"Our Greatest Need"
2 Corinthians 5:21
(Delivered Sunday, October 7, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
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If we were to take a 'man-on-the-street' survey; and ask people what, in their opinion, was humanity's greatest need, what do you suppose people would say?
I suspect that many people would say that the greatest need of humanity right now is world peace. And I'm sure you'd agree—that is a very great need today. Every day it seems, the world is becoming more and more of a dangerous place. But as would be suggested by the passage I just read; as great a need as world peace may be, it is not humanity's greatest need.
Others would say that the greatest need of humanity right now is an end to poverty and hunger. So many people around the world suffer and die because of a lack of basic needs. So much of crime, or disease, or unrest in the world seems to be caused by 'want'. And again, an end to the poverty of so many of the poor, suffering people of this world surely is a great need; but as suggested by that passage of Scripture, it is not the greatest need.
I suspect that there would be a variety of things people would offer as humanity's greatest need. But as suggested by the passage I just shared with you, there is a far greater need than them all. It's the need, in fact, that is the ultimate cause of all the other needs the human family can experience.
According to this passage, God's answer would be that humanity's greatest need is to be 'reconciled' to Himself.
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The passage I just read to you—only four verses in length—mentions the concept of reconciliation with God no less than five times. Twice, it says that God has engaged in the work of "reconciling" lost people to Himself. Twice, it says that God had committed the "ministry" or "word" of "reconciliation" to select "ambassadors", so that this great work may be declared to those lost people. And once, the apostle Paul makes his appeal—as a representative of those select ambassadors to those lost people—that those who hear him "be reconciled" to God.
What does "reconciliation" mean? Basically the idea behind the word translated "reconciliation" refers to "a change" or "an exchange"; and it speaks specifically of the exchange of a hostile relationship for a friendly one. It means that two parties that were once in dispute with one another, or who were once hostile to one another, are now brought together. It means that two parties who were enemies are now made friends. The thing that stood between them and put them in a state of hostility toward one another is removed; and they can now come together.
The Bible teaches us that, because of the sin of our first parents, we are each born into a state of enmity with God. Their disobedience to Him brought about a break in their relationship with Him; and now, we have inherited the guilt of their sin—and that broken relationship with the holy God who made us for Himself. The Bible says, "Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2).
And the only way for the enmity between a holy God and sinful man to be brought to an end is for the cause of that enmity to be removed. The sin that broke our relationship with Him must be dealt with—both the sin that our first parents committed long ago, and the personal sins we ourselves commit every day as a result. And so, the full "reconciliation" of sinners like us to our holy Creator involves the complete removal of that which caused the enmity between Him and us in the first place—that is, the complete removal of the guilt of our sin.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you had a credit card for a certain retail store. And suppose—through carelessness or greed—you maxed-out your card far beyond your ability to ever pay it. And suppose further that you were even failing to make minimum payments on your account. You were hoping that the debt would all somehow, magically, go away. But eventually, the store sends you a letter in which it threatens to contact a credit service, and to take legal action against you unless your account is settled.
Now; suppose that you realized, at long last, that you had done wrong. You really feel bad about it. And so; you take initiative. You call the credit department of the store, confess that you had acted out of carelessness and greed, said that you were sorry that this had happened, and that you have cut up your credit card and will never use it again. And suppose that you even further announce that you will now commit your life to the service of others in need—that you will help the needy and downtrodden, and will do good to your fellow man. Suppose you even tell the store that you will go out into the world and tell others about the danger of excessive debt; and urge them to pay their bills on time. The store to which you were in debt might say that that's all very nice—and that they're especially glad to hear that you have cut up your card. But whatever else you do, there's still the matter of the debt that remains unsettled. Cutting up cards and doing good deeds for people will do nothing to take care of the debt and settle your account. Whatever else you do, so long as the debt remains, you are still a debtor to that store.
You will remain in a state of enmity with that store until the debt is paid and your account is cleared. And your only hope is that someone else would graciously assume the debt in your behalf and pay it to the full satisfaction of the store. Only then will you and the store be "reconciled". Only then will the charges against you be removed, and will you then be welcomed to come back into that store to enjoy its services.
Similarly, because of the sin of our first parents, we are—each one—born into the human family with a debt before a holy God that we cannot pay. And we compounded our debt before God every day by adding our own personal sins against Him. And the only way that this dreadful cause of our state of enmity with God—the enormous debt of our sin—could be removed would be by it becoming 'assumed' by Another; and by it becoming paid by Him to the full satisfaction of God.
