Pastor Paul continues our Weak is Strong series with a sermon from 2 Corinthians 5:21.
I invite you to turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 5. As you are doing so, let me as you a question: have you ever made a bad trade or a bad deal? A deal so awful for you, so one sided, so short sighted that you had to ask yourself how could I have missed it? How could I have been so dumb? How could I have been so obtuse? I can’t believe I did that. History is full of those kinds of bad exchanges. I think the French are still kicking themselves for selling us half of America, right? For pennies on the acre. Poor French. They just can’t get that right. The Boston Red Sox had a vision to fund a Broadway play and so he didn’t have the money but he did have a really good baseball player that he sold to the NY Yankees for $100,000. Who was it? The Babe, right? That didn’t turn out so good for the Red Sox. It worked out really good for the Yankees.
Quite possibly the worst exchange or deal in the history of mankind, some of you have probably heard this, was engaged in by a man named Ronald Wayne. Ronald was a fledgling computer enthusiast/entrepreneur and he founded this little company in the back of a garage in Paulo Alto California with two other guys, but soon into the venture he sold his share of the company, which was 10%. He sold that share for $800. He agreed to forfeit any future claims against said company, which just happened to have the name of what? Apple. Now valued? Do you want to guess what 10% of 118 billion dollars is? With revenues of 233 billion dollars? That was not a great exchange for young Ronald.
In our text this morning we have the story of another kind of exchange. This is not an economic exchange or a business transaction. Paul is going to unpack for us a relational exchange. This exchange has been initiated and offered to us by God himself and Luther, when he read this passage, said that “This is amazing! This is the great exchange.” We are co-opting that title except we are going to call it The Greatest Exchange. We are going to one-up Luther. Isn’t that always fun to do? 2 Corinthians 5:21. Four Oaks, today we are looking at one verse. Can you handle that? Just one.
Guests, you need to know that we are preaching through 2 Corinthians and that is our typical practice, to preach through books of the Bible and to take those books in chunks. Sometimes, though, we come across verses that are so profound, so world-view altering that we just need to camp out on that verse and 2 Corinthians 5:21 is one of those verses. In fact, I believe, and this is not pastoral hyperbole, these are 24 words that can literally change your life and give you hope wherever you are. Lets read that verse and get to it. 2 Corinthians 5:21
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Lord, some of us may have never thought deeply at all about our salvation. So we are asking that you would give us an encounter with your word that really shapes our heart, that shapes our mind, that shapes our worship, that shapes our life. That gives us a renewed sense of what you have done for us and how you did it. Lord, we are asking that because we think that it would honor you for our souls to find their joy in you. For a lot of us, we need renewal. We are flat. We need spiritual vigor. We need a renewed heart. I am praying that you would give it through your word, this one little verse, 24 little words. Lord, would you do that? In Jesus name, amen.
I’m sure you have all heard of Rollen Stewart, right? Charles, have you heard of him? He has not. I had not either until I found out that Rollen Stewart was aka “The Rainbow Man” in the 1980s. Remember that guy? He’s that guy. He is the guy that went around to all of the major sporting events either wearing a shirt that said John 3:16, holding up a sign that said John 3:16. You children of the 80s surely have a vivid memory of this man. He would pop up in all the most unusual places. (while pointing to a photo on the projection screen) That is really disconcerting. Can we take that off immediately? Ok he would show up to the Indie 500 or The Masters. Jack Nicolson would be teeing off and there is Mr. John 3:16 in the background. He was at World Cup & the Olympics. In fact, he made it to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di. This man would carry around a portable, battery operated TV, which, in the 80s, I’m not even sure what that was. Perhaps as big as this podium? I don’t know. He would look at where all the TV cameras were strategically place and then he would place himself strategically there. He was like where is Waldo. He was always in the picture.
