A Genuine Reputation (2 Corinthians 3)
Paul begins this section of 2 Corinthians with two rhetorical questions, both of which expect a negative answer. “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we?” (2 Cor. 3:1). Paul—their old friend—wryly asks whether he needs the letters of introduction or commendation that others who had presented themselves to the church apparently possessed. Such letters were common in the ancient world, and generally it was necessary to take them with a grain of salt. The Roman statesman Cicero wrote scores of them, for instance, making lavish use of the stereotypical language of praise the genre demanded. Recipients became so jaded, however, that sometimes he felt it necessary to write a second letter so that the recipients would know whether to take the first letter seriously. Letters of commendation, in other words, were often not worth the papyrus they were written on.
Paul had no need of them in any case. The Corinthian believers knew him intimately. The only letter of recommendation he required was already written on their hearts (2 Cor. 3:3). Their very existence as a church, as well as their individual conversions in response to Paul’s preaching, was all the commendation Paul needed or wanted concerning his apostleship. They could see the fruit of Paul’s labor, which left no doubt that he was an apostle sent by God. Further, Paul insists, he is not claiming competence in his own strength. “Our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5), he writes. The question is not whether Paul has piled up credentials and recommendations, but whether his work is a contribution to the kingdom of God.
How do we build our reputations today? In the United States, many young people choose their activities based not on how they can best contribute to their communities, or even on what they actually enjoy, but upon how the activities will look on a university or graduate school application. This can continue during our working lives, with every job assignment, professional affiliation, dinner party, and social event calculated to associate us with prestigious people and institutions. Paul chose his activities based on how he could best serve the people he loved. Following his lead, we should work so as to leave solid evidence of jobs well done, of lasting results, and of people whose lives have been impacted for the better.
Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 258.
See Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares (The Letters to His Friends), 13.6a. For a thorough discussion see Peter Marshall, Enmity in Corinth: Social Conventions in Paul’s Relations with the Corinthians, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.23 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987), 91–129, esp. 93–95.