Epistles of Christ
As we read the last touching instructions of the Lord to His disciples, and as we reverently listen to His prayer to the Father, we are made conscious that underlying both the discourses and the prayer is the great truth that believers are left in this world to represent Christ––the Man that has gone to glory. It is God’s intention that though Christ personally is no longer here, Christ morally should still be seen in His people. Further, it is evident that the Scriptures press upon us our privilege and our responsibility as believers to represent the character of the Lord to a world that has rejected and cast Him out. It is true that it is possible for the world to form some estimate of Christ from the Word of God, but, besides the Word––which they may call into question, or fail to understand, even if read––it is God’s intention that in the lives of His people there should be a presentation of Christ “Known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3: 2).
This being so, it raises a solemn question for us all: If the men of this world are to gain their impression of Christ from the saints, what conclusion will they reach as to Christ as they look upon our individual lives, as well as the collective life of God’s people? Let us remember the Lord’s searching words “By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves” (John 13: 35). Apply such a test to the gathering with which we may be connected, and will we not have to hang our heads with shame as we recall occasions when envy, evil–speaking and backbiting were more in evidence than the meekness and gentleness of the Christ?
Now when writing to the Corinthian saints, the apostle speaks of them as “Christ’s epistle” (2 Cor. 3: 3). He does not say “epistles” (plural) but “epistle” (singular), for he is not thinking only of what is true of individuals, but of the whole company. It is important that we keep this in mind.
Notice as well that Paul does not say that the saints ought to be manifested to be Christ’s epistle, but that they are Christ’s epistle: “being manifested to be Christ’s epistle” (v3). Entertaining the erroneous notion that we ought to be epistles of Christ, we shall set to work to become such by our own efforts. This will not only lead us into legal occupation with ourselves, but will also shut out the work of the Spirit of God. The fact is, we become epistles of Christ, not by our own efforts, but by the Holy Spirit writing Christ upon our hearts: “being manifested to be Christ’s epistle … written, not with ink, but [the] Spirit of [the] living God; not on stone tables, but on fleshy tables of [the] heart” (v3). A Christian is one to whom Christ has become precious by a work of the Spirit in the heart. It is not simply a knowledge of Christ in the head (which an unconverted man may have), that makes a man a Christian, but Christ written in the heart. Having had Him thus written in our hearts we become the epistle of Christ. If we are not the epistle of Christ we are not Christians at all.
Having set forth the true Christian company as composed of believers upon whose hearts Christ has been written, the apostle presents another great truth when he speaks of them as “known and read of all men” (v2). It is one thing for a gathering of saints to be an epistle of Christ, and quite another for the gathering to be in such a right condition that they manifest to all men something of the character of Christ. The responsibility of a gathering of saints is not to walk well in order to become an epistle, but, seeing they are an epistle of Christ, to walk well in order that the epistle may be read by all men. If anyone writes a letter of commendation it is to commend the person named in the letter. So when the Spirit of God writes Christ on the hearts of believers, it is in order that together they may become an epistle of commendation to commend Christ to the world around. By their holy and separate walk, their love to one another, their lowliness and meekness, and by their gentleness and grace, they will set forth the lovely character of Christ. Thus it was with the Corinthian saints. They had indeed been walking in a disorderly way, but as a result of the apostle’s first letter they had cleared themselves from evil. Thus the apostle could now say that not only as an assembly were they an epistle of Christ, but that they were an epistle “known and read of all men”.
Sadly the writing of the epistle may become indistinct, but it does not cease to be a letter because it is blotted and blurred. Christians are often like the writing on some ancient tombstone. There are faint indications of an inscription but regrettably, it is so weatherworn and dirt–begrimed, that it is hardly possible to decipher it. So alas, it may be with ourselves. When first the Spirit writes Christ upon the hearts of a company of saints their affections are warm and their collective life speaks plainly of Christ. The writing, being fresh and clear, is known and read of all men. Sadly, as time passes, unless there is watchfulness and self judgement, envying, strife and bitterness may creep in, and the gathering ceases to give any true impression of Christ.
Nevertheless, in spite of all our failure, Christians are the epistle of Christ, and it remains true that it is God’s great intention that all men should see the character of Christ set forth in His people. In this second epistle to the Corinthians then, we have a beautiful description of the true Christian company. It is a company of individual believers, gathered to Christ, upon whose hearts Christ has been written, “not with ink, but [the] Spirit of [the] living God; not on stone tables, but on fleshy tables of [the] heart” (v3). As men could read in the tables of stone delivered by Moses what the righteousness of God demanded from man under law, so now in the lives of God’s people, the world should read what the love of God brings to man under grace.
How then, is the writing of Christ on the hearts of God’s people to be kept clear and legible, so that in the gathering of God’s people the character of Christ may be manifest to all men? The answer is simple: Christ will be manifested to men only as we have before us the living Christ in the glory as our object: “We all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory” (v18). There is a transforming power in beholding the Lord in glory (not physically beholding Him of course, but spiritually). This transforming power is available for all believers. It is “We all”, not simply “We apostles”. This change is not brought about by our own efforts, or by wearying ourselves in the endeavour to be like the Lord. It is by beholding the glory of the Lord. There is no veil on His face, and as we behold Him, not only will every veil of darkness pass from our hearts, but morally we shall become increasingly like Him, changing from glory to glory. Gazing upon the Lord in glory we are lifted above all the weakness and failure that we find in ourselves, and all the evil around, to discover and delight in His perfection.
May we realise in deeper measure that it is the mind of God that we should be the epistle of Christ to show forth Christ to all men, by having Christ in the glory before us as our one object.