What is interesting about this is that this idea of John 3:16 became so ubiquitous in our culture that people who didn’t even know anything about Christianity or anything about Jesus and never went to church could probably recite John 3:16. I bet that is the case for you. If you are a Christian you most certainly can. If this is your first day in church, you might have even heard of John 3:16. I learned it in Sunday School with the King James Version, because I don’t think there is any other version to learn this verse in, right?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Now, if you are a Christian, and someone were to ask you “How do you become a Christian?” or “What does it mean to be a Christian?” You might very possibly recite John 3:16. It is very simple. God loved me. He sent his Son to die for me. My sins are forgiven. I now have eternal life. In fact, that is the way Paul has been describing the life and death of Jesus here in 2 Corinthians 5 that we have been unpacking the last few weeks. You don’t necessarily need to turn thee, but if you have your Bibles, let me just note a few of those places where Paul echoes what John says in John 3:16.
Verse 15 Paul tells us that Jesus died. Verse 17 says that we are now a new creation in Christ. Verse 18 it says that Christ has reconciled us, or brought us together to God through himself. Verse 19 says that God no longer counts our sins against us. Now, for many of us Christians, John 3:16 is as far as some of us go in terms of understanding how God really saves us. You know what? That is not a bad thing. It is the simple gospel. It is, as we say, I believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ. Jesus loves me this I know. I don’t want to denigrate that. At the same time, Paul does have something else to say to us about how it is exactly that God moves us from darkness to light. How our sins are dealt with and how he accepts us as righteous in his sight. Paul, in verse 21, is going to sort of pull back the layers of the theological onion. He is going to get right to the core and he is going to put it right in front of our face. The heart of the gospel. The very heart of how he saves you and how he saves me.
Before you check out and say, “Pastor, this is just a lot of theological mumbo jumbo. It just confuses me. It is not that important.” Let me tell you why I think Paul does this for us. See, because Paul could have stopped in verse 20. Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. But, he goes on and gives us verse 21 “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Why does Paul do that?
Husbands, never too early to start planning for Valentines Day. If you don’t know how many days it is until Valentine’s Day, ask your wife. She knows, which probably means you need to make some reservations at the Melting Pot. If you haven’t made your reservations at the Melting Pot, its too late. They are already booked. And I know, because I tried, and I was shut out. Lets just say I want to honor my wife for Valentines Day. Let’s pretend I say, “Honey, lets go out to eat.” Then, we are out to eat and I give her a card. In this card it says, “Dear Susan, You are a great wife, you are a great mom. I love you. You’re the best.” Now, what does that get on a scale of 1-10, honey? I don’t know, a 7 maybe? Pretty good. We went out to dinner and I got her a card. Men, we are doing pretty good, right?
Now, how much more honoring to her would it be if in that card I said something more. Not different. Just, more. Richer, deeper. Sweetheart, you are the most beautiful wife in the world. You are sweet, you are kind. You’re an amazing mom. You get up at 5:40 every morning to do what only moms can do at 5:40am, which is, I’m not even sure what. But, things are ironed and food is on the table and so thank you for that. You are my best friend. I want to hang out with you. You’re the greatest.
Do we see now how my 6 rose to maybe a 9 or 10? Its going to be a good Valentines Day! I’m just saying that is more honoring because it is richer. It is more specific. It is real. Just saying ,“I love you” over and over and over again without connecting those words to the heart of the relationship or to the meat or substance of that love, what will happen? Love will lose its luster and meaning over time, won’t it?
The same thing happens in salvation. The same thing happens spiritually. Ignorant of how salvation works and what exactly God saved us from and how exactly he saved us will inevitably lead to a devaluing of that salvation over time. Here is what happens as a consequence. Are you feeling dry today? Are you feeling spiritually worn down? Are you feeling spiritually depleted? No joy? I don’t know where you are. Affections for God are on the wane? I think Paul, in this text, gives us verse 21 because he wants to expand our joy in the Lord. He wants us to understand anew and afresh how God really demonstrated his love for us. He could have left it at verse 20 but I think he wants us to go deep. I think he wants us to go closer. I think he wants us to be impacted anew by understanding exactly how exactly this whole salvation thing works. How does a holy God, infinitely holy, come to connect with people like us? When you think about it, it is just astounding.
