“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” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
In this passage Paul uses the analogy of believers being a letter in a particularly interesting way. First, he tells the Corinthians that “You … are our letter, written on our hearts … known and read by everyone” – meaning that they functioned as a “letter” representing the visible results of Paul and his co-workers’ labors to all who knew them.
Paul extends the analogy of the believers being a letter from God in several ways. While the NIV translates his words to say the Corinthian believers were “the result of our ministry” (vs. 3), many other versions translate more literally that this letter was “delivered by us” (RSV, CSB, NET, ESV, etc.) meaning that Paul and his co-workers acted as the letter carriers for the message.
In New Testament times, letters were commonly written on parchment with some form of pigment mixed with oil, or on papyrus, or even pottery fragments. Less commonly, letters were carved or written on tablets of wood. Paul tells us this letter from Christ was written “on our hearts … with the Spirit of the living God” – stressing the living nature of the medium as well as the message, and also showing that this “letter” was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that God would write his laws on people’s hearts with his Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).
The letter, Paul tells us, is a letter of recommendation: “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…” (vss. 1-2). While Paul had made use of letters of recommendation before his conversion (Acts 9:2; 22:5) and often wrote letters of recommendation for others (Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 8:16-24; etc.), he himself now needed and carried no such letters. Yet, he says, the Corinthians who had heeded his teaching were a letter of recommendation for him to anyone who needed such a letter.
So, Paul’s analogy of the believer as representing a letter from God is one that he develops in some detail, and it is an analogy that we can think about. Although Paul was writing specifically to the Corinthian church, what he says obviously could apply to any believer. In a very real sense, we are all “letters” from God to those around us – either recommending Christianity or failing in this regard.
We can, in fact, extend the analogy to ourselves in a number of meaningful ways. We can ask if we, too, are “known and read by everyone,” or is the message God desires to impart through us obscured in some way – just like a letter that has become smudged and illegible? All wrongdoing not only makes marks on our own characters, but also makes “blots” on the letter that God desires to send through us.
Being a “letter from God” is a wonderful but a very sobering responsibility. Whatever we do in life and whatever kind of father, mother, employer, employee, friend, or co-worker – or even stranger – we are to those around us becomes an inseparable part of the message that is sent through us. Fortunately, the letter is not written by us, but by God. Yet we must do our part to be made into the kind of message he wants to give others, or we degrade the message and it may appear more like “junk mail.”
A little later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states his point directly: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us … “ (2 Corinthians 5:20). In the analogy he uses earlier, those chosen by God are called to be a letter from God – a concept that we can all profit from. The Bible may be regarded as a “letter from God,” but – to paraphrase a well-known quote – we may be the only “letter” from God that many people ever read.