From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore 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. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
I’d like to begin by using one of the most terrifying words in the church. It’s the kind of word that makes us slink low in the pew whenever we hear our pastor use it. It’s a word that makes us uncomfortable because we fully understand the importance of the subject, but we also know how often we tend to neglect this part of our Christian service.
And that word is evangelism.
Though we understand the importance of it, we often fail to do it even when the opportunities are all around us, and they are most certainly all around us.
I’ve been reminded of the challenges that come with evangelism over the last couple of years. For the better part of a decade, I was pastoring a church where I kind of lived in a Christian bubble, if you will. Most of the people I interacted with from week to week were fellow believers. Well, that hasn’t been the case for a couple of years now. Instead, I’m confronted daily with people who don’t know Christ. I’m confronted with people who are utterly lost and desperately need the gospel.
I see it every day—hedonism, humanism, secularism, atheism, a blatant disregard for God and his law, a flippant attitude toward Christ, sometimes outright hostility toward Christianity, and perhaps more than anything, a casual indifference to all things holy.
Sometimes I feel like Jesus when he stood outside of Jerusalem near the end of his ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, we read, “When he drew near and saw the city, thinking about their rejection of him, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Lk 19:41, 42).
My heart breaks for those who don’t know Christ.
Even so, having compassion for people doesn’t eliminate the difficulties of evangelism. It can still be hard to do. It can be intimidating. It can often be discouraging. It can certainly take many of us out of our comfort zones.
I pray that I can encourage you and maybe offer a helpful perspective in the short time I have this afternoon by expounding upon this passage in Paul’s second, which was more likely his forth, letter to the Corinthians. And this perspective begins with verse 16.
According to the flesh
“From now on,” Paul writes, “we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2Co 5:16). Some translations use the wording, “We regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
To understand what Paul means, we have to think back to the days prior to Christ’s resurrection. Most of the Jewish people, including the Lord’s own disciples, had a very shallow view of the Messiah. They knew what the Old Testament prophesied about him, but they failed to make proper application of it.
For example, the Old Testament depicts a conquering king, who would come, defeat all of God’s enemies, and restore Israel to her proper place in the world. Jesus, however, arrives on the scene, claims to be God’s Messiah, and strangely enough, begins telling his disciples how he must die. That doesn’t compute in the Jewish mind. How can he be the conquering king yet die at the hands of God’s enemies?
Well, they couldn’t see past the flesh. They couldn’t see past the worldly. In other words, they couldn’t see past the physical. They were not thinking in spiritual terms. They were not thinking about life and consequences beyond this natural world. If Christ is to be a conquering king, they thought, then he must physically conquer right here, right now on this physical earth.
The disciples perspective changed dramatically, of course, once they saw the resurrected Christ. The pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place, and they began to see things beyond the flesh, beyond the physical, beyond the worldly.
That’s the perspective Paul is sharing with us here. We regard no one according to the flesh (2Co 5:16). We don’t care about people’s status. We don’t care about their income or net worth. We don’t care whether they’re Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. None of that matters. Why? Because sooner or later, those distinctions become meaningless. Life is like a game of chess. You may be a king. I may be a lowly pawn. But eventually, the game comes to an end, we all go back in the box, and the king has no more significance than the pawn.
Paul encourages us to look past those superficial things. No matter who we are in this life, what’s really at stake is our souls. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, intelligent or not, the true and lasting distinction is between life and death.
Think back to Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4. If you remember, the disciples leave to buy food, and when they return, they are stunned to find Jesus having an intense, intimate conversation with a Samaritan woman. In their minds, he may as well befriend a pagan Gentile. And while they’re scratching their heads, trying to figure out what’s going on, this Samaritan woman runs into town to tell everyone she knows that she just met the Christ, the Son of God.
Soon after, they see a flood of people pouring out of the town to find Jesus, and that’s when Jesus says to his disciples—I can imagine him pointing toward the Samaritans when he says it—“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (Jn 4:35).
