Teaching series from 2 Corinthians

New Creatures in Christ

2 Corinthians 5:14-21

Teaching t08985


Briefly review this section of the letter--a long digression filled with vivid illustrations/metaphors of authentic Christianity.

This passage includes another illustration, part of the larger theme summarized by 5:17 (read). To be a Christian is to be united with Christ, and to be united with Christ is to become a new creature. Paul speaks of three features of this new creaturehood...

A New Life Aspiration

The first feature is a new aspiration for your life--read 5:14,15. For whom or what do we live? Paul distills this fundamental motivation into two options: living for ourselves or living for Christ.

The world says that we all ultimately live for ourselves. Postmodern cynicism debunks all noble rhetoric about living for your country, family, others, etc. and insists that it's all ultimately about getting power for self and using that power to exploit others for self (SIMPSONS & SEINFELD). The best we can do is admit this to ourselves and one another, and to negotiate our selfishness so we don't destroy one another and society.

Walter Williams (professor of economics at George Mason University) puts it this way: "What's the noblest of human motivations? Some might be tempted to answer: charity, love of one's neighbor, or, in modern, politically correct language, giving something back or feeling another's pain...For me the noblest of human motivations is greed. I don't mean theft, fraud, tricks, or misrepresentation. By greed I mean being only or mostly concerned about getting the most one can for oneself and not necessarily concerned about the welfare of others. Social consternation might cause one to cringe at the suggestion that greed might possibly be seen as a noble motivation. 'Enlightened self-interest' might be a preferable term. But I prefer greed since it far more descriptive and less likely to be confused with other human motives."

The Bible agrees that people normally do live for self. But it says that this is humanity in its fallen state. We were created by God to live for him, and therefore we will not be truly fulfilled unless we are living for Christ instead of self (Mk.8:35). And God can gradually set us free from living for self so that living to please him becomes our dominant aspiration (read 5:9).

How does God motivate this fundamental change in life purpose?

Many Christians say it is the fear of God that produces this change. To this end, you hear a lot of preaching that threatens people with God's judgment, and that uses guilt to motivate people to follow Christ.

The Bible does say that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov.9:10). But the fear of the Lord does not mean being afraid of God's judgment. It means to have a sober respect/awe for how great God is compared to us.

But as healthy as this fear of God may be, Paul doesn't say that's what motivates him to live for God instead of for self. He says, "the love of Christ compels us...he died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf." Why is God's love such a powerful motivator?

The less deserving the recipient is and the more costly a gift is, the greater the love and (when we realize this and receive the gift) the greater its power to motivate us to please the giver (EBENEZER SCROOGE).

In our case, the Bible says we are helpless, ungodly, sinners and enemies (Rom.5:6-10)--richly deserving God's judgment. But the gift that God gives us is the ultimate--his own Son taking our sins on himself and experiencing God's judgment in our place (5:21). The more you realize how unworthy you are, the more you think about what kind of love would come down here and go to "drink the cup" of our sin and God's judgment--the more you contemplate (3:18) and focus on (4:18) this, the more you will want to receive this gift. And then God's Spirit will begin to stir your heart up and drive you to live for him!

This is why John says 1 Jn.4:18,19 (read). Fear of judgment is inferior motivation. God wants to "cast it out" and replace it with his love, which motivates us to love him and others with self-giving love.

This is why Paul prays that Christians will be filled with an understanding of God's love (Eph.3:18,19), because this is what will mature us to live like Christ.

A New Definition of Success

The second feature is a new definition of success--read 5:16. What does it mean to "recognize people according to the flesh?" To "recognize" someone in this context does not mean to realize that you know someone--it means that you view them as successful. "Flesh" here means not simply the physical body; it means fallen humanity and its assessment of what accomplishments are important (see Phil.3:4ff.). So to "recognize someone according to the flesh" means that you decide who is successful by fallen human standards of greatness. Paul says that Christ wants to give you a radically different way of defining success.

How does fallen humanity define success? The criteria of our culture include things like: physical strength/beauty; academic credentials; wealth; political clout; family name; popularity/celebrity.

