Life-Study of 2 Corinthiansby Witness Lee
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
In the foregoing message we covered the triumph and effect of the ministry of the new covenant. This ministry is a triumphal procession. Wherever this ministry goes, it shows forth the triumph of Christ becoming the victory of the ministry. Wherever Paul and his co-workers went, that was the triumphal procession celebrating Christ’s victory. Such a celebration always brought in the victory of Christ. Thus, there was the triumph of the ministry. The triumph of the ministry is the celebration of Christ’s victory by the conquered captives in the train of this procession. All of those in this procession have been conquered, subdued, and captured. Today we also have been captured and subdued by Christ. We need to have this realization in faith. Since we are in the procession, we have been captured and subdued, whether or not we feel this is our situation. If we had not been captured and subdued, we could not be in the procession. Praise the Lord that we are all in Christ’s triumphal procession!
Paul’s concept was that the preaching ministry was a triumphal procession celebrating Christ’s victory. Today we ourselves are an example of Christ’s victory over us. Because we have been conquered, subdued, and captured by Christ, we are now in His procession preaching Him. The fact that we are in this procession preaching Christ is a testimony that we have been conquered by Christ.
In Philippians 3 Paul says that he counted everything as refuse for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. Here in 2:14 he speaks of the savor of the knowledge of Christ. The excellent knowledge of Christ was a fragrance, an aroma. This means that we who have been conquered and captured and brought into the triumphal procession to celebrate Christ’s victory speak to others the excellent knowledge of Christ. Whatever we speak, that is the excellent knowledge of Christ. We know Christ by our experience of Him and enjoyment of Him. As we march in the triumphal procession, we speak to others about Christ. What we say concerning Him is a sweet smelling savor. The manifestation of the savor of the knowledge of Christ has a twofold effect, a twofold result: either it results in life unto life, or it results in death unto death. This is the triumph and effect of the ministry, which is the constitution of Christ within us.
In this message we come to the function and competency of the ministry of the new covenant (3:1-6). After giving us a picture of the ministry’s triumph and effect, Paul shows the function of this ministry and also its competency. What kind of work does this ministry do? What is its function? Furthermore, who can bear such a responsibility, a responsibility of life and death? Because the ministry results either in life unto life or death unto death, Paul exclaimed in 2:16, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Therefore, in 3:1-6 he gives us a picture showing the function and sufficiency of this ministry.
In 3:1 Paul says, “Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?” These questions are raised because of the apostle’s frank and faithful word in the preceding verse concerning himself and his co-workers. From what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians and also in this Epistle, the Corinthians may have thought that Paul and his co-workers were commending themselves. Therefore, Paul asks the two questions in 3:1. The answer to both questions is a definite no. They were not commending themselves, and they did not need letters of commendation.
Verse 2 says, “You are our letter, inscribed in our hearts, known and read by all men.” The believers were the fruit of the apostles’ labor, commending the apostles and their ministry to others. Thus, they became the apostles’ living letters of commendation, written by the apostles with the indwelling Christ as the content in every part of their inner being.
Paul says that the Corinthians were a letter “inscribed in our hearts.” The Corinthian believers, as the apostles’ living letter of commendation were inscribed in the apostles’ hearts. Thus, they were carried by the apostles and could not possibly be severed from them. They were in the apostles’ hearts (7:3), brought by them everywhere as their living commendation.
Verse 3 is the continuation of verse 2: “Being manifested that you are a letter of Christ ministered by us, inscribed not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart.” A letter of Christ is one composed of Christ as the content to convey and express Christ. All believers in Christ should be such a living letter of Christ that others may read and know Christ in their being. These letters are written by the ministry of the apostles. The apostles are filled with Christ so that their ministry spontaneously ministers Christ to those they contact, inscribing Christ in their heart and making them living letters conveying Christ.
In verse 2 Paul speaks of “our letter.” In verse 3 he tells the Corinthians, “You are a letter of Christ.” It seems that here there are two kinds of letter—the letter inscribed in the hearts of the apostles, and the believers as the letter of Christ. Actually, there are not two kinds of letters. Grammatically speaking, in these verses Paul is saying, “You are our letter because you are a letter of Christ.” “Being manifested” means something that is evident. It was evident that the Corinthians, as the apostles’ letter, were a letter of Christ. But which comes first, a letter of Christ, or “our letter”? The letter of Christ must come first. It is because the believers are a letter of Christ that they are also the letter inscribed in the heart of the apostles. They are the apostles’ letter because they are first a letter of Christ.
Verse 2 says, “inscribed in our hearts,” and verse 3 says, “in fleshy tablets of the heart.” Verse 2 speaks of the apostles’ hearts, whereas verse 3, the hearts of the believers at Corinth. The one kind of letter is inscribed both in the hearts of the apostles and in the hearts of the believers. For years I have been puzzled by this matter and have been seeking to understand it. Where is this letter inscribed, in the hearts of the apostles, or in the hearts of the believers? If we can answer this question, we shall grasp the main point of this message.
