An Exegetical Look of 2nd Corinthians 3:1-11
2 Corinthians 3:1
“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?”[All scripture taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted]
In this section, Paul confronts the idea that some Christians in the Church of Corinth have that Paul isn’t a genuine apostle. They believe that because Paul doesn’t commend himself, or have a “letter of recommendation,” he must not be a real apostle. Kruse writes in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians (TNTC) “It is absurd that anyone should require Paul to bring such letters to the Corinthian church when he was its founding apostle. Thus Paul’s question expects an emphatic ‘no’ as an answer.” It seems to me that the Corinthians would have known Paul’s authenticity through his work in Corinth in earlier years, and especially through witnessing his miraculous power from God.
This would explain why Paul asked his rhetorical question. Paul was not opposed to the idea of letters of recommendation. He wrote them in some of his epistles, but it seems as though the idea of the Corinthians needing a letter from him frustrated Paul because they already knew him. Tasker (TNTC page 60) argues that he “…cannot, however, entertain for a single moment the thought that the Corinthians were so forgetful of his ministry as to need a further testimony of his own credentials.” It has been argued, and I believe the text supports, that false prophets, or false apostles, started this insecurity. It has also been brought up as a possibility that the man who slept with his father’s wife started this rumor about Paul as a negative response to Paul urging the church at Corinth to use righteous discipline with him to correct his behavior. This doesn’t seem likely to me.
2 Corinthians 3:2 “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”
Applebury says in Studies In Second Corinthians (SISC) on page 57, “They had become Christians as a result of obedience to the gospel which Paul preached to them.” In other words, the Corinthians were a product of Paul’s ministry. The entire reason they were Christians to begin with is because the gospel was preached to them through Paul, which made them living proof of his genuineness. This was a letter; a letter written on the heart of Paul, as well as the church. It was written on the Corinthians heart because they could see how the love of Christ changed their own lives. It was written on Paul’s heart because he had seen evidence of the Corinthians Christian lifestyle, and their relationship with Christ. This is also why they were “known and read by all.”
Applebury also adds on page 57, in SISC, the geographical fact that “Corinth was a strategic point in which to establish a church, for men in the known world came in and out of that city carrying on their commerce. As they did so they learned about the church of God which was at Corinth.” People from all over the world saw the Christians of Corinth every day, and how they stood out from the world. This was a great way to evangelize throughout the world. This was evidence!
2 Corinthians 3:3 “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. “
The lives of those in the church of Corinth were amazingly reversed from the times before they were changed by the gospel. It wasn’t hard for outsiders to see they were from Christ. They were brought to Christ by the ministry of the apostle Paul. Paul built the foundation, gave them the tools for their faith, and Apollos “watered” them through teaching and encouraging them (1 Cor. 3).
Applebury talks about how the letter in their hearts was written when he says (page 58), “The epistle of Christ had not been written with ink, for it was not just a piece of parchment with words written upon it. It was written by the Spirit of the living God through, the inspired apostle. It was the message of life unto life and death unto death. It could be read by all those who saw the changed character and conduct of the church at Corinth.” Their letter of recommendation was deeper than paper, it was on their hearts through the spirit of Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:4 “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.”
Tasker says in Introduction and Commentary: 2 Corinthians, page 61, “The trust or confidence Paul felt in his commendation supplied by the Holy Spirit was totally different from the self-confidence of the natural man. It was based neither upon a consciousness of his own innate ability, nor upon the good reputation he might have acquired with his fellow-men, but was solely due to the activity of the risen Christ. Through Christ alone he possessed it; and he knew in consequence that it would stand the scrutiny of God himself.”
I believe that Paul is saying that our confidence in each other, and in ourselves, is not through man. It is through Christ, who changes us, and lives through us in a very evident way (Gal. 2:20). Regardless as to if Paul sent a letter to the church at Corinth or not, or if they sent one to him, sufficient trust should be in Jesus Christ alone. We should believe our brothers and sisters in Christ without question, because as Christians, Christ lives through us all.
2 Corinthians 3:5 “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,”
I believe what Paul is saying in this verse is that yes, we are humankind. And as imperfect (and sometimes dishonest) beings, we sometimes cannot be trusted by others with what we do or say. Sometimes we can’t rely on others ourselves. But, with that said, anything good we do or say as Christians, is from God. Not only this, but the gifts and the message Paul brought with him to Corinth, he received from the Holy Spirit. These gifts, and the message of Christ, is from God. Colin Kruse states on page 92-93, “Paul’s confidence in the matter of ministerial competence is not self-confidence, rather, he insists our competence is from God. This does not reflect the exaggerated humility on the part of the apostle, but rather a sober recognition of the facts of the matter. Spiritual work can be accomplished only by the power of God released through the preaching of the Gospel (cf. Romans 15:17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5).” Romans 15:17-19 says, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.  For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed,  by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.”Anything we do, we do through Christ. Therefore, if we boast, let us boast through him; giving glory to God where glory in surely due.
2 Corinthians 3:6 “who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
In this section, Paul talks about how Christ made him, and the other apostles, ministers of the new covenant, and how Christ gave him all the resources to be sufficient in his ministry. Paul also discusses how the letter (or the old law) kills and the Spirit (new covenant) gives life. Perhaps his meaning behind this is that the letter kills the human will because it is impossible to be perfect in the law. The law was strict and specific, but as humans we could not keep the law. Wanting to do whats right, but doing what is wrong like Paul describes in Romans 7, as he speaks of his wretchedness in the law. So the letter, not done correctly, kills. But no one can obey the letter perfectly but Christ. We live through the Spirit because, as Christians, it is God‘s Holy Spirit living in us, through Christ; perfecting us in our imperfections so that we may live spiritually for eternity (Rom. 8).
Appleburry says this concerning the letter (the old covenant), on page 59, “A covenant is an agreement. When that covenant is between God and man, God himself dictates all the conditions of the covenant, as well as the blessings involved in it. Man agrees to the terms of the covenant in order to enjoy its blessings. In the case of the old Covenant which was given at Mt. Sinai, God revealed the commandments to Moses. The people entered into the covenant relationship when they said all that the Lord has spoken, we will do. [See Exodus 19:8 Subsequently], all who were born into the family of the Jews were parties to that old covenant. Under the new covenant- a spiritual birth in contrast to a physical birth.” Christ gave Paul the tools to be a minister of the good news, which gives life. Paul does not boast in himself because of apostleship, but he boasts in Christ who gives him this message of life, and the resources to help others receive this life as well. He is confident because Christ lives in him. – Jesse
Suggested Reading: An Exegetical Look of 2nd Corinthians 3:1-11, Part 2