“Open your eyes,” he says. “I know you see a bunch of worthless Samaritans, who have historically perverted the worship of God, but I’m telling you, open your eyes. There’s more to those people than you’re seeing on the surface. Stop looking at them according to the flesh. These people are souls, who are not beyond God’s redemptive power.”
Consider also what Jesus said next to them: “Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (Jn 4:36).
If God wills, that’s the fruit of evangelism. It’s a harvest of eternal life.
I know how frustrating it can be to work with that guy who frequently profanes God with his nasty sense of humor. I know what a lost cause that woman seems to be who’s determined to find happiness at the bottom of a bottle. But please lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest (Jn 4:35).
A new creation
Earlier when Paul was still in the city of Corinth, he faced hostile opposition against him, and I suspect he was tempted to flee that place, but the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and I have many in this city who are my people” (Ac 18:9, 10).
“You don’t see them, Paul, not yet, but my people are here. Bring them the gospel, and you will see.”
Look at verse 17. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” or the new creation has come (2Co 5:17).
I realize that even after we have this deeper, spiritual perspective and concern for those around us, we still face internal struggles when we think about the prospect of trying to evangelize. We think to ourselves, I’m just not capable. I’m no apostle Paul. I don’t have his ability to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ (Ac 26:18). That was, by the way, the commission given to Paul by Jesus. We think, I don’t have that ability.
And you’re right. You don’t, not in and of yourself. Those who are born again are born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:13).
To borrow an illustration from Paul Washer, he once described a man being late to a meeting. When the man finally arrived, he tells everyone, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I got a flat tire on my way here. When I got out to change it, one of the lug nuts rolled onto the highway, and when I went to retrieve it, I got hit by a logging truck. And that’s why I’m late.”
Everyone at the meeting was thinking the same thing. Either this man is a liar or he’s insane. No one can have an encounter with something as big as a logging truck and walk away unscathed.
Paul Washer then asked, “What’s bigger—a logging truck or Almighty God?”
We don’t walk away from an encounter with God unscathed or unaffected. When God chooses to rip the heart of stone from our chest and put in its place a heart of flesh, our very nature is changed. Our worldview changes. Our perspectives change. Our affections change. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (Jn 10:27, 28).
In short, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself (2Co 5:17, 18).
This is important, so don’t miss it. Though we are instrumental in bringing people to Christ, we are merely instruments in the hand of God. We don’t possess the power to convert people to Christ any more than a surgeon’s knife has the ability to perform a surgery. We are merely a tool in the hand of the surgeon.
One of the last commandments Jesus gave the church before ascending into heaven was, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” but he didn’t stop there (Mt 28:19). He goes on to say, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He is with us, if for no other reason, because we can’t accomplish anything without him.
The message of reconciliation
Even so, we have a responsibility here. Paul says, “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation, entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2Co 5:18, 19). But before we talk about our responsibility here, perhaps we should consider what he means by the ministry or message of reconciliation. In short, he’s talking about the gospel.
In Romans 5, Paul writes, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Ro 5:10). Here in 2 Corinthians 5, he says, “God through Christ reconciled us to himself; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2Co 5:18, 19).
Sometimes we mistakenly think the biggest problem an unredeemed sinner has is that he won’t get into heaven when he dies. But you’ll notice Paul doesn’t say anything about heaven here or in Romans 5. For him, the heart of the sinner’s problem is the massive chasm between him and God. Never mind his locality. The issue is an utterly broken, seemingly irreconcilable relationship with God the Father because of sin. No, the unredeemed person will not get into heaven, but more importantly, he will never enter or enjoy God’s presence.
The gospel, then, is the incredible news that Jesus’s atoning work on the cross is sufficient to bring reconciliation to Holy God and his sinful enemies. Christ assuaged God’s wrath against us by suffering it in our place, restoring this once-broken relationship between God and sinners. While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Ro 5:10).
