Motives for Ministry (preaching resource for Pentecost 4: 6/16/24)

This post exegetes 2 Corinthians 5:9-21, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 6/16/24 (Pentecost 4). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("The Bible Exposition Commentary").

"Lost and Found" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Introduction

In his epistles, Paul frequenly uses the word “therefore” as he transitions from explanation to application. We see this in 2 Corinthians 5 whre Paul's overall theme is motivation for ministry. Paul's enemies in Corinth and elswhere were accusing him of having selfish motives. He counters such accusations by outlining from his own experience three acceptable motives for ministry.

1. Reverence for Christ 

2 Cor. 5:9–13

Paul writes, “[We] know what it is to fear the Lord...." (2 Cor. 5:11)—an attitude of awe and deep reverence for God that is often lacking in ministry. Paul explained this motive by sharing his own testimony in three powerful statements.

We labor (2 Cor. 5:9, KJV) 

This means “we are ambitious.” There is an ambition that is selfish and worldly, but there is also a holy ambition that honors the Lord. Paul’s great ambition was to be well-pleasing to Jesus. The Judaizers ministered to please men and enlist them in their cause; but Paul ministered to please Jesus alone (Gal. 1:10). 

The word translated “accepted” (“well-pleasing”) in the KJV is used in several other places in the New Testament and each of these references helps us better understand what it is that pleases the Lord. It is well-pleasing to Him when we present our bodies to Him as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), and when we live so as to help others and avoid causing them to stumble (Rom. 14:18). God is well-pleased when His children separate themselves from the evil around them (Eph. 5:10), as well as when they bring their offerings to Him (Phil. 4:18). He is pleased with children who submit to their parents (Col. 3:20), as well as with saints who permit Jesus Christ to work out His perfect will in their lives (Heb. 13:20–21).

There is nothing wrong with godly ambition. “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel of Christ" writes Paul in Romans 15:20. Indeed, it was this godly ambition that compelled him to take the message where it had never been heard. The Spirit leads Christians to put as much drive into Christian living and service as they do athletics or business. 

We give account (2 Cor. 5:10) 

Not every believer is ambitious for the Lord, but every believer is going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ where their works in Christ's service are rewarded. We do not anticipate this judgment with fearfulness, but we do seek to please Christ, who alone is our judge. Indeed, like John, Paul was ambitious for the Lord because he wanted to meet Him at the final judgment with confidence and not shame (1 John 2:28).

The term “judgment seat” is from the Greek word bema, which was the platform in Greek towns where orations were made or decisions handed down by rulers. It was also the place where awards were handed out to winners in the Olympic Games. Before the judgment seat of Christ in whom we trust, we will receive our great reward, which in some way involves particular rewards for our participation with  Christ in his ongoing kingdom ministry. Before the seat of judgment, our service will be revealed (1 Cor. 3:13) as well as the motives that impelled us (1 Cor. 4:5). If we have been faithful, it will be a place of reward and recognition (1 Cor. 3:10–15; 4:1–6) and thus a time of rejoicing as we glorify the Lord by giving our rewards back to Him in worship.

Perhaps we wonder if a desire for reward is a proper motive for service. The fact that God does promise rewards is proof that the motive is not a sinful one, even though it may not be the highest motive. Just as parents are happy when their children achieve recognition, so our Lord is pleased when His people are worthy of recognition and reward. The important thing is not the reward itself, but the joy of pleasing Christ and honoring Him.

We persuade others (2 Cor. 5:11–13) 

If God judges (and so rewards) believers, what happens to non-believers? As Peter asked (quoting the Septuagint translation of Prov. 11:31), “if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? (1 Pet. 4:18). Both Paul and Peter were careful to not minimize the awesomeness of the judgment that occurs at Christ's return. Indeed, all humans, via a general resurrection, will stand before Christ. and so we take seriously his command to the church to spread the Gospel to all nations. How can we as believers prepare for the time when we will stand before Christ? 

  • First, we must maintain a clear conscience (2 Cor. 5:11, KJV). No doubt some of Paul's enemies at Corinth were saying, “Just wait until Paul stands before the Lord!” But Paul was not afraid of that judgment, because he knew that his conscience was clear (2 Cor. 1:12). The truth about each of us shall be revealed and Jesus Christ will reward (commend) those things that have pleased Him.
  • Second, we must take care not to depend on the praise of men (2 Cor. 5:12). This verse relates to 2 Cor. 3:1, where Paul referred to the “letters of commendation” that the Judaizers prized so highly. If we live only for the praise of men, we will not win the praise of God at the judgment seat of Christ. To live for man’s praise is to exalt reputation over character. Though the Corinthians should have commended Paul, they were “promoting” the Judaizers who gloried in appearance (see 2 Cor. 11:18), but were unspiritual in heart.
  • Thirdly, we must ignore the criticisms of men (2 Cor. 5:13). Paul’s enemies said that he was crazy. Paul said that he was “mad” when he was persecuting the church (Acts 26:11, KJV), but his enemies said he was “mad” since he had become a believer himself (Acts 26:24, KJV). But people said that our Lord was mad, so Paul was in good company (see Mark 3:21). “If I am mad,” Paul was saying, “it is for your good and the glory of God—so that makes it worthwhile!” Wanting to give a good account before Christ is a worthy motive for Christian service.

