Ye Are the Epistles of Christ
March 18th, 1956 @ 10:50 AM
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
YE ARE THE EPISTLES OF CHRIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
3-18-56 10:50 a.m.
In our preaching through the Word, we are in the second Corinthian letter, and the message this morning is taken from the first three verses of the third chapter of the second Corinthian letter. Second Corinthians 3:1-3:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistles of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshen tables of the heart.
[2 Corinthians 3:1-3]
And the title of the message this morning is also the text, Second Corinthians 3:3: Ye Are the Epistles of Christ. "Ye are the epistles of Christ . . . written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshen tables of the heart" – the faith of Christ written in the soul. Ye Are the Epistles of Christ, the letters of God.
There are some of the most beautiful alliterations and similes and apostrophes in the Holy Bible depicting what God’s people are in the earth. They’re so varied. They’re so beautiful. They’re so colorful. It seems that the Spirit of God has simply overburdened the English language trying to place before us what it is that God’s people are in this earth.
For example, the Bible will say that we are fields of golden grain ripening for the harvest [Luke 10:2]. The Bible will say that we are branches of the vine laden with rich fruit [John 15:1-5]. The Bible will say that we are pomegranates and figs refreshing and sweet. Sometimes it will say we are like the cedars of Lebanon standing firm in the midst of the storm. Sometimes it will say that we are like the stars fixed in the great heavenly places of God [Daniel 12:3]. Sometimes it will say we are as the sun ascending in His strength into the sky lighting the world [Matthew 13:43]. Sometimes it will say that we are as gold purified in the refiner’s fire [Job 23:10; Zechariah 13:9]. Sometimes we’ll be likened to the jewels that flash from the diadem of the King [Isaiah 62:3; Malachi 3:17]. Sometimes it will liken us in might and in strength to the lion and the eagle [Isaiah 40:31], for humility and trust to the lamb and the sheep [John 10:3-18], for usefulness, the salt of the earth [Matthew 5:13; Luke 14:33-35].
But out of all of the similes, all the comparisons in the Book to which God’s people are likened, there could hardly be one fraught with greater meaning than this simile here, this apostrophe here: ye are the epistles of Christ; ye are the letters of God [2 Corinthians 3:1-3].
And he means by that that the Word of God to be powerful, to be sharp, must be incarnate. It must take flesh and blood. As long as the message of God is in a book, it’s on a shelf somewhere: it’s in a sermon; it’s by words; it’s by a sentence and syllable; it’s written with ink; it’s on tables of stone or on parchment or on paper. As long as the doctrines and the revelation of Christ are just words and pages and leaves and books, it is nothing at all.
The message and the testimony of Christ, for it to be quickened and alive, must be incarnate. We are the letters and the epistles and the messengers of God. It must take root in us. It must be written large on our souls. It must be in our hearts and in our lives. "Ye are the epistles of Christ" [2 Corinthians 3:3]. The only effective way for any message or any ministry of the Lord to be delivered into this world is to be delivered through us, true incarnate – the testimony of Jesus in flesh, in life, quickened, active, sharp, delivered, spoken by us, walked before men, exhibited before the world.
A group of men one time were talking about the Gospel according to Matthew, and according to John, and according to Luke, and according to Mark. They were speaking of which one of those Gospels each one liked the best. And one of them finally said, "But the Gospel that I like best was the Gospel according to my mother."
This is God’s most effective means of delivering the truth and the revelation of heaven. As long as it’s in a book, it’s still just words and syllables. As long as it’s just theology, it’s a system of doctrine – it’s creed; it’s musty; it’s on a shelf. But for it to have power and movement, it must find incarnation in us.
These children that God places in our homes, it’s no way to rear those children by precept, by sermon, by castigation, by word and language. That’s no way. This is the way to rear a child: "Come here, son. Walk by my side. Come here, precious little doll of a daughter. This is the way we’re going to go. On the Lord’s Day, the prettiest little dress, finest little pin, nicest little shoes, sweetest little ribbons – on this day, God’s Day, it’s time for church, time for Sunday school."
This is not how to do it: "We’ll send you. Somebody else will take you," or, "We’ll take you to the church, leave you, then come back and pick you up." Oh, that’s the most eloquent way I know to build into the hearts and minds of these little ones that the church is for children but it’s not for grown folks – it’s not for mature men and women. And they’ll soon get the idea. They’ll look forward to that time when they’re big enough and grown enough not to go to church anymore and not to have to attend Sunday school any longer. It can’t be done that way!
