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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
2 Corinthians 5



Verse 1


(1) For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved.—Better, be broken up, as more in harmony with the image of the tent. The words that follow give the secret of his calmness and courage in the midst of sufferings. He looks beyond them. A new train of imagery begins to rise in his mind: linked, perhaps, to that of the preceding chapter by the idea of the tabernacle; in part, perhaps, suggested by his own occupation as a tentmaker. His daily work was to him as a parable, and as his hands were making the temporary shelter for those who were travellers on earth, he thought of the house “not made with hands,” eternal in the heavens. The comparison of the body to the house or dwelling-place of the Spirit was, of course, natural, and common enough, and, it may be noted, was common among the Greek medical writers (as, e.g., in Hippocrates, with whom St. Luke must have been familiar). The modification introduced by the idea of the “tent” emphasises the transitory character of the habitation. “What if the tent be broken up?” He, the true inward man, who dwells in the tent will find a more permanent, an eternal, home in heaven: a house which comes from God. What follows shows that he is thinking of that spiritual body of which he had said such glorious things in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49.

Verse 2

(2) For in this we groan.—The “groaning” here, and in 2 Corinthians 5:4, may, of course, be a strong way of expressing the burden and the weariness of life, but taken in connection with what we have already seen in the Epistle, as pointing to the pressure of disease, we can scarcely fail to find in it the utterance of a personal or special suffering. (See Notes on 2 Corinthians 1:8-9.)

Earnestly desiring to be clothed upon.—The words have suggested the question whether St. Paul spoke of the “spiritual body” to be received at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42-49), or of some intermediate stage of being, like that represented in the visions which poets have imagined and schoolmen theorised about, in the visions of the world of the dead in the Odyssey (Book 11), in the Æneid (Book vi.), in Dante’s Divina Commedia throughout. The answer to that question is found in the manifest fact that the intermediate state occupied but a subordinate position in St. Paul’s thoughts. He would not speak overconfidently as to times and seasons, but his practical belief was that he, and most of those who were then living, would survive till the coming of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:15). He did not speculate accordingly about that state, but was content to rest in the belief that when absent from the body he would in some more immediate sense, be present with the Lord. But the longing of his soul was, like that of St. John (Revelation 22:20), that the Lord might come quickly—that he might put on the new and glorious body without the pain and struggle of the “dissolution” of the old. In the words “be clothed upon” (literally, the verb being in the middle voice, to clothe ourselves, to put on) we have a slight change of imagery. The transition from the thought of a dwelling to that of a garment is, however, as in Psalms 104:1-3, sufficiently natural. Each shelters the man. Each is separable from the man himself. Each answers in these respects to the body which invests the spirit.

Verse 3

(3) If so be that being clothed . . .—The Greek particles express rather more than the English phrase does, the truth of what follows. “If, as I believe . . .,” though not a translation, would be a fair paraphrase. The confident expectation thus expressed is that in the resurrection state the spirit will not be “naked,” will have, i.e., its appropriate garment, a body—clothing it with the attributes of distinct individuality. To the Greek, Hades was a world of shadows. Of Hades, as an intermediate state, St. Paul does not here speak, but he is sure that, in the state of glory which seemed to him so near, there will be nothing shadowy and unreal. The conviction is identical with that expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49, against those who, admitting the immortality of the spirit, denied the resurrection of the body.

Verse 4

(4) Being burdened.—The whole passage is strikingly parallel to Wisdom of Solomon 9:15. “The corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things.” The Wisdom of Solomon, which no writer quotes before Clement of Rome, had probably been but recently written (possibly, as I believe, by Apollos), but St. Paul may well have become acquainted with it.

Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon.—Better, Seeing that we do not seek to put off, but to put on a garment. The thought is that of one who thinks that the Coming of the Lord is near. He wishes, as he expects, to remain till that Coming (comp. 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:15), to let the incorruptible body supervene on the corruptible, to be changed instead of dying. In this way that which is mortal, subject to death, would be swallowed up of life, as death itself is swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:54.)

Verse 5

(5) He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing.—Better, he that wrought us for this very thing. The “very thing” is the consummation, by whatever stages it may be reached, in which mortality is swallowed up of life. The whole work of God in the past—redemption, the new birth, the gifts and graces of the Spirit—was looking to this as its result. He had given the “earnest of the Spirit” (see Note on 2 Corinthians 1:22) as a pledge of the future victory of the higher life over the lower. Every gift of spiritual energy not dependent upon the material organism was an assurance that that organism was an impediment to the free action of the Spirit, which would one day be overcome. Our eyes, to take a striking instance, are limits, as well as instruments, to the spirit’s powers of perception.

Verse 6

(6) Therefore we are always confident.—The Greek construction is participial: being therefore always confident; the sentence not being completed, but begun again with the same verb in 2 Corinthians 5:8. The two verbs for being “at home” and “absent” are not found elsewhere in the New Testament. The latter conveys the special idea of being absent from a man’s own home or country. The knowledge of the fact that follows is given as the ground of the Apostle’s confidence. It makes him long for the change; not wishing for death, but content to accept it, as it will bring him nearer to his Lord.

Verse 7

(7) For we walk by faith, not by sight—Better, and not by what we see (or, by appearance). It seems almost sad to alter the wording of a familiar and favourite text, but it must be admitted that the word translated “sight” never means the faculty of seeing, but always the form and fashion of the thing seen. (Comp. Luke 3:22; Luke 9:29; John 5:37.) The fact is taken for granted; and it comes as the proof that as we are, we are absent from the Lord. Now we believe in Him without seeing Him; hereafter we shall see Him face to face. Our life and conduct and our “walk” in this world rest on our belief in the Unseen.

Verse 8

(8) We are confident, I say.—The sentence begun in 2 Corinthians 5:6 and half broken off is resumed. The apparent sense is that he prefers death to life, because it brings him to the presence of his Lord. At first, this seems at variance with what he had said in 2 Corinthians 5:4, as to his not wishing to put off the garment of the present body. Here, however, the expression is not so strong. “We are content,” he says, “if death comes before the Coming of the Lord, to accept death; for even though it does not bring with it the glory of the resurrection body, it does make us at home with Christ among the souls who wait for the resurrection.” If there still seems to us some shadow of inconsistency, we may look upon it as the all but inevitable outcome of the state which he describes in Philippians 1:21-25, as “in a strait between two,” and of the form of life in which he now finds himself. The whole passage presents a striking parallelism, and should be compared with this. This is, it is believed, an adequate explanation. Another may, however, be suggested. We find the Apostle speaking of certain “visions and revelations of the Lord,” of which he says he knows not whether they are “in the body or out of the body” (2 Corinthians 12:1). May we not think of him as referring here also to a like experience? “We take pleasure,” he says, if we adopt this interpretation, wholly or in part, “even here, in that state which takes us, as it were, out of the body, or seems to do so, because it is in that state that our eyes are open to gaze more clearly on the unseen glories of the eternal world.” The fact that both verbs are in the tense which indicates a single act, and not a continuous state, is, as far as it goes, in favour of this explanation.

