2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:10
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 5:20-21. BE RECONCILED TO GOD
20 We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
“We are therefore ambassadors (Greek: 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, authority, and mission.
An ambassador is the agent of a ruler, such as Caesar. An ambassador does not decide what shall be done, but instead delivers 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). It was 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 (Greek: hamartia) on our behalf“ (v. 21a). 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 (Hebrews 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 (Greek: 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 Greek 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 (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).
2 CORINTHIANS 6:1-2. DO NOT RECEIVE GOD’S GRACE IN VAIN
1 Working together, we entreat also that you not receive the grace of God in vain, 2a for he says,
“At an acceptable time I listened to you,
in a day of salvation I helped you.”
2bBehold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.
“Working together, we entreat (Greek: parakaleo) also that you not receive the grace (charis) of God in vain” (6:1). In 5:20, Paul said, “as though God were entreating by us,” which suggests that “working together” in 6:1 means “Paul working together with God.”
The Greek word parakaleo combines two words, para (near) and kaleo (to call), and means to call near––to invite––to beseech––to exhort. It is a strong word that implies urgency. God, through his ambassador Paul, is entreating the Corinthian Christians to “not receive the grace of God in vain”––but rather to accept the grace of God and appropriate it to their lives.
Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness. God’s grace is beyond measure (hyperballo Ephesians 2:7)––sufficient to cover our sins, no matter how numerous or grievous. We don’t need to earn forgiveness, but need only accept the gift that Christ offers. Paul is urging these Corinthian Christians not to spurn this wonderful free gift.
“for he says, ‘At an acceptable (Greek: dektos) time (kairos) I listened to you, in a day of salvation I helped you'” (6:2a). “For he says” refers to God. Paul is God’s ambassador, and is delivering to these Corinthians what God has given him to say.
This verse quotes Isaiah 49:8. In its original context, it was news of the impending release of Israel from their Babylonian Exile. Paul appropriates that verse to speak of the salvation that God has made available through Christ.
There are two Greek words for time––chronos and kairos:
- Chronos has to do with chronological time––clock time––the time by which we keep daily appointments.
- Kairos has to do with special time––special moments in time––the forks in the road that make all the difference––moments with the potential to determine destinies. Paul uses kairos here, signaling that he is speaking of a significant moment in time.
When Paul uses the phrase “acceptable time” here, then, he is telling these Christians about a special moment in history (the cross and resurrection) when God listened to them and helped them. They dare not spurn such an important Godly gift.
“Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (6:2b). Paul takes it one more step, saying that NOW is the acceptable time–– that NOW is the day of salvation for these Corinthian Christians. NOW is the moment that will determine their eternal destiny.
2 CORINTHIANS 6:3-10. SERVANTS OF GOD
3 We give no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our service may not be blamed, 4 but in everything commending ourselves, as servants of God, in great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in riots, in labors, in watchings, in fastings; 6 in pureness, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in sincere love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
“We give no occasion of stumbling (Greek: proskope) in anything” (6:3a). The Greek word proskope means stumbling. Paul is saying that he has not thrown any roadblocks in the way of these Christians’ faith. He has not introduced anything that would cause them to stumble spiritually.
“that our service (Greek: diakonia) may not be blamed” (6:3b). Diakonia is where we get our word deacon. Diakonia suggests humble service such as taking care of guests (Luke 10:40; 1 Corinthians 16:15) or administering alms (Acts 11:29), but it can also mean spiritual ministry (Acts 1:17, 25) as it does here.
If these Christians stumble spiritually, they will have no one to blame except themselves. Their spiritual mentors have been faithful.
“but in everything commending ourselves, as servants of God, in great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in riots, in labors, in watchings, in fastings” (6:4-5). Shortly after Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus said that he would “show (Paul) how many things he must suffer for (Jesus’) name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). The first thing Paul lost was his superior status under Jewish law as a Pharisee. But Paul could say, “However, what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
For a detailed account of Paul’s sufferings on behalf of Christ, see Acts 9:16, 28; 13:50; 14:4, 19; 16:22; 21:30; 22:22; 23:1-10; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 2 Corinthians 4:8-12; 11:16-28; 2 Timothy 2:9; 3:10-13.
We should especially note 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, where Paul speaks of having experienced abundant labors, imprisonments, and stripes in his service to Christ. He goes on to say, “Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I suffered shipwreck. I have been a night and a day in the deep. I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, and in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are outside, there is that which presses on me daily, anxiety for all the assemblies” (churches).
Only a person with total commitment would accept sufferings such as this as a consequence of their calling. Paul’s sufferings validate his ministry.
“in pureness, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in sincere love” (6:6). But it isn’t only Paul’s sufferings that bear testimony to his ministry. His purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, and love also show his true heart, which manifests these positive attributes because he is “in the Holy Spirit.”
“in the word of truth, in the power of God” (6:7a). Paul’s truthfulness and Godly power also bear testimony to the quality of his ministry.
“by the armor (Greek: hoplon) of righteousness (dikaiosyne) on the right hand and on the left” (6:7b). The Greek word hoplon means instruments of war such as weapons or armor. That is instructive, especially linked to his reference to the right hand and the left.
Christians often experience opposition and persecution. We have read about the persecutions of Christians at the hands of Romans and Jews in the first century, but far more Christians died for their faith in the twentieth century than in the first––and we are on track for even worse in the twenty-first century. Opposition to the Christian faith literally comes from every direction––from the right and from the left––so we must deploy our defenses broadly.
The best Christian defense is the witness of righteousness (dikaiosyne). This word has its roots in the Old Testament, and appears frequently in the Septuagint as well as in the New Testament. In both, it connotes the meeting of high ethical standards and the sense of being found not guilty. However, in Biblical use it goes beyond that, because righteousness is possible only as we are in a covenant relationship with God. It is gift of God.
“by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (6:8-10). In these verses, Paul sets forth nine antitheses (contrasts or opposites) that typify his ministry.
Paul might have in mind things that are seen one way by believers and another way from opponents. “Evil report and good report” and “deceivers, and yet true” are two examples. Believers would see “good report” and “true,” while unbelievers would see “evil report” and “deceivers.”
But in some cases, people of faith can see both sides as evidence of true faith.
- For instance, Paul says, “as dying, and behold we live.” Christian martyrs are alive not only in heaven but also in our memories and affections. The witness of their faith continues to exert great power over our lives even centuries after they died.
- Christians look at the world sorrowfully because of wrongs that are all too apparent––but also rejoice when faith triumphs in the midst of these wrongs.
- Christians are often poor in material possessions, but rich spiritually. We might possess nothing––but we possess everything that is important.
Verses 3-10 constitute a defense of Paul’s ministry. His purpose is to gain credibility with these Christians so that he might be able to counter the “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles” (11:13) who oppose him.
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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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan