of themselves, to think of themselves as the boss, or worse, a CEO of a major corporation who expects an impressive compensation package all the perks that come with an executive position. By shifting his perspective from the way the Roman world thought to the way God thinks, Paul revolutionizes pastoral leadership.

9 thoughts on “Our Letter of Recommendation – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

  1. It is not surprising to me that those in Corinthian wanted Paul to give some type of letter of recommendation, showing how he was qualified to be an apostle. This is because of two reasons. First, is because this has been done since the beginning of time. For example, Esther was chosen as Queen because of her qualifications. Some of these qualifications include being a female virgin (Esther 2:2). This type of logic is still used today, but more in a modern sense, as just a few days ago I had a job interview and brought a business portfolio including my resume, reference letters, statistics, and awards. This was my way of proving I deserved the job. Therefore, it makes sense to me that those in Corinthian also wanted this even more so for just peace of mind. The second reason it doesn’t surprise me is because of what P Long stated above about how the Romans in Corinthian associated those in power with honor; meaning, holding positions because you deserve them. During the Corinthian time period, a quest for honor was engraved in the Corinthians, dating back to when the city was re-established as a Roman colony (Longenecker, pg. 110). Honor was supposed to be in all parts of life including personal, corporate, and civic (Longenecker, pg. 110). Since Paul did not take these route of honor, it would have been going against their culture, making it hard for them to accept Paul.

    Now, although it does not surprise me those in Corinthian wanted to see how Paul was qualified to be an apostle sent by God, I think Paul did a great job in explaining why such a letter was not needed. This is because he explained how he was the first to bring the gospel to Corinthian and started the church (P Long Blog). Obviously, these individuals are trying to think logically when they are asking for qualifications from Paul, however, logically speaking it wouldn’t make sense to think he wasn’t qualified being he is the reason they believe in the new faith and have a church in Corinthian. Next, Paul did a good job making his point because he explained God used him even though he was never first qualified (P Long Blog). If the Corinthian church knew anything about past individuals God used, which they should have, they would have seen that God can appoint those in leadership who the common man never would have looked at. For example, King David, Noah, and Moses. Overall, Paul spoke in a correct way, making his points clear, allowing those in Corinthian to understand why a letter of recommendation was not needed from him.

  2. As I read about how Paul responded to the topic of letter of recommendations, I realized that sometimes, within the Church, we do not ask for good “letters of recommendation” for unpaid leadership positions. (Paul was not paid!). Paul explains that his letter of recommendation is the church itself who he is leading and guiding toward Christ. Longenecker writes that the transformation of the hearts of the Corinthians should have been enough, according to Paul, to recommend him, (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 155). This form of recommendation speaks more about Paul’s character and who he truly is. A written recommendation could quite easily say, “Paul is a selfless leader who goes above and beyond to help where he can.” His form of recommendation shows Paul to be this and more (Acts 20:19-36). Most importantly, his form of recommendation glorifies God who guides Paul in his strengths as well as his weakness. Paul was being humble by saying this, and in that culture, humility was not a “treasured commodity in most sectors of the ancient world,” (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 157). Thus, he was also not agreeing with this form of boasting. A very important aspect to note is that Paul does not ask that we get rid of “letters of recommendations”.
    Dr. Long writes “Paul wonders (sarcastically) if he needs to get a new letter of recommendation to the congregation as if he were coming to the church as a complete outsider for the first time,” (Long 2019). Before Paul started the church, he explained how he has authority and how he is able to categorize himself as an apostle (He fulfills both requirements) (Long, “Was Paul an Apostle”, 2019). Paul does not just believe that he is not qualified but actively trusts God and shows the Corinthians how to trust God (Rom 8:28). He asks them to work hard and die to their own carnal desires which is something that they needed to be intentional about.
    I believe that what Paul is getting to is that these recommendations need to be more than just a set of accomplishments and what you are able to do. As students, we are often taught that building up our resume is very important for our future. We are told to diversify and broaden our perspective in order to accomplish a very impressive resume. Paul, a person who had an impressive resume, discards all his work to humbly say, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20, Longenecker & Todd, p. 156). His resume reads, “To God be the Glory” which is a very different perspective than most universities want their students to believe.

  3. If there was ever a contest for ancient letters of recommendation, the apostle Paul’s self-proclaimed list of achievements would not be in the top 10. According to our textbook, Paul feels compelled by the Corinthians to boast in his accomplishments (TTP, 154). However, Paul’s list looked very different from what the Corinthians were expecting and from how a typical authority figure would recommend himself. He starts off strong, claiming to be an Israelite descended from Abraham. Next. He boasts that he has been in prison and faced death multiple times. Five times he received the Jewish punishment of 39 lashes (2 Cor 11:24). Three times he was subjected to the Roman punishment of being beaten with rods (2 Cor 11:25). He goes on to list shipwrecks, bandits, sleeplessness, hunger, and cold (2 Cor 11:25-27). Paul lists these weaknesses to demonstrate how God can use them for his glory (TTP, 154).
    Paul set a president for church leaders to boast in their weaknesses instead of their strengths. He exemplified the trait of humility that was severely lacking in secular leadership at the time. The Roman emperors claimed to be gods (Long, 86). It was not good form to downplay a leader’s strengths so they would not seem incapable of leading. Paul can turn the cultural norm on its head and through Christ, his weaknesses became strengths (2 Cor 12:9).