We need to see that the same letter is inscribed in the hearts of two categories of people: in the hearts of the apostles and in the hearts of the believers. What does this mean? This certainly presents a problem in our understanding of 2 Corinthians 3. However, recognizing a problem is a sign that we are proper students of the Bible. If we cannot find any problems as we read the Word, then we are not reading it in a proper way. Now that we have found the problem here—one letter inscribed in the hearts of the apostles and the believers—we must find out how to explain it.
It is not the function of the new covenant ministry to do a work; its function is to write letters. This is, of course, a figure of speech. Often in his deeper teachings Paul uses metaphors. When he comes to a deeper truth, he may use a metaphor. For example, in 2:14 there are two metaphors: the first is that of the captives in the triumphal procession celebrating Christ’s victory; the second is that of the incense-bearers scattering the excellency of the knowledge of Christ as a fragrance resulting in either death or life. Now in chapter three Paul uses another metaphor, that of writing letters.
According to verse 3, the letter of Christ is “inscribed not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.” The Spirit of the living God, who is the living God Himself, is not an instrument, like a pen for writing, but the very element, like the ink, with which the apostles minister Christ as the content for the writing of living letters that convey Christ. The writer of this letter is not the Spirit of God; the writer is the apostles. The Spirit of the living God is the “ink,” the element, the essence, of the writing. This means that the Spirit of the living God is the element with which the letter is written. This is a very crucial matter.
The ministry of the apostles is to write letters with the life-giving Spirit as the essence. The more the apostles minister to you, the more they put into you the element of the life-giving Spirit. We may use as an illustration writing with ink on a piece of paper. The more we write on the paper, the more ink is added to the paper. In the same principle, through the ministry of the apostles, the life-giving Spirit is added to the believers. This is a very important matter that we all need to see.
In verse 3 Paul says that the letter of Christ is inscribed “not in tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart.” Our heart, as the composition of our conscience (the leading part of our spirit), mind, emotion, and will, is the tablet upon which the living letters of Christ are written with the living Spirit of God. This implies that Christ is written into every part of our inner being with the Spirit of the living God to make us His living letters, that He may be expressed in us and read by others in us.
A letter that is properly written is centered on a sheet of paper. We may say that the writing is on the heart of the paper. When you write a letter, you do not write in the corners or in the margin, but in the center. The principle is the same with the writing of the letter of Christ in our being. This letter is written on our central part, on our heart, a composition of the soul and the conscience, the leading part of our spirit. Therefore, the letter of Christ is written on our spirit and on our soul. When the apostles preach Christ or minister Christ, they minister Him into the heart and spirit of the believers. First Christ as the life-giving Spirit is ministered into a believer’s spirit. This means that Christ is written in the spirit of that believer. Then by further ministry Christ spreads from the spirit into the mind, emotion, and will. Eventually, Christ will be written into every part of our inward being. In the words of Ephesians 3, this is Christ settling Himself, or making His home, in our heart. Christ making His home in our heart equals the writing of Christ throughout our inner being. This writing causes a believer to become a living letter of Christ. Such a person expresses Christ in whatever he says and does. He becomes a living letter for others to read. All believers should become such letters.
The writing that takes place in our hearts by the ministers of the new covenant has the all-inclusive life-giving Spirit as the element. This element is actually the processed God. This means that it is the Triune God who is being written into our being. This is the letter written by the ministers of the new covenant with the processed Triune God as the life-giving Spirit. God is being written into us, and as a result we become a letter of Christ.
How can this same letter also be inscribed in the heart of the ministers of the new covenant? This is not easy to explain. A question like this can be answered only according to spiritual experience. Without adequate experience, we shall have no way to answer this question. From our experience we know that while Paul was ministering Christ into the Corinthian believers, writing Christ as the life-giving Spirit into them, the very thing he was writing on them was also being written on his heart. Today while we are ministering Christ to others, Christ is simultaneously written in the one to whom we are ministering and also in us. Therefore, the same writing produces two copies of the one letter. One copy is in our heart, and the other copy is in the heart of the one to whom we are ministering.
As Paul was ministering to the believers at Corinth, the writing was taking place both in the hearts of the believers and also in his own heart. In this way they became a letter of Christ, and this letter was also within the heart of the writer, the apostle. Therefore, the same letter was written in Paul’s heart that was written in the hearts of the believers. Wherever Paul went, this letter was in him, for the believers had become his letter. On the one hand, they were the letter of Christ; on the other hand, they were the letter of the apostles inscribed in their hearts.
I can never forget those to whom I have ministered Christ. While I was writing Christ into them, the same Christ was being written into me. The one writing produced two original copies. This kind of writing does not take place, however, during the course of superficial preaching, such as that common among Christians today. Superficial preaching does not produce letters. But the proper, adequate ministry always writes something of Christ both in the hearts of those receiving the ministry and in the heart of the one ministering. I can testify that in my heart there are many letters that have been written in this way.
