We began to look at this passage last week when we concentrated on verses 11 to 15. And there were really two parts to last week’s sermon, because in verses 11 to 13 Paul appealed to his readers in Corinth to defend him and his companions. And then, in verses 14 and 15 he went on to write about the good news of the gospel.
So, first he appealed to his readers in Corinth to defend him and his companions and to stand up for them. Remember, he’s been having to defend himself and his ministry, because the people had begun to doubt him because he kept changing his travel plans; and because he wasn’t as impressive as the new preachers who had come to Corinth, those ‘super-apostles’ who were able to impress the people by the things they said and did. So, Paul has been defending himself by explaining how he received his ministry by the mercy of God; and how it’s a glorious ministry; and how God works through his ministry to save sinners, causing his light to shine into dark hearts; and even though Paul carries around in his body the dying of Christ, so that he often had to suffer for the gospel, nevertheless God was at work through him to give everlasting life to those who hear and believe. So, he’s been defending his own ministry. And in verses 11 to 13 he appealed to his readers, asking them to defend him as well. And so, he said to them:
[We] are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than what is in the heart.
So, when anyone in Corinth begins to criticise me and my ministry, when anyone begins to complain about me and my ministry, I want you to stand up and defend me.
And having made that appeal to them, he went on in verses 14 and 15 to write about the good news of the gospel which he and his companions were compelled to proclaim. And it is good news, isn’t it? It’s good news because the gospel is the message of how Christ died for all his people. That is, he died in their place as their substitute. He suffered in our place the punishment we deserve for our sins so that we might be spared and have eternal life. He died so that we might live. That’s the good news of the gospel, which Paul and his companions were compelled to preach. And Christ died for all his people not only to save us from condemnation, but also to change our lives so that we would no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ who died for us and was raised.
That’s what we were thinking about last week. Paul appealed to his readers to defend him, to stand up for him. And Paul explained the gospel message which he and his companions were compelled to preach. In today’s passage, we have the same two elements, but in a different order. First we have the gospel. And then we have an appeal. First he explains the good news of the gospel. And then he appeals to his readers in Corinth. The gospel is in verses 16 to 19. And the appeal is from verse 20. And so, let’s look at those two parts today.
Verses 16 and 17
And the part which is about the gospel can be divided into two further sub-parts, because in verses 16 and 17 he writes about the new creation; and in verses 18 and 19 he writes about reconciliation. The gospel is about new creation and reconciliation.
From now on, he says in verse 16, we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. A more literal translation of what Paul wrote is:
from now on we regard no-one according to the flesh.
Paul often contrasts the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh is associated with this present evil age, which is passing away, and with the weakness and the sin of life in this world. Those who belong to this present evil age, which is passing away, live according to the flesh, doing what is evil, because they’re unable to do what the Lord requires. But then there’s the Holy Spirit who is associated, not with this present evil age, but with the new age to come. And when the Spirit enters our lives, he makes us new, new creatures in Christ Jesus, so that we belong, not to this present evil age, which is passing away, but we belong to the new age to come. And the Spirit of God within us renews us in God’s image more and more; and he produces his fruit in our lives; and he enables us to resist sin so that instead of doing what the flesh desires, we’re able more and more to do what the Lord requires. Outwardly we’re wasting away, like everything else in this fallen, broken world, but inwardly we’re being renewed and transformed by Christ’s Spirit. Instead of living in conformity to this present evil age, we live more and more in conformity with the age to come and with the new creation.
So, there’s the flesh and there’s the Spirit. And Paul says in verse 16 that from now on we regard no-one according to the flesh. In other words, before we believed in Christ, and when we still belonged to this present evil age, and when we lived in conformity to the ways of a sinful, unbelieving world, before we had the Spirit of God in our lives, we regarded everyone from the same perspective. We focussed on what can be seen. And some things we saw impressed us. And some things we saw did not impress us. We looked at Christ in that way; and what we saw in him did not impress us, because he seemed to us to be a blasphemer and a sinner and he suffered a weak and humiliating death on the cross. It seemed to us that there was no way he could possibly be who he claimed to be. And so, when we looked at him, and evaluated him and assessed him from our own sinful and unbelieving perspective, we judged that he was nothing. But then, God let his light shine into Paul’s dark heart and transformed his life. And now, when Paul thought about Christ, he no longer regarded Christ from that old, sinful and unbelieving perspective, but from a new, Spirit-filled and believing perspective. He now believed that Christ was exactly who he said he was; and he believed that Christ’s death on the cross was a revelation of God’s glory, because by the cross God revealed the glory of his justice and mercy.