There are three things we are going to look at in verse 21 with this exchange. 1) The motive of this exchange. 2) The means of this exchange 3) The mechanism or how does it all come together. Lets look at the motive first. Look back on the verse. Paul says that “for our sake” (that is us/our) “he” (lets get our pronouns straight because that is referring to God) “God made.” Lets just stop there for a second. Can I continue on our Valentines Day motif? Matt Russo, is this making you uncomfortable? Have you made your Valentine’s Day plans yet? Yeah? Ok good. He’s wearing a pink shirt in size medium. So here is the question, ladies. Can you measure love? Think about that for a second.
Susan and I knew a couple in Jackson Mississippi where the wife on Valentine’s Day wrote a card to hubby. She put it on the counter so that when he came home he would be able to open that card and read it and share in the love and all that stuff. As they were getting to go to bed that night, she realized that he had not yet opened that card. She thought that’s interesting so they got up the next morning, February 15th, and as he is getting ready to go to work, once again, he has not read the card. Women, what would you do at this point? Prepare a place on the couch or whatever? She said, you know what? I’m just going to see what he does. Men, don’t you hate it when they do that? It is usually not good. She is giving him the rope to hang himself. She waited one day, two days, three days, four days, come the 14th day, our man finally reads his card.
Now, ladies, let me ask you again, can you measure love? Oh yes. Love can be measured by the actions it produces and let me tell you, this woman was measuring and her husband was coming up very short. Guys, you can measure God’s love. You can and you can’t. On one hand, we can’t measure an infinite God’s love, but on the other hand, Paul says yes you can.
Here is how you can measure God’s love. When the text says “for our sake, God made him to be sin” in other words, he made him a sin sacrifice for us, that should cue us in, particularly if you are a parent, right? That God’s love has produced the greatest sacrifice humanly speaking, that we would say is possible. Parents, you know this. I am looking around at a lot of you and I know there are people here who have lost children. Nothing, nothing is probably more heart wrenching than losing a child.
Susan’s family is in Jackson Tennessee and they go to Fellowship Bible Church and there is a family who was recently starting to attend that church. You may have read about this family on Fox News or CNN. It is a national story. Their 2-year-old boy has gone missing and to this point is still missing. Grandma was out on the farm with his sister and was attending to his sister and she looked away and he just vanished. Seventy-two hours later, they are still hunting. All of us as parents, that is just a terror, is it not?
That is a huge fear to think about losing a child, that is more than a parent or almost anything. It is one thing to lose a child. It is quite another to give up that child willingly and it is something we can’t even conceive to give up that child to someone who not only doesn’t like you, but hates you and doesn’t want anything to do with you.
Now, that analogy is limited, but if you even get a glimpse of it, you being to understand why Paul says “for our sake”. We were enemies of God. We were hostile to the things of God. We can dress up in our religious clothes and memorize our catechisms and all that but make no mistake, lots of people who grow up in that context don’t want anything to do with God. I want to do what I want when I want how I want to do it. God is kept at arms distance. This is how the scripture, and this is not politically correct, this is how the scriptures describe you and me. Totally dead. Totally lost. The wrath of God being poured out on us. Enemies of the cross and here is what is doubly damnable, we can’t do anything about it. We can’t do anything about it. Often times we don’t even know it. We don’t even know our precarious state. The question is, what did God do?
I will tell this story about one of our kids, but I wont tell you which child, because it could quite possibly ruin their very existence, ok? Or get them kicked off Instagram. One of those things could happen. Can I just call our child an “it”? No? Ok, so one of our children was taking, and it was a girl, was taking a nap and she must have been 12 or 18 months old and she woke up from a nap, crying. Parents, you know that thing where your child wakes up before they should and they kind of give that cry like something is really wrong? You are thinking, should I go in there? You probably should. So, I walk in there, and I’ll keep this at the rated G version, there had been a, should I say, an explosion, ok? You know what I’m talking about? The explosion was kind of everywhere, you know what I mean, but it was particularly on the child who was crying.
