July 31: 2 Corinthians 5:21

In today’s note I will be looking at Romans 8:3-4 in comparison with 2 Corinthians 5:21. These two passages connect the incarnation of Christ with God’s work of salvation for humankind. From the beginning, Christians understood the sacrificial and salvific character of Jesus’ death, and that he was God’s unique representative; but here, in these two letters, perhaps for the first time, we find a developed doctrine blending soteriology with Christology. As 2 Corinthians was likely written before Romans, I will begin with 2 Cor 5:21.

2 Corinthians 5:21

“the (one) not knowing sin, He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be (the) justice/righteousness of God in him”

The context of this passage (2 Cor 5:11-21) is similar to that of Phil 2:1-11—an appeal for peace and unity among believers is connected with the example of God’s sacrificial and saving work in Christ. Here in 2 Corinthians, the emphasis is on reconciliationkatallagh/, vb. katalla/ssw, to make things different, mutually, between two parties. In vv. 18-19, Paul makes two statements:

    • God is “the (One) making (things) different [katalla/canto$] (for) us with Himself through [dia/] (the) Anointed” (v. 18)
    • God “was [h@n] in [e)n] (the) Anointed, making (things) different [katalla/sswn] (for the) world with Himself” (v. 19)

In both instances, a participial form of the verb is used: the first in the aorist (indicating a past action), the second in the present. In verse 18, it is “us” (believers) for whom the situation has been changed with God; in verse 19, it is the entire world. This particular work of reconciliation is glossed and interpreted by Paul as “not counting for them (the instances of) their falling alongside [paraptw/mata]”, i.e., not reckoning their sins and failures, understood as violations/transgressions of the Law, especially in its moral/ethical aspect. We also see, in each statement regarding God’s work of reconciliation in/through Christ, a corresponding declaration of the work of reconciliation God intends for believers (focused primarily in the apostolic ministry):

    • “…and (also) giving to us the service [diakoni/a] of making (things) different [i.e. reconciliation, katallagh/]” (v. 18)
    • “…and (also) placing in us the word/account [lo/go$] of making (things) different [i.e. reconciliation]” (v. 19)

It may be helpful to examine each element of verse 21:

to\n mh\ gno/nta (“the [one] not knowing”)—i.e. Jesus Christ; here the verb know (ginw/skw) probably should be understood in the sense of familiarity.

a(marti/an (“sin”)—The expression mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an is sometimes translated as “knowing no sin“; but the negative particle relates primarily to the verb, and thus the emphasis is on “not knowing sin”. Paul doubtless would affirm something corresponding to the later orthodox belief regarding the sinlessness of Christ; however, when referring to specific sins or misdeeds, he typically uses the words para/ptwma (cf. in v. 19), para/basi$, or a(marti/a in the plural. The use of the singular here could indicate the idea of sin in the more general, abstract sense; or, as often in Romans especially, of sin as a power. To describe Jesus as “the one not knowing sin” probably means, for Paul, that he was the only person who was not enslaved under the power of sin, i.e. did not know Sin has his master. The word a(marti/a fundamentally means a failure—in the conventional Israelite/Jewish religious sense, this would be a failure to observe the commands and regulations of the Law (Torah), and, in particular, moral failure. In English, the word is normally rendered as “sin”; it is generally synonymous with the corresponding afj in Hebrew.

u(pe\r u(ma=$ (“over us”)—The preposition u(pe/r literally means “over”, but often in the metaphorical sense of “on behalf of, for the sake of”, etc. What God did through Christ was done “over us”, covering us, and it was done for our sake.

e)poi/hsen (“he made”)—God is the implied subject, with “the one not knowing sin” (Christ) as the object, i.e. God made Christ to be (like/as) sin. How should we understand this “making”? I have previously suggested three possibilities:

    • he was made into the form of (sinful) human “flesh” (Rom 8:3, cf. below); the idea of incarnation, cf. Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7
    • he was made like unto the (enslaving) power of sin, in order to conquer and destroy it (cf. Rom 8:2-3; Gal 3:13-14)
    • he was made into a sin-offering; note the similar double meaning of afj in Hebrew, which can be used both for sin and the offering made on behalf of sin

i%na (“that”)—the particle here introduces a final clause, indicating either purpose or result (or both), i.e. “so that…”

genw/meqa (“we might come to be”)—the common existential verb indicating becoming, i.e. the purpose and result of God’s work is that we (believers) will come to be something new. The aorist subjunctive form could here could also be rendered: “that we should come to be…”

dikaiosu/nh qeou= (“[the] justice/righteousness of God”)—Paul’s use of this expression is familiar from Romans, where it appears numerous times (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21-22; 10:3, also 3:25-26; 6:13, etc). More than half of the instances of the noun dikaiosu/nh come from the undisputed Pauline letters (34 times in Romans). I have discussed dikaiosu/nh (and the dikaio- word-group) extensively in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law” (note also the article on Justification). Where this particular expression is used in Romans, it should be taken fundamentally as a characteristic or attribute of God Himself, but which is expressed primarily in the person and work of Christ.

e)n au)tw=| (“in him”)—that is, “in Christ”, e)n Xristw=| being a favorite Pauline expression, indicating the union (and unity) of believers with Christ (and with God through Christ). Here it should also be understood as the focus of our becoming the “justice/righteousness of God”—it takes place in Christ. Elsewhere, Paul refers to Jesus as the very embodiment of justice/righteousness. The parallel in 1 Cor 1:30 is especially noteworthy:

1 Cor 1:30: he came to be the justice/righteousness from God for us
2 Cor 5:21: we come to be the justice/righteousness of God in him

The interplay reflected in these two verses is fascinating indeed!

What does it mean precisely, that believers should “become” or “come to be” the justice/righteousness of God? I will leave this question until I have discussed Romans 8:3-4, which I will do in the next daily note.

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