We’ve all had the experience of preparing for a job interview, which includes the preparation of a resume which cites our education and experience. The resume will usually include at least three references to serve as validation for all that we have claimed about our work history. When selecting a reference, it goes without saying that we select the most favorable, influential people possible. Most of us have had this shared experience. If you’re hiring, you want to see references. If you’re looking for a job, you seek references. And, we have served as the third party reference for the person seeking employment. It is an American employment “best practice.”
This practice is the subject of this section of 2 Corinthians. Are we beginning to praise ourselves again? Are we like others, who need to bring you letters of recommendation, or who ask you to write such letters on their behalf? Surely not! The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This “letter” is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts. We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:1-6, NLT)
Up to now, Paul has argued for the legitimacy of his ministry based on his experiences of suffering which have led to their comfort. He has has also claimed the expanding knowledge of God in the Gentile world through his church planting endeavors as a source of his credibility. He now turns to citing his dependence on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who has produced the life change they have experienced.
Apparently, there were false ministers who were elbowing their way into the Corinthian church, claiming “letters of recommendation” as sufficient credentials for their practice. While they had obtained human verification, they had no spiritual fruit that had resulted from their work. These letters were a substitute source of credibility, and as we might suspect, were embellished to suit the purposes of the false ministers. These resumes and references caused the Corinthians to request the same from Paul, as if to create competition and comparison.
Paul would have none of that. As you have read, Paul calls the results of his work with them more significant than any human endorsement. He had founded the church and served as their spiritual father in faith. He had voluntarily supported himself financially and had expressed concern for their welfare. Ultimately, the qualification that mattered to Paul was the spiritual transformation that had occurred in their lives. And in Paul’s thinking, that was the qualification that mattered to God. Real ministry from God will be self-authenticating in the lives of those transformed by the Gospel.
This section raises two important issues for today’s church. First, what are the important qualifications churches should seek in their leadership? Is it visionary leadership that is able to marshal volunteers and funding? Is it compelling and interesting teaching and preaching that is in tune with contemporary issues? Is it the ability to develop cutting edge programs that resemble today’s entertainment industry? Is it the ability to lead fast transitions and turn arounds so the church can experience exponential growth? Or is it more aligned to reliance on biblical faithfulness and dependence on the Holy Spirit to empower the ministry? I’m not opposed to things like leadership, vision, and creative sermons and programs. But each church has to determine whether or not it wants a pastor or a personality. Often, when I ask people where they attend church they will offer the name the pastor instead of the church. This should be a red flag about the focus of the church and the nature of its leadership.
The second issue the text addresses is related to how we measure success. For much of my life the measure of success has been the “ABC’s” of Attendance, Buildings and Cash. “Nickels and noses” have become our primary validation of success, regardless of God’s endorsement. It’s easy to assume that large size equals the work and blessing of God. But we are very clever and creative, so it is possible that some of what happens to today’s church can be accomplished without an ounce of God’s help. Yes, we’re that good. So the concern here surround surrounds whether or not churches are significant or if they are merely successful. Significance has nothing to do with size and influence. The only thing that is significant in our world is that which is truly eternal. One thousand years from now, what will really matter?