I just remember her little face looked up, I have 3 daughters so you don’t know who I’m talking about. So, she looks up and she is covered and she knows she is helpless and I know she is helpless and she knows that I know that she is helpless. She can’t do anything, she can’t clean her self, she can’t change. It was one of those things. So, what did I do as a parent? I didn’t have to think, right? I was just immediately drawn. Immediately compelled to move towards her to do something for her. She would probably still be in that crib crying. 16 years later. Or 15. Um, or 8 or 9, whatever. Who knows. It was a gut level reaction. Not a moment’s hesitation.
Guys, when it says here “for our sake”, Paul means that God has compassion for us in our helplessness. In our hostility, that is even more profound. And is then is moved to action to help a people who don’t want his help or even know that they need his help. That is why in the previous verse that we looked at last week, it says that God is the reconciler. Here is what this means. Paul does not say, “Christian! Reconcile yourself to God!” He does not say that because you don’t have that power. You were not the aggrieved. You were not the sinned against. With God, only one person can initiate that process and that is him. Paul says “be reconciled to God.” It is the passive, what does it mean? Receive. Receive God’s offer of reconciliation. God’s heart is moved towards those, not just those that are helpless, but those who are helpless and don’t even want to know him. God, for our sake, God. That is motive.
Now to the heart of the verse. The means. How does God do the reconciling? There is two parts of this. The first part is that God made him, meaning Jesus, to be sin who knew no sin. The second part of the means is so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. We are a culture that is highly in tune to the idea of fairness. Your kids might be highly in tune to the idea of fairness as you are passing out dessert and someone else’s is bigger by one millimeter. Fairness was once defined as everyone had an equal opportunity. That is not how fairness is defined anymore, is it? Fairness is now that everyone gets the same outcome. We see this everywhere. Little league sports. When I was growing up, I know you love it when parents say that, fairness was that everyone gets to participate. What is fairness now? Everyone wins and gets a trophy and the coach gets sued if your child doesn’t get a big enough one. School. Everyone gets a chance at an education. Now its become everyone deserves the same grade regardless of how much work they did or did not do. Everybody gets a little smiley face sticker on their report card, right? Social policy. Let’s start stepping on toes politically. Everyone gets a chance to get a job has morphed into everyone is paid the same whether they work or not. That is fair. Guys, this has infected religion. If you want to know why there is such a cultural hard stance against Christianity, increasingly so, it is because it does not seem fair that there is only one way to God through Jesus. That is just fundamentally unfair.
Now, Paul is going to reorient our idea of what fair and unfair is. He is going to describe the greatest injustice in the history of the universe. This injustice is why you and I are sitting here today. Here is what it is, lets look at the text. God took Jesus and it says “made him to be sin” even though he “knew no sin”, so what does that mean? This idea of “knew no sin”, there is a difference in knowing and then KNOWING. You know what I’m saying? There is something about knowing facts about something and then knowing something in a deep personal way. The Greek word here means “knowledge”, not just head knowledge, but “knowledge gained by personal participation.” Having a personal experience with something. That is what the word means.
I was going to say that this is a confession. This is not a confession because I have said this many times. We are reality show junkies in the Gilbert house. We have to have a TV in every room to make sure there is always something going on reality-wise. Not quite true, but almost. We know all about reality shows, right? We know facts, and people, and episodes and recipes and whatever. There is a former 4-Oakster, I think her parents are here in the back, where are the Schaeffers? They will be signing autographs in the lobby. Their daughter Rachel Schaeffer used to be in our youth group and is currently starring on the Food Network reality show on Sunday nights “Worst Cooks in America” . Now, I’m not saying, Schaeffers, that she is one of the worst cooks in America, but Food Network is and that is like a big deal.
