2 Corinthians 5
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
V.

(1) For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved.—Better, be broken up, as more in harmony with the image of the tent. The words that follow give the secret of his calmness and courage in the midst of sufferings. He looks beyond them. A new train of imagery begins to rise in his mind: linked, perhaps, to that of the preceding chapter by the idea of the tabernacle; in part, perhaps, suggested by his own occupation as a tentmaker. His daily work was to him as a parable, and as his hands were making the temporary shelter for those who were travellers on earth, he thought of the house “not made with hands,” eternal in the heavens. The comparison of the body to the house or dwelling-place of the Spirit was, of course, natural, and common enough, and, it may be noted, was common among the Greek medical writers (as, e.g., in Hippocrates, with whom St. Luke must have been familiar). The modification introduced by the idea of the “tent” emphasises the transitory character of the habitation. “What if the tent be broken up?” He, the true inward man, who dwells in the tent will find a more permanent, an eternal, home in heaven: a house which comes from God. What follows shows that he is thinking of that spiritual body of which he had said such glorious things in 1Corinthians 15:42-49.

For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven:
(2) For in this we groan.—The “groaning” here, and in 2Corinthians 5:4, may, of course, be a strong way of expressing the burden and the weariness of life, but taken in connection with what we have already seen in the Epistle, as pointing to the pressure of disease, we can scarcely fail to find in it the utterance of a personal or special suffering. (See Notes on 2Corinthians 1:8-9.)

Earnestly desiring to be clothed upon.—The words have suggested the question whether St. Paul spoke of the “spiritual body” to be received at the resurrection (1Corinthians 15:42-49), or of some intermediate stage of being, like that represented in the visions which poets have imagined and schoolmen theorised about, in the visions of the world of the dead in the Odyssey (Book 11), in the Æneid (Book vi.), in Dante’s Divina Commedia throughout. The answer to that question is found in the manifest fact that the intermediate state occupied but a subordinate position in St. Paul’s thoughts. He would not speak overconfidently as to times and seasons, but his practical belief was that he, and most of those who were then living, would survive till the coming of the Lord (1Corinthians 15:52; 1Thessalonians 4:15). He did not speculate accordingly about that state, but was content to rest in the belief that when absent from the body he would in some more immediate sense, be present with the Lord. But the longing of his soul was, like that of St. John (Revelation 22:20), that the Lord might come quickly—that he might put on the new and glorious body without the pain and struggle of the “dissolution” of the old. In the words “be clothed upon” (literally, the verb being in the middle voice, to clothe ourselves, to put on) we have a slight change of imagery. The transition from the thought of a dwelling to that of a garment is, however, as in Psalm 104:1-3, sufficiently natural. Each shelters the man. Each is separable from the man himself. Each answers in these respects to the body which invests the spirit.

If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.
(3) If so be that being clothed . . .—The Greek particles express rather more than the English phrase does, the truth of what follows. “If, as I believe . . .,” though not a translation, would be a fair paraphrase. The confident expectation thus expressed is that in the resurrection state the spirit will not be “naked,” will have, i.e., its appropriate garment, a body—clothing it with the attributes of distinct individuality. To the Greek, Hades was a world of shadows. Of Hades, as an intermediate state, St. Paul does not here speak, but he is sure that, in the state of glory which seemed to him so near, there will be nothing shadowy and unreal. The conviction is identical with that expressed in 1Corinthians 15:35-49, against those who, admitting the immortality of the spirit, denied the resurrection of the body.

For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.
(4) Being burdened.—The whole passage is strikingly parallel to Wisdom Of Solomon 9:15. “The corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things.” The Wisdom of Solomon, which no writer quotes before Clement of Rome, had probably been but recently written (possibly, as I believe, by Apollos), but St. Paul may well have become acquainted with it.

Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon.—Better, Seeing that we do not seek to put off, but to put on a garment. The thought is that of one who thinks that the Coming of the Lord is near. He wishes, as he expects, to remain till that Coming (comp. 1Corinthians 15:51; 1Thessalonians 4:15), to let the incorruptible body supervene on the corruptible, to be changed instead of dying. In this way that which is mortal, subject to death, would be swallowed up of life, as death itself is swallowed up in victory. (1Corinthians 15:54.)

Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
(5) He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing.—Better, he that wrought us for this very thing. The “very thing” is the consummation, by whatever stages it may be reached, in which mortality is swallowed up of life. The whole work of God in the past—redemption, the new birth, the gifts and graces of the Spirit—was looking to this as its result. He had given the “earnest of the Spirit” (see Note on 2Corinthians 1:22) as a pledge of the future victory of the higher life over the lower. Every gift of spiritual energy not dependent upon the material organism was an assurance that that organism was an impediment to the free action of the Spirit, which would one day be overcome. Our eyes, to take a striking instance, are limits, as well as instruments, to the spirit’s powers of perception.

Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:
(6) Therefore we are always confident.—The Greek construction is participial: being therefore always confident; the sentence not being completed, but begun again with the same verb in 2Corinthians 5:8. The two verbs for being “at home” and “absent” are not found elsewhere in the New Testament. The latter conveys the special idea of being absent from a man’s own home or country. The knowledge of the fact that follows is given as the ground of the Apostle’s confidence. It makes him long for the change; not wishing for death, but content to accept it, as it will bring him nearer to his Lord.

(For we walk by faith, not by sight:)
(7) For we walk by faith, not by sight—Better, and not by what we see (or, by appearance). It seems almost sad to alter the wording of a familiar and favourite text, but it must be admitted that the word translated “sight” never means the faculty of seeing, but always the form and fashion of the thing seen. (Comp. Luke 3:22; Luke 9:29; John 5:37.) The fact is taken for granted; and it comes as the proof that as we are, we are absent from the Lord. Now we believe in Him without seeing Him; hereafter we shall see Him face to face. Our life and conduct and our “walk” in this world rest on our belief in the Unseen.

We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
(8) We are confident, I say.—The sentence begun in 2Corinthians 5:6 and half broken off is resumed. The apparent sense is that he prefers death to life, because it brings him to the presence of his Lord. At first, this seems at variance with what he had said in 2Corinthians 5:4, as to his not wishing to put off the garment of the present body. Here, however, the expression is not so strong. “We are content,” he says, “if death comes before the Coming of the Lord, to accept death; for even though it does not bring with it the glory of the resurrection body, it does make us at home with Christ among the souls who wait for the resurrection.” If there still seems to us some shadow of inconsistency, we may look upon it as the all but inevitable outcome of the state which he describes in Philippians 1:21-25, as “in a strait between two,” and of the form of life in which he now finds himself. The whole passage presents a striking parallelism, and should be compared with this. This is, it is believed, an adequate explanation. Another may, however, be suggested. We find the Apostle speaking of certain “visions and revelations of the Lord,” of which he says he knows not whether they are “in the body or out of the body” (2Corinthians 12:1). May we not think of him as referring here also to a like experience? “We take pleasure,” he says, if we adopt this interpretation, wholly or in part, “even here, in that state which takes us, as it were, out of the body, or seems to do so, because it is in that state that our eyes are open to gaze more clearly on the unseen glories of the eternal world.” The fact that both verbs are in the tense which indicates a single act, and not a continuous state, is, as far as it goes, in favour of this explanation.

Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him.
(9) Wherefore we labour.—Better, we strive earnestly after. The English “labour” is quite inadequate, the Greek expressing the thought of striving, as after some honour or prize. Our ambition is that . . . we may be accepted would be, perhaps, the best equivalent. For “accepted of him” read acceptable, or better, well-pleasing to him: the Greek word implying the quality on which acceptance depends, rather than the act itself.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
(10) For we must all appear.—Better, must all be made manifest. The word is the same as that in 1Corinthians 4:5 (“shall make manifest the counsels of the heart”), and is obviously used with reference to it. It may be noted that it is specially characteristic of this Epistle, in which it occurs nine times. The English version, which can only be ascribed to the unintelligent desire of the translators to vary for the sake of variation, besides being weak in itself, hinders the reader from seeing the reference to 1Corinthians 4:5, or even the connection with the “made manifest” in the next verse.

