2 Corinthians 5:11–6:13
Ligonier’s Reformation Study Bible makes this astute observation of the context the Corinthians found themselves in:
“If the Corinthians allow their church to be swept away by the “false apostles” (11:13), or if they refuse to purify themselves from “every defilement of body and spirit” (7:1), their lives will glorify God less and less, and they may prove in the end never to have truly received the grace of God at all.”
Action is needed to be taken right away “now” (6:2). “When God offers deliverance, it is wise to respond immediately, before the offer is withdrawn.”
It is essential that the Corinthians understood what real Christianity was and had the ammo to defend it against false teachers influencing the church. In essence, the apostle teaches that the only way they are going to know real Christianity is by observing a real ministry. So, the apostle gives them a testimony of sorts explaining what motivated his ministry, what changed his mind, and what made him last. His ministry has the God-built motivations, a Christian view of people, and spiritual victory over the world—all to commend real Christianity to a church in need of responding to God’s ongoing grace.
“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. 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 and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:11–15 ESV)
God builds in a real minister the fear of God constrained by the love of God by the resurrection life of God. The apostle says, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (v.11a). The word “knowing” means to know intuitively. This means that real ministry has the fear of God “built into” it.
There is also “the love of Christ” controlling Paul. The word “control” describes love like the banks of a river hemming in the flow of water. One translates verse 14, “the love of Christ leaves us no choice.” Paul’s ministry was motivated by the awesome presence of God and controlled by the love of Christ.
Paul’s life and ministry are motivated by the fear of God and constrained by the love of Christ because of Christ’s death and resurrection. It was the life of God in the soul of this man built in him by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To live a life for one’s self is deadness. It is the thing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ deliver people from (v.15). The apostle understood that a life motivated by an internal God-built fear constrained by His love can only be explained by Christ dying for his sins and bringing him to life by his resurrection.
Elsewhere the apostle wrote,
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”(Romans 6:12–13 ESV)
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their treating religion as something of cleaning the outside and being dead on the inside:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”(Matthew 23:27 ESV)
People still tend to be focused on the outside. The most popular preachers and churches are those offering the most external things. Yet, they need to go beyond their selfish motives to God-built motivations. They stopped at the death of Christ, but they are absent of the life of Christ.
But don’t you stop at the death of Christ. Spiritually dead people are those controlled by the passions of their flesh. Let that not be you! Christ not only died, but was raised for your sake! (v.15) The resurrection puts selfish living to death. The resurrection makes you motivated by the fear of God and constrained by the love of God. Be motivated by not merely the terror of the Lord, but also be made useful and controlled by the love of God. Waters overflowing a bank are called a flood and can be devastating to entire communities, but waters kept within the confines of the banks are life-giving providing food, refreshment, and travel to entire communities. Real ministry is motivated by the fear of God and constrained by the love of God and is only explainable by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Do you have the right motivations? Only a ministry with the right motivations stands a chance at teaching real Christianity. The wrong motivations in serving others is like stopping at the death of Christ. It is doing ministry as spiritually dead people, selfish and focused on the outside but never truly changing anyone—because you yourselves haven’t been changed. But if you go on to the resurrection, you go on putting sin and selfish living to death, and you begin to live for other people.
Let the church hear the message to the virtuous bride to be, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). It is easy to be enticed by those who go no further than the death of Jesus and only are concerned with externals in life and ministry and not focus on the inward beauty of the heart changed in motivation to live now for God and not for one’s self. Ministry that is so motivated by the resurrection is a ministry that stands to teach us real Christianity!
The Christian Message
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 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.
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:16–6:2 ESV)
The apostle had a life-changing experience with the risen Christ that changed how he viewed everyone; and it also gave him an urgent message. He “once regarded Christ according to the flesh.” He was once persecuting the church, God’s people. So, he not only had a bad view of Christ, but that directly led to a bad view of God’s people. But all of that changed when the risen Christ showed up. He sent a man named Ananias, and there it says what happened,
“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him.”(Acts 22:12–13 ESV; also see 9:17)
The result was now seeing that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (v.17). What Paul experienced himself also made his ministry. And his ministry commended real Christianity.
