What did Paul mean when he referred to the assembly at Corinth as the “epistle of Christ” (2Cor 3:3)?
Letters of commendation are written by responsible members of an assembly to entrust or commit saints from one assembly to the care and fellowship of another. The letter also confirms the authority of the commending assembly. Phoebe’s letter (Rom 16:1-2) is an example of such. The letter states the association, and often the activity, of those being commended. It also expresses the responsibility of the receiving assembly to recognize, receive, and care for the brother or sister being commended. In 2 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul defends his apostolic calling and recognition. He protests that he needs no such letter. The assembly vouched for and validated his labors by their very existence. He would not need any introduction or commendation to or from them, because they were planted by the apostle. As well, the assembly could be seen by all in Corinth, “known and read of all men,” and stood as a public, living letter of commendation for the apostle, and his labors borne out of love for Christ and them.
If in chapter 3:2 they are Paul’s epistle, in 3:3 the assembly is Christ’s epistle and “manifestly declared to be” such, which is a significant expression. It means “to make visible that which is invisible and “to be” expresses not only fact, but purpose. Paul states that, ultimately, the assembly was Christ’s letter which he authored and commends him. Paul’s approval and commendation is as the scribe and stenographer of such a lofty “letter.” He is the one who brought the message and saw the assembly planted. Men write letters, whether in natural communication, or even assembly commendation with ink and paper. The assembly in Corinth however, was a living letter of Christ Himself. It was from the invisible world, making visible in Corinth, through the assembly, spiritual reality, power, and life in the Holy Spirit. Paul and company were the instruments, servants (“ministers” 3:3) used, but the Author was Christ. The assembly, as Christ’s epistle, was written indelibly, not with ink, nor on lifeless hard stone, but with the Spirit of the living God upon their fleshy hearts. The writing on tables of stone is an allusion to Sinai and the old covenant. The contrast continues beyond the writing to the results, comparing the ministry, fading glory, and inability of the old covenant, to the ministry, permanence, and power of the new covenant.
The Corinthian assembly was planted to be distinct and holy, a living letter with the purpose of making visible the invisible world of heaven. This is not unique to the Corinthian assembly. In a wonderful way then, assemblies today are also “manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ” in their localities. As “Christ’s epistle,” an assembly commends Christ as Lord by bearing testimony to the power and reality of a living Christ in obedience to His Word in the world today.