Before the judgment seat of Christ.—The Greek word shows the influence of Roman associations. In the Gospels the imagery of the last judgment is that of a king sitting on his throne (Matthew 25:31), and the word is the ever-recurring note of the Apocalypse, in which it occurs forty-nine times. Here the judgment-seat, or bema, is the tribunal of the Roman magistrate, raised high above the level of the basilica, or hall, at the end of which it stood. (Comp. Matthew 27:19; Acts 12:21; Acts 18:12.) The word was transferred, when basilicas were turned into churches, to the throne of the bishop, and in classical Greek had been used, not for the judge’s seat, but for the orator’s pulpit.

That every one may receive the things done in his body.—It would have seemed almost impossible, but for the perverse ingenuity of the system-builders of theology, to evade the force of this unqualified assertion of the working of the universal law of retribution. No formula of justification by faith, or imputed righteousness, or pardon sealed in the blood of Christ, or priestly absolution, is permitted by St. Paul to mingle with his expectations of that great day, as revealing the secrets of men’s hearts, awarding to each man according to his works. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7) was to him an eternal, unchanging law. The revelation of all that had been secret, for good or evil; the perfectly equitable measurement of each element of good or evil; the apportionment to each of that which, according to this measurement, each one deserves for the good and evil which he has done: that is the sum and substance of St. Paul’s eschatology here and in 1Corinthians 4:5. At times his language seems to point to a yet fuller manifestation of the divine mercy as following on that of the divine righteousness, as in Romans 5:17-18; Romans 11:32. At times, again, he speaks as if sins were washed away by baptism (1Corinthians 6:11), or forgiven freely through faith in the atoning blood (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 2:13); as though the judgment of the great day was anticipated for all who are in Christ by the absence of an accuser able to sustain his charge (Romans 8:3), by the certainty of a sentence of acquittal (Romans 8:1). If we ask how we can reconcile these seeming inconsistencies, the answer is, that we are not wise in attempting to reconcile them by any logical formula or ingenious system. Here, as in other truths of the spiritual life—God’s foreknowledge and man’s free-will, God’s election and man’s power to frustrate it, God’s absolute goodness and the permission of pain and evil—the highest truth is presented to us in phases that seem to issue in contradictory conclusions, and we must be content to accept that result as following from the necessary limitations of human knowledge.

Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.
(11) Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord.—Better, the fear of the Lord. The English word “terror” is unduly strong, and hinders the reader from seeing that what St. Paul speaks of is identical with “the fear of the Lord”—the temper not of slavish dread, but reverential awe, which had been described in the Old Testament as “the beginning of wisdom” (Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10). Tyndale’s and Cranmer’s versions give, “how the Lord is to be feared;” the Rhemish, “fear.” “Terror,” characteristically enough, makes its first appearance in the Geneva version.

We persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God.—The antithesis is singularly indicative of the rapid turn of thought in the Apostle’s mind. “We go on our way of winning men to Christ.” (Comp. the use of the same Greek word in Acts 12:20, “having made Blastus . . . their friend.”) It is singular to note that, in an Epistle probably nearly contemporary with this, St. Paul uses the phrase almost in a bad sense: “Do we now persuade men, or God?” i.e., “Are we seeking to please our friends or God?” (Galatians 1:10.) And here, apparently, the imperfection of the phrase and its liability to misconstruction occurs to him, and he therefore immediately adds, “Yes, we do our work of persuading men” (the case of Felix, in Acts 24:25, may be noted as showing the prominence of “the judgment to come” in St. Paul’s method), “but it is all along with the thought that our own lives also have been laid open in their inmost recesses to the sight of God.” The word “made manifest” is clearly used in reference to the same word (in the Greek) as is translated “appear” in 2Corinthians 5:10.

