The Conciliation of the World
OVER nineteen hundred years ago in the city of Corinth in Greece there was a group of believers in Christ Jesus. They had accepted the evangel that Christ died for their sins and had been roused to a victory in which they shared (cf 1 Cor.15:1-4,20-28,50-57). But like us, who also believe, they had a few problems traced to the fact that they were human beings, descended from Adam, mortals and sinners in the flesh. And stemming from these problems, as must be expected, further problems were created for the whole body of believers in Corinth and for the apostle Paul who had brought the evangel to them.
The evangel was a message of grace and peace from God (2 Cor.1:2), but this was given in the midst of human struggles. There was consolation from God, but this meant there would have also been suffering and affliction (1:3-7). How else could there have been consolation? God was faithful (1:18), but how could this have been apprehended if there had not been disappointments in their lives? The believers were sealed with the earnest of the spirit in their hearts (2 Cor.1:22), but this could not have been appreciated apart from the slippery insecurities of human experience.
This is a pattern throughout 2 Corinthians, the applying of the evangel to continuing human circumstances. While facing the old problems of human flesh, of pride and jealousy, the apostle meets these problems with powerful and glorious revelations of truth in the evangel he was dispensing. Where the lusts of the flesh had led to dishonorable behavior (cf 1 Cor.5) and so to further sorrow and distress among the ecclesia and for Paul (2 Cor.2:1-8), there was also a growing appreciation of God’s provisions and the patterns of His operations (2:14-17). Where there was a struggle in heralding a message that was based entirely on faith and not on perception, upheld by spirit and not by flesh, sustained by expectation and not by present comforts and health in the flesh (chapter 3), there was an increasing acquaintance with God’s spiritual power in the evangel (chapter 4).
The problems are related to the old things, not merely to problems of the flesh but also to revelations God gave of Himself in the law and His dealings with Israel, which were centered in the flesh. The evangel given to Paul was centered on the spirit. In this respect it was like the “new covenant” spoken of in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. But it embraced a wider scope and was removed more fully from the flesh and the earthly concerns than the prophets had envisioned. “So that, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the primitive passed by. Lo! there has come new!” (2 Cor.5:17).
GOD CONCILIATES US TO HIMSELF
At this point in his letter, Paul presents a new revelation of God that is also found in his epistle to the Romans. This is the message of the conciliation.
“God conciliates us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor.5:18). God has established a change between us and Himself. The Greek word for conciliate is a compound term composed of the elements “down” and “change.” Without claiming too much concerning these elements, we would, nevertheless, draw attention especially to the idea of “change.” This is a concept also involved in the English word “conciliate.” To conciliate is to effect a change from estrangement and antagonism to agreement and even good will. A good picture in our own day is the breaking down of the Berlin wall, which was (from a human standpoint) a bulwark of enmity.
In the evangel dispensed by Paul we learn that God has effected a change in the relationship of human beings to Himself. And He has done this through Christ, that is, through His death. The change is one from enmity to peace toward God and access in God’s grace into His presence as our Father. This is how Paul presents it in his epistles:
“Being, then, justified by faith, we may be having peace toward God, through our Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom we have the access also, by faith, into this grace in which we stand . . .” (Rom.5:1,2). “For if, being enemies, we were conciliated to God through the death of His Son, much rather, being conciliated, we shall be saved in His life. Yet not only so, but we are glorying also in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we now obtained the conciliation” (Rom.5:10,11).
“For you did not get slavery’s spirit to fear again, but you got the spirit of sonship, in which we are crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ The spirit itself is testifying together with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom.8:15,16) “Now, seeing that you are sons, God delegates the spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ ” (Gal.4:6).
In Ephesians and Colossians the word of the conciliation is expanded to a revelation of reconciliation which is applied to the body of Christ and finally the entire universe: “And coming, He brings the evangel of peace to you, those afar, and peace to those near, for through Him we both have had the access, in one spirit, to the Father” (Eph.2:17,18). “In [Christ Jesus] we have boldness and access with confidence through His faith” (Eph.3:12). “In [the Son of God’s love] the entire complement delights to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross) . . .” (Col.1:20). This change from enmity to peace, from estrangement to access, from alienation to sonship, is what God establishes in Christ, making Himself known in a new and glorious way. Paul calls it “the secret of the evangel” in Ephesians 6:19, where he speaks of a genuine need when he requests prayers for boldness in making it known.
Although we seem to want things that are new, we also hesitate to give up the old. Believers from Paul’s day to the present have often vacillated in their attitudes toward the evangel. We see it is a message of grace, peace and glory that is wholly out of God. “Yet all is of God . . .” (2 Cor.5:18). But the flesh keeps doubting and even denying that this can be true. It is great that God has conciliated us to Himself, but, we reason, there must be some catch. We suppose that it would be safer to qualify this bold declaration of peace with some “if’s” and conditions, in order to insure restraints on the flesh. In this way we make the discipline of the flesh dependent on the flesh. Hence the power of the evangel of peace is, in fact, denied.
Let us not hesitate to take these words of 2 Cor.5:18 candidly and unreservedly as they are written. Through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, God has achieved for us the removal of enmity and all the barriers to His heart that we have erected. He has brought forth a change from estrangement to peace toward Himself as our Father. Let us hold to this evangel tenaciously as we continue to live in these perilous times of increasing agnosticism and outright enmity toward God (cf 2 Tim.3:1-9).
