“Letters of Commendation”

I remember how obsessed President Clinton was with defining some sort of legacy for himself during his last couple years in office. He was determined to achieve something to be remembered by. Of course, he had a legacy already, and no matter how much he tried to undo it, we remember him today for his women and his compulsive lying, not any political achievement.

People know us by our fruit.

The Apostle Paul had a legacy, but it was a much better one. Part of his legacy was the young church at Corinth, which God had used him to nurture, train, and grow.

Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.
2 Corinthians 3:1-3

Paul said that the church at Corinth was a “letter of commendation” for him, written not with paper and ink but “in fleshy tables of the heart.”

In those days, as was typical until 30-40 years ago, if you went to a church you had never been to before, you were not accepted into membership without a letter from another church stating that you were a member in good standing there. Many traditional churches still, even today, have a policy of admission to membership “by letter or by baptism” — in other words, you can become a member by presenting a letter from your previous church, or by being saved and baptized.

This system helped to prevent people who were removed from membership of a church, such as the man Paul speaks about in I Corinthians, from simply going to another church for fellowship. As Christians grew in numbers and multiple churches grew up within the same city or town, it became easier for someone who was removed from fellowship on one church to simply “go across town” to another church and continue to live their life of sin. By requiring a “letter”, a church protected its members somewhat from this type of abuse, and against people who wanted to do them harm (Roman or Jewish spies, greedy con-men, etc.).

Paul asks the Corinthians if he needs to present them with a letter in order for he and his teaching to be accepted in their church. He answers his own question by stating that the church itself is his letter, written not in ink and paper or carved in stone, but written in flesh. They themselves were his witness and testimony – he had no further need for a “letter”.

Even today, people judge a tree by its fruit.

People judge a church by its members. When folks out in the world meet a church-goer, they can very quickly form an opinion about the church based on the member(s) they meet. For instance, they will decide if the church is friendly based on how friendly the member is. Many of the character attributes of the member(s) they encounter will be inputed to the church.

People will judge a college by its graduates. Even within church circles, a college is known by its fruit. If you meet a couple graduates of the same college, and they both have the same unbalance, the same weakness in doctrine, the same obsession with a particular doctrine or style, then you have a tendency to judge the college by those graduates you meet.

It’s sobering to realize that people judge Christ based on the Christians they meet.

When a person meets a Christian who is critical, hypocritical, noncommittal, ungraceful, brash, grumpy, judgmental, doctrinally weak, unfriendly, arrogant, or [fill in the blank], they will often judge Christianity and Christ based upon that Christian.

It’s even more sobering to realize that we, as individuals, may be the only Christ that someone sees. We may be the only “letter of commendation” that an unsaved person sees, and based on our actions and words they might judge whether or not they want to fellowship with Christ.

We may be the only testimony for Christ that our coworker sees. We may be the only “Christ” seen by our neighbor, friend, or family member.

In a day when we use the label “Christian” so casually, when Christians are so casual and lazy about their relationship with Jesus, it is so important for us to be sure that we show others an accurate picture of Christ.

This doesn’t mean we have to work harder to look like better people. It means we need to be more surrendered to Him, more rejecting of the flesh, in order that Christ himself might shine through more clearly.

Remember, we want people to see Him, not us. It won’t do us any good to try to polish ourselves up so that folks see how good we are. Instead, we need to show less of us, so that more of Him shows through.

We have His Holy Spirit within us. We can choose to either yield to His Spirit or to yield to our flesh. By choosing the Spirit, we enable Him to have more free rein in our life, which means that when people see us, they’ll be seeing more of Him, which will give them a clearer picture of Christ and a better testimony.

Yes, we can choose to yield to the flesh and give Christ a bad name among our acquaintances, but I don’t like to think about what that would lead to when we stand before the Judge. The words I most want to hear from the Judge are, “Well done thou good and faith servant….” After what Jesus has done for me, anything less would represent abject failure on my part. He has given me life eternal, so why shouldn’t I give him this temporal life?

If we have yielded to Christ, what will folks see when they look at us? I talked about the “fruit of the Spirit” last week, but we can also see some hints right here in the this same passage (II Corinthians 3).

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
2 Corinthians 3:6

If you have your Bible handy, read the verses around this, too. The Old Testament Law was a fleshy manifestation of a spiritual concept. It seems that our inclination is always to write laws and create standards so that we can, with eyes of flesh, see how close we are to God. We try to earn our way into God’s favor and Heaven by doing good works.

It just doesn’t work that way. Paul tells us elsewhere that the Old Testament Law was given as a “schoolmaster” specifically for the purpose of showing us that we can’t please God that way. After all, all our righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison to His glory.

Mankind has such a fixation with rules and laws, with presenting a form of godliness without the power. God wanted to show us, for all time, that this is not a fleshly battle that will be won by fleshy methods, such as abiding by the “letter of the law”, but it is a spiritual battle. The letter brings death, while the spirit brings life and power.

Paul uses the Old Testament Law as an example, but we needn’t stop there. We are so prone in our own churches to resort to a works-based religion. Works are something that can be seen and judged with our eyes of flesh, so our natural man inclines toward the letter of the law.

As James writes (James chapter 2), if the Spirit is really there, His fruit will be manifest in good works; but the opposite is not true – we cannot invoke the Spirit by doing good works. We can do all the good works we want, but that doesn’t mean the Spirit is present with it. It just makes us a good imitator.

Let’s finish by looking a little further down in II Corinthians 3.

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
2 Corinthians 3:17

Where Christ is, there is liberty. If Jesus is in a church, there will be liberty in that church, not a spirit of domination and bondage.  If Christ is in a person, that person will be known for their grace and moderation (in the biblical sense of the word), not their law and judgment.

Let us yield more to God in order that more of Him might shine through us, making us better witnesses and testimonies of Him.  This is the first and greatest step we can take to winning souls for His kingdom.

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