The gospel in fifteen words
Let’s skip down to verse 21 for a moment. By the way, this happens to be my favorite verse in the Bible because in only fifteen words—fifteen words in the original Greek, that is—Paul captures the very essence of the gospel. He says, “For our sake he—that is, God—made him—that is, Christ—to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21).
For the sake of time, I’ll give you my extremely abridged commentary on this verse.
First, Paul makes it clear that redemption is the sovereign work of God. The words he made tells us that much (2Co 5:21). We do not make salvation happen. God and God alone does. According to Ephesians, God chose his people before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). According to 1 Peter 1, Christ and his saving work was foreknown and predetermined by God before the foundation of the world (1Pe 1:19, 20). According to Ephesians 2, the regenerated person is his workmanship (Eph 2:10).
Second, Christ became sin, though he knew no sin (2Co 5:21). How does an innocent man become sin? Once again, God made. God imputed our sinfulness to Christ. In other words, he judged and punished Christ as though he were us.
Third, this was done so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). Now the question is reversed. How does a sinner become righteous? Similarly, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. He judges and rewards us as though we were Christ.
That’s the gospel in only fifteen words. It’s the summary of a divine transaction between Christ and sinners, which was sovereignly planned and providentially carried out by God the Father, ultimately resulting in reconciliation between us and God.
Becoming the righteousness of God
Now, this prompts us to ask a vital question regarding the timing of this divine transaction. We know exactly when Jesus became sin for us. The question is, when does the sinner become the righteousness of God? (2Co 5:21). For the answer, we could turn to many places in the Bible—Romans 3, John 3, Galatians 2, just to name a few—but I’d like to read from Paul in Philippians 3. He says:
For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, or from keeping the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:8, 9)
Elsewhere, he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). What does Paul say in Romans 3? “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Ro 3:21, 22). Therefore, Paul can say, “Christ is the justifier of the one who has faith in him” (Ro 3:26).
In short, God imputes his righteousness to the sinner when the sinner trusts in Christ alone to justify him before God. In other words, he becomes the righteousness of God when he believes, which according to Ephesians 2, is not his own doing; even his faith is the gift of God (2Co 5:21; Eph 2:8). All glory be to God.
Ambassadors for Christ
This, of course, leads us back to our responsibility here. In Romans 10, Paul rhetorically asks, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Ro 10:14). How can someone believe if no one has shared the gospel with him?
According to this passage, God gave us the ministry of reconciliation, entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2Co 5:18, 19). “Therefore,” Paul says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2Co 5:20).
Have you ever paid any attention to the introduction to the book of Acts? In the introduction, Luke, the author of Acts, refers back to his account of the Gospel, and he describes it as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the book of Acts is a continuation of Jesus doing and teaching (Ac 1:1). Jesus, however, ascends into heaven in the middle of the first chapter of Acts, which leaves us asking, “How did Jesus continue to do and teach if he wasn’t even here?”
The answer is, Christ continues to work and teach through his church. We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us (2Co 5:20). He calls us into the ministry or service of reconciliation (2Co 5:18). He entrusts us with the message of reconciliation—that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ (2Co 5:19). He lays on us the responsibility to share his word with the world around us as his ambassadors, his loyal and thankful spokesmen.
God’s appeal through us
Though I could easily spend another thirty minutes on this text, I won’t. Instead, let me attempt to summarize it in closing.
As difficult and uncomfortable as evangelism can be, there’s too much at stake to neglect this part of our Christian service. I pray our eyes are opened to the spiritual realities regarding our friends and neighbors. Countless people all around us need to hear about their devastating separation from God. They need to hear the message of reconciliation (2Co 5:19). They need to believe. If God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, the least we can do is tell others about it (2Co 5:18). The least we can do is say to them, as Paul does here, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2Co 5:20).
As we do, please do not forget that we are not alone in this mission. You are an instrument in the hand of God. Jesus says, “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). More than that, God is making his appeal through us (2Co 5:20). If we are faithfully and accurately declaring the message of reconciliation, it is as though God himself is speaking through us (2Co 5:19). And if that is the case, what fear or reservation could we possibly have?