2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Paul was the founding pastor of the church at Corinth, a cosmopolitan city on the Isthmus of Corinth (an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two land masses) connecting the mainland of Greece (Northern Greece) with the Peloponnese (Southern Greece). Paul spent approximately eighteen months in Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-11).
After leaving Corinth, Paul traveled extensively (Acts 18:18-23), settling in Ephesus for an extended period of time (Acts 19). During that period, he wrote at least four letters to the Christians at Corinth. His first letter has been lost to us (see 1 Corinthians 5:9). His second letter is the letter that we know as 1 Corinthians. He wrote a third letter—a severe letter—”out of much affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:4) so that when he visited Corinth he “wouldn’t have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice” (2 Corinthians 2:3). He wrote a fourth letter, which we know as 2 Corinthians. He visited Corinth again after writing this fourth letter (2 Corinthians 12:14). (NOTE: There is considerable scholarly debate as to what constitutes which letter, but that goes beyond the scope of this exegesis.)
Underlying much of 2 Corinthians is the fact that “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles” (11:13) have mounted significant opposition to Paul’s ministry. Paul deals with this opposition in detail in chapters 10-13, but the conflict influences what he has to say elsewhere as well. These opponents have treated Paul as an imposter (6:8). When we hear Paul talk about reconciliation (vv. 18-19)—and God “having committed to us the word of reconciliation” (v. 19)—and his claim to be an ambassador of Christ (v. 20)—we should keep in mind that he makes these statements, in part, in response to the opposition that he has been facing.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:14-15. ONE HAS DIED FOR ALL
14For the love of Christ constrains us; because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died.15He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again.
While these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. When, in verse 16, Paul says, “therefore,” he is referring back to the things he said in verses 14 and 15.
“For the love of Christ constrains us” (v. 14a). “The love of Christ” could refer to Christ’s love for us or our love of Christ. The ambiguity could be deliberate—Paul might intend it to mean both. In any event, it is love that motivates Paul to minister to the Corinthian church. Having experienced Christ’s love for him—and having responded with love for Christ—Paul feels a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel far and wide.
As noted above, Paul is dealing with critics in the Corinthian church who have challenged his apostolic credentials. Paul’s defense permeates the whole book—and this verse is one example. Paul is not serving to gain honor or money. He is serving because of Christ’s love for him and his love for Christ.
“because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died” (v. 14b). In the Jewish sacrificial regimen, thousands of animals were sacrificed each year. Each family contributed its own sacrifices of lambs or pigeons. Jewish law specified in detail the offerings to be made—and how they were to be made. Various offerings served various purposes, but atonement for sins—bringing humans into harmony with God—was a major purpose (Leviticus 1:4; 17:11-14). God allowed the blood (death) of the sacrificial animal to take the place of the blood (death) of the penitent offering the sacrifice.
This same idea was continued into the New Testament, where Christ’s death on the cross was seen to be the final and ultimate sacrifice—the sacrifice sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world. That’s what Paul means when he says “one died for all.”
“therefore all have died” (v. 14c). In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about Christians as having “died to sin” (Romans 6:2). He says that we “were buried therefore with (Christ) through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
“He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again” (v. 15). In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “For he who has died has been freed from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him; knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no more has dominion over him! For the death that he died, he died to sin one time; but the life that he lives, he lives to God. Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:7-11).
We who have died to sin have been raised up to live a new life—a life not devoted to selfish purposes but devoted to the one “who for (our) sakes died and rose again.”
2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-17. NOT FROM A HUMAN POINT OF VIEW
16Therefore we know no one after the flesh (Greek: kata sarx—according to the flesh) from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. 17Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.
“Therefore we know no one after the flesh (kata sarx—according to the flesh) from now on“ (v. 16a). As noted above, “therefore” refers back to what Paul said in verses 14-15. Because Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again” (v. 15), Paul no longer regard others “after the flesh” or “according to the flesh” (v. 16).
In the New Testament, sarx is most frequently used as a contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6; Galatians 5:17). That is how Paul uses sarx in this verse. To view someonekata sarx (according to the flesh) means to view them by worldly standards—by their wealth or physical beauty or political influence or power. Those are the concerns of the natural person. Paul now regards people from a different perspective—a spiritual perspective.