  4. In a sense, it is good to have some sort of credit or recommendation attached to a certain pastor or elder in order to establish that they are given the authority to preach or teach. Although it is not always necessary to receive a physical letter in hand to prove that they have credit or are recommended, but rather that they are able to provide proof of their education and denominational beliefs. Aside from the need of being able to prove authority to preach or teach which has been given to a certain individual, it’s interesting that in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 those part of the church at Corinth refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority to continue to preach to the Corinthian congregation considering Paul had already established the church on Corinth. This might be far reaching, but it almost seems as though when the church of Corinth asked to receive a letter of recommendation it wasn’t necessarily due to the fact that they wanted proof of credit or knowledge to be able to preach, but rather the request was considered a slap in the face towards Paul to question, “who is this man to tell us how we are to live our lives.” I only make this suggestion because throughout the Corinthian letters there is a continuous pattern of the members of the Corinthian church falling into sinful behaviors, Paul brings about correction, and then the Corinthian church continues in more sinful behaviors.

  5. A playback from earlier in class that this reminds me of is the culture of the Sophists that we talked about likely having an influence on the divisions Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians. Much of who they were didn’t place a lot of emphasis on the message, rather it was the messenger/speaker who gave it. Paul is saying here that “we are not competent to claim anything for ourselves,” which directly goes against the Greco-Roman culture that places all competency on themselves. I’m not surprised Paul is speaking in this type of language because with a church that was previously rooted in the culture, it’s going to take some correction and encouragement to help them understand that a relationship with Jesus is counter cultural. It qualifies even the lowest within society to be ministers of Christ, not because of their rhetoricity or eloquent speaking, but because God enables them. To a first century Corinthian, this message is truly revolutionary and goes against any previous rule of thought. He furthers this claim even in chapter 5 when he calls believers “Christ’s ambassadors,” through whom “God is making his appeal” (v. 20). Therefore, Paul’s rhetorical questions and subtle digs at the Corinthians for not trusting Paul’s authority gets at an larger, underlying issue going on within the church: the misunderstanding of God’s ability to qualify a messenger simply with the Gospel.

  6. Part of me wonders if Paul is actually serious when he questions if he needs to bring a letter of recommendation to the Corinthian church. There had been a lot of tension between Paul and the church in Corinth. Had the two become so estranged that the best thing to do would be to start back from square one of their relationship? Paul had been the one to plant the church and he had spent more than a year with them. Did the church forget all this? Based on what we know of some of their actions, they had—at least in part—forgotten Paul. Paul’s 1 Corinthians addresses a number of concerning issues in the church, issues that probably wouldn’t have come up if Paul were still around. Then in 2 Corinthians, Paul addresses the allegations of the so-called “super apostles” that have been levied against him. Do the Corinthians seriously believe these new guys over their founder? I think that this is exactly the problem. I half expected Paul to quote Hosea and compare his relationship with the Corinthians to God’s relationship with a disloyal Israel. All I’m saying is, it isn’t all that hard to believe that the Corinthian church forgot about Paul. Stuff like that happens elsewhere in the Bible a lot.

  7. Though the letter of recommendation may seem like an insult to Paul, we must know that God holds the only valuable words of truth. If God felt Paul had not met his requirements to be an apostle, God would have made that known and everyone within the church would have supported the denial of Paul. One key note I took while reading this post, though Paul questions the letter of recommendation he never verbally shows his disagreement. Paul is confident in his abilities because God is confident in Paul’s abilities.

  8. We never have to be afraid to share the gospel with others, especially with a congregation like Corinth, because God will equip us with the words. Unfortunately, we are worried because this world is flawed. Plus, we are afraid to be questioned about our calling. We are worried that people will ask us what qualifies us to speak the Gospel, and we can say we can be honest and not qualified. Still, God will give us the words, which is the truth, but it won’t give us the Job or get us kicked out of synagogues and temples because people expect us to tell them that w are qualified because of my Ph.D. or seminary degree.

  9. In the ancient world, a letter was intended to confirm a person’s identity and qualifications. Like our modern world when we are looking to get a new job, we are in need of references. These references come from individuals that we know that demonstrates the new job that they are qualified for the job based on what they have seen from their perspective. An interesting thing in regards to the Corinthians, Paul does not need a letter of recommendation to introduce himself. Rather than having a physical letter of recommendation, Paul insists that the church at Corinth is itself his recommendation. Instead, God has written the letter of recommendation in the hearts of the Corinthians by the Spirit of God (Long, 2019). A final thought in regards to the letter of recommendation, is what it would look like if Paul were to write a letter. His letter would look different than the rest of the Roman world in the sense that Paul isn’t specifically qualified for the job based on his skills, but in a sense that God has called him to be.

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