Tag Archives: 2 Corinthians 3

Both “Letter” and “Spirit”

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

This past year our friend, Ali, was teaching one Sunday morning among our regular gathering of Jesus’ followers. She made a simple statement that has stuck with me every since she said it. It continues to flower and bear fruit in my thinking. “In the church I grew up in,” she said, “we worshiped the Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Bible.”

Ali went on to explain two important observations she was making. One was that she was raised with no real teaching or understanding of Holy Spirit. A member of the “Divine Dance” was missing in her faith journey. The other observation is that the scriptures had been elevated in her upbringing to an unintended spiritual position.

In today’s chapter, Paul contrasts “the letter” and “the Spirit.” When he writes “the letter” he was referring to the Hebrew scripture (what is known among Jesus followers as the Old Testament), specifically the first five books known as “The Law.” Many of the believers in Corinth were Jewish. They had been raised to strictly follow “the letter” of “The Law” in a system of legalistic rituals and daily habits. In strictly following “the letter of the Law” they believed they were made righteous before God. Jesus and His followers taught that salvation was not a matter of obedience to written Law, but of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and spiritual union with Holy Spirit. Paul went even further to state the legalistic rule keeping actually ends up in spiritual death. “The letter kills.” It was not obedience to a written Law that made us righteous, Paul says, but the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and the indwelling of Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Back to our friend Ali’s statement. Followers of Jesus, especially those in the evangelical traditions, have been historically quick to espouse the power and authority of scripture (now including the New Testament). I have observed, however, that it is just as easy for followers of Jesus to fall into the same “letter” trap that the Hebrew believers were in back in Paul’s day. We simply elevate the writings of the New Testament into a new form of Law. It’s easy to say we believe in Holy Spirit, and then allow our “faith” to be reduced to a list of rules, our righteousness to regress into strict obedience to the letter of a new law. Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s letters become a spiritual system of neo-legalism.

This morning in the quiet I am grateful for, and mindful of, both the power and authority of God’s Message. I am so grateful and mindful, in fact, that this chapter-a-day journey continues. I study the Message. I commit it to memory. I weave it into the tapestry of my everyday life. I don’t, however, ever want to allow “the letter” to replace “the Spirit” in my faith and life journey. I need them both to do their unique, respective work in my life.

The Letter of Our Lives

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, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.
2 Corinthians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Wherever you find kindness, love, and generosity you will find those willing to take advantage of that kindness, love, and generosity. In the day that Paul was writing his letter to believers in Corinth, the followers of Jesus had gained a reputation for being generous toward those marginalized by the society of that day including lepers, widows, and orphans. They also had a reputation of taking up collections for traveling teachers like Paul.

It wasn’t long before con men and teachers with selfish intent began making the rounds. The result of being swindled was that these local gatherings of Jesus’ followers would expect traveling teachers to bring a letter of recommendation from someone they knew and trusted. Eventually the con men began forging those letters of recommendation and it became an on-going problem.

Paul picks up on this situation and uses these required “letters of recommendation” as a word picture. The believers of Corinth were his letter of recommendation, Paul argued. The “proof” of Paul’s ministry was the changed hearts, the transformed lives, and the growing spiritual maturity of those in Corinth in whom Paul had invested his time, teaching, and mentoring.

This morning I’m pondering this metaphor of our very lives, and the outcomes of our lives, being a letter read by everyone around us. When people look at the outcomes of my life, my words, my actions, and my relationships what are they reading? What does my life “recommend” to others? And what’s does my influence on others “recommend?”

Yesterday I went on site with our client and ran into a young man who’d started on the front line of their sales and customer service department. I trained him from his first days on the phone and coached him for a number of years. He was promoted to another team I worked with and then got a promotion to field sales. I haven’t seen him for years. He happened to be in the home office yesterday and when he saw me his face lit up. Unexpectedly he came over and gave me a big hug. It made my day. It was rewarding to know that my coaching has made a small contribution to his success.