And that was the thing that Paul says God Himself was doing—reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. His own Son took the debt of our sins upon Himself, and paid it to the full satisfaction of His Father. And now, God can—legitimately and freely—extend His hand to us and invite us to be “reconciled” to Himself. He didn't simply ignore the thing that stood in the way between us and Himself; He completely removed it, to the full satisfaction of His own holy character and righteous standards, through His Son Jesus Christ.
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So then; the greatest need of humanity is reconciliation with God. And the meeting of that need through Jesus Christ was the thing that Paul felt that it was his great privilege to proclaim—to be an "ambassador for Christ", and to proclaim "the word of reconciliation" through the message of the gospel. And in verse twenty-one, we see how it is that this greatest of all needs is met: "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
As we come to the Lord's table this morning, we are remembering what God has done to meet this greatest of all our needs. I ask that we look carefully at this one verse, and draw out the details it gives us of how it was that God has met this greatest of needs. And I ask that, as we draw these details out one-by-one, we pause each time along the way to give our thanks to God in prayer. I ask that, in this way, we grow in an attitude of deep thankfulness to God for what He has done to meet our need; and that we bring this thankfulness with us as we approach the Lord's table this morning.
First, I ask you to notice . . .
1. THE ONE WHO MET OUR NEED.
Our verse starts off by telling us who it is that took the initiative with our need. It begins with the words “For He . . .” The “He” being spoken of is the same “He” as was mentioned in verse twenty—with the invitation, “[B]e reconciled to God.”
Sometimes, people hold to a sadly distorted picture of God the Father. They see Him as an angry Judge, wanting nothing more than to utterly destroy us from His universe; and they see His Son Jesus standing, as it were, between us and the Father—pleading with the Father not to destroy us in His wrath. They see Jesus as pleading with the Father to not do something that He really wants to do—that is, to wipe us out; and instead, pleading with the Father to do something that He really doesn't want to do—that is, to forgive us and reconcile us to Himself. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Those beginning two words, “For He”, lets us know that the plan of paying for our sins, removing the cause of enmity between us, and welcoming us back into a relationship with Himself, was all the initiative of the Father Himself. As verse 18 says, “Now all things are of God . . .” It was God the Father Himself that was not satisfied with the alienation that existed between us and Himself; and it was God the Father that took the steps to do something about it. As it says in the most famous and best-loved verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, emphasis added).
As we come to the table of the Lord this morning, I suggest that we remember that we are giving the Father thanks for something that He took the initiative to bring about. I suggest that we gratefully acknowledge the fact that He took the initiative of love toward us; because it was He who made His Son to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
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Please look at that verse again with me; and next consider . . .
2. THE ONE THROUGH WHOM OUR NEED WAS MET.
As our verse says, “For He [that is, God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us . . .” The plan for the meeting of our need was devised by God the Father; and it was met through God the Son—Jesus Christ.
Paul has already spoken of this in verse 18 when he speaks of God, "who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ . . ." And he speaks of it again in verse 19, when he says that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them . . ."
But note that, in our verse, Paul places special emphasis on why it could be that it was through Jesus that God could bring about our reconciliation. It was because Jesus Himself "knew" no sin. He was born into the human family as one of us. But He was born of the virgin Mary; and so lived both without the guilt of sin that we ourselves inherited from Adam, and without having committed any sins of His own. Hebrews 2:17 says that, in order to be a merciful and faithful High Priest for us, and to be able to remove the sin that caused the enmity between His Father and us, "in all things He had to be made like His brethren . . ." He had to be fully human in order to bear the sins of humanity. But as Hebrews 4:15 also says, "we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize without weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (emphasis added).
Jesus not only lived without any sin; but He also lived in perfect, active obedience to His Father's commandments. Not only could it be said that He did not bear any sins of His own, but He also lived in perfect righteousness. He was able to say of His Father, "I always do those things that please Him" (John 8:28).
As we come to the Lord's table this morning, let's give thanks to God the Father for the gift of His Son—the perfect, spotless Lamb of God who knew no sin. And let's also give thanks that Jesus willingly gave Himself in obedience to the Father's plan to bring about the end of our enmity with Him.
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Now; let's consider . . .
3. THE PLAN DEVISED TO MEET OUR NEED.
Paul says, “For He [that is, God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us . . .” The debt of sin had to be paid. We could not pay it for ourselves. Only Someone who personally knew no sin could bear the debt on our behalf. And so, it was the plan of the Father that the Son would become a Man, live a sinless life on this earth, bear the guilt of our sins on His own Person, and die our place on the cross—thus "becoming" sin for us.
