2 Corinthians 5:11-21 – The Love of Christ Compels Us

Given our resurrection hope in Christ and because we know judgment awaits everyone, Paul seeks to persuade people for the sake of their reconciliation to God and each other. We persuade others because the love of Christ—what Christ has done for our sakes—compels us, and this love was revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection for us.

What is important to Paul is not his fame or glory, but the ministry of the new covenant which persuades people to be reconciled to God on the ground of what God has done and is doing in Christ. Paul is not concerned about appearances, boasting, or self-commendation. Rather, he is focused on pursuing the ministry of reconciliation with integrity and truth.

Still, however, Paul is struggling with his detractors. Apparently, some judge Paul by his appearance rather than his heart. His critics go by appearance rather than God’s calling. Indeed, Paul’s life looks crazy by worldly standards, but it arises out of Paul’s commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. Some Corinthians, apparently, are more concerned about the embarrassments of his sufferings and humiliations than they are Paul’s integrity and faithful pursuit of the ministry of reconciliation.

Some, it seems, looked at Paul said, “He is crazy! He is irrational! He is out of his mind.” And Paul welcomes that criticism because his otherworldly commitment to serve God in conformity with the gospel of Christ. At the same time, Paul attempts to explain his ministry to the Corinthians so that they might boast in him. In other words, Paul wants them to recognize that the heart of his ministry is the message, “Be reconciled to God.” And, thus, whatever Paul does—even if it looks crazy—he does for the sake of ministry and faithfulness to God. And he does it for the sake of the Corinthians as well! He wants them to comprehend the meaning of the ministry of reconciliation and understand his own ministry (remember 2 Corinthians 1:13).

Paul is compelled to pursue this ministry because of the “love of Christ.” This may mean the love Paul has for Christ, or the love Christ has for Paul, or perhaps even both (given its ambiguity). It seems best to understand it as Christ’s love for us, that is, given what Christ has done for us for the sake of our reconciliation to God, we are compelled to participate in the ministry of reconciliation.

In this way, Christ died for all—this is the demonstration of the love of Christ—and, therefore, we all died with Christ. We were all crucified with Christ so that we might be reconciled to God. Christ died for all; therefore, we all died in him.

But this was not a death where death is the end game. Rather our death in the death of Christ is so that we might live for Christ, the one who both died and was raised for us. In this way, we who have died with Christ will also be raised with him. The gospel grounds the ministry of reconciliation, and it grounds our living for Christ rather than living for ourselves. 

Consequently, the gospel (the death and resurrection of Jesus in this context) moves and empowers us to live for Christ because of what Christ has done for us. Specifically, we participate in the ministry of reconciliation not only to live for Christ but also to persuade others—to announce the gospel message, “Be reconciled to God.”

In essence, God has acted for reconciliation, and now we participate in what God is doing through the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, Paul couches his understanding of ministry in the light of (1) divine initiative/action and (2) human participation/action. This flows through this whole section.

TextDivine InitiativeHuman Participation
5:14Christ Died for AllAll have Died
5:15Christ Died for AllLiving for Christ
5:18All This is from GodMinisters of Reconciliation
5:19God Reconciles the WorldGiven the Word of Reconciliation
5:20God Makes an AppealGod Appeals Through Us
5:21God Made Him to Be SinWe Become the Righteousness of God

God initiates and accomplishes. Christ dies, reconciliation is from God, God reconciles the world, God appeals to us, and God made Christ “sin” for our sake. God is the initiator; God is the primary actor. Reconciliation originates with God, and God accomplishes it.

At the same time, God has invested Paul and other servants with the message (word) and ministry of reconciliation as instruments by which God makes the appeal, “Be reconciled to God.” Human participation is God’s chosen means by which the world is reconciled to God in Christ.

This is why Paul’s ministry is important, and it explains why he perseveres through suffering and is willing to suffer the indignities of opposition, rejection, and persecution as well as other forms of hardship. The message is a divine one, and it is an appeal from the love of Christ for reunion with God. That message is worth every ounce of affliction!