One reason for this change in viewpoint is that Paul has become aware that the things that the world treasures are passing away. In the end, wealth, beauty, influence, and power will prove transient. Christ has come to point us to eternal values—and to offer us eternal life.
“Even though we have known Christ after the flesh“ (v. 16b). Prior to becoming a Christian, Paul’s name was Saul. Saul’s role as a persecutor of the church is well known. He was complicit in the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58 – 8:1). He ravaged the church by entering Christian homes and committing Christians to prison (Acts 8:3). He breathed “threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He saw Jesus as a charlatan and blasphemer—and Jesus’ crucifixion as just punishment—and Christians as promulgators of a false religion.
People today often see Christ kata sarx—”after the flesh” or “according to the flesh”. We are tempted to see Jesus as a good teacher—or a foolish visionary. Or we think of him as someone who lived “way back there,” in a time and place that have no significance for our lives. More likely, we simply fail to think of him at all.
“yet now we know him so no more“ (v. 16c). Saul’s spiritual eyes were opened as a consequence of his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road—an encounter that temporarily blinded him physically. A light from heaven drove Saul to his knees, and a voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). When he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” the response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise up and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:5-6).
Saul went to the home of Ananias, who laid hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). “Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. He took food and was strengthened” (Acts 9:18-19). “Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).
This last phrase, “he is the Son of God,” show how completely Saul’s view of Jesus had changed—from charlatan to Son of God—from blasphemer to Messiah.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ” (v. 17a). The phrase, “in Christ,” is important. Paul uses it frequently. Some examples:
• Christians are “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
• Christians “who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
• We must “consider (ourselves) also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).
• Christians “are sanctified (made holy) in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
• Paul describes the Corinthian Christians as “babies in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
• “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
• God “who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
• “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
• “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Being “in Christ” involves an all-encompassing relationship with Christ Jesus—a relationship that has saving power. That relationship involves receiving justification (being made righteous) as a gift rather than as an achievement, which makes us all equal at the foot of the cross, so there is “neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.” There is no room for boastfulness “in Christ,” because we have all received the same gift.
“he is a new creation” (v. 17b). The vision of a new creation was important to the prophets. Ezekiel had a vision of a new temple, filled with the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 40-47). Isaiah had a vision of the Lord comforting the exiles and leading them through the wilderness on straight highways (Isaiah 40)—of God’s servant bringing justice to the nations (Isaiah 42)—of Cyrus of Persia making possible the new creation of Israel (Isaiah 45)—of Zion’s children returning home (Isaiah 49).
This idea of a new creation or a new age carries forward into the New Testament.
“As the revelation of God’s purposes in history, Christ undergirds all of creation (John 1:1–9; Eph. 1:9–10; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). Yet creation, according to Paul, remains in travail, ‘groaning in labor pains’ (Rom. 8:22). The new age that Paul foresaw is one that involved the completion of God’s purposes in Christ, in the “revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19)” (Brown, “Creation”).
“The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new“ (v. 17c). In one sense, this is not true. We still live in the old kosmos—the world that is opposed to God. We still see people living their old kosmos lives—and, try as we might, we find ourselves too often living by kosmos standards and doing kosmos things.
However, in another sense, Paul is pointing to the ultimate reality. Christ’s coming to earth has divided history into “Before Christ” and “After Christ.” We no longer have to look for the Messiah—the Savior—because he has come. Christ is in the process of redeeming the kosmos. He has already redeemed those of us who have placed our faith in him. We have become new and different people. The difference will not be complete until we are permitted to join Christ in the heavenly realm—but Christ has already started his work in our lives. We are, indeed, new people.
The contrast between old and new is most apparent to those whom Christ has saved from addictions—or lives of crime—or other self-destructive behaviors. While those of us who were raised as Christians are still sinners, we may have been spared the worst of the “old” behaviors, so that the contrast between old and new is less apparent. I am reminded of the famous Luther quotation:
“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be strong, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”
2 CORINTHIANS 5:18-19. GOD RECONCILED US TO HIMSELF THROUGH CHRIST
18But all things are of God, who reconciled (Greek: katallasso) us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry (diakonia) of reconciliation (katallage); 19namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses (Greek: paraptoma), and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.