In verses 2 and 3 Paul points out that because the Corinthians were manifestly a letter of Christ, they were also the letter inscribed in the hearts of the apostles. Thus, these two letters were composed by one writing. The one writing brought forth a twofold result, in the hearts of the apostles and in the hearts of the believers.
The apostles did not minister anything in a light, superficial way. On the contrary, whatever they ministered was full of spiritual weight. Therefore, it could be written in the hearts of the believers and also in their own hearts. This was the reason the apostles could assure the Corinthians that they would never forget them, for the believers had been written in their hearts. Wherever the apostles went, they carried the believers with them by having them written in their hearts. This matter is very subjective and experiential. It goes beyond being attached together, for it involves two hearts becoming one.
I would encourage you to compare the ministry of the apostles with the works carried on among Christians today. The apostles’ ministry is absolutely a matter in life and full of spiritual weight. Actually, their ministry is not a work— it is the writing of letters. As we have seen, this is the function of the ministry of the new covenant. We do not have the adequate utterance to speak of this. Perhaps this is the reason Paul used the metaphor of the writing of letters. If you meditate on this metaphor, pray about it, and have fellowship concerning it, you will see more and realize more. You will see that this truly is the function of the ministry in the New Testament.
God does not have the intention to use His ministers to carry out a work on a large scale. The ministry of the apostles is not a work of mass production. A human life is not produced in such a way. In order for a child to be born, he must develop in his mother’s womb for nine months. There is no way to speed up this process and to mass-produce human beings. This illustrates the fact that God’s way is the way of life, not the way of mass production.
Do not expect that the Lord’s recovery will ever be a work of mass production. Some brothers may have this concept. They may think that in just a short period of time those in their country in the Lord’s recovery will number in the millions. When Paul came forth to minister, we are not told that thousands were gained for the Lord through his ministry. The church at Ephesus, for example, met in a home. The very fact that a church meets in a home indicates that the number of believers there is not large. Do you think any believer in ancient times had a home that could accommodate a thousand believers? Certainly no one lived in such a home.
In 1 Corinthians 16:8 and 9 Paul says, “But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a door is opened to me, great and operative, and many are opposing.” When we read of such a door being opened to Paul, we may think that thousands were being added to the church through his ministry. But the church in Ephesus continued to meet in the home of Aquila and Priscilla. How, then, could they have had a large number of believers? I mention this to point out that God’s way is not that of gaining a large number by mass production.
We may use the growing of real flowers versus the making of artificial flowers as an illustration of the difference between the way of mass production and God’s way of life. It takes time to grow real flowers in a garden. But a factory can produce hundreds, even thousands, of artificial flowers in a day. Likewise, to produce a child requires a long, slow process. No mother can ever forget a child born of her, for that child is part of her very being. This is what we mean by the way of life.
Paul’s word about the inscribing of letters implies that God’s way is the way of life. Actually, the believers were not merely written in his heart—they were inscribed in his heart. Therefore, Paul could never forget them. This inscribing was by life, by means of the life-giving Spirit.
Who is qualified to do the work of writing living letters of Christ? Only God is qualified to do this. It must be God in us who is writing the letters. In ourselves we are of no account in this matter. There is no place for what we are in ourselves or for what we can do. We need the Triune God to be constituted into our being. Only then can we become such a writer.
I am not here just to preach the gospel or teach the Bible. My burden is to write living letters of Christ. If I am to be this kind of writer, I must be one who is constituted of the Triune God. Then, actually I will not be the one doing the writing; the very God who has been constituted into me will be the real writer. He as the writer will inscribe Himself into the believers.
In verses 4 and 5 Paul says, “And such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to account anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.” Here we see that the living God Himself is the sufficiency, competency, and qualification of the apostles’ ministry for God’s New Testament economy to dispense Christ into God’s chosen people for the building up of Christ’s Body. We ourselves are of no account, and what we can do is likewise of no account. Only the Triune God constituted into us is sufficient to carry on the work of writing living letters of Christ.
Speaking of God, Paul says in verse 6, “Who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The Greek word rendered “made” also means enabled, qualified, made competent. The phrase “not of letter” modifies ministers; it does not modify covenant. By “letter” here Paul means the written code of the law. The Spirit is the Spirit of the living God, with whom the apostles minister Christ into the believers to make them His living letters. The apostolic ministry for the New Testament is not of dead letters like the Mosaic ministry for the Old Testament, but of the living Spirit, who gives life.
In verse 6 Paul tells us that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. The letter which kills is the letter of the law, which only requires of man but is unable to supply man with life (Gal. 3:21). Due to man’s inability to fulfill its requirements, it kills man (Rom. 7:9-11). The Spirit, who is the ultimate expression of the processed Triune God, imparts the divine life, even God Himself, into the apostles and all other believers, making them ministers of a new covenant, the covenant of life. Hence, their ministry is one constituted of the Triune God of life by His life-giving Spirit.
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