I sit here in my hotel room prepping for another day of coaching. I’m reminded of the “letter” I’m writing in myself and others today. I want it to be a positive letter of recommendation.

An Old Concept We Still Don’t Get

Luther Bible, 1534
Luther Bible, 1534 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NLT)

I’m a history geek. Forgive me. You might need another cup of coffee for this one.

In a few years we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of one of the most important events in western civilization. In 1517 a young Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther stopped by the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The door served as a sort of medieval community bulletin board in those days. He nailed to the door a theological challenge that he was presenting for public debate. There were 95 things that he felt needed to change in the Roman Catholic church and his 95 “theses” started a chain reaction of events that led to what we know today as the Protestant Reformation. Europe was split asunder between Roman Catholics and these new Protest-ants.

There were many reasons the Protestant Reformation happened when it did, and many of them had nothing to do with Marty’s 95 bullet points. One of the reasons for the Reformation had to do with one of Luther’s other pet projects. Until that time the Bible existed only in painstakingly hand written copies which were penned (generally by monks) in Latin which was the official language of the Roman Catholic church. Because of this, the only people who could read the Bible for themselves were priests, the educated, and the wealthy (a very small minority) which meant that priests and the church had tremendous power over the uneducated masses: “We will tell you what God says because we can read the Bible and you can’t. You’ll just have to trust us on this.”

Marty Luther believed that everyone should have access to reading God’s Message for themselves, and so he began translating the scriptures into the common German language of his people. His successful translation coincided with a relatively recent German invention by a guy named Johannes Gutenberg: the moveable type printing press. This allowed for relatively quick and cheap mass production of books. It was a perfect storm. Gutenberg’s printing press mass produced Luther’s German translation of the Bible and common everyday people began reading the Bible for themselves. They soon discovered for themselves that the Roman Catholic church had taught them some things that they couldn’t actually find anywhere in the Bible.

One of the most important theological concepts to come out of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” The Roman Catholic church had maintained a rather tight reign on the Western World for over a thousand years because only the priests could read the Bible and Roman Catholic doctrine developed the concept that you could only receive God’s forgiveness by going to a priest, confessing and receiving absolution from God through the priest. No priest, no absolution, no forgiveness. God’s Message, however, says that Jesus is the only High Priest of all believers and that everyone who believes is part of the “royal priesthood.” In other words, the local priest in all his regalia standing at the cathedral altar has no more spiritual standing before God than the everyday sinner sitting in the pew.

So what’s my point with this wordy history lesson?

The “priesthood of all believers” was a radical concept in the 1500s, but my experience with the 21st century protestant church is that it remains just as radical today.

  • We still like to make our pastors into priests by putting them up on the platform in the spotlight and bestowing upon on them a spiritual standing that they do not have.
  • We still like to sit in the pew and believe that we are held to a lower standard as if God grades us on a curve. “I never claimed to be a pastor or a priest, so God can’t possibly hold me to that kind of spiritual standard as my pastor.
  • Protestant churches eventually replaced the elite Roman Catholic priesthood with their own educational elitist system of seminaries, refusing to acknowledge that all believers are ministers of the new covenant (see the verse above, I knew I get to it eventually). Protestants replaced the remote and out-of-touch leadership of the papacy with their own remote and out-of-touch denominational offices.
  • Protestant churches regularly put educated but spiritually un-gifted people into positions to which they will ultimately fail, while refusing to encourage or allow spiritually gifted every day believers to use their gifts because they have not met some human educational standard.
  • We refuse to embrace the truth of “the priesthood of all believers” which means that EVERY person (man, woman, child) who believes and receives Jesus as Lord becomes a minister and receives a spiritual gift(s) intended for the carrying out of that ministry in their everyday lives and vocations so that others might come to believe and for the building up of fellow believers. EVERY believer of Jesus is a minister regardless of that believers education, I.Q., E.Q., age, race, background, social status, heritage, sinfulness, record, or history.

What amazing things would happen in our lives, communities, and the world itself if we zealously embraced the truth of the priesthood of all believers and started a 21st century reformation.