This post is part of my Exegetical Compilation series, which I am (verrrrrrry slowly) posting up here.
2 Corinthians 5:14 through 6:2
The traditional chapter division tends to regard 6:1-2 (including the citation from Isaiah 49:8, and Paul’s application of it to the present day) as being topically connected more with verses 3ff on the witness of a good Christian social life, so the point would be not to receive the grace of God and yet have an empty life.
However, this does not at all square with Paul’s citation of Isaiah 49 and its contexts, which are extremely different. But those contexts do square up in interesting ways with Paul’s famous declarations ending out chapter 5; leading to an exegetical argument that chapter 6 really ought to have started with verse 3 “We are giving no cause for offense in anything so that the ministry is discredited” and so on.
Whatever else Isaiah 49 is about, it is not about living a good life as a witness to the nations for their salvation (good advice though that is for evangelism). Nor is it about a day of salvation (or multiple days thereof) when the Lord supported His people in the past relative to Isaiah’s day.
Isaiah 49, including verse 8, is totally about God’s promise to support His people in the future, even though they have betrayed Him once again, when He arrives visibly to rescue them from being overrun by pagan armies in the great and terrible Day of the Lord to come.
This is also thematically woven with God speaking to righteous Israel as His servant – often regarded by Jews as referring to the King Messiah to come, and of course applied by us Christians to Jesus Christ as the ultimate Messiah (with the prophet taking turns speaking for the Father and the Son), perfectly fulfilling the role of righteous Israel. So when YHWH says at verse 8 “In a favorable time I have answered you, in a day of salvation I have helped you” He is by narrative design speaking to Israel exemplified in the Messiah.
Paul in referring to this verse and insisting that now is the day of salvation and the favorable time, therefore probably refers to the Father having helped and saved the Messiah/Son – that time to come was in the future of Isaiah (when the Servant seemed to have toiled in vain and spent His strength for nothing and vanity) but has now been accomplished in Paul’s recent past. God’s grace (per 2 Cor 6:1) was not in vain after all, despite He Who knew no sin coming to be a sin (offering) on our behalf (5:21 immediately prior). What was the goal? – why was the Servant spending out His strength to the final extreme? “So that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” answers Paul (5:21b); yet not only us, but in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself (5:19) for which reason we are now the ambassadors of God exhorting people and begging them on behalf of Christ “Be reconciled to God!”
As Arminians (and their Catholic predecessors) are aware, and emphasize, God graciously reconciles the whole world to Himself through Christ. Which definitely fits Isaiah 49 where God highly praises the servant and gives to him not only all Israel, both rebel and righteous, but also all the Gentiles. Even though the rebel armies are going to die choking on their own blood, they will somehow be reconciled with Israel after all, their kings and queens serving Israel humbly. And righteous Israel, grieving over the death of rebel Israel, will be amazed when God not only brings back and restores rebel Israel somehow, but also children they never bore (referring to the Gentiles). The scope of God’s intention to save there is, at least poetically, total.
But as Calvinists (and their Catholic predecessors) are aware, and emphasize, God’s grace was not and shall not be in vain; as God’s reply to the concern of the Servant that he has wasted his strength in vain in Isaiah 49 refutes concluding that the Servant really has wasted his strength; and as Paul stresses here in 2 Cor 6:1.
Just as the Father’s grace in saving the Son was not in vain, so the Son’s sacrifice on the cross will not be in vain: whomever God intends to save from sin, shall be successfully saved by God.
The love of Christ similarly compels those of us who have concluded that One died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all that they who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. (5:14-15)
To preach less than Christ’s goal of reconciling all those who died, for who all He died, or to preach that Christ’s reconciliation of any to God shall be in vain, is to receive the grace of Christ in vain – and, not incidentally, this routinely “gives cause for offense, discrediting our ministry”!
Nor is this topic foreign to Isaiah 49: the purpose of the Servant of God is to bring Jacob (here standing for rebel Israel) back to God so that all Israel may be gathered to Him. (v.5)
To which God adds that being His Servant to both raise up the tribes of Jacob and also to restore the preserved ones of Israel is not enough (which must in context refer to the resurrection of rebel and faithful Jews respectively, thus also to the post-mortem salvation of rebel Jacob!) – God will also make His Servant a light to the nations so that God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the Earth!
