The apostle Paul, addressing believers in the early church, stressed that their lives were to be a letter from Jesus to others. But the message, as well as the form of the letter, was unusual. He described this letter in 2 Cor. 3:3 (NIV) as one “…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” His point? Believers are to be living letters for Jesus.
But hasn’t personal letter writing gone the way of the dodo bird in this day and age? Do you remember the last time you received a handwritten letter ? Or even the last time you wrote one? If letter writing isn’t a familiar practice, how can Christians understand how to be a letter for Christ today?
What’s a Letter?
A key consideration in pondering how Christians can be letters from Christ is understanding the concept of a letter. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a letter is a written, typed, or printed communication, especially one sent in an envelope via mail or a messenger. Regardless of the letter’s form or topic, its purpose is communication—the conveying of information or news.
Letters communicate any number of things. Perhaps it is an expression of emotion such as “I miss you” written by someone separated from a loved one. The letter could be one of instruction passing along the necessary steps to take to achieve a goal. In his later years, Dad sent my siblings and me a letter with detailed instructions on what to do when he died, including who to contact and what attorney would handle his estate.
Letters often pass along news. When my son attended summer camp, the counselors required each camper to write a letter home to their parents. The news conveyed? Basically, “I’m alive and haven’t been eaten by an alligator in the camp’s lake.” Whatever it is, a letter communicates something.
The History of Letters
The use of letters traces back to the distant past in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and China. The Iliad, Homer’s epic Greek poem about Troy, mentions letters. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_(message) In the ancient world, an epistle, another word for letter, was a primary means of written communication, especially during New Testament times. https://www.gotquestions.org/what-is-an-epistle.html.
Letters exploded in popularity in the 18th century. During this period, commonly referred to as the “Great Age of Letter Writing,” postal routes rapidly expanded and epistolary novels emerged as an immensely popular genre. https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/letters-letter-writing-and-epistolary-novels.
Letter writing is not a common practice today. Letters may be more personal, but mail is faster and more efficient.
The Bible itself demonstrates the importance of communication via letters. Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 21 are letters. In fact, epistles comprise the largest literary genre of the Bible in terms of number of books. https://www.learnreligions.com/overview-the-epistles-of-the-new-testament-363407.
Leaders of the early church, such as Paul, wrote these New Testament letters which offered principles for and insight into how to live life as a disciple of Jesus. Of these 21 letters, 13 are attributed to the apostle Paul. The sheer number of letters found in the New Testament establish their importance in communicating matters of the Christian faith.
Believers As Letters Today
In today’s world, neither our society nor believers rely heavily on written letters for communication as in the past. But concluding this change in communication habits negates the need for Christians to be letters is too narrow a reading of 2 Cor. 3:3.
A careful reading of that verse confirms Paul wasn’t referencing a tangible written letter on whatever material. He notes that the writing isn’t done in ink but by the Holy Spirit. And where is that “letter” written? Not on tablets (or scrolls or paper), but on human hearts.
The key point Paul is trying to communicate in his letter is that living letters are the best kind of communication. Believers who live out their faith in their day-to-day life are a powerful message to those around them and will touch the hearts of those who “read” that letter.
How To Be A Living Letter
The good news for believers is that being a letter from Jesus to others requires no masterful writing techniques. We communicate through our words and deeds. And the Bible provides guidelines for what we are to communicate. Jesus directed His followers to do unto others as they would like others to do unto them. Matthew 7:12.
Most of the commands Jesus gave involved how to treat others. https://followtheteachingsofjesus.com/articles/loving-others/143-the-importance-of-doing-and-not-just-hearing.html. His instructions included showing mercy (Luke 6:36), forgiving (Luke 6:37), and loving all, including those who hate us (Luke 6:27-30). One word sums up these instructions —love. The essence of Jesus is love. If what we do and say communicates love, then we are sending that letter from Jesus to the world. It’s a letter that our world sorely needs to read today. Send it to others.