Behold, The New Has Come
2 Corinthians 5:11–21 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 (am)
This morning we come to yet another of those breathtaking passages in 2Co.—on everyone’s Favorites list. It may even be the pinnacle of them all because in this text Paul draws a straight-line connection from his God-enabled, gospel-initiated desire to please [the Lord] (9) to his zealous passion to spread the gospel. He shares the motivation (11-15), content (16-19), and call (20-21) of new covenant ministry (ESVSBN). His goal is to make clear how the truths of the gospel apply to his own life and calling. As a result, … [he] provides one of the most profound statements of the gospel found anywhere in the NT (Hafemann 235).
First, I want to do a quick walk-through of the content, just for us to see the flow of the passage. Then I want to dig a bit deeper in a second pass using our outline.
Paul has just informed us that his aim is to please God (9) both because he knows God has saved him (5) and because he knows he will answer to God when he stands before the judgment seat of Christ (10). Therefore, he’s all about the work of [persuading] others to please God as well (11a). But these Corinthians should know this about him by now (11b). And he’s not building himself up by saying this here. He just wants them to know how to answer his critics (12) there in Corinth. So, he’s not drawing their attention to the intimate details of his own personal relationship with God (13), even though that might wow his critics. Rather, he’s more sober-minded in his public ministry because that’s what benefits them the most (13)—that’s what’s most [persuasive] (11). But he also takes this approach because this is the ministry God has given him; this is how he responds to [Christ’s] love expressed in the gospel: he preaches the gospel for his hearers’ benefit (14) so that they too might be delivered from preoccupation with self and live to please God (15, cf. 9).
At this point in the grand story of redemption we don’t regard anyone according to their mere visible presence, but according to what God is doing in them and through them. So it is even with Christ (16). It wasn’t His mere appearance in the flesh that was the truest game-changer, but His sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection (14-15). Those truly embody what He came to accomplish. So, when someone comes to Christ, everything about him is new (17) because he has entered into the new work God is doing (18a). You could also turn this around and hear it is as an announcement of the new covenant having arrived. If anyone is in Christ, that confirms that the old [is finished] and the new has come (17). And God has made us the delivery agents of this new work He is doing (18b), Paul says. He’s doing His work through us, reconciling the world to Himself through the message of the new covenant we preach! (19) He’s changing the world through us!
So, we’re His ambassadors calling you all to be reconciled to God (20) because of the amazing work He has done—He [makes] Jesus, [sinless] as He is, accountable for your sin and then credits you with His righteousness! (21) Stunning!
Let’s now employ our three-point outline.
The Glorious Calling in Paul’s Life
We don’t celebrate our own spirituality, Paul says, our own relationship with God (13) as though that’s what’s most impressive or most helpful. No, we’re actually [controlled] by the love of Christ (14)—spotlighting His love for us, not ours for Him (Harris 479-80)—the love Christ has expressed to us at the cross. The fact that Christ loves us causes us to act as we do (L-N). So, even more compelling, more motivating to Paul than the rich qualities of his own vibrant engagement with God is his grasp of the overwhelmingly magnificent love of Christ expressed to all most clearly and undeniably in the sacrifice He offered for the [sins] of all who will believe (14-15). There’s no trick here, no hook like a shady salesman uses to snare you into buying something you don’t really want or need, insinuating that his product is better than it actually is. No, the love of Christ for all who believe is so all-encompassing, so tailored to the need of ones like us who are under a death-sentence because of our sin, that Paul won’t take any risk at all of obscuring it!
He’s [preoccupied] (controls ) with the quality of this love of Christ. It [presses in on] him. It [stops his ears] to any other message but the gospel. It [seizes] him and [compels] him. It [constrains] him (WSDNT) to set aside reference even to any dramatic (cf. 1Co.14:2, 18-19, 23) or unique (cf. 12:1-4) aspects of his personal relationship with God in order to [preach] nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1Co.2:2). This is what he means when he says that if [he’s] beside [himself], it is for God (13). If he does speak of such things—like a madman (11:23)—it’s simply in order to celebrate the fruit of [Christ’s] love in him (cf. 3:1-3). But with them he’s more reserved, so they see Christ for themselves!
[He’s an ambassador] for Christ (20) and that’s all there is to it! He’s a mouthpiece for the true and living God, and what could be a higher calling than that? God Himself [makes] his appeal through [Paul] (20) to apply the magnificent love of Christ to fallen sinners and save them eternally, remove their sin and [raise] them up from death unto life!