The apostle Paul speaks of this in verse 19 when he writes that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing [or "reckoning"] their trespasses to them . . ." It wasn't that God chose not to "reckon" those sins at all. He didn't just simply ignore them. He fully treated them as they deserved, and as His holy character demanded. But He placed them on Jesus; and extracted the full penalty of death for our sins upon Him.
Paul speaks of this in Galatians 3:13, when he says, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree' ) . . ." Our own sins brought about a curse upon ourselves; but Jesus became "cursed" in our place upon the cross.
As we come to the Lord's table this morning, we remember the body that Jesus gave for the bearing of our sins, and the blood that He shed as atonement for us. We remember what it says in those wonderful words of Isaiah 53:4-6;
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Now; as wonderful as Jesus' sacrifice for our sins is, we find from this verse that it isn't all that the Father had in mind for us. It would have been wonderful enough if the Father had simply given His Son to pay the debt of our sin, and then send us away. But He did much more. He desires that we enter into full fellowship with Him. And in order to do so, we must become as holy as He is.
This leads us to . . .
4. THE OBJECTIVE IN MEETING OUR NEED.
Paul writes that God made Jesus—who knew no sin—to be sin for us, "that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
Notice two marvelous things about this. First, notice the righteousness of God that is mentioned. This isn't speaking of a righteousness that we work hard to achieve in order to earn a standing of acceptance before a holy God. That would be impossible for us to do; because we were the one's who brought about the debt of our sins before God in the first place.
Rather, this is speaking of a righteousness that has God as its source—a righteousness that is absolutely acceptable to God the Father because it is His own gracious gift. It is the free and gracious gift of a standing before Him in which we are not only declared "not guilty" before His throne on the day of judgment; but one in which we are positively declared to be one-hundred percent acceptable in His sight with respect to the holy standards of His law.
And then, second, notice that we aren't simply "given" this righteousness. Paul says that we actually "become" this righteousness. Not only is the guilt of our sin placed completely on Christ's account and paid by Him to the full; but all of His righteousness is placed to our account and is reckoned as our standing before God the Father; so that we become utterly identified with the righteousness of Jesus Christ Himself. This is the strongest declaration of righteousness that we could possibly receive—not just to "receive" it, but to actually be declared by God to have "become" it!
There would be no other way for us to enter into the fullness of fellowship with God the Father that He desires for us unless we have the very same righteousness as that of His Son. And, by His grace, we do! Just as Jesus became sin for us, we have by faith become the righteousness of God in Him.
As Jesus could declare in His great prayer for us before He went to the cross, "And the glory which You gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one just as We are one" (John 17:22). This is something that we need to give thanks for as we come to the Lord's table.
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And now; there's just one more thing we need to notice about this whole matter of the meeting of our great need; and that is . . .
5. THE PLACE IN WHICH OUR NEED IS MET.
It's found in the two words at the end of our verse—"in Him"; that is, in Jesus Christ. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." The verse begins with two words concerning the Father ("For He . . ."), and it ends with two words concerning the Son ("in Him").
And here, we see the only place in which our great need before God can be met. Our great need is "reconciliation" with God; and this need can't be met by our good works, or by our religious acts. It isn't by the contrition of our souls before Him, or by the sacrifice of our lives to His cause, that the great reason of our enmity with Him is removed. The Father has provided only one way for the debt of sin to be removed from us—but He has, in great mercy provided it freely to whoever will receive it. It is ours only through our being "in Christ". As Paul writes in Ephesians 1:7; "In Him [that is, in Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace."
As you come to the table of the Lord this morning, I invite you to be very sure that you are "in Christ"—that you have consciously and personally placed your trust in the sacrifice He has made on the cross for you. If you have never done so before, I invite that when you take up that piece of bread—the symbol of His body broken for us, upon which He bore our sins—that you pause to pray your own prayer to the Father. I invite that if you can do so in full sincerity of heart, you pray something like this:
Similarly, as you take up the cup of the juice of the grape—the symbol of His blood shed on the cross as atonement for sin—that you pause to pray to the Father; saying something like this:
If you can pray those things in full sincerity before God as you partake of the Lord's supper today, you will be "in Christ" by faith. And if you are in Christ, the debt of your sin is removed completely, and you can now experience the fulfillment of your greatest need. You are invited to come and be reconciled to God.
And praise God, you can be! "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
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