23 February 1957 at Tuo Yuan, Taiwan.
Well, dear friends, we are very happy to come and have this little bit of fellowship with you. We think it is very wonderful of you to come out this wet morning and meet us, and I hope the Lord will reward you with a little word from Himself, so I am going to pass on to you something that is in my heart. It comes out of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3 and the first six verses:
"Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the 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 fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
Now the apostle Paul was one of the greatest letter writers in history. I doubt whether any man's letters have had as great an influence as his. All through these centuries, people have been reading Paul's letters and here we are this morning reading them again. Paul was a great letter writer and he knew something about writing letters, he knew what a letter ought to be. And we must remember that all Paul's writings were in the form of letters. Paul never sat down to write a book on some subject, Paul only wrote letters. Now, there must be some reason why his letters were so fruitful. Why is it that Paul's letters have proved to be so helpful to such a great number of people? I am only going to mention one or two reasons here this morning.
First of all, Paul's letters embodied a great spiritual concern for people. Paul carried people very much on his heart. He was not just interested in giving people some information, he felt that his own life was bound up with their lives, and their welfare was a matter of very great personal concern to him. And when Paul said, "You are living epistles" he meant that about us.
What he meant was this: that if we are going to be valuable as living epistles, then it must be the same with us; the value of our lives will be according to our real concern for other people. If you read Paul's letters, you will see how much he had other people's spiritual needs on his heart. If these believers were in trouble, Paul felt it as though it was his own trouble. If they had problems, he made their problems his problems. He lived in the experience of the people to whom he wrote.
Now Paul said here, "Ye are living epistles" and if our lives are to be valuable, as were Paul's letters, we must begin with this great concern for others. Other believers are not just other people, they are people for whom we ought to have a very great concern, we ought to feel their troubles, and we ought to make their problems our problems. And if we have a problem we always try to find the solution to it, we are looking everywhere for the solution to our problem. Now that is how Paul felt about the problems and difficulties of other believers. His relationship with them was one of the heart, so he said, "Ye are living epistles, ye are letters of Christ". And if we, as living epistles, are really to be of any value and if we are going to help people as Paul helped them and has helped us, that will only be if our hearts are really concerned for the spiritual lives of people.
Now, there is a second thing about Paul's letters: they were always written with the object of trying to meet some particular need. If you read all of Paul's letters, you will see that in every one of them he was trying to meet a particular need. In one church the need was this, and in another church the need was that, and so he wrote his letters to meet those particular needs. He was not just writing a lot of things in a general way, he was dealing with something special, and we can carry that over to these words about being living epistles.
Our lives must be devoted towards meeting particular needs. What is the need of these particular believers? What is the need of that child of God? He must try to meet their special needs. You can see how the Lord Jesus did that. The Lord Jesus was always trying to get down to the particular people. We could remember many individuals. There was Nicodemus, there was the woman of Samaria, there was the lame man in Bethesda, and there were many more. The Lord Jesus did not just stand up and preach to a lot of general needs, His focus was upon the particular need, and that is what Paul did in his letters.
We must have a special interest in people, in that brother's or that sister's particular need. Well, that is what Paul did in his letters and he said, "You are living letters". If your life is to be of value, your life must be like that.
Then one more thing about Paul's letters: Paul did not get the matters that he put into his letters from out of books. We have just been sitting in the library of your assembly and there are quite a lot of good books there. I expect they could be quite helpful, but Paul did not need to go to books to get the material to put in his letters. The letters were the expression of his own life. The man himself was in his letters.
You always know a man by his work. You will know the character of the shop keeper by the things that he sells. You will know the kind of man by his work. By the work that he does, you see the man himself in his work. If you went to a shop and the man sold you something and when you got home you found that it was no good, what would you say? You would not only say, "Now, this is not good, that is a bad man for selling me that," you would say that the man is responsible for what he gives you; and that is what we have here. The man himself is in these letters.
When you read these letters, you know what kind of a man he was. And that is what Paul means, "You are living letters". You are not just to get things from somewhere and perhaps then give that to other people... not just the books you have been reading or the messages to which you have been listening, but you are giving yourself to people; you are the letter. It is not only what you give, but you are that. You see that is why Paul's letters have been so valuable. Of course they were not just giving a subject, they were a giving of the man himself.
And now I will just say one other thing and then sit down. These letters of Paul are all important. It is as though they have just come out afresh. They are not things that have been kept undercover for a long time, they are the expression of a feeling of very real need at that moment. You see, they were right up to the moment, they had to be written to meet the situation; it must be met at once. There was an urgency about this matter. I don't think Paul wrote a letter and then put it in the drawer of his desk and left it there for a week or a month and then after some time he took it out and said, "Well, perhaps I will send that letter". But no, Paul wrote his letter and then he gave it to the messenger and said, "You get that to them as quickly as you can, this matter is very urgent". There was always that about Paul's letters.
Now again, he said, "You are living epistles". This must be the Spirit in your life. This is an urgent message. We must not leave it till tomorrow or next week, we must be in this business now. So this thing makes Paul's letters so valuable and I have begun to say what Paul means in his letters and these are some of the things which ought to be true of us as a living epistle of Christ.
I was telling the friends in Manila the other day that when I was here in Taiwan last year, and I saw the brothers and sisters here wearing their jackets for the first time, I was very much impressed and then someone offered to let me put on a gospel jacket. I said, "No, I am sorry, I can't wear that." They looked at me and I think they wondered whether I was ashamed to wear it. They waited for the explanation. I said something like this: "If I am putting this jacket on, I am saying something untruthful because I don't know the language. I don't know what it says on the gospel jacket, so supposing someone came to me and asked 'What is that writing on your jacket?' I should have to say I don't know." Now, a living epistle may not be like that. We are not allowed to say things we do not understand or to make a profession where there is no real life experience in us. We must know what we are talking about and people know that we know what we are talking about. And suppose someone would come to me when I am wearing this gospel jacket, I have to run and avoid him because I do not know what I am wearing says.
Living epistles are not just people who put something on, a living epistle is someone who knows what is inside. May the Lord make us living epistles.