The Ministry of Reconciliation
In the mid-1970s, David Berkowitz went on a shooting rampage in New York City that spanned several years. At one of the crime scenes, he left a letter signed, “Son of Sam.” Berkowitz claimed the motive for the killings was Sam, a demonic spirit in his neighbor’s black Labrador.
Berkowitz was arrested on August 10, 1977. When police searched his apartment, they found it a jumbled mess, with Satanic graffiti on the walls. They also found detailed diaries that noted hundreds of fires he claimed to have set throughout New York City.
In May of 1978, he pled guilty to six counts of murder and received six consecutive life sentences. However, his plea agreement made him eligible for parole after twenty-five years.
Then, in 1987, David Berkowitz met Jesus and his life was transformed. No longer is he “Son of Sam,” now he is “Son of Hope.” Though he has a parole hearing every two years, he has consistently asked not to be released. Though forbidden access to a computer, David, through a local church, has established an online ministry ariseandshine.org where you can read his testimony and writings. He also is active in ministry inside the prison where he’s incarcerated.
Most of us can’t identify with David’s experience. But just like him, we either were or are all estranged from God and in need of reconciliation. And that’s the focus of our study today from Second Corinthians 5:17 to 21, “The Ministry of Reconciliation.”
Listen now as I read the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the apostle Paul.
This text explains the several foundational TRUTHS that help us understand the process and effects of the ministry of reconciliation.
The First TRUTH (about the ministry of reconciliation) is,
It is Initiated by God
Paul opens this text by further explaining what we talked about in our previous study; how the love of God transforms and controls us. When we come to know Christ by experience and not just intellectually, we become a new creation. We’ll talk more about that later and about the impact it has on our lives.
It is critical that we understand the process of reconciliation; it begins with God, not man. Paul says that this new creation with all its effects has come “from God who has reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ…” When Paul speaks of being reconciled that automatically means there’s been an estrangement, a break in the relationship. When we were still in our sins, we were God’s enemies, our relationship was broken, and we were hostile to Him. But it wasn’t His fault; it was ours. God doesn’t have a need for reconciliation, but we do. And He is in the great business of reconciling us to Himself.
Our English word, reconcile, comes from the Greek katalasso. In literature outside the Scriptures, it was used of exchanging coins. The exchange of coins implies a transaction and so does reconciliation. The coins represent a store of value that is being exchanged for something the purchaser values. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but if I understand that a particular tool will help me do my work, especially if it will help with both quality and productivity, I will exchange the money I have earned for that tool. I earned the money to make my purchase by providing something of value to other people.
God saw in you and me something He valued and something He wanted. And He was willing to exchange something that was of value to Him in order to make the exchange possible. It is crucial for us to understand that whether reconciliation takes place between God and mankind or between human beings, it ALWAYS comes at a price! The price God was willing to pay to reconcile us to Himself was the life of His own Son.
Normally, in a transaction, each party must agree to the terms. If not, it doesn’t happen. But in providing for our reconciliation, God, through Jesus, initiated the process without waiting to see if we would agree to the terms. God’s justice had to be satisfied, and sin had to be punished, but His love motivated Him to give His own Son to propitiate or satisfy that sense of justice. He acted unilaterally (without our help) in Christ to provide the gift of reconciliation for us.
Paul’s distinctive use of the word katalasso helps us understand the theological aspect of Christ and His work. As I said earlier, God is the subject of the action of reconciliation. This concept is unlike anything in non-Christian thought. All other religions rely on the actions of human beings to initiate reconciling or appeasing.
I have seen this firsthand in Asia in the Buddhist and Hindu temples and shrines. Sacrifices must be offered to appease their grotesque gods and goddesses in order to gain favor or forestall their disfavor. In Islam, the only guaranteed entrance into Paradise is by martyrdom through jihad. Good works are vital but if you don’t do enough, you won’t make it into Paradise. Even many people in the western world mistakenly believe that God will accept them because, based on their daily lifestyle choices, they’re “not that bad.”
Our actions as humans, including even repentance and confession of sins, do not initiate the work of reconciliation to which God responds. Instead, it is the work of God to which we respond. Jesus, Himself said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day,” John 6:44. Notice in our text that it is only after Paul affirms that God has reconciled us to Himself (verse 18), that he asks us as his readers to “be reconciled to God,” (verse 20).
