Saint Paul and the Ministry of Reconciliation
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
The second letter to the church in Corinth is widely known as one of Paul’s most personal epistles. Throughout the letter, Paul delivers a very heartfelt apology for both his ministry and his character. At the heart of Paul’s ministry is the message of reconciliation, which is put forth in the passage of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. In order to obtain a fuller understanding of this particular passage, or any passage in scripture, several questions relating to its context must be examined before attempting to draw out a more accurate and proper meaning behind the text. This essay will approach the passage of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 first by briefly establishing the author’s audience; the letter’s history; and then literary context in which the verses are placed. After all of these are established, an analysis of the passage will commence, which will aim to explain the theology behind Paul’s ministry of reconciliation. Throughout the exegetical process, it may be revealed that the ministry of reconciliation was not a task solely reserved for Paul alone, but a task given to all those who are in Christ.
The Corinthian church was located in the city of Corinth, which was under Roman rule during the time of the apostle Paul’s first visit. Corinth was situated in Achaia (southern Greece), between the harbors of Lechaion on the North and Cenchreae on the South-East. Because of the cities strategic location for commerce, it was very cosmopolitan, wealthy, religious, and it was well known for its sensuality. Corinth housed numerous temples and shrines, a central agora or forum, shops, fountains, and theatres. Due to its cosmopolitan nature, Corinth attracted all kinds of people. Likewise, the Corinthian church was quite diverse and consisted of both Jews as well as the various types of gentiles that came in from the pluralistic city life that Corinth had to offer.
Chapter 18 in the book of Acts begins with the founding of the Corinthian Church, which was established by Paul during his second missionary journey. Acts 18:11 records that Paul worked in Corinth for a period of one year and six months, and further gleaning reveals that Paul was responsible for both the spiritual and communal foundations of the church. From this, it can be deduced that Paul was writing to a congregation whom he personally knew and cared deeply for. This is clearly evident within Paul’s tone throughout 2 Corinthians.
The Progression of the Corinthian Letters
The letter of 2 Corinthians is part of a progression of letters addressed to the church in Corinth. Scholars have proposed that there are at least four known letters that Paul addressed to the Corinthian church. The progression does not affect the understanding of 1 Corinthians; however, the sequence that follows 1 Corinthians does play an important role in the interpretation of 2 Corinthians. Therefore, it is important to understand the progression of these letters in order to properly place 2 Corinthians into a more focused setting.
In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul mentions that he previously wrote the church of Corinth a letter, which was misunderstood by the Corinthians; this letter is now lost. It is also learned that Paul received a report from Chloe’s people regarding issues within the Corinthian church. Paul received further acknowledgements in regards to these issues by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, which is recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:17. 1 Corinthians, Paul’s second letter, was written to address these issues.
After Paul’s second letter was delivered, the Apostle learned that the problems of the Corinthian Church were still unresolved. Paul then decided to pay the Corinthians a second visit. This is likely the “painful visit” that Paul draws reference to in 2 Corinthians 2:1. Upon returning to Ephesus, Paul sent out a third letter, which, like the first, is now lost. After a riot was provoked (Acts 19:23-41), Paul left Ephesus in the spring of A.D. 56 and headed for Macedonia (Acts 20:1). During a preliminary stop in Troas, Paul hoped to meet with Titus in order to receive news on the situation in Corinth; however, for whatever reason, Paul was unable to locate Titus. The two were finally able to rendezvous in Macedonia, where Titus delivered good news about the overall situation of the Corinthian church; however, Titus also brought to Paul’s attention a group within the church who opposed Paul and his ministry. From Macedonia, Paul wrote a fourth letter, which is known within the New Testament Canon, as 2 Corinthians.