He explained his ministry was now about reconciliation and a message of reconciliation. He saw himself as an “ambassador for Christ.” Ambassadors in the first century were different from ambassadors today. Ambassadors today are often permanently sent by stronger nations to weaker ones to protect its interests. In the first century, ambassadors were hired by weaker communities to protect their interests from a superpower like the Roman Empire. What is amazing is that God sends this type of ambassador in the world for Christ. It is reminiscent of the humility of Jesus who came though being God and served men. The apostle sees his message and ministry this way, as ambassadors commissioned by God to go in humility before the world to urge them to be brought into right relationship with God. The act of reconciliation is described as a justifying act that leads again to sanctified living (v.21).
In regards to the urgency of this message, it is an appeal to profit from the grace of God today. In 6:1–2, Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8. In Isaiah 49 there are first many identifications with Paul’s life and ministry. In particular, as one set apart from the womb (Isaiah 49:1, 5; Galatians 1:15–16); as one to be a light for the nations (Isaiah 49:5, 6; Acts 9:15; 22:15; 26:17); and as one who labored so the grace of God would profit in advancing the kingdom of God restoring God’s people to God (Isaiah 49:4; Gal. 2:2; 4:11; Philip. 2:16; 1 Thess. 3:5; and 2 Cor. 6:2). Isaiah 49:8 (from which the apostle quotes) rests in the center of a chapter that is about God not giving up on his people. It is a promise of God restoring his people and giving them victory over the world. It ends with,
“Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”
Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
For thus says the LORD: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
(Isaiah 49:23–26 ESV)
To this, Paul says it is “now” (6:2b). The homeward journey is taking place from the first century until the final coming of Jesus Christ. But to be sure, Paul’s view is that this new creation is happening now beginning with people.
The most common picture of such a metamorphosis in this world is that of a caterpillar being turned into a butterfly. When a spiritually dead person becomes alive by the resurrection of Jesus it is a transformation. God is right now transforming people’s lives as a first-fruits of transforming this entire world.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
(Colossians 1:15–20 ESV)
How important is it to proclaim the message of reconciliation to people today? How important is it to respond to that message? Come to Jesus Christ today! Do not delay. The danger the Corinthian church was facing was not fully receiving the continued stream of God’s grace through Paul’s ministry and words over and against that of false “super-apostles.” If they failed to profit from the humble message of this ambassador they could prove themselves unbelievers who never really profited from the true message of God.
There is certainly another message out there today even to be part of a community that supposedly has all that is powerful, but it is not real Christianity. Real Christianity is commended by the real ministry, and real ministry is demonstrated in the life and service of the apostle Paul, his motivation, and his message.
The Minister Himself Who Overcame the World
We lastly turn to the minister himself who overcame the world.
“We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”(2 Corinthians 6:3–13 ESV)
The minister’s life is the best advertisement for his message and real Christianity. The apostle did not put an obstacle in the way of the Corinthians. There was no fault on his part to minister to them. He does not call himself a servant of the church but a servant of God. He could not truly serve the church if he did not supremely serve God (v.4; Gal. 1:10).
