1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?
2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men;
3 being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2Co 3:1-3; NASB 1995 Update)
Every devotional or sermon I have heard from these verses ignores the clause in the middle of verse 2: “written in our hearts.”
Without that clause, the passage is interpreted to say that the Corinthians are the only letter of commendation that Paul and his fellow ministers need. The faith, conversion, and increasing Christ-likeness of the Corinthians commend them. Moreover, this letter is to be contrasted with the words etched in stone, the Ten Commandments, that were the center of the Old Covenant. It is written by Christ through the Spirit on human hearts, so that the Law is inside of us rather than outside.
However, when I hear such a sermon I’m always left asking, “how does v. 2 work?” When “all men” read the letter of commendation, what do they read? Where do they read it? Not in the Corinthians verse 2 shouts, but within the apostles’ hearts, “our heart.” The letter of commendation is the genuine concern, love, and integrity he displays toward the Corinthians. The letter is in his heart–his servant heart toward the Corinthians–his care for them.
The next verse, v. 3, may then switch to the more traditional interpretation, or. more probably, it continues the theme of v.2. The letter of Christ is written by the Spirit on the hearts of the apostles. We know from other passages that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of all Christians. However, this passage seems to focus entirely on the apostles’ ministry. The rest of the chapter which clearly contrasts the Mosaic ministry with the New Covenant ministry, Paul’s own ministry, confirms this interpretation of @ Cor 3:1-3.
UPDATE (After a conversation with Tom Schreiner): I should have pointed out that the phrase translated “our care for you” in verse 3 is actually “our service to you” in the Greek. When we combine that with the observation that the NASB consistently translates “service” as “ministry” in the succeeding verses, we see the verbal tie between 3:1-3 and the rest of the chapter. In verse 2, the letter of commendation from Christ is not the Corinthians’ conversion; it is Paul’s genuine, sincere ministry (service) toward them, in contrast with the hypocritical and arrogant “ministry” of the super-apostles. The mere fact that Paul, previously a zealous Jew, should be genuinely concerned for pagan, idolatrous “dogs” demonstrates the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Paul does speak of that transforming power at work within the Corinthians but not till later in the chapter.