READ : 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Every Christian is called to ministry – service – in Christ’s name in the church and the world. But what does that entail? In the apostle Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth he speaks more about the nature of Christian ministry than anywhere else. David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors Paul uses in First and Second Corinthians describing ministers of Christ. He explores them in this series: “What Are We, Images of Christ’s Servants.”
An ambassador is definitely a V.I.P., no question about it. Not long ago I happened to travel to India on a ministry trip. We arrived in the middle of the night, dead tired after endless hours of travel, only to discover three or four other jumbo jets disgorging their passengers at the same time ours unloaded. It created a huge jam of people in front of the Immigration Control desks, and as we shuffled – zombie-like – slowly forward through the long queue we looked with envy at the empty line marked “Diplomatic Passports Only.”
But an ambassador’s life is about more than just enjoying all the perks and privileges of rank or socializing with other “very important people.” Ambassadors exercise real authority and have a tremendous responsibility. The ambassador is the highest official of his country in a foreign land. But more even than that, the ambassador speaks authoritatively on behalf of the government of which he or she is the accredited representative.
In our world of instantaneous communication that function has diminished somewhat in importance. But in the ancient world, where no communication was possible except by personal messenger, and where letters could take weeks or even months to travel from one country to another, the role of the ambassador was essential. He had both the right and the responsibility to represent the views of his king to a foreign power. His role was to declare the will of his own ruler to those to whom he had been sent, both to potential friends and potential enemies. In order to discharge this duty faithfully the ambassador had to be very sure he knew what his own master thought and wanted, so that his message would accurately convey the mind of the ruler in whose name he spoke.
Who are we as servants of Jesus Christ? What is the role of the minister of the gospel? Here is another answer given by Paul to the church in Corinth: We are Christ’s ambassadors. The apostle uses this image in a memorable passage from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, one of the richest sections not just of Corinthians but of the whole New Testament:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (ESV)
The Message of Reconciliation
We are Christ’s ambassadors, declares Paul. The point of this metaphor is that we are authorized and required to represent Jesus Christ, to proclaim his will to the lands and peoples to whom he sends us, to speak for him to friend and foe alike. We have been fully briefed for this great commission. We know the mind and heart of our sovereign; he has told us what his message to the world is. And what is the message? It is, says the apostle here, “The message of reconciliation,” namely, that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ” (v. 19). That’s as concise a statement of the gospel as you can find anywhere. The gospel is all about reconciliation, that is, repairing the breach, closing the gap, healing the estrangement, restoring the relationship between God and humanity. So central is this concept that Paul can summarize his whole ministry as one of reconciliation: “God,” he writes, “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18).
Reconciliation implies a prior brokeness or alienation. You reconcile people when you restore a relationship that had been fractured, when you renew a broken friendship, when you restore harmony between those who have quarreled. The reconciliation that Paul is talking about here is fundamentally between God and people. Now that’s a surprising message. Reconciliation with God? Why is that an issue?, many people wonder. The average person today thinks he deserves some kind of reward just for believing in God – as if favoring the deity with the acknowledgment of his existence is a virtue. To suggest that there is a problem in the relationship between God and humankind strikes many people as absurd. When the French skeptic Voltaire was asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God, he quipped, “I was not aware that we had quarreled.” Somehow I don’t think he remained that flippant very long.
The fact is, we have quarreled with God, and the quarrel is called sin. We have rebelled against our Creator and Ruler, and the result is an estrangement between us. After their fall into sin Adam and Eve no longer enjoyed a face to face relationship with the Lord God in the garden, but instead they had to hide from him in their shame. And the problem is not just with us.
It is true that we, like the Prodigal Son, have wandered far from our Father’s house and have learned to live without him. We need to be converted, literally to turn around, to change the direction of our lives, to have our hearts turned toward God again and our feet set in the way back home. But that’s not all there is to it. We do need to be reconciled to God, but God also needs to be reconciled with us.
If the problem were only on our side, then God would not have needed the cross, and Christ would not have had to die. After all, if it were just a matter of winning us back, God could have done that in a hundred ways: by revealing his heart-stopping beauty to us, by offering us a taste of his inexhaustible goodness, by allowing us a glimpse of his indescribable glory, by giving us some faint hint of the pleasures in store for those who love him. Any one of those things would have wooed us back.
But there is more to it than that. There is also an obstacle to reconciliation on God’s side. It takes more to close the gap, to heal the breach, to restore the relationship, than just a decision on God’s part, or even a change of heart on ours. Reconciliation requires more than just adjusting attitudes; it requires dealing with facts. And the stubborn fact that stands between God and us is the fact of sin. You cannot simply snap your fingers and make sin go away. Even God can’t do that.
When you’re playing in the back yard with your small child you lob the ball as slowly and carefully as you can. Your child takes a big swing, and misses. “That’s OK,” you say, “we won’t count that one.” But you can’t play that way when the game is real. God can’t play that way with our sins. He can’t dismiss our wrong decisions and wayward actions as if they didn’t count. That would mean they were not real, which would mean our lives weren’t real. If our lives don’t really count, then we don’t really count. If God is going to save us, if he is to be reconciled with us, then God has to deal with the fact of our sin.
How God does that is the core message of the gospel. It is the story of the cross. God does it in and through Jesus Christ. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” When we look at the life and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what we see is not merely the acts of a great and good man. We see God himself at work; not figuratively, the way we sometimes say that God was working through the actions of another person, but literally.
In the death of the man Jesus of Nazareth the one true God of heaven and earth was reconciling the world to himself by paying the penalty of the world’s sin. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us,” writes Paul, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). This is the great exchange: God counts our sin against Christ, and he counts Christ’s righteousness against us, and because of that he can say that our sins no longer count against us – “not counting men’s sins against them” (v. 19) – and because Christ has paid the full price, God can do this without saying that we don’t count.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
The work of reconciliation is God’s alone to accomplish. We can do nothing to reconcile ourselves to God or God to ourselves. Listen once more to Paul’s ringing declaration of the gospel message: “[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ;” “God was reconciling the world to himself.” God is the subject of those statements. He’s the one who has undertaken the work which only he could accomplish; and the great act of reconciliation – Christ’s death on the cross – clears the way to restored fellowship with God. Through the cross God’s righteousness and justice are revealed (Romans 3:24-26), and his love and mercy are extended to sinners (Romans 5:8).
But there is something we have to do in order to actually benefit from this work. We need to be reconciled to him. This is the message Paul preached wherever he went: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” What does he mean? I’ve already said that there’s nothing we can do to effect our reconciliation with God; that is a work only he can perform and he’s done what was needed. So why does Paul plead with us now to be reconciled? It’s true there is nothing we can do, in the sense of paying the price. But it’s also true that we must hear and accept the news about what God has done on our behalf. We must believe the gospel. We must trust in Jesus Christ and him alone for salvation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” But if anyone remains outside of Christ, there is nothing new, just the same old guilt and sin and death. And the only way to “get in” to Christ is through faith, by believing in him with all your heart, and trusting what he has done for you. Do that today.