2. Christ's love

2 Cor. 5:14–17

The phrase “Christ's love" (as in v14) generally means His love for us. Jesus' motive in laying down his life was pure love. But there is even more being revealed here. Because of our union with Christ (He having assumed our humanity in the incarnation) what Jesus accomplished—what happened to him in his humanity—happened vicariously to all humans. In that regard, note Paul's stunning assertions:

  • When Jesus died, we all died (2 Cor. 5:14). The tense of the verb gives the meaning “then all died.” This truth is explained in detail in Romans 6 which addresses our union with Christ. When Christ died, all humanity died in Him and with Him. 
  • Jesus died that we might live (2 Cor. 5:15–17). We not only died with Christ, we also were raised with Him that we might “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Because we have died with Christ, we can overcome sin; and because we live with Christ, we can bear fruit for God’s glory (Rom. 7:4).
  • Jesus died that we might live through Him: “God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9 KJV). This is our experience of salvation, eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. But He also died that we might live for Him, and not live unto ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15). This, indeed, is our experience of service. Christ died our death that we might live through Him and for Him, and that we might live with Him. “Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thes. 5:10 KJV). 
  • Jesus died that we might share in the new creation (2 Cor. 5:16–17). Our new relationship to Christ has brought about a new relationship to the world and the people around us. We no longer look at life the way we used to. Adam was the head of the old creation, and Christ (the Last Adam, 1 Cor. 15:45) is the Head of the new creation. The old creation was plunged into sin and condemnation because of the disobedience of Adam. The new creation means righteousness and salvation because of the obedience of Jesus Christ. Because we are a part of this new creation in Christ, everything has become new to us, including our view of people around us. We no longer view them from a worldly perspective as friends or enemies, customers or coworkers; we now see them the way Christ sees them, as lost sheep in need of a shepherd--children beloved of God who do not (yet) know their Father. When you are constrained by the love of Christ for you and for all humanity, you want to share that love with others.

3. Ambassadors for Christ 

2 Cor. 5:18–21

The key idea in this section is reconciliation. Because of our rebellion, we humans fell out of fellowship with our Creator. But Jesus, through His life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection, brought us back to God. In and through Christ, God reconciled us all to himself, turning His face in love toward a lost world. The basic meaning of the word reconcile is “to change thoroughly.” It refers to a changed relationship between God and humanity.

Paul is pointing out that on this side of the Cross, Resurrection and Ascension, God has no need to be reconciled to humanity. In and through Christ, God already has reconciled us to himself (v18a). We don't need to change God's attitude toward us. However, it remains for the attitude of humans toward God to be changed. It remains for individuals who have been reconciled (from God's side) to "be reconciled" from their side—to accept and live into the reconciliation that God has already achieved. This completion (or better yet, "outworking") of reconciliation is not accomplished by our efforts (including religious practices). Rather it is accomplished by Jesus and experienced by us through trusting in Jesus who in his perfect (vicarious) humanity responded perfectly back to God on our behalf. Jesus is our reconcilation with God—from the side of God (as divine), and from the side of humanity (as human). 

In Christ, our relationship with God is restored. But note that this reconciliation is more than the cessation of hostilities. It also involves what is summed up in the word"imputation"—a term borrowed from banking, meaning “to credit to one’s account.” When you deposit money in a bank, the bank credits that amount to your account. When Jesus died on the cross, our sin was imputed to His account. The result? No condemnation for us. But there is more, Jesus' righteousness as a human was credited to our account. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the reghteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

Though this reconcilation, which involves this trasfer of accounts (this glorious exchange) on behalf of all humans, it is those who trust in Jesus who experience (and so benefit from) this reconciliation as beneficiaries of the "righteousness"—the "right relationship" with God—which reconciliation accomplishes. 

How does this wonderful doctrine of reconciliation motivate us to serve Christ? As God's ambassadors, Christ has committed to us the ministry and word of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–19). God sends us (believers) into the world as His ambassadors to declare peace, not war. “Be reconciled to God!” is on our lips as Jesus' emissaries (2 Cor. 4:5). What a great privilege it is to be heaven’s ambassadors to a world in desperate need of knowing of the reconciliation with God that already is theirs in Christ.

Conclusion

Ministry is not easy. It can be a struggle at times. But don't despair. Instead, be motivated by reverence for Christ, by Christ's love for you and all humanity, and by God's call to you to be his ambassador. Recommit yourself to active participation in Christ's ministry to the world. What a privilege it is to serve Him!