2 Corinthians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

A Ministry of Reconciliation

Paul attributes his changed perspective to God, who did too things for him. First, he reconciled Paul to himself through Christ, and second, he gave him the ministry of reconciliation (v. 18). This is an amazing statement. The reconciled become reconcilers (Tolbert 1983:68). Paul is the only New Testament writer to use the noun katallage (reconciliation) and verb katallasso (to reconcile). The basic idea is to change or make otherwise. In Greek social and political spheres the term denoted a change in relations betoeen individuals, groups or nations, while in the religious arena it was used of relationships betoeen gods and humans. In Paul's writings, God is always the reconciler. Those in need of reconciliation are hostile human beings (2 Cor 5:18-19; Rom 5:10-11). This is the reverse of Hellenistic religion, where it is the human being that seeks restoration of the gods' favor, and also of Judaism, where confession of sin and repentance are the means by which reconciliation with God is sought (as in 2 Macc 1:5; 7:33; 8:29, Vorlander 1978:167). The initiative now is with God who changes a relationship of enmity to one of friendship. This is accomplished through Christ, that is, through his death on the cross (Rom 5:10). It is thus with good cause that we sing: "Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim / Till all the world adore his sacred name" (George Kitchin).

The essence of the message Paul proclaimed as a minister of reconciliation is spelled out in verses 19-20: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ . . . The syntax is ambiguous. The text can read, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" or "God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ." The emphasis in the former is on the incarnation ("God in Christ"), with Christ as the locus of divine revelation (M. J. Harris 1978b:1193). But this moves us away from the soteriological focus of these verses. The stress in the latter is on redemption. God used Christ's death on the cross (God was reconciling [periphrasis]) to bring about reconciliation (instrumental en).

To debate the issue is perhaps to lose sight of Paul's focus. Theos is emphatic: "God was reconciling to himself." God is the initiator, not the recipient, of reconciliation. The recipient is the world. Kosmos (world) is the world of human beings, not the cosmos. Reconciliation occurs because "God does not count their sins against them" (v. 19; not men's sins). To "count against them" (logizomenos autois) in the world of commerce referred to calculating the amount of a debt (Heidland 1967a:284-85). Today we might think of charges on a credit card for which we are held legally responsible. Here it means not posting debts to our account that should rightfully be ours. The debts are called sins--or better, "trespasses" (KJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB), a term that in Hellenistic Greek has to do with a false step, slip or blunder. The REB's "misdeeds" catches the sense. To the Greek paraptomata are mistakes that result from ignorance. To the Jew they are deliberate actions knowingly committed against God (Bauder 1978:585-86). As someone once said, "sin is a clenched fist and its object is the face of God."

As part of his message Paul included the fact that God committed to him the message of reconciliation (v. 19). This occurred at the home of Judas on Straight Street in Damascus shortly after his encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9:10-19; compare 22:12-16). The verb committed (themenos) denotes a divine appointment (Maurer 1972:157). This was a deliberate and carefully considered action on God's part.

The nature of Paul's appointment was to serve as one of Christ's ambassadors. The verb presbeuw (are ambassadors) means to be "elder" or "first in rank" (Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). Here we might think of the role of the statesman, where age and high rank often go together. Then as now, an ambassador was someone who represented the interests of his or her nation abroad. In the Old Testament the range of duties included offering congratulations (1 Kings 5:1; 2 Sam 8:10), soliciting favors (Num 20:14), making alliances (Josh 9:3-7) and protesting wrongful actions (Judg 11:12). The Roman counterpart to the Greek presbeutes was the legate (legatus), who was duly appointed by the emperor to administer the imperial provinces on his behalf. Paul was similarly appointed by God to administer the gospel on Christ's behalf (hyper Christou; compare Eph 3:2). It is as though God himself were making a personal and direct appeal through Paul (v. 20).