The Next TRUTH (about the ministry of reconciliation) is,
It is Provided through Christ
Verse 19 continues Paul’s explanation by reminding us how God, through Christ, was in the process of reconciling the people of the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them. And to be clear, this work of reconciliation, though it was planned before Creation, began immediately after the sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
Even the Old Testament scriptures teach that salvation is by grace through faith. The Law was inadequate to secure salvation by works. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, everyone, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” As I read those words, I picture in my mind the High Priest laying his hands on the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement and confessing the sins of the people, and then the goat being sent out into the wilderness bearing those sins.
Reconciliation is closely related to justification and leads directly to the mention of God’s righteousness later in our text. In Romans 5:9 and 10, the words reconciled and justified are used almost synonymously. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” What Jesus did for us by his death stands to our credit. There is nothing you and I can add to it!
Paul’s message of reconciliation in light of justification, is first of all, expressed negatively in verse 19 of our text. God doesn’t count or reckon our sins against us. He uses the same verb in Romans 4: 3 through 8 using verses from the Old Testament to support the idea that justification comes about when God doesn’t count the iniquities of men against them but counts them as righteous because of their faith in Him.
To see Paul’s positive expression of reconciliation we drop down to the final verse of our test, verse 21. “He made Him who knew no sin a sin-offering for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” A different way of saying this would be “God treated as sin the One who knew no sin.” I understand the statement about Jesus knew no sin to mean that Jesus was conscious of His own sinlessness. He didn’t commit sin; He had no personal acquaintance with it. This obviously makes Him more than a mere man. And it also helps explain some of the trauma Jesus experienced as our sin-bearer.
It is through our faith in this act of Christ that you and I actually take on the righteousness of Christ, just as Christ took on our sin. This reconciliation ends the enmity, the hostility, between God and human beings. Through the reconciliation effected by our justification in Christ, we have peace with God, according to Romans 5:1.
These truths are crucial to our understanding of the ministry of reconciliation; it is initiated by God and provided through Christ. But that’s not the end. The message of reconciliation must be proclaimed and received. This leads us to the final truth about the ministry of reconciliation.
The Final TRUTH (about the ministry of reconciliation) is,
It is Committed to Believers
Paul begins this text by reminding us of what happens when “knowing Christ after the flesh” passes away. When we learn to know Christ in truth, we become a new creation. The old “way,” of seeing Jesus as a mere man, has passed away. Behold, what is new has come and remains! In addition to seeing Jesus in a new way, we also see our fellowmen in a new way. We no longer see them through the lenses of class, race, status, wealth, or power. This is essential because we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation according to verse 18.
Because we have been reconciled to God through Jesus, the task of winning the unreconciled to God is committed to us. It is a ministry marked by (our) reconciliation that consists of reconciliation (of others). It is a high and holy calling, but it isn’t an easy one. That’s because the unreconciled, the guilty ones, are the hardest to win over for Christ. Many times, they have no sense of their need for reconciliation.
So, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ. What is an ambassador and what does he do? The word Paul uses here for ambassador is an old word that refers, first of all, to an old man, and then later to the title of an ambassador as we understand the role today. To me, that implies that an ambassador must have some life experience.
Most of you have heard the Latin term persona non grata. It means you’re not welcome. When a diplomat or an ambassador from one country to another is declared persona non grata, his or her diplomatic immunity is removed, and he is usually expelled from the country. His service is no longer acceptable. Since you and I are ambassadors for Christ, we must be persona grata with both countries. We must be accepted and welcomed by the one we represent and the one to which we go.
Ambassadors don’t speak for themselves. That is, they don’t make policy and diplomatic decisions on their own. They speak for the leadership of the country they represent. As ambassadors for Christ, we don’t have our own message or speak on our own authority; we speak for Christ on His authority. We proclaim His message. It is “be reconciled to God…and do it NOW!” There is an urgency to the message. Those without reconciliation are at risk of facing the full measure of God’s wrath because they have rejected His provision.
This ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to you and me as followers of Jesus. How are we doing with that entrustment? Remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25? The servants received differing amounts. Each was given responsibility in line with his ability. How we steward this ministry of reconciliation is what will be evaluated at the bema, the judgment seat of Christ that Paul mentions back in verse 10 of this chapter. How much of what we’re doing will endure the test of fire?
Are we pursuing our own agenda, our own pleasures, our own goals, or are we faithfully representing Christ to the people around us? When Paul talks in verse 19 about God in Christ reconciling the world to Him, the world refers to the human beings that populate our globe. They are the ones who need the message of reconciliation that you and I have.
No, our task will not be an easy one. The price Jesus paid for our reconciliation is our model. Of course, we can never duplicate what He did, but we are called to pursue a life of serving rather than being served. The more deeply we understand what God through Christ has done for us, the greater will be our desire to share that life-transforming messages with others. How are you embracing the ministry of reconciliation?