Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Today’s reading, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, introduces Lent with a call to reconciliation.
A key for interpreting this passage is found in the verses immediately preceding it. There Paul describes how God has reconciled us through the Messiah and given us a ministry—a “service” (diakonia)—of reconciliation. Being reconciled to God is not an escape to some transcendent sphere (an easy ticket to heaven) but a call to serve in God’s reconciling work (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Our reconciliation to God is grounded in God’s reconciling the entire cosmos in the Messiah—in his dying for all so that all might live. Thus, our ministry entails announcing this message—this “word” (logos)—which is always for everyone. In what follows, Paul provides a vivid, multidimensional account of how this “word” and “service” of reconciliation are actually enacted in our lives (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The word of reconciliation
Our being reconciled with God makes us “ambassadors” for the Messiah—political emissaries entrusted with his divine mission. God appeals through us as we urge on behalf of the Messiah: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
This appeal is not merely verbal. It is a liturgical or symbolic act that enacts the reality it depicts: that God reconciles all of us by making the Messiah (the righteous one, “who knew no sin”) “to be sin,” so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This act of reconciliation—of “at-one-ment” in the old English sense—has roots in the temple practice of ancient Israel, where animal sacrifice was a means for liturgically rendering being cleansed from sin and made holy. But Paul’s more immediate source here is the allusive figure of the Suffering Servant—“the righteous one,” God’s Servant—who bears the iniquities and infirmities of many and in this way makes many righteous (Isaiah 53:4-11).
It is important to stress that God is the subject—not the object—of this reconciliation. It is not we who offer a sacrifice to reconcile ourselves to God (as in 2 Maccabees 1:5; 5:20). Rather, God initiates the reconciliation with us through the sufferings of the Messiah, who is the very Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Moreover, something actually happens to us in this event. In the Messiah, we “become” the actual “righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)—the divine justice and mercy that brings about reconciliation in the world. In the Messiah, we become the message—the word—we are called to proclaim.
Thus, we now are coworkers with the Messiah, who announce the call to receive this grace. God’s offer is given for all, but it remains empty or vacuous if it is not received. To depict this call, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, which echoes God’s listening to and helping the Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out in their affliction and oppression. If Isaiah echoes that earlier day of salvation, then Paul now uses Isaiah to announce that—just as in the past—God’s “day of salvation” and “auspicious time” is always “now,” in this very moment (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
The service of reconciliation
As we have seen, the announcement of this “word” is inextricably linked with the “service” it embodies in our lives. Thus, we are to avoid putting obstacles in anyone’s way from receiving this word of reconciliation. Our lives, as servants of God, are to commend the truth of who we become in the Messiah in every way possible (2 Corinthians 6:3)
Since this commendation is about the service of a crucified Messiah—and not the promotion of our egos and their achievements—it can only be made without violence, without imposing our will on others. Drawing on ancient patterns, Paul provides an intense, multifaceted account of the vulnerability—and even more explicitly, the passivity—such commendation entails. It involves what we might experience (through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, and calamities), what others might do to us (beatings, imprisonments, riots), and how this work might affect us personally (much labor, sleepless nights, hunger) (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
Yet these sufferings—and the ego-death they enact in the loss of control we experience through them—are accompanied by actively potent consolations that overflow through us once our egos are out of the way. Paul lists consolations that parallel each of the sufferings. Amid the afflictions we experience are purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness. Amid what others do to us is the potency of the Holy Spirit. And amid the difficulties of our work are genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God (2 Corinthians 6:6-7a).
If we have become the “righteousness” of God in the Messiah, then these multifaceted sufferings and consolations are “weapons” that enact this righteousness. (Weapons are an ancient way of speaking of a sage’s spiritual or sapiential tools). Those for the “left hand” depict our passivity; those for the “right” depict what actively overflows through us (2 Corinthians 6:7b).
To describe how all this is actually embodied in our lives, Paul uses paradoxical language (drawing on the Psalms and ancient depictions of a sage). As ambassadors through whom God speaks, we live with glory and shame, and in ill-repute and good repute. Though treated as impostors, we remain true; in spite of being unknown, we are well-known (2 Corinthians 6:8).
If what lies at the heart of all that happens in our lives is our union with the Messiah—his dying that all might live—then, in him, we too are always dying, yet alive, always being disciplined, yet not killed (2 Corinthians 6:9)
Finally, we announce this call to reconciliation amid our often-difficult relationships with one another. With genuine love, we experience the “pain” involved in addressing breaches with grace, yet are always “rejoicing” when repentance and reconciliation takes place (2 Corinthians 6:10a; see also 2 Corinthians 1:15-2:13; 6:11-7:16). Further, we acknowledge that true reconciliation always entails a reciprocal sharing (koinonia) of “poverty” and “wealth”—whether of material or spiritual resources (6:10b; see also 2 Corinthians 8-9). Last, all this only occurs through the power of God, which paradoxically is only lived out as “having nothing” (“power in weakness”) yet “having everything” (“authority for upbuilding” one another) (2 Corinthians 6:10c; see also 2 Corinthians 10-13).