Reconciliation is both an accomplished fact (v. 18) and a continuing process (v. 19). Although it is a done deed as a result of Christ's work on the cross, it nonetheless must be personally appropriated. This is where Paul and the gospel ministry fit into the picture. He, and those like him, function as God's agents in proclaiming what has been accomplished. To use Paul's language, God has appointed them to preach the word of reconciliation (v. 19) and so they proclaim: Be reconciled to God (v. 20). Two things need to be noted. First, the verb is passive. It is not that we must reconcile ourselves to God--as would be the case with the Greeks or Romans vis-à-vis their gods. Rather, we are to be reconciled, that is, to accept what God has already achieved. Second, the gospel minister's job is not to bring about reconciliation but to announce what has already occurred. In a real sense, he or she is the town crier or herald proclaiming a news item of earth-shaking significance. In fact we take on the role of the herald each Christmas when we sing the well-known lines by Charles Wesley: "Hark! The herald angels sing, `Glory to the newborn king, / Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!'"

But what we recount in song Paul proclaimed in earnest. For all that remains for humankind to do is to receive what God has effected. Yet how can they receive it unless they have heard about it? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them (Rom 10:14-15)? "How beautiful . . . are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Is 52:7). The demand for heralds remains a pressing one today. For the need is still as desperate and the news just as vital.

The reason trespasses are not credited to our account is that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (v. 21). The fact that Christ had no sin is well documented in the New Testament. He was tempted as we are "yet was without sin" (Heb 4:15); one "set apart from sinners" (Heb 7:26). The NIV had no sin is actually "knew no sin" (ton me gnonta hamartian). The verb ginosko (to know) denotes personal acquaintance with something. Christ did not possess the knowledge of sin that comes through personal experience. He did not sin either in thought ("in him is no sin," 1 Jn 3:5) or in action ("he committed no sin," 1 Pet 2:22).

The rest of verse 21 is theologically elusive. The first problem is to determine the sense in which Christ was made . . . sin for us. There are three major approaches. One approach is to understand made . . . sin as "treated as a sinner." As our substitute, Christ came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, that is, estranged from God and the object of his wrath (Barrett 1973:180). The second approach is to identify made . . . sin with Christ's assuming a human nature. Through the incarnation Christ was made "in the likeness of sinful man" (Rom 8:3). The final approach is to interpret verse 21 sacrificially as "made to be a sin offering." This draws on the Old Testament notion that God made the life of his servant a guilt offering (Is 53:10).

On the whole, this last interpretation seems the likeliest one. The equivalent Hebrew term hatta't can actually mean either "sin" or "sin offering" (as in Lev 4:8-35). Also, the logic of verse 19 almost demands it. If our debts are not posted to our account, it is because someone else has legally assumed them--much as the scapegoat did on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) and the guilt offering did on other occasions (Lev 4--5). This is why God can make overtures of friendship toward those who are otherwise his enemies.

If the exact point of "made sin" is lost to us, the thrust is clear. So closely did Christ identify with the plight of humanity that their sin became his sin. In the final analysis this is not so different from the idea in 1 Peter 2:24 that Christ himself bore our sins in his body up onto the tree. Paul may well be thinking of Isaiah 53:12, where the servant of the Lord is to be numbered with the transgressors and bear the sin of many.

In identifying with our sin, Christ paved the way for us to become identified with the righteousness of God. The genitive can be subjective ("the righteousness that God gives"--that is, a righteous character), objective ("the righteousness we have before God"--that is, a right standing) or possessive ("the righteousness that God possesses"--that is, we share the righteousness that characterizes God himself). In Paul's writings the noun dikaiosyne typically is used of character. It is not merely that we acquire a right standing or do good works; we actually become righteous--although the latter may well presume the former. This is no legal fiction. For in Christ (or perhaps "through Christ," en auto) we truly assume his righteousness, just as Christ assumed our sin (Brown 1978:169).

Previous commentary:
Christ's Love Compels Service

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