24 February 1957
at Taichung, Taiwan.
Well, I don't want to use much of this precious time in saying personal words, I will only say that I am very happy to be back again with you. I see some faces that I remember from just over a year ago, and I have seen you in Taipei recently and see you back here today, so we are not strangers, we are quite old friends!
Now, not to lose any more time, let us get to the Word. I suppose every Christian here knows that the New Testament is made up of twenty six books and you know that twenty four of those books are personal letters. That is a very large proportion. There are letters written to these individuals, so we have this large section of the New Testament in the form of letters. I think we would agree that in all the history of the writing of letters, no letters have had a greater influence than these. There have been some great letter writers in history, but I do not believe that any letters ever written have had a greater influence in the history of this world than the letters in the New Testament. These letters have been read by an increasing number of people for nearly two thousand years. All over the world, this very day, these letters are being read out, and many lives have been transformed by these letters. How many believers have been helped by these letters, and what a tremendous power they have been in the world!
Now, if you will turn to Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, in chapter 3, you will find that the apostle Paul says that believers are letters. That is a great idea of what a Christian is. Let us read what he said, "Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone but in tables that are hearts of flesh." That is the New Testament idea of a Christian.
Right in the midst of all the New Testament's letters we are told that we believers are epistles and I am quite sure that you would be very glad if your life was only a little bit as valuable as the letters in the New Testament have been. I read these letters in the New Testament and I have never been tired of reading them. They always have something new to say, they are so full and deep and rich. I have been reading them for well over forty years, and today I don't seem to really know anything about them. I know that they hold so much more than I have ever seen. I am always discovering something fresh, the Lord is always giving me some fresh light to pass over from these letters. How rich and full they are!
And then, I heard one of these letters talking to me. The Holy Spirit spoke out of one of them and He said, "But remember, you also are a letter. You are an epistle of Christ, you are not written with ink, you are written by the Holy Spirit; you are not a table of stone, you have a heart of flesh and it is in your heart that the Holy Spirit writes Christ so that all who read your life, read Christ." That is a tremendous idea of a Christian. Of course it is a very great responsibility. You are a living epistle of Christ. So it says here, and I want you to get hold of that idea, I want you to go away from this place today saying, "The Word of God says that I am an epistle of Christ to be read and known of all men."
Now, these New Testament letters give us quite a good idea of what a letter ought to be, that is, what a Christian ought to be if a Christian is a living epistle. Do you notice how nearly all of these letters begin? I think there is only one of them that does not begin in this way, that is the letter to the Hebrews and there was a special reason why it began in a different way. Practically all of the letters begin in the same way. First of all, they begin with a greeting. The writer at once made personal contact with the people to whom he was writing, and he said something to them personally, and he gives them a greeting and sometimes it was: "grace and peace be with you". The greeting is put in different ways, but there was always a greeting. It means that the writer is really in touch with the people to whom he wants to give help. He has some knowledge of the people and all their needs.
You see, this is altogether different from a business letter. There is a great difference between a business letter and a letter of love. In a business letter you begin with "Dear Sir". There is a lot of difference between a business letter and a letter of love.... If you look at these letters in the New Testament you will find that they are all letters of love. The heart of the writers at once goes out to the people to whom they are writing. It is a heart matter.
Now that is our first lesson. If you
and I are letters of Christ, if we are really living epistles, the
very first thing about us is that we must have a relationship of
love to everybody whom we want to help. We are not just
professional people trying to do some business with others. We
cannot take that position toward other people, it would be like writing, "Dear Sir...".
There must be a heart relationship with them and that is what
comes out right at the beginning of every letter, there is a
personal greeting; this is something very personal.
Now, in a business letter you
usually have something like this: you have the "Dear Sir" and then
you have the business, and then you have something that very often
you can never read; it is supposed to be the signature of the
writer. I receive a lot of business letters, and when I come to
see who it is that has written them, I very often have to go to
the office and ask, "Who do you think this is?" It is as though a
fly has flown into the ink and got onto that paper!
Well, that is not a living epistle. Living epistles do not read like that. Paul said, "The greetings of me, Paul, with my own hand..." Now Paul could have dictated those letters it is true, but he always wanted his readers to know that it was his letter, so he said, "The greetings of me, Paul, with my own hand." Now, we might imagine that Paul sat down at a table and wrote them. But there is a difference between sitting down writing a letter and heart-pouring letter writing. If you write a letter with a pen, you are very particular that all the words and sentences should be quite perfect. It may, of course, be easier for your reader to understand what you are saying, but Paul did not do it like that. There was someone sitting at the table and Paul was walking up and down in the room. He was just speaking out of his heart to people who were in his mind's eye. He could see in his mind the people to whom he was writing. And as he marched up and down in the room, he was talking to them.
When you read what he was saying, it is not always easy to understand what he was saying. Sometimes Paul started to say a thing and didn't finish it. He broke in on his sentence and put something that was in his mind right there, and after a time, he goes back to that. He was just speaking from his heart, and the wonderful thing is that as he spoke to believers, his heart got bigger and bigger; his heart just ran away with him. He saw things growing before his eyes, he could not continue all that was in his heart, and I think his letters became a much bigger thing than he intended them to be.