And here’s the thing. And this is in verse 17. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. In other words — and this is staggering to consider — whoever is united with Christ by faith has already been made new. The day is coming when the Lord Jesus will come again in glory and with power to make all things new. There will be a new heaven and earth, where all of Christ’s believing people will live forever. We’re waiting for that day to come. This fallen, broken world will pass away and there will be a new heaven and earth, a new creation, the home of God’s people. That’s all in the future, when God’s people will receive a new body. But the new creation has already begun in us and in all who believe, because though we are outwardly wasting away, we are being renewed by Christ’s Spirit who lives within us.
Isn’t that staggering? The old has gone. Our old life, which was associated with the present evil age and with that sinful and unbelieving perspective on life, has gone. And behold! The NIV leaves out the word ‘behold’, but it’s there in the Greek text as an exclamation. Behold! The new has come. The new life of the age to come, life in Spirit, has already come, now, in this life for those who have trusted in Christ.
And Paul is quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, because in Isaiah 43, the Lord revealed how he was going to deliver his people from their captivity in Babylon and bring them back to the Promised Land. And he said to them:
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing….
And in the book of Isaiah, the Lord spoke of the new creation to come, when the former things of this sinful life will be forgotten and his people will enjoy perfect peace and rest in that new and better world to come. Isaiah spoke of these things. And Paul is now saying that these things have begun to be fulfilled already in those who believe in Christ. Our old life of sin and shame has passed away. Behold! The new life has begun. It’s already begun.
And why does Paul mention this glorious thing here? It’s because the people in Corinth have been taken in by these new preachers, these ‘super-apostles’ who looked impressive. In other words, the people in Corinth were regarding the new preachers and Paul from that old, sinful and unbelieving perspective that is taken in by appearances. The new preachers looked impressive; whereas Paul looked unimpressive, because he was weak and broken and he probably bore in his body the scars of all the times he had been stoned and whipped. From that old perspective, Paul looked like nothing and the new preachers looked amazing. But let’s not regard anyone from that old, sinful and unbelieving perspective. Let’s regard everyone from the new, believing perspective. Outward appearances are deceptive. So, don’t be taken in by what glitters and shines and seems impressive and powerful, because God works through the weak and the humble and the things that are outwardly unimpressive.
That’s what Paul has been saying to his readers. And it’s the same today, isn’t it? In this old world, what counts is often appearances. Politicians and others work hard to put forward the right appearance, but scratch the surface, do a little probing, and you discover that they are not what they appear to be. We all know that to be true. And in the church, we must be careful not to be taken in by appearances, because God ordinarily works through what is weak and humble and ordinary. Think about what we do in church. We meet together and we pray. We sing some songs. We listen to a sermon based on the Bible. We sometimes eat a little bit of bread and drink from a little cup. We sprinkle a little water on a child. And the preacher is very ordinary. The whole thing is not very impressive. It’s all very ordinary. But God has promised to use these ordinary things to do something extraordinary. He uses these ordinary things to bring in his new creation. In the beginning, he said: Let there be light. And there was light. And he starts his new creation in us with the words: Let light shine in their dark hearts.
Verses 18 and 19
That’s the first sub-part of what Paul says about the gospel. The second sub-part is verses 18 and 19 where he moves from talking about new creation to talking about reconciliation. ‘All this is from God’, Paul says. So, everything he has been talking about so far about our salvation and the new creation in Christ is from God. God is the one who decreed it; and God is the one who has accomplished it by his Son and who applies it to us by his Spirit. It’s all from God from beginning to end so that we owe our salvation to our Triune God and to him alone.
And then he adds about God:
who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
Now, notice the pronouns. Paul twice refers to ‘us’. So, in this verse, he’s referring to himself and his companions in the ministry. They have been reconciled to God through Christ. And having been reconciled to God, they have received this ministry from God. Paul said something similar in verse 1 of chapter 4 when he said that we have received this ministry through God’s mercy. God showed them mercy by forgiving them their sins; and then he gave them their ministry. And God has reconciled them to himself through Christ; and then he gave them their ministry.