Verse 9

(9) Wherefore we labour.—Better, we strive earnestly after. The English “labour” is quite inadequate, the Greek expressing the thought of striving, as after some honour or prize. Our ambition is that . . . we may be accepted would be, perhaps, the best equivalent. For “accepted of him” read acceptable, or better, well-pleasing to him: the Greek word implying the quality on which acceptance depends, rather than the act itself.

Verse 10

(10) For we must all appear.—Better, must all be made manifest. The word is the same as that in 1 Corinthians 4:5 (“shall make manifest the counsels of the heart”), and is obviously used with reference to it. It may be noted that it is specially characteristic of this Epistle, in which it occurs nine times. The English version, which can only be ascribed to the unintelligent desire of the translators to vary for the sake of variation, besides being weak in itself, hinders the reader from seeing the reference to 1 Corinthians 4:5, or even the connection with the “made manifest” in the next verse.

Before the judgment seat of Christ.—The Greek word shows the influence of Roman associations. In the Gospels the imagery of the last judgment is that of a king sitting on his throne (Matthew 25:31), and the word is the ever-recurring note of the Apocalypse, in which it occurs forty-nine times. Here the judgment-seat, or bema, is the tribunal of the Roman magistrate, raised high above the level of the basilica, or hall, at the end of which it stood. (Comp. Matthew 27:19; Acts 12:21; Acts 18:12.) The word was transferred, when basilicas were turned into churches, to the throne of the bishop, and in classical Greek had been used, not for the judge’s seat, but for the orator’s pulpit.

That every one may receive the things done in his body.—It would have seemed almost impossible, but for the perverse ingenuity of the system-builders of theology, to evade the force of this unqualified assertion of the working of the universal law of retribution. No formula of justification by faith, or imputed righteousness, or pardon sealed in the blood of Christ, or priestly absolution, is permitted by St. Paul to mingle with his expectations of that great day, as revealing the secrets of men’s hearts, awarding to each man according to his works. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7) was to him an eternal, unchanging law. The revelation of all that had been secret, for good or evil; the perfectly equitable measurement of each element of good or evil; the apportionment to each of that which, according to this measurement, each one deserves for the good and evil which he has done: that is the sum and substance of St. Paul’s eschatology here and in 1 Corinthians 4:5. At times his language seems to point to a yet fuller manifestation of the divine mercy as following on that of the divine righteousness, as in Romans 5:17-18; Romans 11:32. At times, again, he speaks as if sins were washed away by baptism (1 Corinthians 6:11), or forgiven freely through faith in the atoning blood (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 2:13); as though the judgment of the great day was anticipated for all who are in Christ by the absence of an accuser able to sustain his charge (Romans 8:3), by the certainty of a sentence of acquittal (Romans 8:1). If we ask how we can reconcile these seeming inconsistencies, the answer is, that we are not wise in attempting to reconcile them by any logical formula or ingenious system. Here, as in other truths of the spiritual life—God’s foreknowledge and man’s free-will, God’s election and man’s power to frustrate it, God’s absolute goodness and the permission of pain and evil—the highest truth is presented to us in phases that seem to issue in contradictory conclusions, and we must be content to accept that result as following from the necessary limitations of human knowledge.

Verse 11

(11) Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord.—Better, the fear of the Lord. The English word “terror” is unduly strong, and hinders the reader from seeing that what St. Paul speaks of is identical with “the fear of the Lord”—the temper not of slavish dread, but reverential awe, which had been described in the Old Testament as “the beginning of wisdom” (Job 28:28; Psalms 111:10). Tyndale’s and Cranmer’s versions give, “how the Lord is to be feared;” the Rhemish, “fear.” “Terror,” characteristically enough, makes its first appearance in the Geneva version.

We persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God.—The antithesis is singularly indicative of the rapid turn of thought in the Apostle’s mind. “We go on our way of winning men to Christ.” (Comp. the use of the same Greek word in Acts 12:20, “having made Blastus . . . their friend.”) It is singular to note that, in an Epistle probably nearly contemporary with this, St. Paul uses the phrase almost in a bad sense: “Do we now persuade men, or God?” i.e., “Are we seeking to please our friends or God?” (Galatians 1:10.) And here, apparently, the imperfection of the phrase and its liability to misconstruction occurs to him, and he therefore immediately adds, “Yes, we do our work of persuading men” (the case of Felix, in Acts 24:25, may be noted as showing the prominence of “the judgment to come” in St. Paul’s method), “but it is all along with the thought that our own lives also have been laid open in their inmost recesses to the sight of God.” The word “made manifest” is clearly used in reference to the same word (in the Greek) as is translated “appear” in 2 Corinthians 5:10.

And I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.—The words are an echo of what had already been said in 2 Corinthians 4:2. He trusts that in their inmost consciences, in the effect of his preaching there, in the new standard of right and wrong which they now acknowledge—perhaps, also, in the estimate which their illumined judgment passes on his own conduct—he has been made manifest as indeed he is, as he is sure that he will be before the judgment-seat of Christ.

Verse 12

(12) For we commend not ourselves again unto you.—The better MSS. omit “For,” which may have been inserted for the sake of an apparent sequence of thought. In reality, however, what follows is more intelligible without it. He has scarcely uttered the words that precede this sentence when the poison of the barbed arrow of the sneer to which he had referred in 2 Corinthians 3:1 again stings him. He hears his enemies saying, “So he is commending himself again;” and these words are the answer to that taunt. “No,” he says, “it is not so, but in appealing to the witness of the work done in your consciences we give you an ‘occasion’ (or starting-point) of a boast which we take for granted that you, the great body of the Church of Corinth, will be ready to make for us.”

That ye may have somewhat to answer.—The opponents, of whom we are to hear more hereafter (see Notes on 2 Corinthians 10:7-18; 2 Corinthians 11:12-33), rise up once more in his thoughts. “That such as these should be boasting of their work and their success!” What did they glory in? In appearance. The words may apply to anything external—claims of authority, training, knowledge, and the like. The use of the word, however, in 2 Corinthians 10:1 seems to imply a more definite meaning. Men contrasted what we should call the dignified “presence” of his rivals with his personal defects, the weakness of his body, the lowness of his stature. “Take your stand,” he seems to say, “against that boast, on the work done by us in your consciences.”

