2 Corinthians 5-9 Becoming the righteousness of God

From 2 Corinthians 5-9

Paul the apostle

Paul is giving the Corinthians reason to boast about the apostles. When they see or hear of the apostles sharing the gospel. Going about their ‘ministry of reconciliation’. The Corinthians are meant to think that God is acting in ‘righteousness’ through them. That is in gospel ministry – they are the righteousness of God.

This post is part of my bible in a year series.

Passage and Comments

Today I want to look closely at 2 Cor 5.11-6.1 with particular attention to 2 Cor 5.21. I will be asking a series of questions to better understand the passage.

Throughout the passage Paul uses the personal pronouns:

  • ‘we’ and ‘us’ (Gk. ἡμῶν, Translit; hēmōn, Gk. ἡμᾶς, Translit; hēmas) and
  • ‘you’ and ‘your’ (Gk. ὑμῶν, Translit; hymōn, Gk. ὑμῖν, Translit; hymin).

Our passage makes use of these pronouns, so we need to consider who they refer to.

Who is the author? Paul, and Timothy is with him (2 Cor 1.1).

Who is their audience? Paul and Timothy are writing to the [Corinthian] church. Paul expected the Corinthian church to read the letter (2 Cor 1.13). Like most letters addressed to groups, its fair to assume this letter would have been read aloud by a lector in front of the Corinthian church.

From the above questions we can surmise whenever Paul uses the second person pronouns  ‘you’ and ‘your’ he is referring to the Corinthian church. This is the audience the letter is addressed to.

Who do the ‘we’ and ‘us’ plural pronouns refer to? We should remember our Western tendency to think scripture is all about ourselves. Stendahl helpfully reminds us;

all-about-meHow then did we arrive at our introspective, clever Western interpretation? Because we thought that when one reads the word of God, one should perceive the message as coming directly to us, and when the Bible says “we” and “our”, we had better take it personally. The law, it says, was or is “our tutor” (Gal 3.24) or “our custodian.” Who am I then to say, “The Scripture says our’, but in this case it refers to a time back there, and not to me.” But “our” in this text means, “me, Paul, with my Jewish compatriots,” and nothing else. It is totally wrong to apply that “our” to us Gentiles. Of course, when we read in Acts “And then we sailed to Crete,” (Acts 27.7) very few preachers suggest that “we” should be understood as dealing with persons now, but as soon as such a pronoun occurs in a theological context, we fall into the pattern of applying it to ourselves. Many of Paul’s uses of “we” and “our” are that stylistic plural by which he really means only himself, but in many cases, much more serious and difficult to detect, the uses of “we”-“we Jews”-stand in direct contrast to “you Gentiles.” (Loc 339, Stendahl, K., Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays)

Whenever the first person plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ are used the speaker is including himself within a larger group. This larger group could be the audience he is speaking to or it could be another group, not the Corinthians. The only way to decide which is to consider the immediate context.

The following passages help us understand who Paul is referring to when he says ‘we’ and ‘us’;

11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. (2 Cor 5.11)

12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance (2 Cor 5.12)

13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. (2 Cor 5.13)

18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; (2 Cor 5.18)

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5.20)

6 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. (2 Cor 6.1)

First, Paul makes a distinction between the ‘we’ / ‘us’ and the ‘you’ / ‘your’ groups mentioned in the text. This means in the immediate context the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ does not include the ‘you’ / ‘your’ group whom we know is the Corinthian church.

Second, the ‘we’ / ‘us’ group has been given ‘the ministry of reconciliation’. Because of this they must be the apostles working in their gospel ministry (cf. 2 Cor 3.1-9; esp. 3.6,9 ‘ministers’).

I’m going to show cartoons through this post to reinforce these facts about the text.

47 2Cor5_11-12
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So in the text I will put the label [apostles] next to instances of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to reinforce Paul is referring to himself and Timothy in their apostolic ministry. And I will put [Corinthians] next to ‘you’ and ‘your’ in the text to reinforce Paul is speaking to the Corinthians.

What is Paul’s intention? Paul says he is attempting to give the Corinthians cause to boast about them to others (2 Cor 5.12). So, in part the reason why Paul is saying all he is now is to help the Corinthians understand who they (the apostles) are, to enable the Corinthians to tell others who they are and boast about them.