And what is the message they are to proclaim as they carry out their ministry of reconciliation? That’s what verse 19 is about. And this is a marvellous verse, because here’s the gospel in a nutshell:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
The gospel is about how God has reconciled the world to himself. And we need to be reconciled because of two problems. The first problem which makes reconciliation necessary is our sins. The Greek word Paul uses is sometimes translated ‘trespasses’. And so, think of how a trespasser sees the ‘no entry’ sign outside a field, but disregards it. He keeps going. In a similar way, we see God’s ‘no entry’ sign: You shall not do this. But what do we do? Well, we so often disregard what he has said and we keep going and we do what God has forbidden. Those are our trespasses.
Of course, God has not only told us what we must not do; he’s also told us what we must do. So, it’s not just ‘You shall not do this’, but it’s also, ‘You shall do this’. ‘You shall not murder.’ That’s something we’re to avoid doing. ‘Love the Lord your God.’ That’s something we ought to do. So, there are sins we must avoid; and there are duties we must perform. And reconciliation is necessary because we all do what God has forbidden; and we all fall short of doing what he requires. Reconciliation is necessary because we’re sinners.
But reconciliation is also necessary because of God’s wrath against our sins. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that we are, by nature, by birth, objects of wrath. Because we’re sinners by birth and because we sin against God every day, then we are liable to his wrath and curse. We deserve to be condemned and punished by him. And right throughout the Bible we see that our sin provokes God’s wrath. He doesn’t ignore it or disregard it or treat it as unimportant. He responds to our sin with his wrath.
And so, reconciliation is necessary because all of us are sinners and God is angry because of our sin. There’s enmity between us. There’s conflict between us. That’s why reconciliation is necessary. However, there’s something remarkable about the good news of the gospel. You see, when we fall out with one another, normally the person to blame has to do something to make it up to the person he has offended. Think of a husband and wife. The husband has said something unkind. Or he’s done something unkind. He’s done something he shouldn’t have done. And his wife is upset. She’s in tears. They’re not talking to one another. Well, it’s up to the husband to make it up to his wife. He’s the guilty one. He’s the one who is to blame. He’s the one who is at fault. And therefore he’s the one who has to do something to make up with his wife. Perhaps he has to apologise. Perhaps he has to buy her flowers to make up for what he’s done. Perhaps there’s something else he must do. But he’s the one who has to do something.
And yet, what do we find in the gospel? We’re the sinners. We’re the guilty ones. We’re the ones who have done wrong. God is the one who is angry with us. And yet he is the one who has done what is necessary to make peace between us. He is the offended party, but he is also the one who had done what is necessary to reunite us. And what has he done to reunite us? Well, look what Paul says in the verse:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
The word Paul uses for ‘counting’ has an accounting connotation so that Paul is telling his readers that the ledger, recording all their trespasses, has been wiped clean. The list of all our sins has been rubbed out. Every trespass has been erased. So, we can make a brand new start in our relationship with God. Our sins have been deleted from God’s records.
But the word Paul uses has another meaning. It can mean ‘reflect on’ or ‘think about’. And so what Paul is telling us is that God no longer thinks about a Christian’s sins. He no longer reflects on them. He doesn’t go over our trespasses in his mind any longer. He doesn’t pay them any more attention.
This is the good news of the gospel: God no longer thinks about our sins. They have been wiped from his records, so that he no longer reflects on them. And because the record of our trespasses has been wiped clean, we are reconciled to God. A new start. A new beginning. And God has done it all.
And he has done it all in Christ. That’s what Paul tells us:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.
That’s Paul’s shorthand for saying that in Christ and his death on the cross, God was reconciling the world to himself, because when the Lord Jesus died on the cross he took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins. That’s what the two words ‘in Christ’ mean for us: in Christ and his death on the cross. Christ took the blame for us when he died on the cross so that we — the guilty ones — can have peace with God.
That’s the message Paul was given to proclaim when he received this ministry of reconciliation from God. And so, he adds at the end of the verse that God has committed ‘to us’ the message of reconciliation. He’s referring to himself and his companions in the ministry. There’s this wonderful gospel message about how God was reconciled the world to himself in Christ. And God has given this message to me, says Paul, to proclaim to you.
And so, do you see? Paul is still doing what he’s been doing throughout this letter. He’s defending himself and his ministry. And that leads us to the second main part of today’s passage which is from verse 20 of chapter 5 to verse 2 of chapter 6 where he again appeals to the people in Corinth.