GOD WAS IN CHRIST
The message of conciliation that Paul was dispensing has as its foundation that God has established a change, channeled through the death of His Son for sinners and enemies. This is a new revelation concerning God. Under the old covenant associated with Sinai, God was revealed in His power, but as it responds to human actions, whether good or bad. This led to some acquaintance with God’s mercy in certain circumstances, and with His indignation and stern judgments in many other circumstances. But in the giving of His Son, God is revealed in His power as it flows from this Gift. Consequently, we are now seeing God in a new and fuller way. He is seen in Christ.
Hence we read, “. . . God was in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them” (2 Cor.5:19).
In ordinary cases, especially when definitions are made, or one thing is being identified with another, the various verb forms of “be” are not needed in Greek. It is not necessary to say, for example, Red is a color; all that is needed in Greek is to say, Red color. When the word “is,” or, in the present case, “was,” appears, something more than identification of being is in view. The figure of speech called “ellipsis” is involved here, where something is left out that can be supplied by the context and general development of thought.
Following the lead of 2 Corinthians 4:6, where Paul spoke of “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” we are surely justified in seeing a figure of omission in the words “God was in Christ.” God was [making Himself known] in [the death of] Christ. We learn of God as He reveals Himself in Christ, bringing about tremendous blessings for the world.
CONCILIATING THE WORLD
Some have thought that by the word “world,” Paul must refer to the world of believers only. It is pointed out that Paul addresses the believers in verse 18 in revealing that God conciliates us to Himself through Christ, and so it is concluded that verse 19 must be restricted to the same group. But the context has already spoken of what Christ did for “all” (v.14) and has distinguished the special salvation of believers (cp 1 Tim.4:10), by the words “those who are living” (v.15). Indeed, the word “world” is clearly a poor term to use if a restricted portion of humanity is in view.
If something is done by God through the death and resurrection of His Son it is a certainty. It has been done, even though it may not be believed by many and may not be fully realized by any of us. This is why Paul was beseeching all peoples, “Be conciliated to God!” (2 Cor.5:20). He was not entreating them to do something God had already done. Rather he was beseeching that they accept, believe and enjoy what God had already done through Christ. It was at the cross that God was revealing His heart in His Son, by conciliating the world to Himself. And so, as ambassadors, we are beseeching for Christ’s sake, “Become even now, in your heart and lives, what God has achieved on your behalf. Be conciliated to God.”
For us to be conciliated to God in awareness is a matter of accepting and believing and retaining the evangel that God was in Christ conciliating the world to Himself. It is exactly as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, concerning being saved. What God has done is done. But our present appreciation and appropriation of the blessings announced in the evangel arise from our believing the evangel. For us to experience the joy and peace of our conciliation with God (which is what the entreaty “Be conciliated to God!” means) we need to hold fast to the evangel of 2 Corinthians 5:19. Even though there is no evidence, in what we see and hear and feel with our fleshly senses, that God was actually making Himself known in Christ conciliating the world to Himself, nevertheless we believe it, and consequently we experience in spirit the blessings of the conciliation. We are becoming what God has made us in giving His Son for us; we are becoming, in increasing appreciation, conciliated to Him.
Since God is conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them, there will eventually come a time when all will experience it. This is brought out later in Colossians 1:20 where we learn that “in Him,” that is, in the Son of God’s love (v.13), there is divine delight to reconcile all enemies on earth or in heaven to God, through the blood of Christ’s cross.
NOT RECKONING OFFENSES
The world is much involved in offending God. In language that speaks crudely of Him, and in determination to prove its independence of Him there is unspeakable offense. But still God is not reckoning their offenses to them.
Nevertheless, the world’s offensiveness is understandable. No faith has been given to the majority of mankind concerning the evangel of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ. All of humanity is locked up in stubbornness so that God may be merciful to all (Rom.11:32).
What is perhaps more remarkable than the world’s offensiveness, however, is the continuing offense of unbelief among ourselves as believers. Here again we must acknowledge that not all are given the same measure of faith, but it surely is shocking to hear believers speak of God as far less than He claims to be in His Word. Is it not offensive to Him that He is presented as one who takes risks, not knowing how things will turn out, and as one who will consign certain human beings to everlasting torment, or will simply annihilate them even though Christ came into the world to save them? None of us perhaps fully appreciates the certainty of God’s peace, the transcendence of His grace, the reality of His righteousness, the greatness of His power or the vastness of His love as it is revealed in Christ. And where we fail in this, lacking confidence in His declarations and reliance on Him as the living God, we offend. But He is not reckoning our offenses to us. May God increase our faith in this gracious word!
HUMAN OFFENDING HUMAN
We might add a word here about human beings giving and taking offense in relationships among ourselves. This certainly lies behind those “works of the flesh,” that Paul terms, “enmities, strife, jealousies, furies, factions, dissensions, sects, envies” in Galatians 5:20. In Colossians 3:8 the apostle speaks of similar practices of the old humanity, including “anger, fury, malice, calumny,” and these too are offenses against others. Strife and jealousies and anger invariably arise out of the practice of holding against them, the offenses committed by others against ourselves. Rather than becoming imitators of God as beloved children (cf Eph.5:1), we let the offenses of others fester in our hearts, and consequently we miss much of the joy and peace that flows from the evangel.
The solution, Paul says, is: “Let the word of Christ be making its home in you richly, in all wisdom . . .” (Col.3:16). Surely then, this word of Christ which includes what is called “the word of the conciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:19 is powerful in arbitrating in our hearts to the end that we less and less harbor resentment of offenses committed by others against us and less and less resort deliberately to offending others out of anger and envy and malice.
The word of the conciliation is that God was revealing Himself in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, and not reckoning their offenses to them. God is not reckoning your offenses to you. He is not reckoning my offenses to me. What a gracious and powerful word this is! And how blessed we are to be living in this most acceptable era (2 Cor.6:2) when the word of the conciliation is made known!
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