The Ministry of Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2)
When you set out to learn something, you often look at someone who has excelled in the field for help. So if you want to play better hockey, you sign up for a hockey camp with a former NHL star as one of the coaches. If you want to be a better leader, you attend conferences with proven business leaders. If you’re a writer, you read books by skilled authors who teach you how to be a better writer.
We’ve realized as a church that we want to be better evangelists. We would like people to be introduced to Jesus Christ and his gospel through our lives and ministries. Almost every Christian I talk to says this in one way or another. We don’t always know how to begin, and we’re often scared, but if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you’d have to admit that you would like other people to encounter the grace and love of Christ as well.
So this morning we’re going to try to learn evangelism from one of the most effective evangelists. His name is Paul, and he’s the author of the passage in front of us. He traveled thousands of miles through the Mediterranean world, evangelized, and established churches. He, more than anyone, was humanly responsible for the spread of Christianity in the early years throughout the Roman Empire. Paul was so gripped with the gospel that he once said, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) So it’s probably a good idea to figure out how to evangelize from Paul.
And if you’re going to learn about evangelism from Paul, one of the best passages to do so is the passage before us. In the letter we have in front of us, Paul was responding to attacks from within the church. The attacks came because people didn’t understand Paul. They questioned his motives. They felt that he lacked courage. They couldn’t figure out why he suffered so much. So Paul opens up his life in this letter, and in the passage before us he helps us understand what makes him tick as an evangelist.
And if we look carefully at this passage we’re going to see three things in this passage that made Paul a great evangelist. These four things will help us as we learn how to be good evangelists as well. And the first one may seem obvious:
1. Grasp the gospel deeply
Did you hear this week about the Netflix launch this week? Netflix is a service that lets you stream movies and TV shows over the Internet. As part of their launch they closed down John Street downtown. You want to launch a new service with a splash. But word got out that they had hired actors to blend into the crowd. The actors were given information sheets that read:
Extras are to behave as members of the public, out and about enjoying their day-to-day life, who happen upon a street event for Netflix and stop by to check it out. Extras are to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada.
The VP of corporate communications apologized and said, “This was a mistake and was not intended to be part of our launch plan. Simply put: we blew it.” Whenever we try to persuade others, and the persuasion is not rooted in the integrity of our own experience, then we run into a serious problem.
So Paul says repeatedly in this passage that his ministry as an evangelist – and ours as well – is an outcome of his experience of the gospel. This comes out most clearly in verses 18 and 19:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.
This is where it begins, according to Paul: he first reconciles us to himself through Christ and then gives us the ministry of reconciliation. Before we can be agents of reconciliation, we need to experience the reconciliation.
And so you see this throughout the entire passage. Paul is so taken with the gospel, and he’s experienced it so deeply, that it’s absolutely foundational to his sharing of the gospel with others. He says he knows the fear of the Lord (verse 11). The love of Christ compels him (verse 14). The gospel has completely changed the way that he views people (verse 16). Paul has been gripped by the gospel. He hasn’t just experienced it; he’s been completely transformed by it. It’s what he thinks about. It’s what drives him. If we are going to share the gospel, it begins with being transformed by the gospel.
By the way, this is not only important for evangelism; it’s central to our renewal as a church. Richard Lovelace has written one of the best books out there on how to revitalize a church. You’d think you’d begin with the normal things: a clear vision; good nursery care; friendly greeters. But the precondition for renewal, he says, is an awareness of the holiness of God; an awareness of the depth of our sin; followed by a deep grasp of the gospel:
- Justification: You are accepted
- Sanctification: You are free from the bondage of sin
- The indwelling Spirit: You are not alone
- Authority in spiritual conflict: You have authority
And all of this comes from the fact that we are in Christ. Lovelace writes, “The proclamation of the gospel in depth is the most important condition for the renewal of the church.”
So this is where it all begins. It’s where it began with Paul. It’s where it has to begin with us. So let me ask you: have you grasped the gospel? Has it sunk deeply into your soul? Do you savor it? Do you understand the depth of your sin? Do you comprehend the holiness of God? Have you seen what Christ accomplished at the cross on your behalf? Has it affected you to the core of your being? If not, don’t move on. Keep coming back to the cross. Beat the gospel into your head. Preach it to yourself. Don’t skip over this step! Grasp the gospel deeply. It’s absolutely central in this passage, and it’s also going to be central if we are to share the gospel with others, and see our church renewed.
Grasp the gospel deeply. Secondly:
2. Communicate the gospel
If we are to be good evangelists, we will need to communicate the gospel. What I want to do is to challenge a popular misconception here. The popular misconception is this: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We should live in such a way that our lives give evidence of the gospel’s effect. So our lives to speak loudly even when we don’t use words.