Although, the majority of the news that Titus delivered was positive, there was still a minority group within the church who remained loyal to these false apostles who sought to derail Paul’s apostleship and his ministry. Scholars can only speculate who these false apostles were because they are unnamed. Scholars suggest several possibilities. Perhaps they were of the Gnostic or Docetic groups who were already present when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians or perhaps they were Hellenistic Jews who claimed to be followers of Christ. What remains clear is their resistance to Paul’s message. Undoubtedly, Paul’s letter addresses this situation, and the congregation at Corinth knew exactly why; however, their certainty of knowing exactly what Paul was addressing is a luxury that contemporary interpreters do not possess. The passage of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 exists within the context of this situation. Therefore, Paul’s address within 2 Corinthians 5:17 was not only a defense of his apostleship and ministry, it was also his way of drawing contrasts between his ministry and the false apostles who had managed to permeate the church.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, within both the ESV and HCSB translations, Paul opens up with the word therefore, which is an extension of something previously stated. The previous clause states, “From now on, then, we do not know anyone in a purely human way. Even if we have known Christ in a purely human way, yet now we no longer know Him like that.” Before Paul had his Damascus road experience he regarded everything according to the flesh (a purely human way). Even though Paul was an outwardly religious man he still saw everything as pertaining to himself. Simply put, Paul was quite egocentric, which is exemplified in Philippians where the Apostle writes, “Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.”
In 2 Corinthians 5:16, where Paul wrote, “Even if we have known Christ in a purely human way” he was referring to both the false apostles (his opposition) and to his previous self. The Christ whom the intruding ministers were referring to was bounded within the covenant of Moses. They were teaching a Jewish, law-keeping Jesus that restricted the Christians to the old covenant rather than the new covenant. Paul, on the other hand, now understood who Christ really was, that is, he no longer viewed Christ as he once did rather he now saw Christ as “The divinely appointed agent through whom forgiveness and reconciliation would be mediated to sinful humanity. Paul implied, within 2 Corinthians 5:16, that the false apostles who had managed to permeate the church, and to a certain extent those influenced by them, solely evaluated people based on the external and not the spiritual. To further clarify, the difference between Paul’s message and that of the false apostles was that Paul preached a divine Jesus Christ who completely fulfilled the law and by doing so issued a new covenant, while the false apostles where teaching a worldly distorted view of Christ. Again, their intention was to derail the message and ministry of Paul. In drawing such a clear contrast with verse 16, Paul was prepping his audience to receive, in detail, the ministry of reconciliation, which is the heart of Paul’s preaching.
Analysis of the Passage
2 Corinthians 5:17 gives a description of the proper reaction of knowing and receiving the Christ that Paul originally and continuously preached to the Corinthians. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” For Paul, this was not a slow maturing realization rather it occurred in a blinding moment when he met the risen savior as he approached Damascus. Recall that Paul once knew this Jesus in a purely human way, however, after his encounter he saw Jesus for who He really was, that is, as the savior for all who are justified by believing in Him. Paul was the perfect example for the Corinth congregation to follow as one who was a new creation. He went from persecuting the church to building up the church. When Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” Paul was stating that God plants new desires, loves, inclinations, and truths for all those who are in Christ. Paul’s past was perfect evidence of how Christ caused the old to pass and the new to come. Paul knew that this profound change within him would also occur for anyone who was in Christ. Within its literary context, the Apostle may have been advising the Corinthians on how to perceive those who are truly in Christ.
After 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul’s train of thought shifts over to the ministry of reconciliation. From the point of 5:18 onward, there is a mixture of the themes of justification and reconciliation occurring. Although justification and reconciliation may seem closely related there is one clear distinction, and it is important to understand both separately before moving forward into Paul’s description of his ministry.
When people come to Christ they are justified from all things. In other words, all of their sins are forgiven. This produces the result of God looking upon those who justify themselves through Christ as if they have never sinned at all. To further solidify the meaning, “Justification is the sentence of the judge in favor of the prisoner.” In essence, God is favoring the sinner, and accordingly, He is delivering a verdict of not guilty.
Reconciliation is similar to justification; however, reconciliation goes beyond justification. With justification, God has forgiven sinners through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross; however, the meaning initially stops there and keeps God at a distance. Reconciliation means that not only are sins forgiven, but also that “He has received us as His own to His loving heart, and we are reconciled to God.” Where justification ends, reconciliation continues on by joining believers in Christ back into an eternal fellowship with God. With reconciliation, God receives us as His own.
At this point, Paul’s audience most assuredly knew that those who have put their faith in the Jesus Christ he was teaching were the ones who were being reconciled, but Paul solidifies his message further by stating whom they were being reconciled to. He opens up by stating, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” Note that it is important to know that where Paul states “all this,” (ESV translation) he is clearly referring to those things related to the transformation. The HCSB translation uses the phrase “now everything is from God,” which can lead the reader to interpret this as exactly what it states because it is absolutely true; however, in this case the context is referring, as already stated, to the transformation into a new creation. In summary, the transformation is from God; therefore, this answers the question of whom.
Paul then moves on to answer the question of how in the following clauses. The Apostle explains that God’s process of reconciliation was accomplished through Jesus Christ. The phrase “through Christ” is identifying Jesus Christ as the agent of reconciliation. Just as, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,” likewise, God the Father’s reconciling humanity back to Himself was done through Christ as well. This, of course, was not accomplished in the life of Jesus alone, but also in His sacrificial death and resurrection; Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all mankind.
Paul makes it very clear that God was reconciling us to Himself and not the other way around. He stresses this point in verse 18-19, and then makes a plea on Christ’s behalf in verse 20 where he writes, “Be reconciled to God.” This is because Paul recognized the perfect love of God through Jesus Christ His son. The Apostle fully realized that man is in need of the reconciling and that Jesus Christ was indeed the only way. Paul’s writing in Romans exemplifies this, “So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone. For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It was man who sinned against God; therefore, it is man that needed to be reconciled to God. The choice was God’s and Paul knew this. Christ’s death and resurrection wasn’t for the purpose of enabling God to love sinners rather it was because God loves sinners. Again, Paul stresses this greatly within this passage on reconciliation.
Paul gives another example on the process of reconciliation by directing his audience towards the significance of Christ being crucified. In verse 5:21 Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” In stating that Christ was made to be sin should not be defined in a way that makes Jesus Christ the definition of sin itself. This type of thinking would dismantle God’s entire redemptive plan throughout all of history. It must be remembered correctly that it was our sins that put Jesus Christ on the cross. This means that Christ took the sinner’s place upon the cross, and in doing so, God treated His one and only Son as though He was guilty of all the sin and iniquity and unrighteousness of the ages. This was the only way for God to reconcile us to Himself. This was at the heart of Paul’s ministry of reconciliation.
Throughout the passage of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Paul mentions several times how the ministry or message of reconciliation has been received. In verse 18, he mentions that the ministry of reconciliation was given through Christ. In verse 19, the HCSB translation states that the message of reconciliation has been “committed” to us, where the ESV uses the word “entrust.” The HCSB translation lends more urgency and responsibility to Paul’s exhortation in regards to his mission, which seems to be more in-line with Paul’s explanation throughout the passage. Both of Paul’s statements here, on the ministry of reconciliation, are equal to the Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28:19-20. They are exhortations to proclaim the gospel.
Paul follows up both exhortations to proclaim the gospel by stating to his audience, “We are ambassadors for Christ; certain that God is appealing through us, we plead on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” Ambassador is a form of the verb presbeuō, which derives from presbus, meaning “old man.” Ambassadors in ancient times were usually older, experienced men, and being an ambassador was regarded as a very important duty. Furthermore, an ambassador was both a messenger for and a representative of the one who sent him. Paul wasn’t merely dishing out compliments in order to uplift the Corinthians rather he was stressing the importance of both his ministry, as well as their responsibility as ambassadors for Christ. Paul strengthens the responsibility and urgency of spreading the message of reconciliation further where he adds, “Certain that God is appealing through us.” Because believers are His ambassadors it is as though God, the Savior Father, were making an appeal to the lost through them. This shows that it wasn’t Paul’s ministry alone, but it was the responsibility of all to proclaim the gospel. Paul’s ministry of reconciliation was a threat to the false apostles in the church because it wasn’t just Paul’s ministry; it was the responsibility of all who were in Christ.
Synthesis and Application
Paul was addressing a specific audience within the church at Corinth in this letter. How they reacted to Paul’s words within the passage of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 remains unknown. Fortunately, Paul was quite explicit in this apologetic passage, and Christians both then and now have benefited from the Apostle’s short but detailed summary on the ministry of reconciliation.