Verse 13

(13) For whether we be beside ourselves.—The recollection of one sneer leads on to another. This also had been said of him, and the intense sensitiveness of his nature made him wince under it. Some there were at Corinth who spoke of his visions and revelations, his speaking with tongues as in ecstasy, his prophecies of future judgment, as so many signs of madness. “He was beside himself.” (Comp. Agrippa’s words in Acts 26:24, and Note there.) Others, or, perhaps, the same persons, pointed to his tact, becoming all things to all men, perhaps even insinuated that he was making money by his work (2 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 12:10): “he was shrewd enough when it served his turn.” He answers accordingly both the taunts. What people called his “madness”—the ecstasy of adoration, the speaking with tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18-23)—that lay between himself and God, and a stranger might not intermeddle with it. What people called his “sober-mindedness”—his shrewd common sense, his sagacity—that he practised not for himself, but for his disciples, to win them to Christ, remove difficulties, strengthen them in the faith.

Verse 14

(14) For the love of Christ constraineth us.—The Greek, like the English, admits of two interpretations—Christ’s love for us, or our love for Christ. St. Paul’s uniform use of this and like phrases, however, elsewhere (Romans 5:5; Romans 8:35; 1 Corinthians 16:24; 2 Corinthians 13:14), is decisive in favour of the former. It was the Apostle’s sense of the love that Christ had shown to him and to all men that was acting as a constraining power, directing every act of every spiritual state to the good of others, restraining him from every self-seeking purpose.

Because we thus judge, that if one died for all.—Better, as expressing the force of the Greek tense, Because we formed this judgment. The form of expression implies that the conviction dated from a given time, i.e., probably, from the hour when, in the new birth of his conversion, he first learnt to know the universality of the love of Christ manifested in His death. Many MSS. omit the “if,” but without any real change of meaning. It is obvious that St. Paul assumes the fact, even if it be stated hypothetically. The thought is the same as in the nearly contemporary passage of Romans 5:15-19, and takes its place among St. Paul’s most unqualified assertions of the universality of the atonement effected by Christ’s death. The Greek preposition does not in itself imply more than the fact that the death was on behalf of all; but this runs up—as we see by comparing Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, with Mark 14:24, John 15:13—into the thought that the death was, in some very real sense, vicarious: in the place of the death of all men. The sequence of thought involves that meaning here.

Then were all dead.—These strange, mysterious words have received very different interpretations. They cannot be rightly understood without bearing in view what we may call the mystic aspect of one phase of St. Paul’s teaching. We may, perhaps, clear the way by setting aside untenable expositions. (1) They cannot mean, however true the fact may be in itself, that the death of Christ for all showed that all were previously under a sentence of condemnation and of death, for the verb is in the tense which indicates the momentary act of dying, not the state of death. (2) They cannot mean, for the same reason, that all were, before that sacrifice, “dead in trespasses and sins.” (3) They can hardly mean that all men, in and through that death, paid vicariously the penalty of death for their past sins, for the context implies that stress is laid not on the satisfaction of the claims of justice, but on personal union with Christ. The real solution of the problem is found in the line of thought of Romans 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 15:22, as to the relation of Christ to every member of the human family, in the teaching of Romans 6:10, as to the meaning of His death—(“He died unto sin once”). “Christ died for all”—this is the Apostle’s thought—“as the head and representative of the race.” But if so, the race, in its collective unity, died, as He died, to sin, and should live, as He lives, to God. Each member of the race is then only in a true and normal state when he ceases to live for himself and actually lives for Christ. That is the mystic ideal which St. Paul placed before himself and others, and every advance in holiness is, in its measure, an approximation to it.

Verse 14-15

The Constraint of Love

For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again.—2 Corinthians 5:14-15.

This is the great Apostle’s triumphant answer to his accusers. The First Epistle to the Corinthians had only fomented the Judaistic elements in the already faction-torn church at Corinth, until, at the date of this Epistle, they were clamorously challenging the authority of St. Paul and the truth of the doctrines he was preaching. More persons than St. Paul have found that it is not easy to maintain one’s equanimity under unjust criticism, especially when the aspersions relate to the fondest attachment and the supreme ambition of life. Such an ordeal reveals the man, and in its fierce light graces or defects stand forth in sharpest outline. If St. Paul never appeared more human, neither was he ever more manifestly great, than when pouring out his mighty heart in these rushing sentences, often made obscure by their very intensity. Is St. Paul ambitious? Does he desire by talking about bonds and imprisonments, or dream and revelations, to exalt himself above his brethren? Does he wish by his unsparing anti-Judaism, by ideal demands on the Christian life, to make himself the judge of conscience and the infallible interpretation of the Divine mind? Or has he gone quite beyond himself and is he mad? All this—and much more—his enemies openly charge. To one and all his answer is: “The love of Christ constraineth us.”

If we connect this assertion with the words which immediately precede it—“Whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God; or whether we be sober, it is for your cause”—we shall see that not only his great heroic deeds, but his common acts and judgments, were moulded by the same power. He had defended himself so vehemently against the great public charges which had been brought against his character that to the refined and self-contained Corinthians he appeared “beside himself”; but he affirms that burning torrent of defence was not for self-interest, but for God; because the love of Christ constrained him. There had been charges too subtle and shadowy for public defences to remove, and these this man of vehemence had calmly lived down; but he declares that this meek endurance sprang not from his self-control, but from the love of Christ which constrained him. If, then, not only his grander deeds but his daily acts and judgments were thus inspired, these words express a power which was acting intensely on Paul’s whole nature, and which made his silence and vehemence, his love and suffering, one living language, by which the constraining love of Christ strove to utter its burning energy.


The Test of Life is found in its Motive

1. The life of an intelligent being must be under the sway of some chosen and cherished motive. High degrees of intelligence find their expression in the careful selection of the motive. Where the intelligence is low and untrained, we find men blindly obeying motives which the accident of the hour may have raised up, or to which the bodily passions may excite. We can look into the face of no fellow-man and say, “That man is living without a motive.” The consideration of the motives that actually rule men’s lives gives us very sad thoughts of our humanity. They range between the animal and the Divine, but they belong for the most part to the lower levels. The entire aspect and character of a man’s life may be changed by a change of his motives. A new and nobler motive will soon make a man a better man. No man ever did rise to do noble things while his motive concerned only self and self-interests. All noble lives have been spent in service to others. All the best lives in private spheres have been self-denying lives. All the heroic lives in public spheres have been the lives of patriots, the lives of the generous, the pitying, and the helpful.