Just as the Servant and Holy One, Who was despised and abhorred by the nation of Israel, is rescued by YHWH, so shall rebel Israel who despised the Holy Servant be rescued; and as rescuing all of Israel is too small a thing to honor and glorify God (v.3, 5), so shall God’s salvation (the phrase from which Jesus literally derives His name) go out even to the pagan kings and princes who shall come to loyally serve the Servant of Kings (vv.6-7)
Notice! – any attempt at trying to minimize the actual scope of intention (whether in Isaiah 49, or in what we call the transition between 2 Cor 5 and 6) to save rebels back into honoring and glorifying God, will instantly and fatally crash into the principle that bringing less than all to honor and glorify God, is too small a thing to honor and glorify God!
If God fails to bring all to honor and glorify God, God fails to properly honor and glorify God; if God didn’t even intend for some rational creatures to honor and glorify God, God would be dishonoring and blaspheming God! God cannot be honored and glorified with dishonor and blasphemy; and the Persons of God do not honor and glorify each other by giving each other creatures of final dishonor and blasphemy.
The Father has given the Son to us (in Isaiah 49) explicitly as a covenant of the people, that as the Son was answered and saved (after dying no less!) so shall the land be restored and the desolated areas (desolated by God in punishment for sin) be rebuilt, and those in prison and in darkness shall be called forth to show themselves and come to God from the north and from the west even from as far away as “the land of ‘the thorns’” (i.e. Sinim, which may be a prophetic reference to China which came to be known by a similar term in several languages. But which surely stands in a pun for the furthest destitution imaginable.)
This is all despite the avowed fact (such as at 49:25-26 but in many other places also) that God intends to utterly kill the pagan armies invading and besieging Israel at the time of His visitation and rescue of Israel from them. But this is so that (as in v.26) all flesh will know that YHWH is the Savior and Redeemer and the Mighty One of Jacob, who in this prophecy is rebel Israel (sometimes “Jacob” stands for righteous Israel, but not in this prophecy – and the application of Jacob’s name to rebel Israel is itself evidence of God’s intentions toward “Jacob” by comparison with the original Jacob who sometimes wrestled against God, and who sometimes even acted like a Satan to those who trusted him): with the results that prophetically follow from people coming to know this, namely (as earlier in the prophecy, with strong though poetic indications of resurrection of the evil as well as the good), final loyalty to God and reconciliation between men.
So while I can and do agree that 2 Cor 6:2 by itself is no argument for post-mortem salvation, in connected context with the preceding verses conjoined with the situation being referenced by Paul in Isaiah, I would argue that Paul is actually admonishing his readers not to be ministers of a lesser reconciliation, and so not to receive the grace of Christ in vain, but to remember instead the example of Christ and His resurrection as the covenant given by God Whom we can expect to keep His side of the covenant (even if we fail or intentionally fall on our side of it) in bringing about God’s goals for Christ’s sacrifice: the reconciliation of all sinners, living and dead, Jew and Gentile, to God (and in God to each other as well).
Just as God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and assigned to us the ministry of the reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18), that ministry is explicitly this, and nothing less than this (v.19): that God was in Christ reconciling the world, the “all things” which come from God (v.18), to Himself, not counting their rebellions against them. As ambassadors for Christ (v.19-20), God has placed in us the “Logos of reconciliation” Himself! Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ as though God were exhorting through us: “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!”
No scope less than the all things made by God, would properly honor and glorify God. No result less than the all things made by God, would properly honor and glorify God. Even after the day of destruction by God, the time is still acceptable for God to listen to the repentant, and the day of salvation remains for God to help all who have rebelled against Him, however many have died in sin (who in the long run is all of us who are sinners, for whom Christ Himself also dies).
And just as we are expected as ambassadors to urge rebels to reconcile to God, as we have been reconciled, so those who work most together with God urge fellow workers with God: DO NOT RECEIVE THE GRACE OF CHRIST IN VAIN! For (5:21) God made Him Who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
He will have done that in vain, if He does not succeed; He will have done that in vain, if He does not intend to bring all who dishonor and blaspheme God to honor and blaspheme God.
Anything less than total scope, anything less than total victory, is too small a thing for the Father to honor the Son in His suffering, and is too small a thing for the Son to honor the Son with His suffering.
Just as those who have not yet received the grace of Christ are urged to receive the grace of Christ; so also those who have received the grace of Christ are urged DO NOT RECEIVE THE GRACE OF CHRIST IN VAIN!
We are being, at best, poor and incomplete royal ambassadors if we do.
Note that the infamously difficult verse at 5:21 (where Christ, despite never sinning, is “made sin” for us so that we might become the righteousness of God), has a strong relationship to Hebrews 9 and Galatians 3 (via Hebrews 10, where the author talks about Christ sacrificing Himself as a sin offering), which is itself a major (though not well known) set of evidence for God’s intention and eventual success at universal salvation from sin.
As always, members are invited to discuss interpretations of these verses below, and to link to discussions either here on the forum or elsewhere.
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