The message that we have for these children must be incarnate in us. This is the way of the Lord, walking by His side. This is the way to go. This is the place. This is the time. This is the hour. This is the stewardship. This is the commitment. You don’t need to say so much, or to preach so long, or to be so denunciatory in rearing up these children if there could be just in front of them a wonderful father and a consecrated mother. "Come, Jimmy. Come, Susie. This is the way, and we walk in it together." You are the message of Christ. You are the epistles of God. The truth is nothing until it is incarnate in you.
Christianity: the faith of God written on the soul and in the heart is Christianity in its most legible form, in its most persuasive form, in its most meaningful form, in its most enduring form, in its divinest form, in its most heavenly form – you, you. This is the message of God – you. This is the epistle of Christ. This is the heavenly word – you, you. "Ye are the epistles of Christ . . . written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshen tables of the heart" [2 Corinthians 3:3].
Then Paul says in there the little phrase that I omitted, "ministered by us" – delivered by us [2 Corinthians 3:3] And there’s a little key to something that characterized Paul in his Christian life that amazes and overwhelms me as I follow the story of his missionary ministries. There was a triumphant spirit about Paul that is marvelous to behold: a spirit of conquest and of victory. You’ll see it in the text that I read last Sunday night in these verses concluding the previous chapter: "Thanks be unto God, thanks be unto God, who leadeth us in triumph, and maketh manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place" [from 2 Corinthians 2:14]. That’s typical of the apostle Paul: "Thanks be unto God, who always causeth us to triumph" – who leadeth us, who leadeth us in victory and conquest.
Well, I’d like to ask Paul something. "Thanks be to God who leadeth us in triumph" [2 Corinthians 2:14]. Paul, what is this triumph that you’re talking about and what is this victory that you speak of? If what you’re doing and if the life that you are leading is one of triumph and of victory, then what could defeat thee and what is defeat?
At Lystra, Paul, you were stoned and dragged out for dead [Acts 14:19]. At Philippi, Paul, you were scourged and placed in an inner dungeon [Acts 16:19-25]. At Athens – cultural university city – you were ridiculed and mocked by the philosophers of the city [Acts 17:32]. In Jerusalem, you were saved out of the violence of a mob by heathen Roman soldiers [Acts 17:27-40]. In Caesarea, you were imprisoned for three years [Acts 23:23-24, 24:27]. And finally, in Rome, you were slain. If that’s victory, what could defeat be? If that’s triumph, what is it to fail?
Well, I say, there’s a secret in the life of the apostle Paul, and it is simply and humbly this. You’ll find it written in the last paragraph of the last letter that he ever wrote saying to his son Timothy, ". . . the time of my departure is at hand" [2 Timothy 4:6]. Listen to him: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" [2 Timothy 4:7].
Could I say it in my language in keeping with this text? "I have delivered God’s message. And the rest – to be slain, to be imprisoned, to be scourged, to be put in stocks, to face the violence of the mob – that was nothing. I have delivered God’s message. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith."
In this Memorial Supper that we observe today, how does he start? "For I have delivered unto you that which also I received from Christ, that the Lord Jesus the same night He was betrayed took bread" [1 Corinthians 11:23]. "I have delivered unto you that which also I received from Christ."
Do you remember his definition of the gospel that he preached in the fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter? "For I have delivered unto you first of all that which also I have received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and the third day He arose again according to the Scriptures" [1 Corinthians 15:3-4]. I have delivered God’s message.
Ye are the epistles of Christ. You are. You are.
Now, may I make an earnest appeal? The testimony of Christ is you. The message of Christ is you. The deposit of the Christian witness is you. Our ministry to the world is you. Each one of the members of the church is a syllable and a word, and the whole congregation is the letter of God. Without you, there’s not any testimony. Without you, there’s not any witness. Without you, there’s not any great message delivered to the world.
If a tract would do it, I’d do my utmost to raise all the money that I could find and print tracts by the thousands and the thousands and scatter them everywhere a man would receive or take it. But it won’t work. The letter is you. The message is you. The epistle is you.
If we could just record sermons and buy time on the radio and take those tape recordings and preach the message on the radio and it would do it, I’d be doing my utmost to get all the money I could find and buy all the radio time I could buy and preach those sermons by tape and by recording on the radio. But it won’t do. It won’t do.
The message of Christ is you. It’s your heart. It’s your blood. It’s your tears. It’s your care. It’s your concern. It’s your devotion. It’s your life. You make it. It’s you. The testimony of God is you. Ye are the letters of God. Ye are the epistles of Christ, and without you, there’s not any message, and there’s not any testimony, and there’s not any witness. It’s we. It’s – if I could use the wrong grammar – it’s us. It’s us. Whatever power it has, it’s in us. Whatever great appeal that it has, it’s because of us. Whatever meaning it is to the world, it’s us. We are the letters and the epistles of Christ.
Now, this little appeal. The letter is unsealed. It is open. It is public. It’s before the eyes of the world. There’s no such thing as a man being a secret disciple of the Lord for long. You just can’t. You just don’t. You just won’t. To be apart and reserved and timid, it’s not in the will of God for our lives. We must be avowed. We must be open. We must be professed. I must belong to His church. I must be in the house of the Lord. I belong to the congregation of Jesus. I am a member of the church. On my confession of faith, I have been baptized. I belong to the people of God. You are that witness and that testimony. You are that letter; and without you, it falls to the ground.
I said not for long would one be a hesitant or secret disciple of the Lord. Nicodemus was for a while [John 3:1-2] – came to Jesus by night and talked to the Savior in the silent hours of the darkness lest his compatriots might see and know that he was a friend of the despised Nazarene. But the day came when the Lord was lifted between the earth and the sky, and he saw Him die there on the cross. And Nicodemus came out openly where all the world could see and know, and he stood there by the cross and looked into the face of the Son of God who loved him and gave His life for him.
And when Nicodemus looked around, there was standing by his side another member of the Sanhedrin, the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea – both of them members of the supreme court of the Jewish world, both of them members of the Sanhedrin.
And Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus of Jerusalem took down the body of Christ from the cross, wrapped it in the long, winding sheet with spices, and laid it in the new rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea [John 19:38-42].
I think that experience comes to every soul and every life. I don’t think you can hide it. In your heart committed to God, there will come a day, there will come a time, when it is impossible to suppress that allegiance and that commitment to Christ: "I am a Christian; I am a follower of the Lamb; I am a believer in the Son of God, and you take your stand with us by the cross. In His blood, washed clean and white. Upon a confession of personal faith, baptized in His name. We are the letters of God. The message is us.
That’s our appeal to your heart this morning. Some of you in your hearts believing in the Lord Jesus, giving your life to the Lord Jesus – you, somebody you, publically, openly, where all the church and the angels in heaven can see. "Pastor today, on a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, I want to be baptized. And such as I am and what I have, I commit to the message and the ministry of the Lord, my Savior. Here I am and here I come." Many of you: "I’ve already confessed my faith in the Lord Jesus. I have been baptized. I want to place my life here with these people in this church that we might witness and work and testify with the great host of God’s congregation here – a letter, an epistle, a message from God."
As the Lord shall say the word and lead the way this day, this hour, this holy, holy moment, will you come? Will you come? A child, a youth, a whole family: "Here we are, Pastor, all of us. We are coming this day taking our stand by the cross in the fellowship of His church, a witness to the grace and goodness and glory of Jesus our Savior; and here I am, Pastor, and here I come."
Don’t let this Memorial Supper say to your heart, "Some other day, some other hour." No. Let its testimony to the sacrifice of Christ but encourage us the sooner, the more eagerly, to come. "I’ll take the Lord, Pastor, and here I am. I want to be baptized, Pastor. I’ve trusted Him in my heart," or, "We want to place our lives here in the church this glorious and triumphant day." While we sing, will you come? Will you make it now while we stand and while we sing?
YE ARE THE EPISTLES OF CHRIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
A. In Scripture the people of God are set forth in various figures
B. Hardly one fraught with greater meaning than this one – "ye are the epistles of Christ, the letters of God"
II. Ye are the epistles of Christ – the message incarnate
A. The Christian faith made flesh
1. Doctrines, truths quickened, made real
2. As long as in books, on shelves, it is nothing but ink; to have power it must be living and incarnate in us
3. How we teach our children – by living, walking before them
B. The Christian faith written on the soul of the congregation is Christianity in its most legible form
III. Our purpose and mission – a message to deliver(2 Corinthians 3:3)
A. The secret of the triumphant spirit of Paul(2 Corinthians 2:14)
1. He delivered his message, finished his course, kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:6-7)
2. The memorial supper – "I delivered unto you that which also I receivedâ€¦" (1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:3-4)
IV. The appeal to you
A. The testimony is you; the message is you
B. The letter is unsealed, open, before the eyes of the world