47 2Cor5_13-15
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Paul gives several allusions to his apostolic ministry. Previously he said, ‘we persuade others’ (2 Cor 5.11). Presumably he is referring to his practice of persuading people about Jesus. Here he says, ‘for the love of Christ controls us’ (2 Cor 5.14). Paul’s ministry is motivated out of Christ’s love for others. Lastly he implies, they live for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Cor 5.15; cf. Gal 2.20) reflecting on their inner motivation for apostolic service.

47 2Cor5_16-17
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Paul is describing how the apostles view people who live in relationship with Christ. They are new creations. He says this with the intention that the Corinthians will likewise view them in the same way.

47 2Cor5_18-6_1
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Agent, Instrument and Goal

I have sorted the above verses into three categories and put them into the table below.

Paul and Timothy

(Saved by God)

Paul and Timothy

(Saved for gospel ministry)

Corinthians

(Being ministered to)

1) God working through Christ for the apostles and the world 2) God working through the apostles for others 3) Exhortation
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us [apostles] to himself (18a) and gave us [apostles] the ministry of reconciliation (18b)
that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (19a) and entrusting to us [apostles] the message of reconciliation (19b)
Therefore, we [apostles] are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us [apostles]. (20a) We implore you [Corinthians] on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (20b)
For our [hēmōn, apostles] sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, (21a) so that in him we [hēmeis, apostles] might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then (21b-6.1a) we [apostles] appeal to you [Corinthians] not to receive the grace of God in vain. (6.1b)

By sorting the contents of the verses this way I have made three further inferences.

biblepics 16 Jesus is risen ChristFirst, God as the agent, has worked through Christ, who is the instrument, to achieve the goal of reconciling the apostles to himself. This is shown from the first column of verses. God does this in the Gospel(s). Think of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel.

Second, God as the agent, now works through the apostles as a newly created instrument.

(The text says ‘in him’. The underlying Greek ἐν (en) αὐτός (autos), is part of a wider group of expressions Paul uses (‘in Christ’ etc). According to BDAG (a Greek lexicon) it has a range of meanings which interpreters can guess at according to the context it is placed in. I suggest in this verse, ‘in him’ could either mean ‘because of him’ or carry the locative meaning ‘in Him’ as if in a state of existence.)

48 Paul Peter GalatiansThe apostles have been given the message and ministry of reconciliation, with the goal of reconciling others to God as well. God does this in the book of Acts.

That is God works through and with the apostles to reconcile others to himself through the message he entrusted them with.

Third, Paul connects these two concepts together in sequence (concept 1 leads to concept 2).

The product of;

  • Concept 1 – God (the agent) working through Christ (the instrument) in reconciling the apostles to himself (the first goal), is
  • Concept 2 – To equip and send these reconciled apostles (as another instrument) with the gospel to achieve God’s further goal of reconciling others to himself.

Paul is making a functional distinction between the agent (God) and his instruments (Christ and his apostles). For example in this passage when he says the ‘righteousness of God’ he does not mean the ‘righteousness of Christ’. Through the passage he makes a deliberate distinction between God and Christ.

Made to be sin

66-lamb-of-god-francisco-de-zurbaranIn 2 Cor 5.21 Paul says, ‘for our sake he made him to be sin’. The Jewish practice of atonement and forgiveness of sins involved a sin offering (Lev 4). The offering was some sort of animal. Normally the offerer went to his flock and chose an animal to be his sin offering. He then took the animal to the place of worship. The animal sacrifice was seen as a gift given to God to appease his wrath (Lev 4.1-5.13). Consequently the sins and tresspasses committed by the offerer were dealt with (wrath propitiated and sins blotted out / expiated) by the death of the animal. No longer could the offerer be counted as a transgressor. Because his or her sins had been dealt with.

God made Jesus to be a sin offering.

God ‘made him to be sin’ and what he means is a sin offering. God made Christ (his son) to be the apostles’ sin offering. The same idea is in Rom 8.3 where Paul describes Jesus in a similar manner for the Roman believers. Jesus was sent by God as a sin offering. Likewise in Romans 3.25, God puts Jesus forward as a propitiation by his blood.

Paul doesn’t say God transferred our sins to Christ. In 2 Cor 5.21a Paul says – ‘for our [the apostles] sake he [God] made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin [a sin offering]’. For the apostles sake, God made Jesus to be a sin offering.

In addition Paul describes Jesus as without sin. The unblemished, innocent lamb of God.

Righteousness of God

When Paul describes himself and the other apostles ‘becoming the righteousness of God’. The Greek verb γενώμεθα has transliteration genometha and is commonly rendered ‘come into being’, ‘to happen’ and ‘to become’. The apostles have become the righteousness of God.