Humanity does not need morals, it needs motives; it is sick of speculation, it longs for action. Men see their duty in every land and age with exasperating clearness. We know not how to do it. The religion which inspires men with a genuine passion for holiness and a constraining motive of service will last. It has solved the problem of spiritual motion.1 [Note: John Watson, The Mind of the Master, 180.]

(1) Many people have no higher motive than the hope of reward and the fear of punishment.—Hope and fear are among the most powerful feelings of our nature; and, acting in opposite directions as they generally do, they lead to a behaviour in which the influence of both is to be seen, like those compound motions, the result of equal and opposing mechanical forces. How much do we do from the hope of reward! How much do we not do from the dread of punishment! How steadily are we thus preserved in the straight path of duty from the pressure on the one side and the other of these two powers!

The statute-book does not simply say, like the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not steal”; it says, “If you do steal, the detective will deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the jailer, and he will cast you into prison, and you shall not get out thence till you have paid the forfeit of your crime.” We know that if we rob our neighbour’s house, or assault our neighbour’s person, or slander our neighbour’s good name, or in any other way disturb the peace of society and violate the letter of the law, we must pay the penalty. The fear thus inspired operates like a charm. It pervades the whole mass of society: though unseen it is felt; and even when scarcely consciously felt, its influence is active, like some of those subtle agencies in the atmosphere that surrounds us, which tell upon our happiness, our health, and our life, though we are altogether unaware of their existence. It makes the thief honest, the slanderer silent, the turbulent peaceful. We are virtuous by compulsion. We do good because we dare not do evil.

But even in this motive there lies an element of truth. There is at least the recognition of righteousness in the earth. And when we have done evil we recognize the justice of the punishment which overtakes us.

Mourner that dost deserve thy mournfulness,

Call thyself punished, call the earth thy hell;

Say, “God is angry, and I earned it well—

I would not have Him smile on wickedness”:

Say this, and straightway all thy grief grows less:—

“God rules at least, I find as prophets tell,

And proves it in this prison!”—then thy cell

Smiles with an unsuspected loveliness.

“A prison—and yet from door and window-bar

I catch a thousand breaths of His sweet air!

Even to me His days and nights are fair!

He shows me many a flower and many a star!

And though I mourn and He is very far,

He does not kill the hope that reaches there!”1 [Note: George MacDonald, Poetical Works, ii. 248.]

(2) A higher motive is found in the sense of duty.—There is something in us which recognizes moral obligation, and impels us to take a line of conduct which, perhaps, we have no natural inclination to follow. Now, we can all of us see that, when we come to speak of duty, we have risen into a higher region of thought. And yet the purest motive of life is not conscience. That is what the Puritans built on. There was very little love in the Puritan theology, very little exposition of the love of God, very little manifestation of love in the household (there was love, but it was concealed, not manifested), very little preaching of love in the pulpit. The great power that bound Puritanism together was the power of conscience. That was the power of Judaism. There was love in Judaism, but not much. The real power of Judaism was an awakened conscience. The school of Ethical Culture is a survival of Puritanism, as Puritanism was a survival of Judaism. In them conscience is the key-note. Judaism, Puritanism, and Ethical Culture are incarnate conscience. Christianity is incarnate love. A man may conform to law because it is righteous law; but he cannot love the law. We cannot love an abstraction. We cannot love a thing. There must be some heart, some power to love in return, in that which we love. We can love only a person. Christianity comes, and it shows in the heart of history this Divine Person, and says to us, “Love for Him—that is to be the constraining power, the motive power, the secret of your life.”

There is no disguising it that law, fate, destiny, or commandment may produce an exceedingly noble form of religion; that it may make a nation strong in law, and powerful in all things; but it tends always to produce a character that is hard and cold; noble, but ungenial, ungracious. Yet the result of a clear understanding of law, and a very clear obedience to it, is never in any way to be accounted cheap. For it is better to be ungracious and obedient than to be gracious without obedience. It is better to be moral and undevout than to be devout and immoral. It is better to have your strength, even though clothed in raggedness as to beauty, than to have a sensuous beauty upon inward deformity and untruth.1 [Note: George Dawson.]

In actual practice the theory that lays the emphasis upon duty, as opposed to inclination, contains an important element of truth, which naturalistic theories of the end of action have always tended to overlook. For it is undoubtedly true that at a certain stage in moral development, both in the individual and in the race the negative or ascetic element is the prominent one. All moral progress consists in subordination of lower to higher impulses, and at a certain stage it may be more important to conquer the lower than to give effect to the higher. How far it is possible to effect this conquest without appeal to higher and more positive principles of action—how far, for instance, sensual impulses can be made to yield before the abstract announcements of reason that they are “wrong,” without assignment of further reason or without appeal to the higher interests and affections—is a question for the educator. What is certain is that morality begins in self-restraint and self-denial, and that it is impossible to conceive of circumstances in which this negative element will be totally absent from it. Whatever we are to say of the desire to enjoy pleasure, it is certain that readiness to suffer pain is an element in all virtue, and that there is more danger for the individual in indulging the former than in over-cultivating the latter.2 [Note: J. H. Muirhead, The Elements of Ethics, 128.]


The Sovereign Motive is Born at the Cross

1. The Apostle does not mean, as at a first glance we might suppose, his own affection for Christ, his own devotion to Christ. This affection, this devotion, was indeed a constraining power. But it was only second in the chain of causes and consequences. It was not the source and origin of his energy. The source must be sought farther back than this. The source must be sought outside himself. The source must be found in God, not in man. Not his love for Christ, but Christ’s love for him, for others, for all mankind, for a world steeped in ignorance and sin and misery—this was the prime cause of all his moral activity, the paramount motive which started and directed all the energies of this most magnificent of all magnificent lives. His own love for Christ was only the response, only the sequel—as he himself would have confessed, the necessary, the inevitable sequel—to Christ’s love for him once impressed upon his being. Christ first loved him, and he (how could he help himself?) was fain to love Christ. It was not he, St. Paul, that lived any longer; it was Christ that lived in him. It was not he, St. Paul, that planned, that felt, that toiled, that suffered for Christ, that traversed the world with his life in his hand for Christ, that was instant in season and out of season for Christ, that died daily for Christ; but it was Christ’s own love fermenting like leaven in his inmost being, stirring and animating his sluggishness. This unspeakable love rises up before him, as the one great fact which will not be thrust aside, the one clear voice which will not be silenced. It haunts him sleeping and waking. It occupies the whole background of his thoughts. Forget it? How can he forget it? Others may forget, but he can never forget.

