The apostle Paul has been writing to the Christians in Corinth about the reconciliation we have from God in Christ Jesus. We have ruptured the relationship with God because of our sins. We have made a separation but God is reconciling the world to himself, by not counting their sins against those who come to him in faith. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we are given an explanation of the work of Christ.
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 5:21 ESV)
Many Christians have read this verse. But how should we understand this verse? What seems to be a simple declaration is not very easy to understand when we try to break down what Paul is saying. What does it mean that God made Jesus to be sin? What does it mean that this was for our sake? What does in mean that in Christ we become the righteousness of God? When we slow down over these words we recognize that what Paul said is dense theology. In one sentence Paul said a lot. But what Paul said is very important because this is the message of reconciliation that Paul and the apostles are proclaiming.
Christ Was Made To Be Sin (5:21)
What does it mean when Paul says that for our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin? A lot of theology about atonement has been built on this sentence by Paul but there are multiple ways to understand what Paul is saying. I believe it is important when we come across difficult theology is to make sure that our understanding of this sentence matches what is said elsewhere in the scriptures. We do not want to come up with something new. We do not want to come up with something that is not stated elsewhere in the scriptures. We would be standing on shaky ground if our interpretation of these words leads us to a conclusion that is not sustained by other scriptures. Therefore, in our study today, we are going to consider other scriptures to make sure that we are understanding the work of Christ in the way God intended us to understand it.
The typical picture that is given from this verse is that Paul is teaching that Christ was treated as the object of God’s wrath, bearing the full penalty of our sins. Therefore, Jesus was cursed by God and separated from God. Because Jesus was made to be sin, it is asserted that God cannot have fellowship with sin and therefore God turned his back on his Son while he was on the cross as God vented out his wrath upon him. While this may be exactly what Paul means, we have to be concerned that these kinds are statements are not made anywhere else in the scriptures. None of the prophets or apostles write that the Christ had to bear God’s wrath. So, while this might be the way to understand this text, there is another way to understand what Paul is saying that is also described in other places in the scriptures by the apostles and prophets.
The NLT reflects this other possibility. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT) This is the way the scriptures frequently speak of the work of Christ and this has been the long understanding of many men in history, including John Calvin, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Now, you might say, “Wait a minute! How can they add the word “offering” into this verse?” But this is not the only place where the word “sin” is used to refer to a sin offering.
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3 NASB) The NIV, CSB, and NLT reflect the same reading. However, the word “offering” is not in the Greek just as it is not in 2 Corinthians 5:21. But it is assumed by the context. In the same way, we can make the same assumption that Christ was made the sin sacrifice for us.
Please also consider God created a picture for how sin had to be dealt with in the Old Testament. What had to be done with sins were committed? Sacrifices had to made. All throughout the Old Testament we read of sacrifices being made for sins. God is showing us that a sacrifice must be made when sin is committed.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4 ESV)
Those repeated sacrifices day after day and year after year were to show the insufficiency of the animal sacrifice system. Therefore, we needed a sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Thus, the writer of Hebrews continues: And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10 ESV) Notice it is the offering of the body of Christ once for all that makes us holy (sanctified). Isaiah, in prophesying about the work of the Christ, says the same thing: Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt. (Isaiah 53:10 ESV) Again, we see a picture of Jesus as the sacrifice for sins. He is the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through the offering of his body on the cross.
Mark Seifrid makes this observation in the Pillar New Testament Commentary on 2 Corinthians: “It is likely, in fact, that Paul’s identification of Christ with sin recalls the usage of Leviticus in which the sacrificial offering for sins is identified with the people in their sin” (262). Richard Pratt says likewise in the Holman Bible Commentary: “It is likely that Paul followed the Septuagint’s practice of using the term sin (harmartia) as a circumlocution for “sin offering” (e.g., Num. 6:14). The New Testament frequently refers to Isaiah 53 in which the Messiah’s death is declared to be “an offering for sin” (Isa. 53:10, NRSV). This language stems from the Old Testament sacrificial system and identifies the sacrifice that brought forgiveness to those for whom it was made (Lev. 5:5–10).”