Why is this way of assessing people/defining greatness faulty? Because Jesus is the definition of success/greatness--and he didn’t fit one part of this profile!

Physical attractiveness? (Isa. 53:2 - NOT!)

Academic credentials? (carpenter, not rabbi - NOT!)

Wealth? (Lk. 9:58 - NOT!)

Political clout? (trials before Sanhedrin & Rome - NOT!)

Family name? (Galilee; "son of Mary" scandal - NOT!)

Popularity & Celebrity (Isa. 53:3; turned away from when offered; 120 followers at end of life - NOT!)

It's not that these things are necessarily wrong--it's that there is absolutely no correlation between them and true greatness! You can have all of them and be a complete failure in life (Mk.8:36), and you can have none of them and be a tremendous success (Jesus; 1Cor.1:26-29). God defines success in a fundamentally different way, and for the one who knows Christ, his definition should be definitive. What are God's criteria? Here are some of the key ones:

Jer. 9:23,24 - That you know God and understand his ways. This involves receiving Christ and learning God's Word.

Mk.10:40-45 - That you are a servant who loves people.

1 Sam.16:7 - That you have a heart for God and godly character (Isa.66:2).

Dan. 12:3 - That you lead people to righteousness. This leads to the next point...

The great thing is that (unlike the world, which by definition must limit the successful to an elite minority), anyone can be truly successful in God's eyes! Do you want this? Come to Christ and start following him--and he will make you successful!

A New Role

The third feature is a new role. We all have many roles in the course of our lives--child, student, employee/employer, spouse, parent, etc. Most of us are trying to play have several different roles at once, and it can get pretty confusing. God affirms all of these roles. But when you come to Christ, he gives you to a new role--a role that is more important than all of these roles, and a role that can integrate all of these other roles around it and give them new meaning. Paul describes this new role in 5:18-20a (read). You are an ambassador for Christ.

In the Roman Empire, there were two kinds of provinces--senatorial (those fully at peace with Rome) and imperial (those freshly conquered but not fully at peace). The senate sent ambassadors to imperial provinces to speak on behalf of Rome to arrange the terms of peace and explain how they could become members of the Roman Empire.

Of course, there are big differences between the Roman Empire and God's kingdom. Rome was cruel, while God is loving. Rome conquered through warfare, while God conquered through the death of his own Son. Rome demanded submission, while God invites us into reconciliation. But the biggest difference of all is who the ambassadors are! Rome sent elite senators--God sends us! He has entrusted to us the tremendous privilege of speaking for him to people with whom we interact in our various social roles.

How can we be effective in this role? Paul summarizes our job description into two key messages:

"God is ready, willing, and able to be reconciled with you just the way you are." The emphasis is not on people's sins and God's judgment, but on the amazing fact that God has found a way to take these issues off the table. We don't have to clean ourselves up before we can come to God; he stands with arms open to receive us in spite of all of our sin and guilt.

Does this mean that God has gone soft on sin? Not at all. Sin was a very real barrier to God, and he hates sin with a deadly seriousness. The point is not that God takes sin lightly, but that he has dealt with the sin issue completely through the death of Christ (read 5:19,21). Because Christ was willing to receive what he did not deserve (all of your sins and the infinite wrath of God against them), God is free to offer you what you don't deserve (perfectly right standing with him as a permanent and completely free gift).

"You must choose to be reconciled to God by receiving forgiveness through Christ." Read 5:20. The grammar makes it clear that Paul is not urging the Corinthian Christians to be reconciled to God (the "you" is not in the Greek)--they already are (5:18a). Rather, he is explaining what we should urge non-Christians to do.

To reconcile an estranged marriage, it takes both parties. I've seen some tragic situations where all the work that went into saving a marriage went down the drain because one spouse simply wasn't willing to be reconciled even though the other spouse was. God says he is ready to be reconciled to you--just the way you are with all of your sins and problems. The ball is in your court--are you willing to be reconciled to God? Are you willing to tell him that you want a love relationship with him, and that you accept his terms of receiving his forgiveness through Christ?

Walter E. Williams, "Greed Versus Compassion," Ideas on Liberty, October, 2000, p. 63.