I was talking with a friend recently who does counseling in a secular context. She told me how challenging it is to introduce spiritual themes in the workplace. Given our society’s insistence on the separation of church and state, she’s encouraged to address her clients physiological and psychological problems but not any spiritual problems they may have. This outlook is a good example of what Paul is speaking about in our passage. It represents a worldly—or some of your translations might use the more literal “fleshly”[1]—point of view. In short, a worldly outlook is one that seeks to understand life without taking into consideration matters of the spirit or of God. A worldly perspective doesn’t necessarily deny that God or the soul exists but rather asserts that since their existence can neither be proved nor disproved, it’s best not to take them into consideration when making a determination about something. So my friend is expected to treat her clients as though their problems stem from causes that may be

social, i.e., the clients may not have a cohesive family unit or supportive community;

or material, i.e., they may not have the financial means of getting by;

or psychological, i.e., because of mental health issues, they may have difficulty coping in life;

or physical, i.e., they may have physical challenges that contribute to their problem.

To so view others as purely physical entities is an example of a worldly perspective; of a perspective that won’t even take into consideration the possibility that although some or all of these factors may no doubt be contributing to people’s brokenness that perhaps, additionally, they’re lacking a spiritual connection with the God who made them.

In the first verse of our morning’s passage, Paul makes clear that this way of seeing others ought not be. Because a Christian’s point of view centers on and revolves around Christ, that very belief in Jesus—that he is who he claimed to be by his words and demonstrated himself to be by his deeds—should have a radical effect upon our entire outlook. Therefore Paul asserts in verse 16, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” Again, regarding people from a worldly, or a fleshly, point of view is regarding them from a perspective other than how God sees them. Now in addition to considering others as purely physical entities, as just noted, there are other worldly ways of viewing people:

We might have a Darwinian understanding in which we view others as obstacles to overcome that we might benefit;

or we might have a mechanistic view in which humans are but tiny cogs in an impersonal, meaningless, and vast cosmos;

or we might have a naturalistic view in which humans are but animals, no better or worse than any other part of creation.

But, again, these are worldly perspectives; these are fleshly perspectives. And instead of viewing others like this, believers in Christ are to view humans as those whom God has made in his very own image; in his very own likeness; akin to nothing else in all of his creation. This is the heavenly perspective on humans; this is the godly perspective.

Indeed, Paul goes on to observe that one can have a worldly, fleshly perspective even in how we view Jesus. As Paul states, “Though we once regarded Christ in this way,”—that is, from a worldly point of view—“we do so no longer.” To regard Jesus Christ from a worldly point of view is to believe he is Jesus, but not Christ. In other words, to regard Jesus in a worldly manner is to believe that a man named Jesus existed; that perhaps he was a good man; that perhaps he was a moral man; that perhaps he was an enlightened teacher but surely he wasn’t God. He wasn’t God who brought the world into being.[2] He wasn’t God who entered human history in the flesh that he might deliver humanity and all creation from all that afflicts and harms it. He may have died on the cross but he surely didn’t rise from death to eternal life for such a thing is impossible for humans. All of these represent a worldly perspective on Jesus. And when Paul uses the first person plural, “we,” he isn’t simply incorporating a stylistic “royal we” but he’s including himself as one of those who once regarded Jesus in this way. For as we know, though Paul was always religious, by his own testimony a committed and zealous Jew, he didn’t always believe that Jesus was Christ’s Messiah. And in fact, prior to coming to a saving faith in Christ, Paul was actively involved in persecuting those who did believe in Jesus.[3] Yet upon encountering the risen Christ, Paul’s perspective was transformed from a worldly, fleshly perspective to a heavenly, godly one for he came to believe the truth that Christ Jesus is indeed God’s promised Messiah sent to deliver those who are willing to believe in him from all evil, death, and sin.

Therefore, again, what we have in Paul’s words isn’t an abstract truth but a truth arising from his firsthand knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ. There was a time when Paul regarded Jesus as just a man—this is the worldly point of view; but then Paul came to regard him as the Christ he was, eternal Son of the heavenly Father who came to earth in human form to deliver us from our sins and evil—this is the heavenly view. Therefore to believe in Christ and in his teachings means that we not only have a heavenly perspective of other people, of his fallen image-bearers. But it also means that those fallen image-bearers who have placed their faith and trust in Christ will have their entire being changed. As Paul states in verse 17, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” If anyone is in Christ, that is, if anyone believes that he is who he said he is and thereby gives their life over to him, that individual is united to Christ by his Holy Spirit whom he sends to all who are his. If we are in in Christ then a new reality has taken place in our lives. As one commentator notes, “Union with Christ summarizes our experience of redemption. Believers are elected[4]…, justified[5]…, sanctified[6]…, and glorified[7]… ‘in Christ.’”[8] As a result of this union, the old creation, what we all are apart from Christ, has been put to death.