Paul is living in a time of great persecution. Nero’s style of persecution would be incomparable to any time in history (Matthew 24). Paul was demonstrating a triumph unlike the triumph of the world. He was triumphing over the world with “great endurance” (v.4). Verses 4–10 form what some call a “tribulation list.” Paul triumphed over external circumstances in this world. These included life’s situations (afflictions, hardships, calamities); suffering imposed upon him (beatings, imprisonments, riots); and self-imposed sufferings (labors, sleepless nights, hunger). Paul developed character and inward grace in his life (v.6). He learned how to use spiritual equipment for battle (v.7). He overcame everything thrown at him and presented to this world what may be termed paradoxes or vicissitudes (vv.8–10). He lived out what God and Christ put in. Paul was not only living in a time when salvation was triumphing in the world (6:1–2) but living it out himself. It was not like the world’s definition of triumph any more than Christ’s death and resurrection were viewed as a triumph. Yet, it was indeed true spiritual victory over the world. Paul could say he didn’t die but survived. Jesus could say, he died, yet lived again! Every Christian can identify with the conquering of every challenge in life to the very end because that is what real Christianity is. We learn it through real ministry.
In Israel’s return home they were tempted to despise the “day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). They were tempted in the days of Caesar to turn their face away from the Messiah (Isaiah 53). In Paul’s day, the “super-apostles” sought to lead the church their way astray by external power and not by internal change, through a message of outward triumph and not the inward conquering of sin.
People still want to cover themselves with long robes and garments that look religious, but inwardly there is no spiritual victory. There can be no overcoming of the world’s problems without first a genuine conquering of sin within the heart.
Paul could say that he had indeed been through a lot of suffering, but he also said repeatedly: “and yet!” Psalm 118 is the same idea,
“Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
the right hand of the LORD exalts, the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”
I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.
The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” (Psalm 118:15–18 ESV)
If anything should have convinced the Corinthians to fully receive the ministry of Paul it was the “and yet!” Real Christianity was never promised to come in the form of outward triumph without suffering but triumph from the inside out over and against all forms of tribulation. The church at Corinth needed spiritual ammo in their belts and spiritual arms to defend the apostle’s ministry against the false teachers influencing the churches of the day (cf. Galatians 1). This is why one cannot do without the last three verses of our text, vv.11–13, all that Paul was saying was to get the Corinthians to fully receive his ministry. Why? For his commendation? No, for the advancement of the gospel. Thus the point is proven, we learn real Christianity through real ministry.
Dear believer, you not only need to not fall for the ministries out there that offer everything outward to entice you, but you need to be able to defend your church and ministry against such in this world! Do that!
You can’t just sit aside passively and let this go. If you refuse to defend real ministry, you are just as much refusing to defend real Christianity. If you don’t overcome the world with the love of Christ within, you will be restricted in your affections to real ministers, and you will fail to own and commend real Christianity.
There is too much at stake in accepting false ministries that pretend to be super. There is an urgency to Paul’s plea. If you don’t accept a Paul-type of ministry you are not accepting a Christ-kind of gospel. We learn real Christianity through real ministry. We need a ministry that is motivated by the fear of God constrained by the love of Christ because of His death and resurrection. We need a message that makes us see Christ and others rightly; that gives us astounding hope of God’s new working increasing in this world to the end. We need to advertise our message with ministers who are real because if the minister isn’t real, the message can’t be. Glory be to Christ! If you won’t be killing sin in your life, wearing a robe on the outside will never cover it. You need to be a real minister to teach real Christianity. Also, you need to see and respond today to real ministry and real Christianity. You too can face the awful danger of waiting too long and the offer that God makes in 6:1–2 running out. Now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. Ministers like myself need to declare the restoration has begun, but it is equally important for the church to open its heart to accept both the minister and the message he is proclaiming. Steve Lawson says that there are always two preachers at church Sunday, there is the one like myself preaching the message before you, and then there is the Preacher, God Himself speaking to you through the conduit of God’s messenger as he explains the Word of God and seeks to support it, illustrate it, apply it, exhort it, and defend the truth. To the extent that the church receives real ministry, they will receive real Christianity. So for the sake of Christ, receive all of this, and thanks be to God for Jesus Christ!
New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) on 2 Corinthians
Reformation Study Bible English Standard Version by Ligionier Ministries
Reuben Bredenhof, Weak Pastor Strong Christ: Developing a Christ-Shaped Gospel Ministry, p.23.