This article is a Bible study on 2 Corinthians 5:12-21.

Source: The Outlook, 1991. 4 pages.

2 Corinthians 5:12-21 - The Ministry of Divine Reconciliation

...and [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.

2 Corinthians 5:15 (NKJV)

Apostolic Antidote for a Poisoned Congregation (Read 5:12-13)‚§íūüĒó

If you've been following our study of 2 Corinthians, you'll recall that one of the main purposes of this epistle is apostolic self-defense to a congregation being poisoned by notions advanced by false teachers. In Paul's day, even as in our own, God's people were being infected by competing views of the ministry, by rival opinions concerning the nature of Christian living and of the church. Paul's critics were accusing him of insincerity, religious extremism, and self-aggrandize¬≠ment (see 2 Corinthians 10:7-11; 11:5-15). In order to administer the proper antidote, the apostle in turn was identifying his opponents as those who relied on externals ‚ÄĒ on appearance, on showiness, on clever techniques and tactics (see 2 Corinthians 4:2; 5:12).

In the preceding chapters, then, Paul has been offering the Corinthian believers the serum with which to counteract the venom of these false teachers. He's been saying, as it were: 'Do you want something to brag about? Brag about this: our ministry toward you proceeds from the fear of God, not the fear of men.' Here in verses 12-13, he counters by saying, 'To those who complain that I'm a religious maniac, tell them that my imbalance is for your sakes; let God handle my fanaticism ‚ÄĒ you simply listen to my sober-minded appeal that you be reconciled to the Lord. My sincerity is evident in my motive and message: that you be reconciled to God in Christ Jesus.' (Question 1)

The Compelling Motive for the Christian Ministry (Read 5:14-15)‚Üź‚§íūüĒó

With these verses, we enter one of the most sublime portions of sacred Scripture. Be aware that there is, in the remaining verses of this chapter, far too much material to exhaust in this Bible study lesson. But let's not permit the glorious splendor frighten us away from drawing near to gaze on the beauty of God' redemption.

The great compelling motive in the apostle's life since his conversion was love, a love which began with God and returned to Him. It was the love of Christ for Paul, more than Paul's love for Christ, that drove him to proclaim as his fixed conviction that God's redemption was accomplished by Christ's substitution­ary death. Divine love is unavailable, and unintelligi­ble, apart from this kind of death.

There are other kinds of death: the heroic death of a soldier, the exemplary death of a martyr, the penal death of a wrongdoer. Christ's was none of these. His was the death of a righteous Man for the unrigh­teous.

Notice the connection being pressed by Paul: 'If One died for all, then all died.' Both verbs point back to the same event, namely, Christ's crucifixion. The same apostle teaches in Romans 5:12-21 similarly that when the one man Adam sinned, death (sin's penalty) passed on to all men, since all had sinned. Even so, all those who belong to Christ are, through the power of His resurrection, made alive unto God. 'He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again' (2 Corinthians 5:15). (Question 2)

Just as the apostle no longer lived for himself, willingly placing even his flesh in service to the gospel, so the Corinthian believers ‚ÄĒ and all who are made alive by Christ's Spirit ‚ÄĒ must no longer live for them¬≠selves, but for Christ Jesus, their once-dead, now risen Savior.

Two Radical Dimensions of Living for Christ (Read 5:16-17)‚Üź‚§íūüĒó

Living for Christ Jesus entails a radically new assessment of others, including of our Savior (v.16), and of ourselves (v.17).

The apostle acknowledges that 'from now on' (the time of his conversion), his appraisal of others is no longer 'according to the flesh.' He no longer evaluates people by the world's standards of value, standards measuring only outward dimensions like race, social status, wealth and power.

The clearest and most straightforward explanation of verse 16b ('Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.') is that prior to his conversion, Paul's knowl¬≠edge of Christ had been according to human standards (think of his persecution of early Christians ‚ÄĒ of Christ Himself, really); but with his conversion came the transformation of his knowledge of Christ. He now knew Christ 'for real.'

And how must we view ourselves, then? Anyone who has died and risen with Christ is, in fact, a new creation. With those two words, 'in Christ,' the apostle summarizes the inexhaustible significance of divine redemption. Being 'in' Christ means taking refuge in God's acceptable surety; it speaks of a future inheritance with Him who reigns over all things. To be 'in' Christ is to enjoy access to Truth, and power for doing Right. As Philip Hughes writes in his com­mentary on this verse, all these descriptions of re­demption attempt to capture this glorious reality, that 'redemption in Christ is nothing less than the fulfill­ment of God's eternal purposes in creation.'

This view of ourselves extends, really, to all of creation: 'old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.' Notice first the past tense, pointing to the point of regeneration and conversion, when all those fleshly enslavements and prejudices became, suddenly, 'old.' At that distinct point in time, they could be described as 'former,' as 'past.' In their place arose newness of life, a newness that is and continues forever new, never fading.

Observe also that while there is a definite disconti­nuity between old and new (old things have passed away), there is at the same time a certain continuity (all things have become new). In our previous lesson we saw this truth applied in terms of the earthly and heavenly modes of existence. Here, Scripture expands the principle to a cosmic scale: all things have become new. What a glory-filled comfort for the believer! The heart-experience of a child of God, born anew and raised to life 'in Christ,' is part and parcel of the future cosmic re-new-al, including the new heavens and the new earth!

