Reconciling the Whole World (2 Corinthians 5:16–21)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
If it sounds as if Paul is calling us to grit our teeth and try harder to be good, then we are missing the point of 2 Corinthians. Paul intends for us to see the world in a completely new way, so that our actions stem from this new understanding, not from trying harder.
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who 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 entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5:17–19)
Paul wants us to become so thoroughly transformed that we become members of a “new creation.” The mention of “creation” immediately takes us back to Genesis 1–2, the story of God’s creation of the world. From the beginning God intended that men and women work together (Gen. 1:27; 2:18), in concert with God (Gen. 2:19), to “till the ground” (Gen. 2:15), “give names” to the creatures of the earth, and exercise “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) over the earth as God’s stewards. God’s intent for creation, in other words, includes work as a central reality of existence. When humans disobeyed God and marred the creation, work became cursed (Gen. 3:17–18), and humans no longer worked alongside God. Thus when Paul says, “Everything has become new,” everything includes the world of work as a core element.
Ironing Out the Differences
Wayne Alderson was vice president of Pittron Steel near Pittsburgh in the early 1970s. The company had very hostile labor/management relationships, and was facing a strike that could destroy the company. Management’s approach to these negotiations was confrontational. But part way into the strike, Alderson began taking an approach of reconciliation with the union. “They are not our enemy,” he said. “They are the people who do our work.” He was tough, but fair, and demonstrated his respect for the people in the union. He developed an approach he called “Value of the Person,” which not only achieved a settlement of the strike, but transformed the working environment of the company. “Everyone wants to be treated with love, dignity, and respect,” he said. Each year the state of Pennsylvania selects a man of the year for labor; today, forty years later, it remains true that Alderson is the only person from management to receive this honor.
Alderson claims 2 Corinthians 5:18 as his life verse: “God has given me the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues to work as a labor/management consultant for companies around the country, basing his message on valuing people.
God brings the new creation into existence by sending his Son into the old creation to transform or “reconcile” it. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” Not just one aspect of the world, but the whole world. And those who follow Christ, who are reconciled to God by Christ, are appointed to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). We are agents to bring reconciliation to all spheres of the world. Every day as we go out to do our work we are to be ministers of this reconciliation. This includes reconciliation between people and God (evangelism and discipleship), between people and people (conflict resolution), and between people and their work (goods and services that meet genuine needs and improve the quality of life and care for God’s creation).
There are three essential elements of the work of reconciliation. First, we must understand accurately what has gone wrong among people, God, and the creation. If we do not truly understand the ills of the world, then we cannot bring genuine reconciliation any more than an ambassador can effectively represent one country to another without knowing what’s going on in both. Second, we must love other people and work to benefit them rather than to judge them. “We regard no one from a human point of view,” Paul tells us (2 Cor. 5:16)—that is, as an object to be exploited, eliminated, or adulated, but as a person for whom “Christ died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). If we condemn the people in our workplaces or withdraw from the daily places of life and work, we are regarding people and work from a human point of view. If we love the people we work among and try to improve our workplaces, products, and services, then we become agents of Christ’s reconciliation. Finally, being seeds of God’s creation, of course, requires that we remain in constant fellowship with Christ. If we do these things, we will be in a position to bring Christ’s power to reconcile the people, organizations, places, and things of the world so that they too can become members of God’s new creation.