Now when we were part of the former old, fallen creation, our lives were typified by fleshly acts and desires. As summarized by Paul in Galatians, “19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”[9] Attitudes and deeds like these comprise an earthly, fleshly perspective. But for those who are new creations in and because of Christ, our lives should now be typified by heavenly acts and desires that reflect that very union in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit he has sent us. As Paul goes on to summarize in Galatians, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”[10] These acts and attitudes comprise a heavenly perspective. And if we are a new creation, that is, if we have turned from our former ways to follow Christ and his ways, then we have been sealed[11] by Christ’s Spirit and are indwelled[12] by the very same Holy Spirit who is at work in us to change our orientation from worldly to heavenly, from ungodly to godly.

But this isn’t a change that you and I can bring about in and of ourselves or by our own self-discipline and willing. Even the person with the greatest self-discipline will be unable to change their attitudes and behavior for we are unable to change the nature of our hearts. Rather, as Paul teaches in verse 18, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ….” Now this begs the question: Why would we need to be reconciled to God? Or in other words, why would we need friendly relations restored between us and God? The reason is because prior to coming to faith in Christ, we were enemies of God. To again quote Paul from his letter to the Colossians, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” [13]—This is the case prior to anyone coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ. This is the worldly perspective. “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation….”[14]—This is the case for all who have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ. This is the heavenly perspective. This radical change in our hearts and lives is made possible through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, for God was pleased “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”[15]

And as Jesus did, so he calls those who follow him to go and do likewise. Starting at the end of verse 18, we’re told that God in Christ “gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” This ministry of reconciliation, this ministry of helping others go from being enemies of God to being friends of God begins with teaching and telling others, verse 19, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Did you hear that? In Christ, friendly relations are restored between us, who once viewed God as our enemy, and God. And these relations are restored to the degree that God isn’t counting our sins against us. No matter how big or small, in Christ all of our sins have been forgiven; all of our bad behavior; all of our poor attitudes; all of our selfishness; all of our pride; all of our indifference toward God and those around us; all of this has been forgiven for those who know, believe, love, and follow Jesus Christ. And if God doesn’t count our sins against him, who are we to count the sins of others against them? Again, God’s behavior towards us becomes the basis of our behavior towards others. Therefore we’re to forgive each other “seventy times seven times”—we’re to forgive each other each and every time we sin and seek that forgiveness because this is how forgiving God is towards us.[16] Again, the basis for believers forgiving each other is that this is how God in Christ has forgiven us.[17] Therefore Paul states for a second time at the end of verse of 19 that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” What we’ve so freely received from God, we’re to freely pass along to others.

As stated in verse 20, part of our identity as followers of Christ is that “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” According to the dictionary, an ambassador is “an accredited diplomat sent by a country as its official representative to a foreign country” or “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.” In my position teaching theology at various Christian institutions over the years, on occasion I’ve been asked to write a recommendation for a student applying for a Fullbright scholarship. According to its homepage, “the Fulbright Scholarship Program sponsors U.S. and foreign participants for exchanges in all areas of endeavor, including the sciences, business, academe, public service, government, and the arts and continues to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”[18] Because of its focus on increasing “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries,” a question I’ve been asked on the Fullbright recommendation forms that doesn’t usually appear in other recommendation letters is this: How do you think this application will represent the United States to another culture? With the ugly, pushy, entitled American view that other countries sometimes complain about, you can see why this would be an important question to include.

And for Christians, our true, or at least our final home, is to be in heaven with Christ. Heaven is our true, our final, country. And as those who have been made new creations in Christ, creatures made for heaven, as Christ’s ambassadors we’re now called to bring the truth and realities of heaven to bear upon our lives on earth. Therefore God in Christ calls us to act and interact and love and teach others even as Jesus did while he was on earth. Again, Christ Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit not only that we might be united to the triune God; not only that we might be united to all believers past, present, and future; but also that we might be his ambassadors, that we might represent God and his ways to those who don’t yet know him in order that they, too, might desire and receive the very reconciliation with God in Christ that we have received. And as believers in Christ who have been called to be his ambassadors in the way we represent him to nonbelievers, I think it’s worth asking ourselves the same question found on the Fullbright Scholarship form: How are we representing Christ to those around us? If we were the only means someone had of learning about Jesus, what would others conclude?

Would others conclude Jesus hates sinners or has compassion for them?

Would they conclude that Jesus is a hypocrite, saying one thing but doing another?

Would they conclude Jesus is selfless or selfish?

Would they conclude that Jesus is kind or cruel?

Compassionate or indifferent?