But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ
“But all things are of God, who reconciled (katallasso) us to himself through Jesus Christ”(v. 18a). The idea of reconciliation is important in Paul’s epistles. He uses either the verb, katallasso, or the noun, katallage, ten times in Romans (5:10, 11; 11:15); 1 Corinthians (7:11); and 2 Corinthians (5:18, 19, 20).
Reconciliation involves a change in a relationship from bad to good—from enmity to friendship. When used of nations, it involves establishing peace between nations that were previously at war with one another.
Note that it is God who reconciled us—restored us in our relationship with God by bringing about a change in our lives. This is not something we could have done for ourselves. It required God’s initiative, because our unholiness was incompatible with God’s holiness. Paul says that God accomplished this reconciliation “through Jesus Christ”—through the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.
Reconciliation is related to several other New Testament concepts—forgiveness, grace, justification, and redemption—but is distinct from them:
• Forgiveness is the first step in reconciliation, justification, or redemption. We are sinners, and need to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins before we can be reconciled, justified, or redeemed. We also need to learn to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matthew 6:12). The words translated “forgive” in the New Testament are used in other contexts for the release from indebtedness or the dismissal of other obligations.
• Grace (Greek: charis) is the undeserved favor of God. Greeks often used the word charis to speak of the support of a patron. It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. We are the beneficiaries.
• “Justification is a judicial term used in the law courts” (Cranfield, quoted in Garland). It means being made just or righteous—not guilty. This is important, because God is holy, and those who are guilty cannot be admitted into God’s presence. Those who have been justified can.
But Paul says that Christ died for our sins while we were yet sinners. We are justified by his blood—by his sacrifice. Therefore, we have been reconciled to God (Romans 5:8-10)
• Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through the payment of a price. Christ is our redeemer, and his death on the cross was the price that he paid for our freedom.
“and gave to us the ministry (diakonia) of reconciliation”(katallage) (v. 18a). The word diakonia is often used in the broader sense of “service.” Here it is used to speak specifically of a particular kind of service—Christian ministry. Paul was called to the “ministry of reconciliation.” God has called Paul to be a reconciler—to help reconcile person to person—and people to God.
Given the conflict that underlies this letter, Paul’s “ministry of reconciliation” is particularly significant. He has called the Corinthians to forgive those who have caused them pain (2:5-11). He has engaged in a “service of righteousness” among them (3:9). He has proclaimed “Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). He is dealing directly with problems in the Corinthian church—not as a faultfinder but as a reconciler.
“Ministry of reconciliation” is one name for Paul’s ministry. He also calls himself a servant “of a new covenant” (3:6) and as rendering “a service of righteousness” (3:9). These are not necessarily distinctive ministries, but are instead different facets of a holistic ministry.
“namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself“ (v. 19a). Verse 19 restates and expands upon what was said in verse 18.
This phrase makes it clear that God is the actor in this reconciliation drama. It also makes it clear that Christ is the agent through whom God accomplishes this reconciliation.
“not reckoning to them their trespasses” (paraptoma) (v. 19b). In the New Testament, the Greek word hamartia is the word more usually used to mean sin. It has the sense of missing the mark—or transgressing—rebelling—revolting. Paraptoma is similar in meaning, and is used of those who make a mistake or engage in wrongdoing.
We have all made mistakes or engaged in wrongdoing. Most of us commit these trespasses on an almost daily basis. Married couples who have succeeded in keeping their marriage alive for a long time know the importance of “not reckoning… trespasses.” If husbands or wives were to keep a record of every trespass, the relationship would soon suffer such terrible damage that nothing could restore it.
God models for us the kind of behavior that underlies reconciliation. He makes it a point not to count trespasses against people, so that they might become holy—eligible to be reconciled to God—fit to be brought into God’s holy presence.
“and having committed to us the word of reconciliation“ (v. 19c). In verse 18c, Paul said that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Here he restates that thought in slightly different words.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:20-21. AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST
20We are therefore ambassadors (Greek: presbeuo) on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For him who knew no sin he made to be sin (hamartia) on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness (dikaiosyne) of God.
“We are therefore ambassadors (presbeuo) on behalf of Christ” (v. 20a). Originally, the word presbeuo meant “old” or “eldest.” However, it came to be used for important positions that required the kind of wisdom that comes with age and experience. In this instance, ambassador is a good translation, because that word brings together the ideas of wisdom and authority.
An ambassador is an agent of a ruler, such as Caesar. An ambassador does not decide what shall be done, but instead delivers to others the message that the ruling authority chooses to send.
Nevertheless, an ambassador is far from a simple lackey. According to Jewish custom (shaliah), the one sent is fully representative of the one who did the sending. Therefore, an ambassador speaks with the authority of the ruling authority, and people to whom the ambassador has been sent are expected to treat the ambassador with the kind of respect that they would pay the ruling authority. Failure to do so would bring severe repercussions.
“as though God were entreating by us” (v. 20b). As an ambassador for Christ, Paul is delivering the Gospel message with which Christ has entrusted him. The message is God’s. The messenger is Paul.
“we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (v. 20c). In our comments on verse 18a above, we said that it is God who reconciled us. Reconciliation required that God take the initiative.
Now in verse 20, Paul entreats the Corinthian Christians to be reconciled to God. This raises two questions:
(1) Is the initiative now in the Corinthians’ hands?
(2) If the people to whom Paul is writing are already Christians, haven’t they already been reconciled to God?
With regard to the first question, God has taken the initiative to effect reconciliation. The first move was God’s. The Corinthian Christians now need to take advantage of God’s initiative by accepting the reconciliation that God has offered.
With regard to the second question, sin is an ongoing problem, so reconciliation is an ongoing process. The Corinthian Christians have begun the process, but it is far from complete. The Corinthian church has all sorts of problems—evidence that the Corinthian Christians are guilty of many sins. Therefore, they need to keep coming to God’s well to drink of the forgiveness and reconciliation that God has made possible.
“For him who knew no sin (God) made to be sin (hamartia) on our behalf“ (v. 21a). As noted in the comments on verse 19 above, hamartia is the usual word for sin in the New Testament.
In what sense is Christ a sinner? The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was without sin (Hebrew 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), so this can’t mean that he committed sins.
• It could be that Christ was a sin-offering in keeping with the Jewish sacrificial system.
• A number of scholars prefer the idea that Christ bore the consequences of our sins. They cite Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’.”
Frankly, I have trouble distinguishing between these two ideas. Christ as a sin-offering and Christ bearing the consequences of our sins seem like one and the same thing to me. I found a number of commentaries that tried to explain the difference—always in favor of the second option—but none that I found compelling.
“so that in him we might become the righteousness (dikaiosyne) of God” (v. 21b). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sedaq means righteousness, and the word mispat means justice. Those two words are closely related. While both involve right behavior, this right behavior is a natural outgrown of right relationship with God, who is the ultimate righteous one. In the case of Israel, righteousness grew naturally out of the covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and Israel, and involved the establishment of justice.
In the New Testament, the word dikaiosyne is usually translated righteousness, but it is sometimes translated justice or justification. As in the Old Testament, righteousness in the New Testament involves a right relationship with God.
The phrase, “the righteousness (dikaiosyne) of God,” is also found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (1:17; 3:5, 21-26, 10:3). Paul says:
“But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified (Greek: dikaioo) freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance; to demonstrate his righteousness (dikaios) at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier (dikaioo) of him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26—note the similarity of the word that is translated “justified” and the word that is translated “righteousness”).
When Paul speaks of “the righteousness of God,” does he mean the righteousness that is characteristic of God or the righteousness that God imputes to those who have faith? Scholars are divided, but it seems best to say “both/and” instead of “either/or”:
• God is righteous. He has proven himself faithful in his relationship to humans.
• But the gospel (euangelion—good news) is good news primarily because God has chosen to share his righteousness with us—has chosen to justify us “freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barnett, Paul, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997)
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Martin, Ralph P., Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians, Vol. 40 (Dallas: Word Books, 1986)
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan