The eminent Athenian philosopher Plato is credited with saying, “The good teacher does not write his message in ink that will fade; he writes it upon men.”
If that quote is accurate it says a lot about Plato, his teacher Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. I wonder if the well-educated apostle Paul who learned from the leading first century Rabbinic authority, Gamaliel, had this in mind when he wrote these words in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2?
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly, you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.
Barclay says this passage is based on a common, ancient custom of sending letters of commendation with a person going into another community. The letter would serve as a character reference from a mutual friend or a well-known authority to those who didn’t know the person.
Paul’s critics, who tried to undermine his apostleship, demean his character and cast aspersions on his ministry and motives, said he had no such letters. Paul’s retort was that each one of the Corinthian Christians was a letter of commendation, not only for him but most importantly for Christ.
Just like letters convey a message, so do our lives. Your life and mine are communicating a message to everyone with whom we come in contact. It is often said, “That you never get a second chance at a first impression.” So, what is that impression? What does the letter of your life say when others read it?
People are watching us, whether we realize it or not. They hear our words. See our actions. And observe our attitudes. From those observations, people draw conclusions about us. Our values. Our beliefs. And our character. Either for good or bad.
Furthermore, if we are Christians, outsiders are making judgments about Christianity based on what they see in your life. Sadly, some in the public eye, who claim to be Christians, leave an unfavorable impression upon unbelievers. They are seen as charlatans. Hypocrites. And phoneys.
In our personal and business dealings with others, if they see duplicity and dishonesty, it not only dishonors Christ but discredits Christianity. Racial slurs, off colors jokes, and crude, offensive comments about others, drastically diminish our influence for good. Our salt has lost its saltiness. Our light has gone out. People see it. Read it. And react accordingly.
While it may be unfair, people judge an entire congregation by one person they know. If that person is hypocritical, unkind, and unfriendly, they label the whole church “as a bunch of hypocrites. Have you ever invited someone to church and they sarcastically respond, “Yeah, I know someone who goes to your church.” Unfortunately, you know what’s coming next.
Yes, our lives are living letters that others are reading. Some folks will never read the Bible, but they will “read” our lives. What is our letter communicating to an unbelieving world? Is it commending Christ? Or demeaning Christ?
It’s also good to remember that the pictures and thoughts we’re posting on social media, are literally being seen and read by Christians and non-Christians alike who may not personally know us, but are drawing conclusions about our character and Christianity.
Poet Annie Flint Johnson expressed the seriousness of being a letter of commendation for Christ in the popular hymn “The World’s Bible.”
We are the only Bible
The careless world will read;
We are the sinner’s Gospel,
We are the scoffer’s creed;
We are the Lord’s last message,
Given in deed and word;
What if the type is crooked?
What if the print is blurred?
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman