Spoiler: everyone's most important need is Jesus.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2
Here’s my Mother’s Day connection: moms go to incredible lengths to maintain a relationship with their children, That is no different from God, who sacrificed His Son so we could be reconciled to Him. That is a lifechanging message and experience. Do you live it? Do you share it? Do you appreciate it?
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Most Important Human Needs
Outside of things like air, what would you say are the most important things that people need? This is actually a really hard question to word well, so you might have to ask it a few different ways. You remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? He put physiological needs (air, water, etc.) as the most fundamental. Then, he said safety (personal security, financial security, health). Then, love (friendship, intimacy, family). Then, esteem (being accepted and valued). Finally, self-actualization (a person realizing his full potential). This list has dominated educational systems for 70 years. One modern psychologist tried to update and simplify Maslow’s list: (1) food, (2) water, (3) shelter, (4) sleep, (5) others, (6) novelty. That’s a good list, too.
Self-help “guru” Tony Robbins reflects the contemporary age in looking at human needs.
(1) Certainty (security, safety, comfort, control).
(2) Variety (challenge, surprise, excitement).
(3) Significance (meaning, pride, importance).
(4) Love (communication, approval, intimacy).
(5) Growth (emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development).
(6) Contribution (give, protect, serve others).
That’s a pretty good list, too. I bet it’s flexible enough for him to apply to any major world religion.
There’s actually a very simple answer to this question: our most important need is to fulfill our purpose for being created. God created us (1) to have a relationship with Him, and (2) to fill the earth and subdue it. That’s all there is to it. Because of sin, the only way we can have a relationship with God is through Jesus Christ, which means that we now also have needs of repentance and forgiveness and humility. So let me try to put that into a few statements:
People need to know that they are loved by God (they are)
People need to know that they are right with God (only through Jesus)
People need to be a part of a community (this requires love, service, forgiveness, working together, putting others first)
People need to be a part of shaping the future (playing our unique part in building a culture—in our work, our family, or shaping the next generation)
All of that is the simple gospel. In Jesus Christ, we can be made right with God. God is putting His followers together into churches through which they can support one another and impact their communities. We proclaim the gospel until Jesus returns.
It sounds like Maslow and Robbins and whoever else got it right, doesn’t it? Well, if they did, it’s only because they were studying people accurately without realizing how close to correct they came. Apart from Jesus Christ, self-help efforts will always fall short, and that’s what makes this lesson so timely and valuable.
In our passage this week, Paul is addressing the most basic human need: to be reconciled with God. If Paul said this today, we would put him in an infomercial! But he’s simply telling the truth. In our heart of hearts, what we need is to know that God still loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. And He does, but only through Jesus Christ, which is why we must always put Jesus first in our behavior and words. And then, when we realize that we are right with God in Jesus, we become ambassadors to the rest of the world with that message—making a real difference in the lives of people and thus our society and future. And when we do, we get to experience the other things God created us for: community, relationship, significance, meaning. It all ties together!
This Week's Big Idea: Jesus from a Worldly Perspective
Paul talks about knowing Jesus from a worldly perspective (which would have meant something very different in his day than today). Here is a survey of Americans from 2015 (with Millennial specifics to show how this is trending):
Did Jesus exist? 92% yes (87% of Millennials)
FYI, only 61% of people in England believe Jesus existed
Is Jesus God? 56% yes (48% of Millennials)
26% say He is a religious leader like Mohammed
Did Jesus commit sins? 52% yes (!!) (56% of Millennials)
That’s interesting. But if we want to get specific, we need to look at what the other major world religions believe about Jesus (because they actually carefully write down their beliefs):
Islam. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is to be revered as a great prophet. Jesus was not crucified, but he did ascend bodily into heaven and will return to participate in the judgment of non-Muslims.
Judaism. Jesus was born to Mary, but not miraculously. Jesus was a respected and popular teacher who performed miracles. Jesus was crucified, but a gardener removed his body. (This is the most likely candidate to what Paul was talking about in 5:16. Almost all information about Jesus in early AD Jewish writings was generally positive, but not reverent.)
Hinduism. Jesus was a holy man (a Hindu saint) and a wise teacher, maybe even the perfect example of self-realization. Some Hindus accept Jesus as part of their pantheon of many gods, abd some don’t.
Buddhism. Jesus was an enlightened man and wise teacher.
Relevant Magazine points out that every major world religion accounts for Jesus in some way (none ignore Him). That’s probably where “Jesus from a worldly perspective” ends: you can’t ignore Jesus, but you don’t really know what to do with Him. You like His teachings on love and sacrifice, but you try to stay away from any talk about His divinity or ways to heaven.
Our Context in Second Corinthians
This is all about perspective. Last week, we talked about being “jars of clay”. When we stop and think about how fragile we are, it can make life pretty depressing or discouraging. We all know families who—right now—are dealing with major health issues for themselves, their parents, or their children. We all know people who have been injured on a job. We all know people who have a physical or mental illness that has sapped their quality of life. And now Paul says that following Jesus can put us in situations that are even harder! How do we cope with that?
I think that’s your transition into the main part of the lesson. “In a world where our needs aren’t always met the way we would like, how do we continue to trust and serve God?” Paul gives us the answer just a few verses before our passage today:
“So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Cor 5:6-7
In other words, we “win” in this life when we stay focused on the main things, not little things like personal comfort or what other people think about us. And what is the main thing for us? Proclaiming Christ to the world. At the end of the day, when we leave this life for the next, all that will matter will be the lives we influenced toward Jesus. And that’s because we believe that Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God the Father. If we had a worldly perspective on Jesus, nothing Paul says would make any sense. But we don’t—we are now something new, and that changes the way we look at the world.
Part 1: Reborn (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
From now on, then, we do not know anyone from a worldly perspective. Even if we have known Christ from a worldly perspective, yet now we no longer know him in this way. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!
Part of the reason for using the old/new image (see below for more such images) is so Paul can make his readers think about what they used to be. What did they use to think about people? What did they use to think about Jesus? Those are great questions: if they can remember their pre-Christian days, what was their attitude toward life and church and people and Jesus? What was their perspective? What did they prioritize?
All of that should be gone.
When we come to Jesus, everything about who we are is remade. There is no sense in going back because everything has changed. Throw out these examples to your class: the discovery of the x-ray, the invention of the microscope, the realization that smoking can cause lung cancer, the discovery of uses for lasers, rubber, structural steel, you name the world-changing discovery. The point is that there’s no going back. Now that we know those things, there’s no sense in imagining a world where we don’t know those things. If you talk to a doctor who ignores the important developments in medical technology, or a contractor who ignores the important developments in construction technology, don’t you immediately discount what they say? Why? Because their knowledge is completed outmoded and probably not very useful. You don’t want that person’s help with anything.
That is exactly the same when it comes to Jesus. Think back to Maslow or Tony Robbins; I noted that their observations seemed reasonable and useful. And they might have elements of truth to them, but they are a worldly perspective because they are not new creations in Christ. We don’t look at life from a worldly perspective after we have come to Jesus because we have been made new.
I don’t think we appreciate what this means. Ask, “What does it mean to be a new creation?” Whatever their answer, it had better be dramatic—just look at those images below! Death to life! Darkness to light! Essentially, this means that before Jesus, we lived a life characterized by guilt, sin, and alienation from God. Now—in Jesus—we have been made right with God and no longer carry that baggage that defined us before. That change has happened, whether our lives reflect it or not. However, there should be tangible evidence of this dramatic change. Give an illustration to help them with context: a teacher totally changes the way she teaches math; a coach totally changes his game plan; a manager totally changes a shift layout; a restaurant owner totally changes a menu; etc. How do you know if that decision is working? Well, you follow the trends of a bunch of different observables. Are you making more money? Are your customers more satisfied? Are the kids understanding better? Are you winning more? It’s not always obvious, and sometimes it takes a long time to see the payoff, but there is always evidence of a trend in the right direction. I think we look at the Christian life in a similar way. Think about your life a year ago, five years ago. What’s different? How are you trending? Are some parts of your life doing better than others? If the evidence of your Christianity isn’t where you want it to be, what changes do you need to make for that to happen? Here’s the thing: you are a new creation in Christ. You just need to live out that renewal and freedom.
Aside: From Old to New
“Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.” Rom 6:4
“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses.“ Eph 2:4
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Eph 5:8
“But that is not how you came to know Christ, assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.” Eph 4:20-24
“I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Gal 5:16-18
Before-and-after images in the Bible are as strongly worded as possible; we don’t kind of become a Christian—we become something new.
Part 2: Reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf: “Be reconciled to God.” He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What amazing words! But let’s make sure we know how this fits into Paul’s argument. If we are something new, then we are no longer our old selves. The new creation doesn’t do what the old creation did. Think of the butterfly—it doesn’t behave like a caterpillar at all. You remember Paul’s words from a few weeks ago: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (1 Cor 13:11) As Christians, we don’t look at life the way we used to. We no longer have a “worldly perspective” of Jesus, and we no longer have our old, selfish, problem-causing perspective of ourselves. Now, as Christians, we realize that our purpose in life is to be ambassadors for God, sharing His message of reconciliation in Jesus. God gave us life. God gave us new life. God gave us forgiveness. Now God wants us to tell others that good news.
Reconciliation is a powerful word (see below). Reconciliation is only possible when the offended party is willing to work toward it; the person who committed an offense cannot force forgiveness to happen. God willingly allowed Jesus to willingly die for our sins and trespasses, and He did so for us to be able to be reconciled to Him. “Trespass” refers to the intentional violations of God’s moral laws. God did not count our trespasses against us (He counted them against Jesus—Jesus “paid our debt” or “reconciled our account”). Paul goes so far to say that Jesus “became sin” for us, meaning either He was a sin offering, or He bore God’s wrath against our sin. In exchange, we are made right with God (that’s what “righteousness” means here). And all God asks in return is that we serve Him as ambassadors with this good news.
Aside: Ambassador Job Description
In the ancient world, an ambassador was someone sent on official status from one royal court to another. In Rome, this position was called a “legate”. They were men wealthy and powerful enough to be appointed by the Senate for official duty (there was no diplomatic school in Paul’s day). They were that destination’s only “hotline” to the Roman government, and they had the power to declare peace and war.
That’s really not too far off from how we treat ambassadors today, so I think you can use modern American definitions with confidence that we treat ambassadors the same as they were treated in Paul’s day: a big deal.
Here’s the Mental Floss definition: “In the strictest sense, U.S. ambassadors represent the President of the United States in an official capacity in foreign nations and communities. They are charged with protecting and promoting national interests, maintaining diplomacy, organizing visits, welcoming visitors, and supporting resolutions. If a U.S. citizen living or visiting abroad gets into legal trouble of some sort, it is the duty of the ambassador to ensure that said citizen is treated justly. The ambassador learns of local concerns and criticisms (for example, beef exports from Ireland to the U.S.) and has the ability to take those issues directly to Washington. The ambassador is also the chief executive at his foreign embassy and is in charge of making sure embassy staff abide by the local laws and customs.”
Part 3: Ready (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)
Working together with him, we also appeal to you, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” For he says: At an acceptable time I listened to you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. See, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!