What do you do for a living? What’s your vocation? This is Paul’s! And it swallows up whatever he does to make money! This is a calling that, if absent, reduces the true significance even of a role as head of state or corporate CEO. And if it’s present it adds eternal dimension to the already lofty calling of a stay-at-home mom, loving and serving and training her children.
Paul earned money as a tentmaker in Corinth (Act.18:3); that’s why he didn’t need their support (11:7). But ask him his vocation and he was an [ambassador] for Christ (20). Is that your perspective on your work, your life?
The Glorious Gospel Paul Was Called to Preach
Let’s look next at the message Paul preaches. We’ve already heard that it expresses the love of Christ (14)—that’s what motivates him. But it also captures the heart of the message itself. [Christ] died and was raised for all who believe! (14-15). He died in the place of those who were under a death sentence. And His death was so effective that their penalty was paid-in-full! Justice was fully achieved; nothing was fudged. God’s righteous standard was upheld. He [remained] just even while becoming the justifier of [those] who [have] faith in Jesus (Rom.3:25-26).
These are the facts of the matter. But Paul celebrates the nuances of the saving work of God here in 2Co.5 like nowhere else in any of his letters. [Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Where else does he say it like that? He died for you to deliver you from [living selfishly], so that you’d be able to lift your eyes above yourself and [behold his] glory (3:18), so that you’d be free to do the very thing Paul is doing here: putting his own experience to the side and focusing on what’s best for the Corinthians!
That’s v.15. How about v.17? 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. We’ll spend our wealth and our health trying to find a fresh start, to manufacture and new beginning, to reinvent ourselves. And most will conclude it’s not possible, because even if you’re able to pull off a whole new start, even if you can afford it, you still take the old self with you when you go! Where in this life can you truly start over, take a mulligan without forfeiting the game? But that’s what happens when you receive the gospel!
But he’s not done. How about v.21? 21 For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God. There, that’s the verse! Where else does Paul say it like that? Eph.2:8-10 is beautiful, but it’s not 2Co.5:21; it’s poignant but not as piercing. Rom.3:21-26 is glorious, but it’s not 2Co.5:21; it’s thorough, but lengthy. In 1Pe.2:24 we read: 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. That comes close, and it’s anchored in the same text as ours (Isa.53:2-12) (ESVSBN), but it’s not as vivid, or as accessible as an idea. 2Co.5:21 is uniquely expressive. It’s pithy yet stunningly deep and ranging in its presentation of the scope of our redemption, the nuances of our reconciliation to God in Christ. It gives us the sinfulness of humanity and the sinlessness of Christ. It gives us the imputation of our sin to Christ and of His righteousness to us. It makes the removal of our sin a prelude to the receiving of Christ’s righteousness. It makes our reconciliation to God His work, not ours. And expresses the heart of substitutionary atonement, which is the heart of the gospel.
The Glorious Exchange Still Available for Us
What a passage we have before us this morning! What a proclamation of the gospel! What a presentation of God’s plan to [reconcile] sinners to himself, and then to spread that message through the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians then on to all of us! We have the motivation, content, and call of new covenant ministry. We see Paul [constrained] to preach the gospel along with the gospel he was [constrained] to preach! And we hear within it not only the message of our reconciliation with God, but a new motivation for our own proclamation of it in our day, a fresh reminder of our calling to be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us (20; cf. Mat.28:19-20).
So, what does this mean for us? Three thoughts:
First, if you’re here this morning and have not been reconciled to God, haven’t trusted Christ as Savior, I invite you to do so right now. We were made for relationship with God, but it’s been broken because of our sin. In Christ it can be restored! That’s what v.21 (17, 15) is telling us.
Second, if you’re here this morning and you have been reconciled to God but you’ve lost your zeal for your salvation, few passages are equipped to rekindle your passion like 2Co.5. Hear Paul’s passion: he [aims] to please God (9) because he knows God has saved him (5) and he knows he’ll answer to God when he stands before the judgment seat of Christ (10). That’s not a fearful thing. It’s joyful! He’ll stand before the Christ Who gave His life to reconcile him to God and [give him] a ministry of reconciliation! (18) Drink fresh from the fountain of living water (Joh.7:37-38) through 2Co.5 today!
Third, if you’re joyful in your salvation but have lost touch with your primary vocation as ambassadors for Christ (20), I’m sure you’re not alone. I think most of us struggle to understand ourselves as ambassadors for Christ first, and whatever else we do for money (or education) second. I think this should motivate us, first, to prayer—seeking the ministry of the Spirit in our own hearts, but also on behalf of this body of believers to see God raise up among us business people, educators, parents, students, neighbors, family and friends to be ambassadors! Will you pray that with me?