The heartbeat behind Paul’s ministry of reconciliation exists within the sinless life, sacrificial death, and physical resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Without any of these three elements, the possibility of mankind to be reconciled back to God is hopeless. Therefore, because Christ was able to accomplish the will of the Father, it shall only make sense that it is only through Christ that believers are forgiven of their iniquities and are then able to be reconciled back to God. Without Christ, there is no ministry of reconciliation and no reason for Paul, or anyone for that matter, to participate in this particular ministry.
Where Paul writes, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us,” the Apostle was still addressing his Corinthian audience; however, Paul’s appeal here is extending outward to all who are in Christ. Paul’s decisive move to commission the followers as ambassadors for Christ should strike at the heart of believers “then and there” as well as those in the “here and now.” Furthermore, if all who are in Christ are to be ambassadors for Christ then Paul’s ministry of reconciliation can be thought of as a baton meant to be passed on from believer to believer in order for others to be reconciled to God. This makes the ministry of reconciliation a commission for all who are in Christ, which is what Christ himself called all of his followers to do.
Exactly how does one carry out the role of ambassador for Christ? How does one take up the ministry of reconciliation? To be quite forthright, the ministry of reconciliation is simply the gospel message of Christ, and not just any gospel but the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is of the utmost importance that believers know the person of Christ as “The divinely appointed agent through whom forgiveness and reconciliation would be mediated to sinful humanity.” Recall that the false apostles who had permeated the Corinthian church also knew Christ; however, the difference resides in knowing the Savior Christ.
In addition to knowing the true Christ through the gospel message, it is important that believers realize that the Christian ministry of reconciliation is ineffective within a life of solidarity. Christians need to be around other Christians. The Corinthian church was a flawed community, not very much different than the body of believers today, but it was through the community of believers, and with much guidance, that they managed to overcome their dilemmas. The ministry of reconciliation is most effective when all are acting together as ambassadors for Christ. Christians make up the universal body of Christ, which means that believers very much need to be around each other in order to build each other up in love. Together Christians can spread the gospel message more effectively while at the same time hold each other accountable in a spirit of gentleness. It can be said, with little argument, that the congregation at Corinth held each other accountable; the gentleness may have been the harder of the two to accomplish, of which is apparently an age-old phenomenon.
The ministry of reconciliation is not an optional practice where the individual gets to decide on whether or not others are worthy enough to hear the gospel news of the risen savior. All are worthy to hear the gospel message of Christ. The word ministry means to serve, therefore the ministry of reconciliation means to serve others for Christ in order for them to be reconciled to God. Who do Christians serve? Christians serve the risen savior, Jesus Christ. How do Christians serve Christ? Christians serve the risen savior through the ministry of reconciliation.
Barnett, Paul. The Message of 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1983.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. fourth ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014.
Ironside, H A. 1 and 2 Corinthians: An Ironside Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2006.
MacArthur, John. 2 Corinthians. The Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Publishers, ©2003.
Malcolm, R. Matthew. The World of 1 Corinthians: An Exegetical Source Book of Literary and Visual Backgrounds. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013.
. Paul Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 14.
. John MacArthur, 2 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers ©2003) 198.
. Matthew R. Malcolm, The World Of 1 Corinthians: An Exegetical Source Book of Literary and Visual Backgrounds (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2013), xii.
. Gordon Fee and Douglass Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2014) 63.
. 1 Corinthians 1:11
. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 552.
. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 552-553.
. 2 Corinthians 5:16 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
. Philippians 3:4 (English Standard Version)
. Barnett, 112.
. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 567.
. MacArthur, 198.
. 2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)
. Acts 9:3-6
. MacArthur, 196.
. H A. Ironside, 1 and 2 Corinthians: An Ironside Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2006), 391.
. 2 Corinthians 5:18 (ESV)
. MacArthur, 199.
. Ibid., 201.
. John 1:3 (ESV)
. 1 John 2:2
. Romans 5:18-20 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
. Ironside, 392.
. 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)
. Ironside, 393.
. MacArthur, 201.
. 2 Corinthians 5:20 (HCSB)
. MacArthur, 206.
. 2 Corinthians 5:20 (English Standard Version)
. Matthew 28:19
. Barnett, 112.
. Galatians 6:1