And then what a wonderful conclusion for all of us! Paul brings this line of thought to its necessary end: God has saved us, God has reconciled us to Him, God has made us new, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation—and so we announce that today is the day of salvation! I believe this has a two-fold purpose: Paul is saying this to the people in the church at Corinth. By their behavior, some of them were not seeming to be Christian, so Paul wasn’t taking any chances with them: “Are you sure you’re really a Christian?” This is like David offering an invitation at the end of a service with no guests present—we’d better be safe than sorry. (That’s what “receive God’s grace in vain means”—they heard the message, but they didn’t really listen and believe. If statistics mean anything, as many as 2/3 or more of people on Christian church membership lists are not actually Christian.) But Paul’s other purpose is to make their message abundantly clear. What he says fulfills God’s promise from Isaiah 49:8, that one day God would deliver His people from their exile. But now we know that His plan wasn’t just to deliver them from exile in Babylon but from exile in sin! And that day is now!
Don’t get morbid with your class, but make sure they appreciate that none of us is promised another day of life. Since last Sunday, there have been multiple tragic events in the CSRA that have unexpectedly cost people their life. They planned on having another day, but it was taken from them. Don’t put off making a commitment (1) to follow Jesus in salvation and (2) to live for Jesus as His ambassador. Ask your class what they’re going to do today to serve Jesus? At the very least, let’s put our whole heart into thanking Jesus in our worship service. This Sunday is Mother’s Day, so we will spend some time thanking God for our moms and everyone who has been a mom to us—let’s honor them by serving the world around us with the same passion that they have modeled for us.
But then make sure to get personal: How do you view people today? Do you have the heart of Jesus toward them? Do you live with the urgency of being an ambassador on a critical mission? Look back on your life—are you living a free life of grace and forgiveness? Can you tell how you’ve been changed from the inside by Jesus? If not, what’s getting in the way, and what do you need to do to get rid of those hindrances? Who do you know that needs to know that God loves and forgives them and wants a relationship with them? Have you lived a changed life so that they will hear that message from you? Do you need to rebuild some bridges so you can make a difference in the people around you?
Whatever those answers, make it clear that the old has gone; the new has come. We just need to live it out.
Closing Thoughts: “Reconciliation”
The Greek word Paul used originally has a banking context: different types of currency had to be “reconciled” to make sure they were of fair, equal value. When used in personal relationships, in order to reconcile, the person who committed an offense had to acknowledge guilt and agree to offer reparation based on a fair value for the offense. It’s a powerful image: to reconcile a relationship costs something, something of value equal to the offense committed. In the case of humanity and God, our offense against God is immeasurable, meaning only a priceless reparation could be made. We have nothing so valuable to offer God (apart from our own lives, and that would just result in eternal separation from God, which doesn’t actually help us), so God the Son made that offer on our behalf. Jesus paid the reparation necessary for us to be reconciled to God—us and anyone in the world who simply believes.
Bonus: Reconciliation and Restoration and Forgiveness
I really believe that a fundamental human need is to know that forgiveness for our past wrongs is available and that we can rebuild relationships long lost. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a powerful example of that hope.
But I learned in my study of Forgiveness that there are levels to this. “Reconciliation” is repairing a relationship and moving on, while “restoration” is healing the relationship and moving on together. In human terms, we can always reconcile but we cannot always restore. Sometimes the damage is too great and the danger is too much to try to take a relationship “back to the way it was”, especially if the other person doesn’t really show evidence of maturity. But it’s important to know that you can truly forgive someone and not have a fully restored relationship with that person. And remember from a few weeks back that I said that forgiveness demands that you fully and completely confront the wrong that was done—you don’t excuse it, minimize it, or ignore it. That’s not forgiveness, that’s sticking your head in the sand.
I think that’s why we have a hard time understanding our relationship with God. God is great enough to fully and completely understand our sin, fully and completely understand what it will cost Him to forgive that sin, and still go through with it—still forgive us and desire a relationship with us. And God can handle all of the times we will fail Him after that first reconciliation. Frankly, human beings can’t comprehend that. We have limits. God does not have those limits. Even after our greatest betrayal (see: Peter), God will still desire an intimate relationship with us. We share the message with the world: every person can be reconciled to God. We model that in our own lives and forgiveness—but we should remember that we can reconcile with someone without trying to restore whatever was broken. Send me an email if you have questions about that!