But look at the end of verse 19: “He has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Message there uses the Greek word for word. What Paul is saying is that the message of reconciliation comes in the forms of words. It must be accompanied by lives that evidence the power of the gospel, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a message, a word that must be spoken. What is this message? It’s all through this passage:
…one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (verses 14-15)
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (verse 19)
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (verse 21)
Now, if I was going to try to teach someone how to tie a tie, I probably wouldn’t use words. It would be best to use pictures, or to demonstrate what to do. I’d probably stand beside someone and have them follow me. But if I were to communicate to someone what Jesus Christ has accomplished in taking on our sin, then I would have to use words. At some point, to evangelize, we have to get to the cross, and the only way to explain what happened at the cross is to use words. This is the message of reconciliation, and we have to use words.
Paul helps us understand this even more in verse 20:
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
Ambassadors are usually sent by a power as representatives to other powers. It meant leaving one’s home, going somewhere else, and waiting for an opportunity to communicate a message. One ambassador wrote this under the Roman emperor Constantine:
Nor is it any small matter to make a request on one’s own behalf to the emperor of the whole world, to put on a brave face before the eyes of such majesty, to compose one’s expression, to summon up one’s courage, to choose the right words, to speak without fear, to stop at the right moment and to await the reply.
Ambassadors are commissioned with a message and an authority that is not their own. Their duty is not to come up with the message, but to deliver it, summoning up one’s courage, choosing the right words, speaking without fear, stopping at the right moment, and awaiting the reply. This is what it meant to Paul to be an evangelist: to act as God’s representative and communicate the message of the gospel.
Now let’s admit it: we’re scared to death of this. But we don’t have to be. There’s no standard formula that we have to follow. We don’t need to try to steer conversations. There is one thing you have to do: you have to be in relationship with people who aren’t Christians. You can’t be an ambassador to these people if you don’t know them. I’m convinced that if we become friends with those who don’t know Christ, and if we grasp the gospel, that God will give us opportunities to talk about what Christ has done. So don’t let this scare you.
By the way, we are hoping to provide some training in this area in the coming year.
Grasp the gospel; be ready to communicate the gospel. Third:
3. Be prepared to suffer for the gospel
There’s one interesting fact about ambassadors I didn’t mention. Back then, as now, there was something like what you’d call diplomatic immunity. They had what was called the “law of nations regarding envoys.” There were times when ambassadors and envoys were mistreated, but they were rare, and often met with retribution.
But you see that Paul didn’t think of himself as an ambassador with immunity. Take a look at the next chapter and you see that Paul commends himself in “troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). In Ephesians Paul calls himself “an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). Evangelism cost Paul. There’s no such thing as evangelizing without risk.
One of our problems is that we see suffering as an indication that something is wrong. But actually, it’s the opposite. Paul saw his troubles as part of what it meant to follow Christ. He experienced troubles, hardships, and distresses precisely because he was doing what he should have been doing. Ajith Fernando, who ministers in Sri Lanka, says this:
The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ will suffer because of their work…I have a great fear for the church. The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism? The church in the East is growing, and because of that God’s servants are suffering…Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.
Suffering for us may amount to nothing more than rejection, but this isn’t a sign that we’re doing something wrong. Evangelism and suffering go together. To evangelize, we must grasp the gospel. We must learn to communicate it. We must also be willing to suffer for it.
4. Believe that God is at work
If you are discouraged after hearing all of this, I want to close by encouraging you. If you think that this is above your abilities, or if you’re overwhelmed by the challenge, then this is going to be the best thing that I’ve said all morning. Let me read verse 20 from the ESV: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Do you see that? When we evangelize, it is not merely us speaking. God is making his appeal through us. God is at work when we evangelize. We are acting on his behalf and he is at work.
This is why Paul could begin the next chapter, “As God’s co-workers…” Did you ever get assigned a group project in school? There was always the person who slacked off, and there was always the one person who had to carry most of the load of the entire group. Paul is saying here that evangelism is a group project, and believe me: God is no slacker when it comes to his part of the project. As you grasp the gospel and communicate it, and even suffer for it, know that God is at work. God is making his appeal through you, and this makes all the difference.
Evangelism is not primarily a matter of techniques and methods. To evangelize, grasp the gospel; communicate it; suffer for it; and believe that God is at work.
Where do you need to pay attention? Do you grasp the gospel? Are you ready to communicate it? Do you shy away from suffering? Do you believe God is at work when you evangelize?
Father, we’ve learned this morning from a great evangelist. But you didn’t just call him to evangelize. You’ve reconciled us to you, and you’ve also given us the ministry of reconciliation.
Use us. Please help us overcome our reluctance. May we grasp your gospel. May we work on becoming effective communicators of that gospel. May we come to learn that you’ve called us to suffer. And would you be pleased to let us see you at work with us. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.