IN SOME WAYS, Paul finds himself in an embarrassing position. If he fails to answer some of the concerns that the Corinthians entertained about him and his ministry, he could lose them—not lose them personally (that wouldn’t have bothered Paul), but lose their loyalty to him and therefore to the message that he preached. On the other hand, if he goes on at length about himself, at least some of his detractors will say that he is stuck on himself, or that he is insecure, or that a real apostle would not have to defend himself, or something else of the same sort.
Precisely what their charge was, we cannot be sure. That Paul is sensitive to the danger is pretty obvious from several places in the Corinthian correspondence, not least 2 Corinthians 3:1–3. At the end of chapter 2, Paul had insisted that “we [either an editorial ‘we’ or a self-conscious reference to the apostles] speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God” (2 Cor. 2:17)—not at all like peddlers working for profit. Now he rhetorically asks, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” (2 Cor. 3:1). The “again” is what betrays the fact that Paul has had to face this problem before with the Corinthians. More specifically, he asks, “Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?” (2 Cor. 3:1). It sounds as if “some people” have attempted to establish their credentials by bringing letters of introduction with them. They or the Corinthians then become dismissive of Paul because he neither fits into the cultural pattern of proving his credentials by asking for a high fee (chap. 2), nor does he bring along papers—from Jerusalem or some other authoritative center—to establish his bona fides.
But Paul does not reply by defending his apostolic status in terms of the resurrected Christ’s direct revelation to him. (Elsewhere, however, that is exactly what he does, and even in this chapter he insists that his competence is from God himself, 2 Cor. 3:5). Here he wisely adopts a stance that simultaneously points to the peculiar nature of his own ministry, and gently encourages the Corinthians to acknowledge that they are in no place to think differently. What he tells them, in effect, is that their existence as Christians constitutes, for them, adequate credentialing of Paul. Paul preached the Gospel to them. They are his “letter of recommendation”—the result of his ministry (2 Cor. 3:1, 3). And since genuine conversion is the work of the Spirit of God, they, as Paul’s letter of recommendation, should see themselves as having been “written” not with ink but “with the Spirit of the living God,” and not on a papyrus sheet or a stone tablet, but on the human heart (2 Cor. 3:3).