An epistle

2 Corinthians 3:2-3
2 You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men;
3 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.

We often refer to the writings of the apostles as “epistles,” but I think we have lost sight of the meaning of that word. We have a general sense that an epistle is a letter of instruction, but beyond that the epistle is sort of a lost literary form. Epistles are an ancient form of teaching tool that goes back to the early days of the Egyptians and later the Greeks. By the time of Jesus, the form was well-established, and the apostle Paul turned them into something that became essential for guiding the early church. You see, what we fail to remember is that most early Christians were illiterate, or else they didn’t read the Greek that Paul used in his letters. And so the epistles were read aloud in the language of the local populations.

Colossians 4:16
Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.

1 Thessalonians 5:27
I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren.

Just as we do today, all the epistles of Paul were read in all the churches, so that all would learn from each other. The problems that Paul saw in one church might not exist in another, but they could come later. And so Paul was preparing each separate church to face their problems together, using the same doctrines and truth.

Of course, if an epistle is a letter of instruction, what does Paul mean when he says the Corinthians themselves are an “epistle of Christ”? It is a very striking statement. We often like to think of ourselves as having been taught, as being living evidence of God’s mercy and love. But we do not often think of ourselves as teachers, do we? And yet we are.

Like an epistle, our lives are “known and read by all men” – especially by other believers. Like an epistle, we portray the truth of God’s love and salvation. Like an epistle, others are meant to learn from what we have faced. Like an epistle, our lives are a teaching tool, “written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God.”

So there are now several questions to ask: What will people learn about God’s grace from your life, the life you live in public and in private? What instruction does your life offer in the doctrine of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord? What are you teaching fellow believers about God’s mercy and forgiveness? What are your children learning about God’s love?

In short, since we are all an “epistle of Christ,” we ought to live our lives as if we are the same Book laying open on my lap right now. We ought to live lives formed by the Spirit of God, not conformed to the spirit of the world – which is pride and lawlessness. We should live the gospel not by putting on a show for others to see, but by truly letting our lives be transformed by the gospel so that everything we say or do is the fruit of our faith. Like black letters on a white page, our lives should depict the gospel with clarity and humility, sharing God’s Word through every thought and deed as if God Himself were writing our lives for the instruction of all.

Gracious God, thank You for the instruction You offer not only through Your Word – which is living and vital – but also through the testimony of the lives of believers everywhere. May my life so reflect Your gospel that others will be instructed. Write Your Word upon my heart and Your will into my soul, Lord God, so that others may read me as Your Book and be edified. Amen.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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