The Essential character of the Christian Ministry (Read 5:18-21)‚Üź‚§íūüĒó

Whenever Scripture speaks of creation, it speaks of God as the originating source. So too in redemption. It was this God who, while His children lived in rebellious enmity toward Him, sent His Son as Media­tor and atonement for sin. Redemption's plan and its execution depend solely on God.

The heart of redemption is reconciliation, which in turn presupposes alienation. The cause of alienation is sin. By his sin, man has both offended God and brought God's wrath down upon himself. Together, human offense and divine wrath are the components of alienation. The only possible way to replace alienation with reconciliation is for God to provide another Suit­able Object who has not offended His holiness and upon whom He may pour out His wrath.

So God matched man's rebellion by His love, sending His Son. But never forget that the purpose of divine love includes ‚ÄĒ and does not contradict ‚ÄĒ the satisfaction of divine wrath for human sin. The cross of Jesus Christ is the emblem of God's love only because it is the altar of His anger. There, at the cross, mercy combined with truth, and justice embraced peace (Psalm 85:10).

Having opened the way of reconciliation through the blood of Christ, God has entrusted to His servants the ministry of reconciliation.

What kind of ministry is this? Preeminently, it is a ministry of proclamation. God has committed to (literally: deposited in) His servants 'the word of reconciliation,' a deposit that has transformed these messengers, and requisitioned them as heralds of the very grace that has renewed them.

The content of their message is profoundly simple: 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.' The source reconciliation is God-in-Christ. The scope of reconcili­ation is the world. And the basis of reconciliation is acquittal.

On the one hand, this divine reconciliation was accomplished once for all, at the cross. But, as verse 20 indicates, this reconciliation is applied and there¬≠fore becomes personally real to believers through the ministry of God's own ambassadors. An ambassador acts and speaks on behalf of and in the place of the sovereign. Notice that the apostle doesn't say, 'There¬≠fore we are like ambassadors for Christ,' but quite simply, 'we are ambassadors for Christ.' God makes His plea (what a gracious Sovereign, that He should plead with us ‚ÄĒ the offender! ‚ÄĒ to be reconciled with Him!) through His ministers.

Faithful to their commission, gospel ministers implore their hearers to be reconciled to God. On behalf of their Savior and Sender, they beseech and plead, they persuade and coax.

Why should their hearers respond? Because God made Christ Jesus, who was without sin, to be sin on behalf of those who had forfeited divine favor and           fellowship. This is the ground and basis upon which reconciliation has been extended, and an essential ingredient to the summons of preaching. The sinless­ness of Christ is absolutely necessary for restored fellowship, for only He was able to bear the sin of others.     

Scripture tells us here that God made Christ Jesus not a sinner, but sin. That is: God made His Son the object of His wrath and judgment, pouring upon Him the punishment sin deserved, in order to remove the sin of the world. The logic of reconciliation stipulates that forgiveness follows satisfaction (satisfactory pay­ment). Reconciliation requires both propitiation (appeasing divine wrath) and expiation (providing a covering for sin). (Question 3)

If Christ was made to be sin, the apostle declares that believers have become, not righteous, but righ¬≠teousness ‚ÄĒ even more: they have become the righteous¬≠ness of God. This refers to the believer's justification, whereby his sins are credited to Christ, and the Savior's spotless perfection is reckoned to the believer's account. Here it is useful to distinguish between the instantaneous righteousness afforded in justification, and the progressively growing personal righteousness of sanctification. The first is the source of the second, and they both find their fullness at glorification.

All of this speaks of power, divine power in the face of human weakness and sin. Every minister of the gospel, and everyone ministered to by the gospel, knows that this God-wrought reconciliation is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion. 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.' That is the heart of the gospel, the church's raison d'etre or reason for existence. And as the apostle himself knew so well, this is the heart of the gospel ministry and its only justification! (Question 4)

Questions for Reflection and Reply‚Üź‚§íūüĒó

  1. Why is it difficult for a person to prove his sincerity? How should we determine whether or not a minister is sincere? Should we even be concerned about that? Why (not)?

  2. Read either the Canons of Dort, Second Head, Articles 3 and 8, and accompanying Rejection of Errors, Paragraph 5; or The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Paragraphs v.-viii. Explain what it means that Christ's death was sufficient for all people, but efficient only for the elect. Why is this distinction necessary? What is the doctrine of universalism? Why does universalism eventually result in an empty church?

  3. If there can be no forgiveness without satisfactory payment, neither can there be forgiveness without repentance. Both recognize the presence of guilt. If 'Jesus paid it all,' should people be made to pay for their sins today? What does this truth say about reinstating somebody to church office or church membership who has fallen into sin? What happens to the church when forgiveness is offered without there being sufficient evidence of repentance?

  4. Is reconciliation with God strictly a spiritual thing? Should the church also be involved in relieving physical consequences of alienation, like hunger, poverty and sickness? Can the church ever go 'too far' in the direction of meeting social, eco­nomic or political needs? Where must she draw the line?

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