The dictionary defines a letter as a written or printed communication directed to a person or organization. It is one person’s written message to another about something that involves both parties. Despite the popularity of emails and texting, letters are still important particularly in business and for official communications. Wikipedia listed several reasons why the most important being that it is difficult to forge an official letter or to transmit malware through it. On a more personal level, letters help maintain intimacy or familiarity when two parties are separated by distance, conduct official affairs in business, government, academia and other professional settings, are a vehicle for self-expression and clarification in the arts, and can even represent one person on behalf of another as a form of introduction or recommendation. The latter is often appreciated and received with satisfaction, but no one enjoys receiving a letter with bad news such as the infamous “Dear John” letter.
The New Testament contains 27 books, 21 of which are letters. Two other letters appear within the book of Acts (Acts 15:23-29; 23:26-30). Letters were the most common form of communication in the 1st century Mediterranean world so it is not surprising that it is the predominant literary vehicle of the Gospel as well. In style and skill the letters of the New Testament are at times eloquent and masterful or emotional and passionate demonstrating the close connection between the sender and those receiving it in more common vernacular. The Greek word meaning “letter” (epistole) comes from the verb which means “to give an official order” indicating that letters originally were used in a military or diplomatic setting but their usage eventually broadened to the form of communication we use them for today- keeping in touch with family and friends, establishing agreements between clients and patrons and recommending a person for a position or the ability to participate in something like a prestigious school.
The most extensive correspondence we have in the New Testament is the letters which Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. Paul visited and ministered in Corinth numerous times. One author noted, “In many ways, the city of Corinth Paul knew was closer to a modern American city than almost any other ancient city. The upward social mobility conferred by large amounts of money, the large athletic spectacles, the love of parties, the problems created by a loosening of sexual limits, the desire to be as inclusive as possible in religious beliefs and practices, the desire to include social customs from secular life into the Christian community- all of these give to the problems discussed in the Corinthian letters.” So it is interesting to note that in 2 Cor. 3:2-3 Paul likens the Christians there to letters.
Several of the words that Paul uses to describe the Corinthians as “his letter” are notable. They are written in his heart, the center of human life and in the NT it particularly represents the sphere of God’s influence in a person. They are also Christ’s letter which Paul has been entrusted in caring for. As letters the Corinthians are “written with the Spirit of the Living God” and the Spirit has engraved His message on the tablet of their hearts. The imagery here is a throwback to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, a message which was written on tablets of stone. Stones are inanimate and have no breath. This message however is “living”, a word from which we derive the term “biography”, and is the narrative on how one’s life is spent. Thus, as letters, the Corinthians should be living in such a way that they reflect their author.
All of Paul’s letters exhort and encourage their recipients to live as “letters of recommendation” (see these verses which specifically use the word live- Rom. 8:12-14; 2 Cor. 5:15; Gal. 5:16-25; 2 Tim. 3:12-14; Tit. 2:11-12) and it is just as true for us. What people see in our biographies represents Christ’s activity in our hearts. Are you allowing the Spirit to write your biography or you influenced by your culture as the Corinthians were? Does your life act as a “letter of recommendation for Jesus”? Christ has sent you to your family, co-workers and friends. What kind of letter are they receiving?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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