Paul continues 2 Corinthians as he shifts his metaphor from the treasures in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7) to the idea of dwelling in earthly tents (2 Corinthians 5:1). His aim is to build up the confidence of the Corinthians, that they would have the strength to keep on walking by faith. The flow of the chapter moves from how we, as individuals, hold a certainty of redemption because of the Spirit of God (v. 5) on to how we are to be involved in reconciling the world to God.
Paul does not separate here the work of Jesus in reconciliation (v. 18) and the responsive work of believers in showing others the reality of this reconciliation. Where we might be tempted to put a dichotomy, a conflict between the work of Jesus and the responsibility we hold, God has Paul put an "and," linking the two.
In the middle, though, are points not to be missed. First of all, we are reminded of the incoming judgment (v. 10)and how the fear of God which we know should drive us to persuade others to follow Christ. Second, though, is a verse that I've taken a touch out of context over the years. It's one that definitely should be understood the way it is usually preached, but 2 Corinthians 5:17 is about more than just the new life of the believer.
Put it alongside v. 16 and see what Paul is talking about in general. He mentions not seeing anyone according to a "worldly perspective." In a status-conscious Roman world, that's a radical departure from the norm. He's emphasizing that, in his ministry, he does not worry about who he shares the Gospel with. It only matters that he shares the Gospel.
After all, those of high societal value will be made new in Christ...and their "high" value will dissipate. Likewise, those of low societal value will be made new in Christ...and their "low" value will dissipate.
The judgment seat of Christ (v. 10, again) is higher enough than anyone that your status will not matter. Therefore, your status ought not matter to Christians, either.
Woven through this chapter, from the tents through the new creation and into verse 20, is the idea that to be Christian, one's identity is found in something other than their earthly life. 2 Corinthians 5:20 speaks of being "ambassadors for Christ," and we need to wrap our heads around what this means. At the current point in history, we tend to think of an "ambassador" as a political appointee in a foreign country, someone who can help if you lose your passport or get arrested while you're on a mission trip.
But much of our perception is shaped by the modern world and modern communications. In Paul's day, an ambassador carried the full weight and responsibility of the king who sent him. They were sent to make peace with countries far away, to explore lands, to gather information. And it was not always a safe job--a good way to show that you think your country is better than another one was to execute the ambassadors sent by that country. This did not always end well, mind you, if the sending country turned out to be mightier and have a higher sense of honor.
Then you're in trouble because the king will have those who attacked his ambassadors before his judgment seat in due time.
This is the image Paul is giving of the Kingdom of Christ. He will, in due time, have all mankind before His judgment.
This gives us a couple of practices to make sure we grab hold of in our lives.
The first is this: as ambassadors, it is our joyous responsibility to spread the offer of peace, of reconciliation from the King of Kings to the kingdoms of this world. We are to go forth and proclaim that to all those we come in contact with. And we do so, fully knowing that some of the kingdoms of this world will have our heads instead of accepting the offer of grace. But we go anyway, and we trust the King to do what is necessary and right. It may be that, eventually, an ambassador will break through the noise and even that one will come to Jesus.
At which, we will rejoice, knowing that grace is greater than our desire for vengeance.
The second practice is perhaps a shade harder. As ambassadors, we ought to keep living in tents. Rather than take up the practices of this world and making a more permanent home, let us remember that we are temporary residents here. We are not supposed to lock in and stay put, but to be identifiable as foreign to this place.
Living in tents is less comfortable than going ahead and grabbing a house, planting a garden, and so forth. But it also serves as a reminder that we do not belong to this place. We belong to Jesus. So live in your tent as you live intensely for Jesus.
After all, you're the ambassador of the Greatest King. What can this world offer anyway?
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 justifies the opening lyric in "Jesus, Messiah," about "He became sin who knew no sin...."
- There is a solid contrast here between walking by faith and walking by sight. The meaning there is pretty clear--we sometimes go without knowing for certain what we are supposed to be doing. It was not uncommon for ambassadors--they had to know the desire and character of their king and then go forth to do his work. Even if they had no maps to start with.
- Reconciliation (v. 18) is a two-way street. The joy is that God has come all the way, but we need to realize this is because of His strength, not out of weakness. We miss that point.