This is a really important image that is given to us in Leviticus 16.
And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21–22 ESV)
What was the picture? The picture is that all the sins of the people are considered taken away from them as the goat goes into the wilderness. What a wonderful picture this must have been when they saw the goat go into the wilderness! They were seeing all the sins that had been committed considered to be carried on the goat far away from them, never to come back. This is the image that must come to our minds when hear these great words:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6 ESV)
My servant, will make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11 ESV)
Yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12 ESV)
22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:22,24 ESV)
Jesus carried your sins away from you! We should not read that the scriptures are saying that the wrath of God was poured out on Christ. Rather, the sins being laid on Jesus, him bearing our sins, or becoming sin for us is a picture of atonement, because through the sacrifice of Jesus our sins are taken away.
Further, Paul declares that this treatment of Jesus as an offering for sins was not because of his own sins. Rather, this happened because of our sins. Jesus “knew no sin.” Jesus did nothing wrong and nothing sinful. Again, Isaiah declares what happened: But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5 ESV) This happened because of us, not because of him. He did nothing to deserve the treatment he received. We are the reason did had to do this. If we were going to be reconciled to God, we needed the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Thus, for our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin.
Notice the result of the sacrifice of Jesus. “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We are declared righteous before God. Our sins are not counted against us because of the sacrifice of Jesus. We are declared righteous because God declared Jesus to be the fitting sin sacrifice. This is the picture God gives and we not need to embellish or add to the picture anything else.
Do Not Receive The Grace of God In Vain (6:1-2)
Now, we are not supposed to stop here with the story. Listen to what Paul says in verse 1 of 2 Corinthians 6. The apostles, who are the ambassadors for Christ, speaking on his behalf and working together with him, have a message for you. They have an appeal to you: Do not receive the grace of God in vain. Paul is writing to Christians and warning them to not receive the grace of God in vain. You have received God’s grace but do not let it be for nothing so that it is useless to you. What God has done to reconcile you to himself through Christ can be for nothing, even if you have been baptized! So what does Paul mean? Notice in verse 2 Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8 to prove his point.
As we have noted many times, we need to consider the context of the quotation to understand the point of the quotation. Isaiah 49 is a prophecy concerning God’s servant. The message is the restoration of Israel that would be accomplished through Israel. In Isaiah 49:6 we read:
He says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV)
Isaiah is given hope that there is going to be restoration. But to bring back the preserved of Israel is too small of a task. Therefore the Christ would also be a light for the nations so that salvation would reach the ends of the earth. Though despised and abhorred, kings and princes will bow before the Christ (Isaiah 49:7). Then we have the words from which Paul quotes:
Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. (Isaiah 49:8–10 ESV)
There is going be a time of grace and favor, a day of salvation where the prisoners will be told to come out and those in darkness will be told to appear. They are going to be blessed by God for God will guide them and lead them. God is going to come and save his people. God is going to care for his people and guide them home. But perhaps most important, it will be a time of God’s favor. Rather than being against his people, God will be for his people, helping and delivering his people.
Now come back to 2 Corinthians 6:2 and listen to Paul:
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Do not miss out on what you have available to you today. For our sake Jesus became the perfect sacrifice for sins that we can be declared righteous before God. Now is the time that God is showing his favor, calling the world to be reconciled to him. Now is the time when we can come out from the darkness and be set free from the prison of sin. Now is the time where you can enjoy freedom from your sins, vices, and addictions. Now is the time where God is helping you and guiding you so that you can walk in the light and enjoy fellowship and relationship with God. Do not let this moment pass through your hands. Do not receive the grace of God in vain. Devote yourself to the Lord. Follow Jesus in faith. Renounce sinful and selfish ways and enjoy the blessings of our Lord today.