Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Salvation is reconciliation with God. It is that simple really.
And yet the simplicity of this sentence is belied by two things. First, the work of Jesus is a radical paradox. Second, the work of God in the life of God’s servants is also a radical proposition. Both are at the center of this passage.
“Be reconciled to God,” Paul exhorts in 2 Corinthians 5:20, but how? In the closing verses of chapter 5, Paul exclaimed that we who are “in Christ” are already living as and into a new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). But Paul is quick to point out that this new creation “is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:18) and through the reconciling work of Jesus; once again and like the previous weeks, Paul’s achievements are not in view but the divine sanction and inspiration of Paul’s proclamation.
As we turn to this week’s reading, we learn more about what Jesus achieves for our sake. In short, Jesus escapes the stain of sin only to bear it most fully. He embodies sin though sin had not part of his life.
The result is just as striking. Though Jesus’ paradoxical embodiment of sin, sin no longer binds us. Instead, we can “become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That we are accustomed to such language in our faith should not hide how incredibly radical this claim is. The defining attribute of God for Paul is something we mere mortals get to share through Christ. The phrase “the righteousness of God” is incredibly important but also dense for Paul; in fact, it is one of the central themes of Romans (see Romans 1:16-17). In these brief words, Paul contains God’s faithfulness throughout all time, the consistency and perpetuity of God’s promises. The God of Israel is a God who abides by God’s word. The phrase also contains how we as believers might share in this righteousness “in Christ.” God’s righteousness, God’s faithfulness, God’s consistency become ours through Christ. Such righteousness is therefore not only oriented towards some future reality but life today.
For Paul, salvation is not something we await in some indistinct but promised future time. Instead, salvation is a daily reality for the follower of Christ: “…now is the acceptable time.” These are likely difficult words for many Christians to hear today. The economic recession has disrupted our sense of security. Whether we have lost a job or feel at the edge of joblessness, these days do not feel like “the acceptable time.” The current political discourse is as coarse as ever, opting for easy attacks instead of constructive ideas. Institutions are mistrusted. Authority no longer holds the same sway it once did. For many, hopelessness and despair is the order of the day. For many, it seems like the worst of times, and the future holds little hope. Many will exclaim, “We need to be saved from our current conditions.” How can Paul declare this an “acceptable time?”
The order of the day in the ancient world for the Christians in Corinth was if anything more deleterious than ours. Life, both economic and physical, was that much more tenuous. Lives were short and difficult. Can we accuse Paul of naiveté or wishful thinking here? We cannot if we continue reading. As Paul himself details, his very life was characterized by struggle, oppression, and persecution.
From the hopefulness of the day of salvation, Paul turns to a litany of the cruel realities of his day and his life. Paul points to his many sufferings as evidence that he has not put his needs before the requirements of the gospel; he has been willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. And in that suffering, the faithfulness of Paul’s ministry is laid bare, but most of all it is the “power of God” that shines most brightly. And, yes, the gospel remains true even as some reject God’s messenger. Paul’s opponents do not have the final word, for God has marked Paul as honored, reputable, true, and known. In the end, though it seems that Paul has been stripped of everything and every characteristic, Paul possess all things through God alone.
Paul’s hope in these verses is not a mere opiate, not a way to deaden his senses and forget his troubles. His hope in reconciliation with God is not a casual affirmation that “everything is going to be okay.” He knows full well the pain life can inflict. And yet in the midst of all that struggle, his faith remains strong, for reconciliation and righteousness are available to us through the radical work of God in Christ.