Sometimes people write long letters to me and when I get to the end it says, "This letter is much longer than I intended when I started." I, of course, am not always happy when it turns out like that! I often wish people had written what they intended to write, but that is not the case with Paul. Paul just opened his heart and let it pour out. I often feel sorry for that poor man trying to write out what he wanted to say! There is a great deal of difference between just writing a business letter and that pouring out from your heart. If we are living epistles, it is just like that; just the pouring out of our heart. It must be a heart letter. So Paul, and the other writers, always began with a greeting.
Now you will notice something else about their letters. They always began their letters by trying to lift up the people to whom they wrote. And some of the people were in a very bad state. For instance, the people in Corinth were really in a bad situation and Paul was going to say some very strong things to them. The same was true in the letter to the Galatians. Indeed, in most of Paul's letter he had to say things that were not pleasant to write and that was because of the bad state in the lives of those to whom he was writing. But do you notice how he begins? He did not say to the people in Corinth, "My dear brothers and sisters in Corinth, you are a thoroughly bad lot. I am terribly upset with you. I feel very bad about you." They never begin like that.
How did these letters begin? It was true that they were in bad condition, but the apostle always began with the best thing about these people. Well, we are surprised to find that the apostle begins the letter by calling them saints, "the saints that are in Christ Jesus" and then saying a lot of very nice things about them. And I don't think Paul was just preparing them for what he was going to say. He was not getting them ready for some hard knock. I believe that with Paul this was the principle: always make the best of what there is that is good. Here are people and they may be in a very wrong way, but is there not something good about them? If we find something that is good about them, let us give that the first place. You see, that is not the way that we usually go to work. We see the wrong that is in the people, and we make everything of the wrong.
We can learn a
lesson from these letters and see first the good. Give the good
the first place, say all the good that you possibly can, even if
it seems to be saying something that is not true. It is better to
make a mistake that way than the other way. You will help other
people better if you do that. This is a lesson from these letters.
Now one other thing, you notice how often in these New Testament letters they begin with a doxology. The writer of the letter said, "I thank my God, I praise the Lord." You know there are seventeen of those doxologies in the letters of Paul; there is a little bit of Bible study for you! Go and find out where the doxologies are in these letters, see how the writer of the letter praises the Lord right at the beginning. And then in the last book of the Bible there are a lot more. The spirit of praise to the Lord is there. Let us take a lesson from that.
is this doxology? It is just giving the Lord what He ought to
have. In this world everything is taken away from the Lord; His
glory is taken away, all His rights are taken from Him, but the
Christian ought to be one who brings everything to the Lord and I
think these letters do show us what Christians ought to be. And
seeing that they most of them were written to churches, they show
us what churches ought to be. Christians are a living epistle, and
they ought to be characterised by this one thing: "Praise the
I find that in some of these letters there are many things that would silence the praising of the Lord. At Corinth there were many things for which you would not praise the Lord. The same was true of other churches. The writers of the letters knew all about that and yet they began by saying praise the Lord. There is always something for which to praise the Lord, and living epistles ought to be like that. They ought to be marked by the spirit of praise to the Lord. It said there that they were read and known of all men. Well, as all men look at us, what do they see? Do they say, "What a miserable Christian they are, just look at his face, you would think he has lost everything and found nothing!" Living epistles, read and known of all men ought to show forth the praises of Him who has saved them.
I remember receiving a postcard, and you know that on a postcard you are supposed to write your message in a certain place. Well, the writer of this postcard had filled all the space for the message and in the place where the address ought to be, he had written these words, "Cheer up, brother!" And the post office put a stamp on it, that it was contrary to regulation. But it is not contrary to regulation in the Lord! It really is a part of the letter.
Well, our time is gone. We could say a lot more about the letter, but do go away with this idea: we are an epistle of Christ, read and known of all men, and that suggests one last thought. You know in the day when he wrote that letter, they never had envelopes. That is why they never put their letter in an envelope and sealed it so that no one could read them, but that is what we do. Their letters were written on tablets, they were never sealed up, they were just committed to a trusted servant and anybody could look at and read those letters. They might travel over many miles, they were open letters for anybody to read unless, of course, you saw to it that no one should read the letters. My point is that they were never put in an envelope and sealed and that is what Paul said here: read and known of all men.
We must not cover up our testimony. We must not hide our message. We must not hide our Lord Jesus if we are letters of Christ; we must be open for all to read. In the New Testament we have secret followers of the Lord Jesus, but we get nothing from any of them that help us. I think Nicodemus was a secret follower of Jesus, but we are told that he didn't want the Jewish leaders to know. Well, the church hasn't got much help from Nicodemus. The Lord Jesus has not got much glory in Nicodemus, and there were other secret disciples, but they were not living epistles, read and known of all men. Everybody must be able to see to whom he belongs: the message of Jesus in our life.
We are not
pieces of stone, we have hearts of flesh, living epistles, read
and known of all men. May the Lord make us like that. He may want
to send us far away, or He may want to send us to a near place,
but wherever He sends us, may we be able to make people see Him in