Many Christian men endeavour to rouse themselves into energy by the strength of their own devotion. Their glance is perpetually on themselves, and they try to work from their own feelings of consecration to the Lord; hence their energy is fitful, and depends upon excitements. At one time they are filled with ardour, and at another cold in gloom. When their love is deep, then are they strong; when it is feeble, they endeavour to awaken it by spasmodic effort and self-condemnation; and as their vows of devotion fade and fail, they sink either into a morbid gloom that withers their energy, or into a calm self-contentment that lulls them in a spiritual dream. A feeling we possess is ever feeble and liable to change; a feeling possessing us is strong and enduring. This love surrounding and resting on a man, takes him out of himself, and becomes a permanent influence, not diminishing in temptation, or lessening by change of circumstances. It is, then, a love in Christ inspiring man—rendering him its instrument, making his life its language, changing not with his changes, but acting with eternal charm on his spirit—this is the power to which our text refers.

2. The supreme proof of Christ’s love was His death on the cross. “He died for all.” The death of Christ for all—which is equivalent to the death of Christ for each—is the great solvent by which the love of God melts men’s hearts and is the great proof that Jesus Christ loves each one of us. If we strike out that conception we have struck out from Christianity the vindication of the belief that Christ loves the world. The basis of Christ’s authority, and the vital centre of all His power over men’s hearts by which He transforms lives, and lifts those which are embedded in selfishness up to wondrous heights of self-denial, is to be found in the fact that He died on the cross for each of us. As a matter of fact, those types of Christian teaching which have failed to hold the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ as the centre of His work, and have brought Him down to the level of a man, have failed to kindle any warmth of affection for Him. A Christ who did not love me when He was upon earth, and who does not love me now that He is gone up on high, is not a Christ whom I can be called upon to love. And a Christ that did not die for me on the cross is not a Christ who has either the right or the power to rule my life.

We must accept that full-toned teaching if we are to solve the riddle of the power which the Man of Nazareth has over the world. Unless He was the Son of God, and therefore loving us each, as only a Divine heart can love; unless He was the Sacrifice for sin, and therefore rendering up Himself unto the death for each of us, there is nothing in Him that will absolutely sway hearts and perfectly ennoble lives. The cross, interpreted as St. Paul interpreted it, is the secret of all His power, and if once Christian teachers and Christian churches fail to grasp it as St. Paul did their strength is departed.

“Few men in these days,” he once said to me, “have done so much for the religious life of Scotland as James Morison. The pendulum of human thought is ever swinging to the extreme points: he found it at the extreme point of God’s sovereignty, and brought it to the other extreme—man’s responsibility; but the truth lies where these two meet”; and, crossing his arms, he made the sacred sign, as, in a voice of singular depth and persuasiveness, he said—“All truth centres in the Cross of Christ.”1 [Note: A. Guthrie, Robertson of Irvinc, 63.]

3. The love of Christ manifested on the cross stirs love in us. The Redeemer’s love is a fire of live coals, which ever burns on the altar of His own compassionate heart. But the human heart is as an unkindled piece of coal, hard, cold and dark. It never can of itself either kindle itself or catch the fire of Divine love to do so. It can never, therefore, change its coldness and darkness into warmth and brightness; nevertheless, if a live coal from the altar of celestial love touch and catch hold of it, it is speedily transformed, its blackness into brightness, its coldness into radiating heat, and its hardness into yielding softness. It is similar, when the love of Christ catches and kindles with its heavenly flame the human heart. It transforms the soul into which it enters, so that its spiritual darkness is replaced by spiritual brightness, its hardness becomes softness and sensibility, its coldness a fountain of warmth, glowing and scintillating with true Christian feeling. In fact the heart and life is transformed by the entrance of the love of Christ, and becomes instinct with His love. A new energy or force has been created in it which is similar to, but feebler than, the love which kindled it.

It was about three weeks before his end, whilst confined to his room for a few days by an attack of feverish illness, to which, especially when in anxiety, he had always from time to time been liable, that he called Mrs. Arnold to his bed-side, and expressed to her how, within the last few days, he seemed to have “felt quite a rush of love in his heart towards God and Christ”; and how he hoped that all this might make him more gentle and tender, and that he might not soon lose the impression thus made upon him; adding that, as a help to keeping it alive, he intended to write something in the evenings before he retired to rest.2 [Note: A. P. Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, ii. 321.]

Lord, hast Thou so loved us, and will not we

Love Thee with heart and mind and strength and soul,

Desiring Thee beyond our glorious goal,

Beyond the heaven of heavens desiring Thee?

Each saint, all saints cry out: Yea me, yea me,

Thou hast desired beyond an aureole,

Beyond Thy many Crowns, beyond the whole

Ninety and nine unwandering family.

Souls in green pastures of the watered land,

Faint pilgrim souls wayfaring thro’ the sand,

Abide with Thee and in Thee are at rest:

Yet evermore, kind Lord, renew Thy quest

After new wanderers; such as once Thy Hand

Gathered, Thy Shoulders bore, Thy Heart caressed.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Verses, 34.]

4. The impulse that comes from the cross is sustained by the convictions of an enlightened judgment. “The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died for all.” The love of Christ is a principle which operates, and can operate, only for reasons shown. It calls into exercise our judging faculty. So far from dealing exclusively with the feelings, it requires us to think. In this manner is its motive power maintained, just as in the case of the engine by whose nice and measured play the huge vessel is propelled against wind and tide. To one who has never witnessed the results of steam-power, such a sight is quite a marvel. “How can it be?” he asks. “How such power?” You tell him of the expansive power of steam. “But what is steam?” he asks; “and where is it generated?” You take him on board, and descend with him into the vessel. You show him the huge boilers, and the great furnaces beneath, and the heaps of fuel with which the fires are fed. Only then his wonder ceases. And what constitutes the fuel of the fire which underlies, so to speak, the visible play of the Christian propelling power? The Holy Spirit, it must always be allowed, is the source of all spiritual processes. He is the Inspirer of Christian love. He fans the hidden flame, and keeps up the glow. At the same time, He employs means; and the means which the Spirit usually employs for maintaining the influence of the love of Christ up to the constraining point is this—judging concerning the grand comprehensive fact that “Christ died for us.” The facts of Calvary constitute, as it were, the fuel which feeds the sacred fire, whereby is maintained the power of spiritual propulsion; and by the earnest, prayerful, and persistent exercise of all our faculties—our thinking, reasoning, judging, determining faculty—upon these Calvary-facts, we bring, as it were, fresh supplies of fuel in order that with them we may feed the fire of Christian exercise and action.