And I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.—The words are an echo of what had already been said in 2Corinthians 4:2. He trusts that in their inmost consciences, in the effect of his preaching there, in the new standard of right and wrong which they now acknowledge—perhaps, also, in the estimate which their illumined judgment passes on his own conduct—he has been made manifest as indeed he is, as he is sure that he will be before the judgment-seat of Christ.

For we commend not ourselves again unto you, but give you occasion to glory on our behalf, that ye may have somewhat to answer them which glory in appearance, and not in heart.
(12) For we commend not ourselves again unto you.—The better MSS. omit “For,” which may have been inserted for the sake of an apparent sequence of thought. In reality, however, what follows is more intelligible without it. He has scarcely uttered the words that precede this sentence when the poison of the barbed arrow of the sneer to which he had referred in 2Corinthians 3:1 again stings him. He hears his enemies saying, “So he is commending himself again;” and these words are the answer to that taunt. “No,” he says, “it is not so, but in appealing to the witness of the work done in your consciences we give you an ‘occasion’ (or starting-point) of a boast which we take for granted that you, the great body of the Church of Corinth, will be ready to make for us.”

That ye may have somewhat to answer.—The opponents, of whom we are to hear more hereafter (see Notes on 2Corinthians 10:7-18; 2Corinthians 11:12-33), rise up once more in his thoughts. “That such as these should be boasting of their work and their success!” What did they glory in? In appearance. The words may apply to anything external—claims of authority, training, knowledge, and the like. The use of the word, however, in 2Corinthians 10:1 seems to imply a more definite meaning. Men contrasted what we should call the dignified “presence” of his rivals with his personal defects, the weakness of his body, the lowness of his stature. “Take your stand,” he seems to say, “against that boast, on the work done by us in your consciences.”

For whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God: or whether we be sober, it is for your cause.
(13) For whether we be beside ourselves.—The recollection of one sneer leads on to another. This also had been said of him, and the intense sensitiveness of his nature made him wince under it. Some there were at Corinth who spoke of his visions and revelations, his speaking with tongues as in ecstasy, his prophecies of future judgment, as so many signs of madness. “He was beside himself.” (Comp. Agrippa’s words in Acts 26:24, and Note there.) Others, or, perhaps, the same persons, pointed to his tact, becoming all things to all men, perhaps even insinuated that he was making money by his work (2Corinthians 9:12; 2Corinthians 12:10): “he was shrewd enough when it served his turn.” He answers accordingly both the taunts. What people called his “madness”—the ecstasy of adoration, the speaking with tongues (1Corinthians 14:18-23)—that lay between himself and God, and a stranger might not intermeddle with it. What people called his “sober-mindedness”—his shrewd common sense, his sagacity—that he practised not for himself, but for his disciples, to win them to Christ, remove difficulties, strengthen them in the faith.

For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:
(14) For the love of Christ constraineth us.—The Greek, like the English, admits of two interpretations—Christ’s love for us, or our love for Christ. St. Paul’s uniform use of this and like phrases, however, elsewhere (Romans 5:5; Romans 8:35; 1Corinthians 16:24; 2Corinthians 13:14), is decisive in favour of the former. It was the Apostle’s sense of the love that Christ had shown to him and to all men that was acting as a constraining power, directing every act of every spiritual state to the good of others, restraining him from every self-seeking purpose.

Because we thus judge, that if one died for all.—Better, as expressing the force of the Greek tense, Because we formed this judgment. The form of expression implies that the conviction dated from a given time, i.e., probably, from the hour when, in the new birth of his conversion, he first learnt to know the universality of the love of Christ manifested in His death. Many MSS. omit the “if,” but without any real change of meaning. It is obvious that St. Paul assumes the fact, even if it be stated hypothetically. The thought is the same as in the nearly contemporary passage of Romans 5:15-19, and takes its place among St. Paul’s most unqualified assertions of the universality of the atonement effected by Christ’s death. The Greek preposition does not in itself imply more than the fact that the death was on behalf of all; but this runs up—as we see by comparing Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, with Mark 14:24, John 15:13—into the thought that the death was, in some very real sense, vicarious: in the place of the death of all men. The sequence of thought involves that meaning here.