5:20 to 6:2
And so, he says to his readers in verse 20:
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us….
An ambassador is an official envoy who represents a country or a government or perhaps a royal person. In ancient times, an ambassador from one country was sent to another country to pass on a message from one king to another. And since the ambassador represented his king, it was as if the king was speaking through his ambassador. Well, says Paul, God has made me and my companions his ambassadors, his official spokesmen. And so, God is speaking through me to you. That is, God is speaking through Paul to you Corinthians. And what is God’s message to the Corinthians? What is his appeal to them? It’s this: be reconciled to God. Be reconciled to God.
Now, what’s remarkable about this is that Paul is addressing the members of the church in Corinth. He’s addressing believers. And he’s saying to these believers: You need to be reconciled to God. He’s saying that something has gone wrong in their relationship with God. Something has come between them. And they now need to be reconciled to God all over again.
The good news is that reconciliation with God is always possible because of what we read in verse 21, which is yet another wonderful verse. We can be reconciled to God because:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This verse describes the wonderful exchange which is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel involves ‘him who had no sin’. That’s the Lord Jesus, because the Lord Jesus is the only person who never ever sinned. He never did what God has forbidden. He never fell short of what God requires. He is the one who had no sin. And yet, our sin — everything we ever did wrong — was regarded as his when he died on the cross. He never did anything wrong, and yet all of our sins, all our trespasses and shortcomings, were regarded as his. And he therefore took the blame for us and was punished for us and in our place. He bore the punishment we deserve for our sins and shortcomings.
That’s the first part of this wonderful exchange. The second part is this. Not only did the Lord Jesus never do anything wrong, but he did everything right. He did everything right. And his perfect righteousness is now regarded as ours. That is, his perfect obedience is regarded as ours.
So, do you see the exchange, the swap? Our sin was regarded as his. His obedience was regarded as ours. He was punished because of our sin. And we have peace with God because of his obedience. And because of this wonderful exchange sinners can be reconciled to God.
And so, Paul once again addresses the members of the church in Corinth and he says to them in verse 1 that he and his companions are God’s fellow-workers. They are God’s ambassadors, because God speaks through them. And they are God’s fellow-workers, because God works through them. And as God’s fellow-workers, they are urging the Corinthians not to receive God’s grace in vain. God has been gracious to them. He sent his Son to die for them. He sent them preachers to teach them. He sent his Spirit to live in them. Don’t let it be in vain. Don’t let it be for nothing.
And Paul goes on to say to them that in the past, through the prophet Isaiah, God said that in the time of his favour he would hear your prayers for forgiveness; and in the day of salvation he would help you. Well, says Paul, now is the time of God’s favour. Now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to turn to God in prayer and ask him to forgive you for your sins so that you will be reconciled to God all over again.
What had gone wrong in Corinth? Why did Paul have to beseech these believers to be reconciled to God all over again? Why was he urging them to pray to God for forgiveness? Why did he have to remind them all over again of the good news of the gospel? It’s because they had been taken in by these new preachers, these ‘super-apostles’, who looked impressive. But these ‘super-apostles’ were only leading them astray from the true gospel. And it’s because they had begun to dismiss Paul and his ministry, even though Paul’s ministry was from God and it was a glorious ministry which brought life and salvation to all who believe and reconciliation with God and the start of God’s new creation.
That was the particular problem in Corinth. But all of us are sinners. Even though we believe in Christ and have been made new, so that we now belong to the age to come and not to this present age, we still sin against the Lord. We still offend him by the things we do and say. We all sin. And therefore we all need to hear the good news of the gospel and the message of reconciliation every week to reassure us that, despite our disobedience and shortcomings, we have peace with God because of Christ.
And who knows? Perhaps there are people here today and you have drifted away from the Lord. Perhaps you’ve drifted from him during lockdown, when we weren’t able to get to church. Or perhaps there’s something in particular you have done which has spoiled your relationship with him and it’s coming between you and God. Or perhaps there’s just some stubbornness in your heart, some hardness there, which means you’ve been resisting God and his word. Well, God is speaking to you today through me to tell you to be reconciled to God. And the good news is that you can be reconciled to God, no matter how far you have wandered, because Christ took the blame for your sins when he died on the cross and therefore God has promised that he will not count your sins against you.