My apprehension of the love of Christ must come in between its manifestation and its power to grip, to restrain, to impel me. If I may use such a figure, He stands, as it were, bugle in hand, and blows the sweet strains that are meant to set the echoes flying. But the rock must receive the impact of the vibrations ere it can throw back the thinned echo of the music. Love, in like manner, must be believed and known ere it can be responded to.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

In the convent of San Marco in Florence, in cell after cell there are depicted upon the walls the scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus by the brush of that poet-painter-preacher, Fra Angelico. The painter has seemed to feel that the figure of Jesus crucified was more than he could compass; he has left it most conventionally treated. All the depth of his power he has put into the figure of St. Dominic, who stands at the cross representing the Christian soul in all the various phases of feeling which pass over it, as it contemplates the spectacle of Jesus crucified. First, there is the mere bewilderment, as of one who contemplates a sight shocking and horrible, and he hides his face in horror, as from something disgraceful. You pass into another cell, and the scene is changed. Now he is looking up in questioning bewilderment; he has not yet taken in the meaning of the scene, but he is sure that there are hidden there depths of misery and truth. You pass to another cell, and now he has understood what it is. He has seen in Jesus One who is suffering for human sin; he is determined that he will not share those sins, he feels there a penitence which is represented by the scourge at the foot of the cross. You pass into another, and now he has found the joy and repose of that forgiveness which passeth out of the loving heart of Christ. He kneels there, he contemplates in ecstasy Jesus who has forgiven him. Once more. Alone he is standing, with his arms outstretched, as one who simply contemplates in admiration the glory of that great love for all the world which beams from the cross. Once more, he is kneeling there, kneeling on one knee, as one who had prepared to start up; he is there half in homage, half in recognition that this cross lays upon his life the allegiance of a great service; he is grasping it as one who is just leaving for his mission.2 [Note: Bishop Gore.]


The Power of the Cross Constrains to Unselfish Service

“The love of Christ,” says the Apostle, using a highly forcible expression, “constraineth us.” The corresponding word in the original primarily signifies to “shut up” or to “compress,” as by some coercive power which cannot be withstood; and in its secondary sense it means to “impel,” to “bear away,” or to “hurry onwards,” as if by the force of some rapid and impetuous torrent. As employed in the text, it intimates that the love of Christ exerts somewhat of this mighty and well-nigh irresistible influence on His people as often as it takes full possession of their souls, captivating their every thought, engaging their every affection, shutting them closely up, or hemming them completely in, so that only one line of conduct can be adopted by them—urging all their energies into action, bearing them on in the face of every obstacle, and leaving them no alternative but to obey its dictates.

1. The first great effect of Christ’s love is to change the centre of life.—All love derives its power to elevate, refine, beautify, ennoble, conquer, from the fact that, in a lower degree, all love makes the beloved and not the self the centre. Hence the mother’s self-sacrifice, hence the sweet reciprocity of wedded life, hence everything in humanity that is noble and good. Love is the antagonist of selfishness and the highest type of love should be, and in the measure in which we are under the influence of Christ’s love will be, the self-surrendering life of a Christian man. The one power that rescues a man from the tyranny of living for self, which is the mother of all sin and ignobleness, is when a man can say, “Christ is my aim,” “Christ is my object.” There is no secret of self-annihilation, which is self-transfiguration and, I was going to say, deification, like that of loving Christ with all my heart because He has loved me so.

Keith Falconer, that noble young man who died in Arabia in starting a mission among the Mahommedans, said, “Let people call you eccentric. Eccentric means nothing more than out of centre, and if you have got a new centre in God of course you are out of the old centre of the world. Let the world’s machinery move round the old centre. You have begun to move by that eccentric movement about quite another pivot than that around which the world moves.”1 [Note: J. K. Maclean, Dr. Pierson and his Message, 278.]

A comet—these vagrants of the skies—has liberty to roam, and what does it make of it? It plunges away out into depths of darkness and infernos of ice and cold. But if it came within the attraction of some great blazing sun, and subsided into a planet, it would have lost nothing of its true liberty, and would move in music and light around the source of blessedness and life. And so you and I, as long as we make ourselves the “sinful centres of our rebel powers,” so long do we subject ourselves to alterations of temperature almost too great to bear. Let us come back to the light, and move round the Christ; satellites of that Sun, and therefore illumined by His light and warmed by His life-producing heat.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

2. Next, the dynamic of the cross becomes the inspiration of a sacrificial life.—“One died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again.” The idea here expressed is a favourite one with the Apostle. Often he speaks of Christians as “dead with Christ,” as “made conformable to his death,” as “planted together in the likeness of his death.” And in one very striking passage in particular, which occurs in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, at the twentieth verse, he thus writes: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” In this striking passage the very same idea is expressed in nearly the same language as in the text, namely, that, in the practical judgment of the faithful Christian, his own life, as to all selfish purposes, is held by him to have expired upon his Saviour’s cross, so that in his prevailing disposition he is now dead to everything that interferes with his devotedness to the Son of God, who gave Himself for him. So closely does his fate unite him to the Saviour that he views himself as having fellowship with that Saviour alike in His crucifixion and in His resurrection, and “reckons himself” to be “dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ.” He lives no more himself, but Christ liveth in him; the whole life which he now leads, as a Christian, being one of conformity to the example, and subserviency to the will of Christ.

He dwelt within the wilderness

Disdaining Mammon’s lure:

He walked among the thorns of pain,

And yet His step was sure.

He saw the vine-deck’t homes of men,

And gazed with quiet eyes;

He turned away: “Not here,” He said,

“Is found My Paradise.”

He saw the gilded chariots pass,

The conqueror’s array:

They held to Him a laurel crown,

And still He turned away.

Back to the wilderness He went

Without a thought of loss:

He hewed out of the wood two beams

And made Himself a Cross.

“If I would save them I must die!”

(This was the thing He said);

“Perchance the hearts that hate Me now

Will learn to love Me dead.”

He died upon the Cross He made,

Without a lip to bless:

He rose into a million hearts,

And this was His success.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson, The Book of Courage, 26.]

