Wednesday, May 20, 2009


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 5.21 (NRSV)
Jan Lembrecht's Sacra Pagina commentary on 2 Corinthians sets the immediate context for 5.21 as 2 Cor 5.11-21, which begins with the word "Therefore..." and announces a conclusion in Paul's argument.
In this verse Paul returns to his self-defense and plea. No longer the future common destination of all Christians, but the actual situation—his strained relations with the Corinthians—will be treated.
"Self-defense and plea."
Lembrecht's observations answer a major weakness in N.T. Wright's interpretation of 2 Cor 5.21. Wright correctly identifies the primary theme of this portion of the letter as a defense and theological explanation of Paul's apostleship. What he does not emphasize is the APPEAL that Paul is making to the Corinthians on the basis of this defense. Wright therefore interprets 2 Cor 5.21 as a further element in Paul's description of his own apostolic ministry, when in fact it is more likely linked to the challenge he is delivering to the wayward church.

"We and you"
One way to grasp the flow of this passage is to note the interplay between "we" ("us"), and "you," and broader terms such as "the world" or "all" in the passage.
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, WE try to persuade others; but WE ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that WE are also well known to YOUR consciences. WE are not commending ourselves to YOU again, but giving YOU an opportunity to boast about US, so that YOU may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not 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 urges US on, because WE are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, WE regard no one from a human point of view; even though WE once knew Christ from a human point of view, WE know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled US to himself through Christ, and has given US the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to US.

So WE are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through US; WE entreat 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.

Viewed like this, we can see that Paul's statements break down into three types:
  1. Words about the apostles and their ministry
  2. Words about what God has done for the world
  3. Words about, and directed personally to, the Corinthians
In particular, the words in the first and final paragraphs are personal words about and to the Corinthian situation—they form PAUL'S APPEAL TO THE CHURCH. Note how the "you" texts are found only in these paragraphs.

That means that the final "we" in this passage (in 5.21) is different than all the other "we's" that come earlier. In every other instance, the "we" refers to the apostles and their ministry. But the final "we" grows out of Paul's personal appeal to the church and links them together. If the verse is a creedal statement or line from a hymn that Paul is quoting, as I believe it is, then this solidifies the idea that he is not narrowly referring to the apostles here, but to all Christians.

2Cor 5.21 functions as the REASON for Paul's appeal in v. 20—"We entreat you on behalf of Christ—be reconciled to God."

Next time, we'll sum up...

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