Now, the Gilberts, we know a lot about reality shows, but we don’t KNOW reality shows, right? We haven’t actually participated in one, we don’t have the experience of one. That is what Paul is saying here in regards to Jesus. Jesus cognitively knew sin. Of course he did. He was tempted, but he was sinless. He didn’t participate. Does this blow you away? As a man he did not participate in sin. He had no experience in sin. Neither outwardly in action, nor inwardly in attitude. This is the clear testimony of scripture from top to bottom. One verse, and I bet you are familiar with it, is Hebrews 4:15
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”
Where is the injustice in this passage? God says I’m going to take him who knew no sin, done nothing wrong, perfectly pure, holy, and righteous and I’m going to make him to be sin. It doesn’t mean that God made him to be sinful or to commit acts of sin. What it means is that God was going to treat him as if he were a sinner. Now, understand something, he wasn’t simply going to treat Jesus as if he were a sinner, he was going to treat Jesus as if he were the worst of sinners or as the supreme sinner. Jesus wasn’t just dying for my sins or your sins. Jesus was dying for all the sins. All the sins past, present, and future to be committed by those who would come to know him. Every one of your sins, every one of my sins, and the very worst of sins. The sins no one knows about. Your gossip and my gossip and lust and lies and adultery and murder and the list goes on and on and on.
God says I’m going to look at Jesus and even though he was without sin, I’m going to do exactly what I would do if he had committed all of those sins. Here is something important to note, what Paul says in this passage. When Paul says “God made him” this is not saying that man killed Jesus and God used it for good. That is not what this means. To make means to cause. To have a specific appointment and divine authority. God did not merely allow Jesus to die. He planned it, he caused it, he promised it, he purposed it. Acts 2:23 tells us this, that even though Jesus was killed by the hands of lawless men, you see that, that it was according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.
I wonder what this was like. I don’t think we can begin to fathom, to be quite honest, but I think Paul wants us to think about it for a second. The way that God treated Jesus as if he were, in fact, the embodiment of sin, is that he poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross. Galatians 3:13 says that Jesus became accursed for us. God cursed him. Can I put this in our vernacular? Parents, in all seriousness, you may have to explain this to your kids afterwards that we are not “cursing” up here. God damned his Son.
Do you know why it is so egregious to damn someone? To ask God to damn someone? Because we have no idea what we are asking. We haven’t a clue the infinite ill we have wished upon someone’s soul. God says that I’m going to take my wrath like in this big bowl, which is just a symbol, and I’m just going to dump it on him. Make no mistake, you may say “Well, that doesn’t seem too crazy. He was up there on the cross maybe 3-5 hours.” Guys, if we were to experience that for one second we would beg God just to end it now. We would literally disintegrate. We would come unglued. We would be just like Isaiah who just got a smidge of it and Isaiah wasn’t even being judged! Isaiah looked at the holiness of God and what does he say? Whoa is me. God, your curse, literally, I am undone. That is what God did to his own Son.
Many of you have seen the movie The Passion of the Christ and it is a riveting movie. It probably, unlike any movie that I know, depicts the physical sufferings of Jesus in their grim, real light. But, let me tell you why I’m not a big fan of movies that depict the life of Jesus. It is impossible to communicate on screen the essence of this: There is no way to capture the heart of Jesus’ eternal suffering on that cross. He had the unmediated wrath of God was poured out on [him]. It should have happened for you. It should have happened for me. That is why hell will be so awful. This is why the love of Christ must compel us to tell our neighbors, our friends, our family members. If you knew for a second what heaven was like, you would want to be like Paul thinking I want to go there. I’m done. I’ve seen it. Guys, if we knew hell for one second, we would be compelled, we would be motivated. Pray that God would give you a fresh glimpse of that for your soul, your salvation, and for those who don’t know him. That is half the story.
Here is the other half of this exchange. Let’s look back at the text. God made Jesus to be sin, treated him as a sinner, so that we might become the righteousness of God. As we said before, Luther called this the great exchange or the great swap. Theologians have called this double imputation, which is theological jargon, but let me explain what is going on here. Everything that was true about Jesus in the negative like that God cursed him, was true for us except in reverse. Let me unpack that. Was Jesus sinful? No, but God treats him as if he is.
Here is what is amazingly profound. Ask God to open your heart and expand your joy and expand your vision for what happens because God doesn’t simply forgive you and get you back to ground zero so that you can start working again and trying again and laboring again. No no no. You are not righteous. I am not righteous. But, here is the beauty of the gospel. God treats you as if you were. Everything that is true of Jesus, that he is perfect and that he is a Son and that he is righteous and that there is truth in him and union with God is now true for you who are in Christ. The way he does this is he takes the righteousness of Christ, he credits it to your account as if it is yours. It is not a loan. You can’t add to it. He looks at that righteousness in your account and he knows you didn’t put it there. He put it there. Jesus did it on behalf of you, and I declare you 100% accepted in my sight. You have a new status. You are a son of the living God. You are 100% righteous in my eyes.