3. It is a glad ministry.—For the yoke of Christ is not a despotic constraint, like the law with its “shalt” and “shalt not,” spoken in thunder from Sinai: not an unreasonable constraint, like that of self and Satan, chaining men to compliances which they know to be unlawful and fatal to truth and peace; not an arbitrary constraint, like the shifting fashions of this vain world, which men follow blindly about, not knowing whither they may lead them. It is none of these; its law is generated in the soul itself, and in its best and highest portion. Its cord that binds men is woven out of the noblest of human motives—faith, gratitude, adoration. “The Son of God loved me”—this is its first principle, graven deeply on the heart. This is no vague admiration of His love; this goes beyond the orator and the poet; this is the guilty sinner grasping his Saviour, the drowning mariner reaching at his plank; a fact not only consented to by the understanding, not only uttered by the lips, not only overflowing at the fountain of tears, but fixed in the central depths of the personal being, resident, and paramount, in the council chamber of the heart. “The Son of God loved me.” Am I convinced of this? Then He is bound to me, and I to Him; wherever He is, there am I wherever I am, there is He.

When the long absent sun once more revisits the Polar seas, and the weary adventurer, close captive of the cold, with his bark anchored to an ice-floe, becomes conscious of the universal thaw, and feels himself borne outward by the resistless pressure of the liberated waters; right joyously does he loose his moorings and commit himself to the gladsome flush, and steers full gallantly through the melting masses which are speeding southward with himself. Thus eagerly does the soul, long frozen up in selfishness, obey the mighty influence of the Sun of Righteousness, and surrender itself to the onflow of the love of Christ. “For the love of Christ constraineth us.”1 [Note: B. Gregory, Sermons, Addresses and Pastoral Letters, 198.]

The Constraint of Love


Alford (H.), Quebec Chapel Sermons, i. 348.

Arnold (T.), Sermons, iii. 1.

Battle (H. W.), in The Southern Baptist Pulpit, 133.

Bradley (C.), Sermons, i. 293.

Calthrop (G.), The Future Life, 88.

Cunningham (J.), in Scotch Sermons, 50.

Dawson (G.), Three Books of God, 79.

Fraser (J.), Parochial Sermons, 59.

Gregory (B.), Sermons, Addresses and Pastoral Letters, 198.

Hull (E. L.), Sermons, i. 102.

Iverach (J.), The Other Side of Greatness, 237.

Kingsley (C.), National Sermons, 230.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Sermons in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 243.

Little (J.), The Day-spring, 63.

Little (J.), Glorying in the Lord, 33.

Manning (H. E.), Sermons on Ecclesiastical Subjects, 345.

Myres (W. M.), Fragments that Remain, 14.

Rendall (G. H.), Charterhouse Sermons, 188.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, iii. 90.

Robertson (J.), Sermons and Expositions, 157.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxiv. (1878), No. 1411.

Westcott (B. F.), Words of Faith and Hope, 201.

Wilson (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Clifton College Chapel, 253.

Christian Age, xlii. 306 (L. Abbott).

Christian World Pulpit, xvii. 372 (W. G. Horder); xxiii. 132 (H. W. Beecher); xxxiii. 300 (S. Newth); xxxiv. 106 (B. F. Westcott); li. 54 (S. G. MacLennan); liv. 392 (Griffith John); lxi. 326 (H. Black); lxxx. 341 (A. C. Hill).

Church of England Pulpit, xliii. 229 (C. Gore).

Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., ix. 233 (H. G. Youard).

Homiletic Review, New Ser., xx. 521 (A. Maclaren); xliii. 525 (W. G. Danley); li. 451 (J. M. Thoburn); liv. 52 (H. G. Weston).

Verse 15

(15) Should not henceforth live unto themselves.—St. Paul was not writing a theological treatise, and the statement was accordingly not meant to be an exhaustive presentment of all the purposes of God in the death of Christ. It was sufficient to give prominence to the thought that one purpose was that men should share at once His death and His life; should live not in selfishness, but in love; not to themselves, but to Him, as He lived to God. (Comp. Romans 6:9-11; Ephesians 2:5-7.) Now we see the full force of “the love of Christ constraineth us,” and “we love Him because He first loved us.” If He died for us, can we, without shame, frustrate the purpose of His death by not living to Him?

Verse 16

(16) Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh.—The logical dependence of this sentence on the foregoing lies in the suppressed premise, that in living not to ourselves, but to Christ, we gain new standards of judgment, new ways of looking at things. To know a man “after the flesh” is to know him by the outward accidents and circumstances of his life: his wealth, rank, culture, knowledge. St. Paul had ceased to judge of men by those standards. With him the one question was whether the man was, by his own act and choice, claiming the place which the death of Christ had secured for him, and living in Him as a new creature. That is the point of view from which he now “knows,” or looks on, every man.

Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh.—What, we ask, gave occasion to this strange parenthesis? What did it mean? To what stage of the Apostle’s life does it refer? (1) The answer to the first question is probably to be found in once more reading between the lines. There was, we know, a party at Corinth claiming a special relation to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). They probably did so as having been personal disciples. If they were like those who elsewhere claimed to speak in the name of James (Acts 15:24; Galatians 2:12), they were likely to urge his claims as the brother of the Lord. To St. Paul such a way of judging would be to know Christ after the flesh—to judge of Him, as of others, by the lower standard of the world. (2) The next question is more difficult. The hypothetical form of the proposition practically implies an admission of its truth. It is hardly conceivable that he refers to the time before his conversion, and means that he too had once seen and known Jesus of Nazareth, judging of Him “after the flesh,” by an earthly standard, and therefore had thought that He ought to do many things against him; or that, after the revelation of Christ in him, at the time of his conversion, he had, for a time, known Him after a manner which he now saw to be at least imperfect. The true solution of the problem is probably to be found in the fact that he had once thought, even before he appeared as the persecutor of the Church, of the Christ that was to come as others thought, that his Messianic expectations had been those of an earthly kingdom restored to Israel. Jesus of Nazareth did not fulfil those expectations, and therefore he had opposed His claim to be the Messiah. Now, he says, he had come to take a different view of the work and office of the Christ. (3) It follows, if this interpretation is correct, that he speaks of the period that preceded his conversion. not of an imperfect state of knowledge after it, out of which he had risen by progressive stages of illumination and clearer vision of the truth. Now and from henceforth, he seems to say, we think of Christ not as the King of Israel, but as the Saviour of mankind.

Verse 17

(17) Therefore if any man be in Christ.—To be in Christ, in St. Paul’s language, is for a man to be united with him by faith and by baptism (Romans 6:3-4), to claim personally what had been secured to him as a member of the race for whom Christ died. In such a case the man is born again (Titus 3:5)—there is a new creation; the man, as the result of that work, is a new creature. The old things of his life, Jewish expectations of a Jewish kingdom, chiliastic dreams, heathen philosophies, lower aims, earthly standards—these things, in idea at least, passed away from him at the time when he was united with Christ. We may trace an echo of words of Isaiah’s that may have floated in the Apostle’s memory: “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold I make new things” (Isaiah 43:18-19). The words in italics are in the LXX. the same as those which St. Paul uses here.