As Christ’s ambassadors, what are we telling the world about who Jesus is? If, in Paul’s words in verse 20, God were making his appeal through us, what would that appeal, that “serious or urgent request,” look like? Would that appeal be appealing? Would it be attractive to others? Would it catch their interest? Or would they be put off by a sense of self-righteousness? Of our coming off “holier than thou”? I fear that too often we can be poor ambassadors in this regard.

Therefore how do we appeal to others, how do we implore others on Christ’s behalf to “Be reconciled to God” as Paul exhorts these Corinthians? How do we pass along the astonishing and awesome good news, verse 21, that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? Isn’t this the heart of the Gospel? Isn’t this the heart of the Good News God in Christ came to earth to bring? God calls us to share with others this incredible exchange he has made available in Jesus Christ: namely, that Jesus took our sin upon himself and in doing so he thereby declared all who have accepted his offer of forgiveness to be righteous, to be without sin, for he has taken our sin away and thereby made us new creations who are sinless. As Peter puts it, referencing Isaiah 53, “24 ‘[Christ] himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ 25 For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”[19]

The implications of this heavenly perspective are worth pondering because they’re astounding. Since death came through sin, through disobedience to God, our dying to sin through Christ has reverberations not only in this life but for all eternity. During the earthly part of our lives, Christ’s taking our sins upon himself on the cross means that when God looks upon us, he sees his Son’s obedience and thereby declares us righteous. As Paul teaches elsewhere, “22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith….”[20] Because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, all who have placed their faith in him are viewed by God as if we had never sinned; as if we are already holy. And therefore all who have placed their faith in Christ are embraced as God’s children, never to be let go by him. This is why Paul testifies in his letter to the Philippians, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”[21] Our obedience, our attempts to be good people, noble though they may be, will always fall short of the perfect holiness God designed us for. This is why he’s given us the righteousness of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But this holiness, this righteousness God has given us in Christ is also his guarantee that even when the earthly part of our lives has passed, even death will be unable to separate us from the love of our gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[22] Paul puts it this way in Romans: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”[23] Our union with Christ means that in his death, we died to sin; and in his rising from death, in his conquering death, never to die again, we have been granted his eternal life. But the only way to have this eternal life is by the means our heavenly Father has provided through his Son who then sends us his eternal Holy Spirit in order that the union forged between us and him might never again be broken.

But Christ’s becoming a curse and dying for our sins means not only that we are declared righteous through him in this life;

and his resurrection from death means not only that we have been granted eternal life once our earthly lives are past;

but, as we’ve been considering this morning, our union with Christ by his Spirit means that we are to be ambassadors for him, ever seeking to restore friendly relations with others. As Paul exhorts the church at Philippi, “1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”[24]

Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to be Jesus’ ambassadors. This is what is means to have a heavenly perspective: To love others as he has loved; to look to the interests of others as he has looked to our interests; to point others to the God who made them, letting them know that he desires for them to be reconciled to him; to turn to him. He desires to cover their sins by Christ’s death for them. He desires that their passivity or indifference or hostility towards Christ be replaced by the friendly relations he died and rose to offer that they, too, might know him and his love for them both now and forevermore.

So let us pray that with God’s help in Christ; and with one another’s help; and with the guidance of his Holy Spirit and his written Word, we—individually and as a family—will be his ambassadors and live out the heavenly perspective he give as we rejoice in his love for us and seek to share that love with all who cross our paths.

Let us pray.

[1] The Greek word for flesh is found in the passage, κατὰ σάρκα (according to the flesh) and is translated literally by ESV and KJV but may be translated as worldly (NIV) or human perspective (RSV).

[2] John 1:1–3, 10: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made….10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

[3] See Sermon preached on April 1, 2018 Easter Sunday, Birth in Christ, on 1 Corinthians 15:1–11.

[4] Ephesians 1:4, 11: 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:…. 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,

[5] Romans 8:1: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:2: To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

[7] 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Another relevant passage is Romans 8:30: And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

[8] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on 2 Corinthians 5:17.

[9] Galatians 5:19–21.

[10] Galatians 5:22–23.

[11] Ephesians 4:30: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

[12] 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

[13] Colossians 1:21.

[14] Colossians 1:22.

[15] Colossians 1:20. See also Romans 5:9–11: Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

[16] Matthew 18:21–22: 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[Or seventy times seven]

[17] Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.; Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

[18] https://www.cies.org/about-us/about-senator-j-william-fulbright.

[19] 1 Peter 2:24–25. Peter references Isaiah 53:4–6:Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

[20] Romans 3:22–25a.

[21] Philippians 3:8–9.

[22] Romans 8:39–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[23] Romans 6:8–11.

[24] Philippians 2:1–4.