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Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from The Gospel Project’s Spring 2014 Bible study on “Atonement Thread: Tracing the Bible’s Story Through the Lens of Atonement.”

In the first-century Roman Empire, an ambassador was personally appointed by the emperor to represent his interests to another party. Paul used ambassador language in describing the responsibility of the Corinthians to outsiders. If ambassadors are to succeed, they must have a clear understanding of the message they are entrusted with. Further, they must know whether any response is expected in the mission. In 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Paul addressed both of these requirements.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Message of the Cross 

Verse 21 beautifully summarizes what happened through the death of Christ when he was lifted up. Paul affirmed the perfect sinlessness of the Savior. Jesus is the only human who “did not know sin.” He never sinned, and both he and his closest followers, Peter and John, explicitly attested to this holiness (John 8:46; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

Yet God made him “to be sin.” Paul’s language is careful. He did not say Jesus became a sinner, which would be untrue. Rather, Jesus became the representative sin-bearer. He identified 100 percent with the sin of the world when he died on the cross (John 1:29). God treated Jesus as if he were sin itself.

When God made Jesus to be sin, it was “for us,” for our benefit. And the benefit is that we are joined to him in faith; we become “righteousness”—the opposite of sin. Again, Paul’s language is careful. He went further than saying, “We become righteous.” Rather, we become the very righteousness of God himself. Jesus, who was sinless, became sin for us so that we, who are sinful, might become righteousness when we are united to him.

Christ’s identification with sinners is the foundation for our mission.

Mission of the Cross

In verse 20, Paul issued the expected response—the urgent invitation. He framed this carefully. First, he recognized that he and the believers in Corinth were ambassadors. Paul noted twice that the One sending these ambassadors was Christ himself.

There is extreme urgency in delivering the invitation. The phrases “God is appealing” and “we plead” both reflect passion and determination. God and the ambassador are seen together as a united voice. The Christian ambassador’s plea is nothing less than God’s own insistence. (In the same way, a Roman ambassador spoke with the emperor’s urgency.)

The invitation/response is simple: “Be reconciled to God.” For Paul to use reconciliation language implies a broken relationship that must be restored. God had done everything in the death of his Son to provide salvation to rebels. But salvation has not been guaranteed to all, only to those who respond. The rebels must lay down their arms.