Then were all dead.—These strange, mysterious words have received very different interpretations. They cannot be rightly understood without bearing in view what we may call the mystic aspect of one phase of St. Paul’s teaching. We may, perhaps, clear the way by setting aside untenable expositions. (1) They cannot mean, however true the fact may be in itself, that the death of Christ for all showed that all were previously under a sentence of condemnation and of death, for the verb is in the tense which indicates the momentary act of dying, not the state of death. (2) They cannot mean, for the same reason, that all were, before that sacrifice, “dead in trespasses and sins.” (3) They can hardly mean that all men, in and through that death, paid vicariously the penalty of death for their past sins, for the context implies that stress is laid not on the satisfaction of the claims of justice, but on personal union with Christ. The real solution of the problem is found in the line of thought of Romans 5:17-19, 1Corinthians 11:3; 1Corinthians 15:22, as to the relation of Christ to every member of the human family, in the teaching of Romans 6:10, as to the meaning of His death—(“He died unto sin once”). “Christ died for all”—this is the Apostle’s thought—“as the head and representative of the race.” But if so, the race, in its collective unity, died, as He died, to sin, and should live, as He lives, to God. Each member of the race is then only in a true and normal state when he ceases to live for himself and actually lives for Christ. That is the mystic ideal which St. Paul placed before himself and others, and every advance in holiness is, in its measure, an approximation to it.

And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.
(15) Should not henceforth live unto themselves.—St. Paul was not writing a theological treatise, and the statement was accordingly not meant to be an exhaustive presentment of all the purposes of God in the death of Christ. It was sufficient to give prominence to the thought that one purpose was that men should share at once His death and His life; should live not in selfishness, but in love; not to themselves, but to Him, as He lived to God. (Comp. Romans 6:9-11; Ephesians 2:5-7.) Now we see the full force of “the love of Christ constraineth us,” and “we love Him because He first loved us.” If He died for us, can we, without shame, frustrate the purpose of His death by not living to Him?

Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.
(16) Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh.—The logical dependence of this sentence on the foregoing lies in the suppressed premise, that in living not to ourselves, but to Christ, we gain new standards of judgment, new ways of looking at things. To know a man “after the flesh” is to know him by the outward accidents and circumstances of his life: his wealth, rank, culture, knowledge. St. Paul had ceased to judge of men by those standards. With him the one question was whether the man was, by his own act and choice, claiming the place which the death of Christ had secured for him, and living in Him as a new creature. That is the point of view from which he now “knows,” or looks on, every man.

Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh.—What, we ask, gave occasion to this strange parenthesis? What did it mean? To what stage of the Apostle’s life does it refer? (1) The answer to the first question is probably to be found in once more reading between the lines. There was, we know, a party at Corinth claiming a special relation to Christ (1Corinthians 1:12). They probably did so as having been personal disciples. If they were like those who elsewhere claimed to speak in the name of James (Acts 15:24; Galatians 2:12), they were likely to urge his claims as the brother of the Lord. To St. Paul such a way of judging would be to know Christ after the flesh—to judge of Him, as of others, by the lower standard of the world. (2) The next question is more difficult. The hypothetical form of the proposition practically implies an admission of its truth. It is hardly conceivable that he refers to the time before his conversion, and means that he too had once seen and known Jesus of Nazareth, judging of Him “after the flesh,” by an earthly standard, and therefore had thought that He ought to do many things against him; or that, after the revelation of Christ in him, at the time of his conversion, he had, for a time, known Him after a manner which he now saw to be at least imperfect. The true solution of the problem is probably to be found in the fact that he had once thought, even before he appeared as the persecutor of the Church, of the Christ that was to come as others thought, that his Messianic expectations had been those of an earthly kingdom restored to Israel. Jesus of Nazareth did not fulfil those expectations, and therefore he had opposed His claim to be the Messiah. Now, he says, he had come to take a different view of the work and office of the Christ. (3) It follows, if this interpretation is correct, that he speaks of the period that preceded his conversion. not of an imperfect state of knowledge after it, out of which he had risen by progressive stages of illumination and clearer vision of the truth. Now and from henceforth, he seems to say, we think of Christ not as the King of Israel, but as the Saviour of mankind.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
(17) Therefore if any man be in Christ.—To be in Christ, in St. Paul’s language, is for a man to be united with him by faith and by baptism (Romans 6:3-4), to claim personally what had been secured to him as a member of the race for whom Christ died. In such a case the man is born again (Titus 3:5)—there is a new creation; the man, as the result of that work, is a new creature. The old things of his life, Jewish expectations of a Jewish kingdom, chiliastic dreams, heathen philosophies, lower aims, earthly standards—these things, in idea at least, passed away from him at the time when he was united with Christ. We may trace an echo of words of Isaiah’s that may have floated in the Apostle’s memory: “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold I make new things” (Isaiah 43:18-19). The words in italics are in the LXX. the same as those which St. Paul uses here.

And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
(18) And all things are of God.—The presence of the article in the Greek indicates that he is speaking, not of the universe at large, but of the new things belonging to the new creation of which he had spoken in the previous verse. The line of thought on which he has now entered raises him for the time above all that is personal and temporary, and leads him to one of his fullest and noblest utterances as to God’s redeeming work.

Who hath reconciled us to himself. . . . and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.—It is worthy of note that this is the first occurrence, in order of time, in St. Paul’s Epistles, of this word “reconcile” as describing God’s work in Christ, and that so applied it occurs only in this Epistle and in Romans 5:10, written shortly afterwards. The idea involved is that man had been at enmity and was now atoned (at-oned) and brought into concord with God. It will be noted that the work is described as originating with the Father and accomplished by the mediation of the Son. It is obvious that the personal pronoun is used with a different extent in the two clauses: the first embracing, as the context shows, the whole race of mankind; the last limited to those who, like the Apostles, were preachers of the Word. More accurately, the verbs should run: who reconciled. . . . and gave. The word translated “reconciliation” is, it should be noted, the same as that rendered “atonement” in Romans 5:11.

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
(19) To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world.—Better, perhaps, How that it was God who was reconciling in Christ a world unto Himself. Both “God” and “world” are, in the Greek, without the article. The English rendering is tenable grammatically, but the position of the words in the original suggests the construction given above. He seems to emphasise the greatness of the redeeming work by pointing at once to its author and its extent. The structure is the same as the “was preaching” of Luke 4:44. All the English versions, however, from Wiclif downwards, adopt the same construction. Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva version translate, making agreement between the world and Himself instead of “reconciling to Himself.” The “world” is, of course, the world of men, the “all” of 2Corinthians 5:15.

Not imputing their trespasses unto them . . .—The two participial clauses that follow describe the result of the reconciling work. The first is that God no longer charges their transgressions against men: the pronouns being used in the third person plural, as being more individualising than the “world,” and more appropriate than would have been the first person, which he had used in 2Corinthians 5:18, and which he wanted, in its narrower extension, for the clause which was to follow. The word for “imputing,” or reckoning, is specially prominent in the Epistles of this period, occurring, though in very varied shades of meaning, eight times in this Epistle and nineteen times in that to the Romans. The difficulty of maintaining a logical coherence of this truth with that of a judgment according to works does not present itself to the Apostle’s mind, and need not trouble us. (See Note on 2Corinthians 5:10.)

And hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.—Literally, to maintain the participial construction, placing with (or in) us the word of reconciliation. Tyndale gives “atonement” here, as in Romans 5:11.

Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
(20) Now then we are ambassadors for Christ—The preposition “for” implies the same representative character as in 2Corinthians 5:14-15. The preachers of the Word were acting on behalf of Christ; they were acting also in His stead. The thought or word meets us again in Ephesians 6:20. “I am an ambassador in bonds.” The earlier versions (Tyndale, Geneva, Cranmer) give “messengers,” the Rhemish “legates.” “Ambassadors,” which may be noted as singularly felicitous, first appears in the version of 1611. The word, derived from the mediæval Latin ambasciator, and first becoming popular in the Romance languages, is found in Shakespeare, and appears to have come into prominence through the intercourse with France and Spain in the reign of Elizabeth.

We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.—It will be seen, in this conclusion of the language of St. Paul as to the atonement, how entirely, on the one hand, he recognises the representative and vicarious character of the redeeming work of Christ; how entirely, on the other, he stands aloof from the speculative theories on that work which have sometimes been built upon his teaching. He does not present, as the system-builders of theology have too often done, the picture of the wrath of the Father averted by the compassion of the Son, or satisfied by the infliction upon Him of a penalty which is a quantitative equivalent for that due to the sins of mankind. The whole work, from his point of view, originates in the love of the Father, sending His Son to manifest that love in its highest and noblest form. He does not need to be reconciled to man. He sends His Son, and His Son sends His ministers to entreat them to be reconciled to Him, to accept the pardon which is freely offered. In the background there lies the thought that the death of Christ was in some way, as the highest act of Divine love, connected with the work of reconciliation; but the mode in which it was effective, is, as Butler says (Analogy, 2:5), “mysterious, and left, in part at least, unrevealed,” and it is not wise to “endeavour to explain the efficacy of what Christ has done and suffered for us beyond what the Scripture has authorised.”

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
(21) For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.—The “for” is omitted in many of the best MSS., but there is clearly a sequence of thought such as it expresses. The Greek order of the words is more emphatic: Him that knew no sin He made sin for us. The words are, in the first instance, an assertion of the absolute sinlessness of Christ. All other men had an experience of its power, gained by yielding to it. He alone gained this experience by resisting it, and yet suffering its effects. None could “convict Him of sin” (John 8:46). The “Prince of this world had nothing in Him” (John 14:30). (Comp. Hebrews 7:26; 1Peter 2:22.) And then there comes what we may call the paradox of redemption. He, God, made the sinless One to be “sin.” The word cannot mean, as has been said sometimes, a “sin offering.” That meaning is foreign to the New Testament, and it is questionable whether it is found in the Old, Leviticus 5:9 being the nearest approach to it. The train of thought is that God dealt with Christ, not as though He were a sinner, like other men, but as though He were sin itself, absolutely identified with it. So, in Galatians 3:13, he speaks of Christ as made “a curse for us,” and in Romans 8:3 as “being made in the likeness of sinful flesh.” We have here, it is obvious, the germ of a mysterious thought, out of which forensic theories of the atonement, of various types, might be and have been developed. It is characteristic of St. Paul that he does not so develop it. Christ identified with man’s sin: mankind identified with Christ’s righteousness—that is the truth, simple and yet unfathomable, in which he is content to rest.

That we might be made the righteousness of God in him.—Better, that we might become. The “righteousness of God,” as in Romans 3:21-22, expresses not simply the righteousness which He gives, nor that which He requires, though neither of these meanings is excluded, but rather that which belongs to Him as His essential attribute. The thought of St. Paul is that, by our identification with Christ—first ideally and objectively, as far as God’s action is concerned, and then actually and subjectively, by that act of will which he calls faith—we are made sharers in the divine righteousness. So, under like conditions, St. Peter speaks of believers as “made partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4). In actual experience, of course, this participation is manifested in infinitely varying degrees. St. Paul contemplates it as a single objective fact. The importance of the passage lies in its presenting the truth that the purpose of God in the death of Christ was not only or chiefly that men might escape punishment, but that they might become righteous.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

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2 Corinthians 4
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