2 Corinthians 5:21 is a controversial text in the history of interpretation. Many read it as a divine exchange where Christ becomes sin (our sin is imputed to Christ) and we become God’s righteousness (the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us). That is one way to read this text, but I don’t think it is the best fit for the context.

It seems to me that the “righteousness of God” is what we become. We are transformed into the image of Christ, and this involves our participation in the covenant faithfulness of God. As we participate in God’s righteousness (God’s faithful covenant-keeping), we become that righteousness through sanctification and transformation. When we participate in the ministry of reconciliation, we become the covenant faithfulness of God as God acts through us to speak the message of reconciliation. When we deliver the “word of reconciliation,” we become the righteousness of God just as when entrust ourselves to the fact that Christ died for all, we also die in Christ and live for Christ.

The reality in which we live is a new creation. God creates anew in Christ.

TextOld CreationNew Creation
5:16According to the FleshBut No Longer
5:17 In Christ, We are New Creatures
5:17The Old has Passed AwayThe New has Come

Christ died and was raised.  We die in Christ and are raised with Christ. Through death, the old world passes away, and through resurrection the new world (creation) arises. Consequently, we don’t judge or regard people “according to the flesh,” that is, according to appearances, worldly standards (power, wealth, etc.), or our own personal judgments. Rather, we now see the world—and Christ—through new lenses, the lenses of new creation. We are new creatures participating in a new creation, and that changes everything and how we see everything.

We are reconciled to God who does not impute our sin against us. God has canceled our debt, and does not treat us as we deserve. Rather, in Christ, God shares with us the ministry of reconciliation. God gives us the “word of reconciliation” to both proclaim it and participate in it, “Be reconciled to God.”

“Be reconciled to God”: is this directed at the Corinthians in their situation where they need to mature and come more into line with the ministry of reconciliation, or is this a summary of Paul’s message of reconciliation (a summary of his preaching)? Perhaps it is both. Either makes sense in the context, and though I tend to think it is a summary of the message, both are applicable to the circumstance Paul addresses at this point in the letter.

“Be reconciled to God.” God has acted, Paul has ministered, and now we must hearken. God has created a new world, and God through Paul has invited us into it. Now, we must believe the incredible word of reconciliation and commit to participate in it for the sake of transformation of both ourselves and the world. “Be reconciled to God.”

4 Responses to “2 Corinthians 5:11-21 – The Love of Christ Compels Us”

  1.   Bill Brewer Says:

    I’ve been following your articles through 2 Corinthians and am wondering what you think of the claim that Paul uses “we, us, our” versus “you, your” to distinguish his ministry team from the Corinthians in reflecting the strained relationship he has with the Corinthians. In testing that claim, I’ve only found one place in all of 2 Corinthians where most people would say it fails. Needless to say, if true, this claim makes a huge difference in how we understand “he has made US the righteousness of God.” Rather than include all Christians throughout the ages, its strict interpretation wouldn’t even include the Corinthians—only Paul and his team. Any recommendations on a good rebuttal of this? Thank you!

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      It seems to me correct to say that Paul typically describes the situation (the relationship between Paul and Corinth, their struggles, history, etc.) with “us” and “you” as a distinction between his team (ministry) and the Corinthians.

      At the same time, Paul wants the “you” to be included in the “us.” In other words, the point is reconciliation so that there is no longer any us/you, but that both share life in Christ as they live for Christ.

      So, while I think Paul is talking about how he and his ministry have become the righteousness of God as they participate in the ministry of reconciliation, he also intends to draw the Corinthians into this ministry as well. They, too, are to become ambassadors, servants of God, and ministers of the new covenant, and thus become also “the righteousness of God” by participation in the mission of God.

      I don’t absolutize the “us”/”you.” It is the situation of the letter itself, but Paul is working toward union and mutual participation. “Us” is not an exclusive group in 2 Corinthians.

  2.   WT Standard Says:

    Enjoyed this message. Christ living through us as we go “in Him” or the Message of Christ given to Paul. God reconciling all who believe in the finished work of Jesus. I shared this message with about 20 people who are in a Zoom Bible study each Sunday morning around 8:30.

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