Verse 18

(18) And all things are of God.—The presence of the article in the Greek indicates that he is speaking, not of the universe at large, but of the new things belonging to the new creation of which he had spoken in the previous verse. The line of thought on which he has now entered raises him for the time above all that is personal and temporary, and leads him to one of his fullest and noblest utterances as to God’s redeeming work.

Who hath reconciled us to himself. . . . and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.—It is worthy of note that this is the first occurrence, in order of time, in St. Paul’s Epistles, of this word “reconcile” as describing God’s work in Christ, and that so applied it occurs only in this Epistle and in Romans 5:10, written shortly afterwards. The idea involved is that man had been at enmity and was now atoned (at-oned) and brought into concord with God. It will be noted that the work is described as originating with the Father and accomplished by the mediation of the Son. It is obvious that the personal pronoun is used with a different extent in the two clauses: the first embracing, as the context shows, the whole race of mankind; the last limited to those who, like the Apostles, were preachers of the Word. More accurately, the verbs should run: who reconciled. . . . and gave. The word translated “reconciliation” is, it should be noted, the same as that rendered “atonement” in Romans 5:11.

Verse 19

(19) To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world.—Better, perhaps, How that it was God who was reconciling in Christ a world unto Himself. Both “God” and “world” are, in the Greek, without the article. The English rendering is tenable grammatically, but the position of the words in the original suggests the construction given above. He seems to emphasise the greatness of the redeeming work by pointing at once to its author and its extent. The structure is the same as the “was preaching” of Luke 4:44. All the English versions, however, from Wiclif downwards, adopt the same construction. Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva version translate, making agreement between the world and Himself instead of “reconciling to Himself.” The “world” is, of course, the world of men, the “all” of 2 Corinthians 5:15.

Not imputing their trespasses unto them . . .—The two participial clauses that follow describe the result of the reconciling work. The first is that God no longer charges their transgressions against men: the pronouns being used in the third person plural, as being more individualising than the “world,” and more appropriate than would have been the first person, which he had used in 2 Corinthians 5:18, and which he wanted, in its narrower extension, for the clause which was to follow. The word for “imputing,” or reckoning, is specially prominent in the Epistles of this period, occurring, though in very varied shades of meaning, eight times in this Epistle and nineteen times in that to the Romans. The difficulty of maintaining a logical coherence of this truth with that of a judgment according to works does not present itself to the Apostle’s mind, and need not trouble us. (See Note on 2 Corinthians 5:10.)

And hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.—Literally, to maintain the participial construction, placing with (or in) us the word of reconciliation. Tyndale gives “atonement” here, as in Romans 5:11.

Verse 20

(20) Now then we are ambassadors for Christ—The preposition “for” implies the same representative character as in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. The preachers of the Word were acting on behalf of Christ; they were acting also in His stead. The thought or word meets us again in Ephesians 6:20. “I am an ambassador in bonds.” The earlier versions (Tyndale, Geneva, Cranmer) give “messengers,” the Rhemish “legates.” “Ambassadors,” which may be noted as singularly felicitous, first appears in the version of 1611. The word, derived from the mediæval Latin ambasciator, and first becoming popular in the Romance languages, is found in Shakespeare, and appears to have come into prominence through the intercourse with France and Spain in the reign of Elizabeth.

We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.—It will be seen, in this conclusion of the language of St. Paul as to the atonement, how entirely, on the one hand, he recognises the representative and vicarious character of the redeeming work of Christ; how entirely, on the other, he stands aloof from the speculative theories on that work which have sometimes been built upon his teaching. He does not present, as the system-builders of theology have too often done, the picture of the wrath of the Father averted by the compassion of the Son, or satisfied by the infliction upon Him of a penalty which is a quantitative equivalent for that due to the sins of mankind. The whole work, from his point of view, originates in the love of the Father, sending His Son to manifest that love in its highest and noblest form. He does not need to be reconciled to man. He sends His Son, and His Son sends His ministers to entreat them to be reconciled to Him, to accept the pardon which is freely offered. In the background there lies the thought that the death of Christ was in some way, as the highest act of Divine love, connected with the work of reconciliation; but the mode in which it was effective, is, as Butler says (Analogy, ), “mysterious, and left, in part at least, unrevealed,” and it is not wise to “endeavour to explain the efficacy of what Christ has done and suffered for us beyond what the Scripture has authorised.”

Verse 21

(21) For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.—The “for” is omitted in many of the best MSS., but there is clearly a sequence of thought such as it expresses. The Greek order of the words is more emphatic: Him that knew no sin He made sin for us. The words are, in the first instance, an assertion of the absolute sinlessness of Christ. All other men had an experience of its power, gained by yielding to it. He alone gained this experience by resisting it, and yet suffering its effects. None could “convict Him of sin” (John 8:46). The “Prince of this world had nothing in Him” (John 14:30). (Comp. Hebrews 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22.) And then there comes what we may call the paradox of redemption. He, God, made the sinless One to be “sin.” The word cannot mean, as has been said sometimes, a “sin offering.” That meaning is foreign to the New Testament, and it is questionable whether it is found in the Old, Leviticus 5:9 being the nearest approach to it. The train of thought is that God dealt with Christ, not as though He were a sinner, like other men, but as though He were sin itself, absolutely identified with it. So, in Galatians 3:13, he speaks of Christ as made “a curse for us,” and in Romans 8:3 as “being made in the likeness of sinful flesh.” We have here, it is obvious, the germ of a mysterious thought, out of which forensic theories of the atonement, of various types, might be and have been developed. It is characteristic of St. Paul that he does not so develop it. Christ identified with man’s sin: mankind identified with Christ’s righteousness—that is the truth, simple and yet unfathomable, in which he is content to rest.

That we might be made the righteousness of God in him.—Better, that we might become. The “righteousness of God,” as in Romans 3:21-22, expresses not simply the righteousness which He gives, nor that which He requires, though neither of these meanings is excluded, but rather that which belongs to Him as His essential attribute. The thought of St. Paul is that, by our identification with Christ—first ideally and objectively, as far as God’s action is concerned, and then actually and subjectively, by that act of will which he calls faith—we are made sharers in the divine righteousness. So, under like conditions, St. Peter speaks of believers as “made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In actual experience, of course, this participation is manifested in infinitely varying degrees. St. Paul contemplates it as a single objective fact. The importance of the passage lies in its presenting the truth that the purpose of God in the death of Christ was not only or chiefly that men might escape punishment, but that they might become righteous.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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