In some way he is associating this expression with previous expressions where God (as the agent) is working in and through the apostles as his instruments in gospel ministry (ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.18b, 19b).

40-john-baptist-preachingSomething similar is said of John the Baptist;

32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21.32)

With Paul and the other apostles we know, God makes an appeal through them (2 Cor 5.20a). God works together with them (2 Cor 6.1a).

So what does Paul mean by the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ in 2 Cor 5.21? Paul uses the same expression in Rom 1:16-17; 3:5-6; 3.21-26. The ‘righteousness of God’, is something that is ‘manifested apart from the law’ (Rom 3.21), is ‘witnessed to’ by the law and the prophets (Rom 3.21), and is ‘shown’ (Rom 3.25,26).

In my word study on righteous my results revealed that the two main patterns in the Old Testament associated with God’s righteousness are covenant and kingdom.

01-abraham-stars-promiseGod is righteous when he fulfills his covenant promises. His covenant ‘faithfulness’ and ‘steadfast love’ contribute to his motivation for why he saves his people. He is obligated to under the covenant.

God is also righteous in way he establishes justice in his kingdom. He punishes the wicked, he saves the righteous and he helps the needy and poor.

When God saves these two patterns of God’s righteousness associated with covenant and kingdom overlap.

NT Wright (p879-884, Paul and the Faithfulness of God) has shown that the closest Old Testament parallels to 2 Cor 2-5 are in Isaiah. I’ll put in brackets the scriptural echoes;

5 Thus says God, the Lord,

who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: (cf. 2 Cor 3.6 ‘ministers of a new covenant … of the Spirit’)

6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; (cf. 2 Cor 3.9 ‘ministry of righteousness’)

I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, (cf. 2 Cor 3.6,9 ‘ministers of a new covenant’) a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8 I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.

9 Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; (cf. 2 Cor 5.17‘ old has passed, new has come’) before they spring forth I tell you of them.” (Isa 42.5-9)

Check this one out as well.

8 Thus says the LORD:

“In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you (cf. 2 Cor 6.2);

I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, (Is 49:8)

Paul has been alluding to these passages though chapters 2-6 as he has been defending the apostles gospel ministry. In gospel ministry God is working through Paul to fulfill his promises. His covenant promises. In particular, through Paul’s ministry God is working to bless all nations (Gen 12.3; Gal 3.8). That is the Gentiles. Gentiles like the Corinthians…

Lets look at 2 Cor 5.21-6.1 again.

Paul and Timothy

(Saved by God)

Paul and Timothy

(Saved for gospel ministry)

Corinthians

(Being ministered to)

1) God working through Christ for the apostles and the world 2) God working through the apostles for others 3) Exhortation
For our [apostles] sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, (21a) so that in him we [apostles] might become the righteousness of God. (21b) Working together with him, then (6.1a) we [apostles] appeal to you [Corinthians] not to receive the grace of God in vain. (6.1b)
  1. The personal pronouns rendered ‘our’ and ‘we’ refer to the apostles,
  2. The sequence of thought (Concept 1 to Concept 2) established in the preceding passages and this one helps us to understand Paul is speaking in some way about his apostolic gospel ministry,
  3. This apostolic gospel ministry is used by God to bless the Gentiles (I’ve imported this),
  4. Thus God (the agent) is being righteous by fulfilling his covenant promises (in saving the Gentiles) through the apostles gospel ministry (God’s working instrument).

If we keep in mind Paul’s intention I discussed at the start, he is giving the Corinthians reason to boast about them (the apostles) to others. When they see or hear of the apostles sharing the gospel. We could say going about their ‘ministry of reconciliation’. They are meant to think that God is acting in ‘righteousness’ through them.

That is in gospel ministry – they are the righteousness of God.

Words for believers

Timeline - Believer with gospel
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Quite often the Jews perceived God working in and through significant human movements. We see John the Baptists preaching ministry is the ‘way of righteousness’ (Mt 21.32). Likewise Isaiah in particular describes various armies as God’s ‘anger’ (Is 10.5; 13.3), ‘fury’ (Is 10.25) and ‘wrath’ (Is 13.13).

God is acting in righteousness when as King he punishes the wicked. The inverse is true as well. God is acting in righteousness when he works through his people to fulfill his promises. Right now he does this through gospel ministry.

Is God working through you to fulfill his promises and save the nations?


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.