You may say, “But Pastor Paul, I sin.” 100% righteous in his eyes. You may experientially sin but that does not change your status with God. It changes your communion. It changes your fellowship. You can think about this even in a marriage you may argue in a marriage and your relationship is disrupted, but at the end of the day you can come back and say we are committed, we worked through it, we love because we have this covenant. God says that I have a covenant with you through my Son and you are 100% righteous in my sight.
A number of years ago, Susan and I had some unexpected home repair expenses. We looked at the savings account and we looked at the invoice from the contractor and we realized there was a problem. We didn’t have any money. So, my parents came into town and we thought we were going to have to take a personal loan out from the bank. We were talking to my parents and my dad said, “You know there is no need to take a personal loan out from the bank. Let us loan you the money to you with no interest.” It took me about one millisecond and I was like “Yes! I’ll take that deal! Thank you Dad! Thank you very much.” In the middle of that whole process, Dad comes back and says, “You know that loan? Well, we want to make it a gift.” That money is now going to be credited to your banking account. Used to pay the contractor. The contractor does not care where the money comes from, right? The contractor just wants his money. But, the point being, that when God credits to us Jesus’ righteousness, it is not a loan. We don’t deplete it. We don’t run it down to zero. I think, if we can just understand this in a fresh way it would totally revolutionize our walk in grace and our struggle against sin.
Let’s be honest. Christian, when you struggle with sin, and I struggle with sin, what is our great temptation? Our great temptation is to forget who we are and to say, “Oh my gosh. I’ve messed up. I’ve blown it. I’ve screwed up. It is now time (even if we don’t consciously think this) to start rebuilding the righteousness account.” If I can do my quiet times and be kind to my kids and loving to my spouse and serve in children’s ministry, or whatever those things are, then I’m going to feel better about myself. Guys, the way God has felt about you has not changed. Your status remains. Yes, God wants you to grow in grace. He wants you to grow in righteousness. He wants you to grow in holiness. But, the way that happens is to understand that there is no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus. You cannot deplete the righteousness of Christ on your behalf. Guys, this is so hard for us to get. I think in a capitalistic culture it is particularly hard to get. We are wired that we have to earn everything. Paul says that is not the heart of the great exchange. You see, Jesus has been given your sin. God treated him as a sinner. You have been given the righteousness of Christ. I am now treating you as if you are righteous even though you are not.
The prodigal son, we are so familiar with it, depicts the scandal of God’s grace in all its glory. The young son who has gone off and squandered his inheritance in a foreign country, he comes back and what does he say? “Just give me a place in the servant’s quarters, Father. Just let me live on your doorstep.” The Father is like no way. Shut up. Bring the robe! Bring the crown! Bring the fatted calf. I’m concerned about your holiness the Father would say. Yes, I want you to grow in grace. But, it happens by you not forgetting who you are.
Last piece and we are done: the mechanism. How does it happen? Two minutes. Really what we are asking here is: how is this exchange activated? How is it made true for you? Let me tell you something, as someone who has grown up in church my whole life. It is possible to know everything about imputation. It is possible to know all the questions and answers in the catechisms. It is possible to know all about double imputation and the righteousness of Christ and reconciliation and sin and God’s initiative and still be lost. There are a lot of religious people still lost. We forget one thing. Lets look back at the verse. Tucked there in the middle there is a little phrase so that “in Him”. In Him. You and I must be joined to Jesus through faith. That is why we can, in this time, like Paul’s appeal we can be reconciled to God. Receive the reconciliation that he has offered through this great exchange. Forgiveness, peace, righteousness and sins paid for. Received from God. Eternally costly to him. Free for you. Nothing you can do to earn it. Nothing you can do or say when God has regenerated your heart. Are you a participant in the greatest exchange? Four Oaks, are you praying that God would stir your hearts to recapture the glory of what he has done for us?