You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 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. (2 Cor. 3:2–3)
Paul’s teaching comes to us in written form. Yet to understand it better, we’re invited to adopt a bifocal gaze in which we read the letters and the people who deliver them. As we do, we learn about Christlike virtue from both the Bible and godly men and women. We may even find ourselves walking in the Spirit as we seek to serve those who are still dead in their trespasses and sins (Gal. 5:16–26; Eph. 2:1–3, 5:15–21).
Letters from the Frontline
Paul wrote amid great affliction (2 Cor. 12:1–10), severe persecution (2 Cor. 4:7–18), and even horrendous imprisonment (Rom. 16:7; Eph. 4:1; Philem. 9–10). Paul’s letters are notes from the frontline of Christian ministry—a point underlined by Paul’s regular use of military metaphors (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:10–20; 1 Tim. 1:18). They’re the correspondence of a missionary leader living in the shadow of a pagan empire. In this empire, people were hell-bent on worshiping the emperor, chasing honor, and denigrating those who looked and sounded different.Paul is in the family business. He preaches and teaches the gospel with kin for the sake of bringing more kin to the Father by way of the cross. Click To Tweet
Present-day church planters, especially those serving in hard places, have a lot in common with Paul and his context. The common struggle should be a source of encouragement because the church planter has an example to emulate—an apostle who faced similar challenges yet remained faithful to the end.
Letters of Fraternity
The apostle’s use of familial language demonstrates the essence of Christian relationships. We’re brothers and sisters who have been justified and adopted by the heavenly Father. So when we read “brother” (Phil. 2:25; 1 Thess. 3:2) and “sister” (Rom. 16:1; Philem. 2) in Paul’s letters, we see a missionary conditioned by a strong understanding of family because of the Father’s adoption. Paul is in the family business. He preaches and teaches the gospel with kin for the sake of bringing more kin to the Father by way of the cross.
The fraternal tone of Paul’s letters offers us a global vision of the gospel, one that flows beyond the personal to the communal and even the international. Grasping the immensity of this concept should humble and transform us in our mutual participation in God’s mission. Good brothers are concerned for each other, especially when they’re separated by distance. They call, encourage, and support. Good sisters go to great lengths to provide strength, counsel, and insight for each other as they navigate complex realities. For the church planter serving in hard places, you have a rich family heritage. Your siblings are present, praying, and supporting you. After all, we’re family.
Letters of Formation
Godly virtue is incubated communally. The apostle’s frequent use of plural personal pronouns—us, we, and you all—shows us how holiness is about one another. In addition to the communal emphasis, Paul presents his couriers as people to be read. Their conduct and example complement the church’s formation in righteousness. Paul uses two communication channels, the written Word (primarily) and couriers of the Word (secondarily). The regenerated slave Onesimus, who (with Tychicus) carries Paul’s letter to the Colossians, testifies to the unifying power of the gospel (Col. 4:8–9; Philem. 12–13). An affirmed Timothy confronts moral deviancy and doctrinal error at Ephesus (1 and 2 Tim.). A gospel-consumed Titus trains and appoints elders at Crete (Titus 1:5–16). The couriers model the written Word.
All church planters can glean lessons from Paul’s co-workers. Like Paul’s couriers who demonstrated, taught, and elaborated the good news, church planters model and announce the gospel in speech and deed (1 Tim. 4:16). They communicate this divine revelation both in their retelling of what Christ has done and how they live in light of his glorious grace. Through such a bifocal approach, we understand and apply the Bible in real-life situations, just as Paul’s letters were received.We celebrate the privilege of being conduits of God’s grace in our time. After all, we are letters written with eternal ink, inviting all to read what God has done through Christ, in and among us. Click To Tweet
Paul’s postal communication is indeed prodigious. These letters communicate the depth of God’s love and the lengths he went to rescue us from our decadence. However, there’s more. These thirteen letters had couriers—a “postal service”—that transported them from prison to pulpit. Unlike conventional postal systems where contents remain sealed, Pauline correspondence was known, modeled, and transmitted by the couriers themselves.
Like Epaphras, Onesimus, Phoebe, Timothy, and Titus, we have joined the postal service. We read the letters from Paul’s frontline to serve our frontlines. We learn from Paul’s fraternal bonds to express our love and support to siblings near and far. We hear testimonies of formerly deviant slaves who became useful in God’s work. As we do, we celebrate the privilege of being conduits of God’s grace in our time. After all, we are letters written with eternal ink, inviting all to read what God has done through Christ, in and among us.