If you would turn in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 5; it can be found on page 966 in your pew Bibles. And we’re going to look at one verse tonight, verse 21. And really, if you get anything from our time studying God’s Word together tonight, it would be a great benefit to you just to memorize this verse, if you haven’t done so already because this verse is a sermon that we need to hear every day. We need to preach this verse to ourselves until the day that we die. So let’s give our attention to God’s Word. Before we do so, let me pray again.
Our Father, we give You thanks for Your Word. We give You thanks for calling us to worship You and to hear You, that You speak to us. And Father, we ask that You would speak to us tonight through this verse. We ask that You would grow us in our love for Christ, our faith in Him, our devotion to Him and that You would do that by the Holy Spirit for Your glory and for our good. And we pray these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
Let’s look at 2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 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.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever. I want us to think about this verse tonight along two lines, two points. And the first is the guilt of the righteous. And then secondly the righteousness of the guilty. The guilt of the righteous and the righteousness of the guilty.
The Guilt of the Righteous
First is the guilt of the righteous. The righteous, the righteous one is Jesus. Jesus is the one who knew no sin. He knew no sin. There is nothing in Jesus that is selfish. There is nothing in Jesus that is unloving or impatient or rash. Everything about Jesus is pure and holy and spotless and upright. There is in the Biblical portraits of Jesus a captivating beauty about Him. In fact, there is nothing that is so beautiful as Jesus. Everything He did was in complete obedience to His Father’s will. He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. It was His food. His most basic desire was to obey His Father. He was always about His Father’s work. And He lived in closest fellowship and communion with His Father. He told His disciples that, “I and the Father are one.” He would spend extended and intense times of communion with God, praying to the Father and meditating on His Word. And He received affirmations at multiple times throughout His ministry where God spoke to Him and said, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
Christ’s Wisdom and Power
And Jesus spoke and He taught with an unmistakable wisdom so that the crowds, they marveled at what He said. You remember in the gospels what the crowds would say of Jesus teaching – that He taught with authority and not like their scribes. They opposed Him at every step of the way and yet they were never able to trap Him in His Words; they were never able to find Him contradicting Himself or the Scriptures. But instead, He spoke with wisdom in a way that was simple and clear and He illustrated it with stories. He illustrated it with every day, common objects and experiences that the people could grasp. And His message was consistent. It was consistently and strikingly countercultural. He taught that the first will be last and the last will be first. Not only did He demonstrate His authority in the way that He taught but He also demonstrated His authority in His great works of power. He would heal the sick and cast out the demons and raise the dead. He would demonstrate these with great signs of power that He was bringing in the kingdom of heaven, the blessings of the new creation into this fallen world. And even in Jesus’ anger, when He was rebuking unbelief or when He was clearing out false worship from the temple, He did it every time out of righteous jealousy for God’s glory.
The Suffering of Jesus
And when it was time for Jesus’ ultimate humiliation – and make no mistake, Jesus’ entire life was a life of suffering; it was a life of lowliness and poverty and opposition – but when it came time for His greatest suffering, when He was betrayed and arrested, when He was tried and when He was hung on the cross, we see that Jesus took it all in complete submission to His Father. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” “He learned obedience by the things that he suffered.” C.H. Spurgeon says about Jesus that He was “replete in everything that was virtuous and good.” In everything that was virtuous and good. He knew no sin. His perfect righteousness, His character, His person, His work – it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful on a level which defies definition. It shatters all sorts of comparisons.
Think about those things that we would find undeniably beautiful. A newborn baby’s face. The birds and the flowers in your backyard. A mountain view or a sunset at the beach. A beautiful piece of music, a beautiful piece of art. They’re beautiful, but there’s really no agreement about what makes those things beautiful. And why is one thing more beautiful than the other? And yet we come to Jesus and there is a uniqueness in His beauty. He is the beauty of God Himself in His glory and His perfection, coming as a man in humility and obedience. When Paul writes here in verse 21 about “Him who knew no sin,” he writes about one who’s compelling beauty is that of one right with God. He is, as Hebrews 1 says, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his image.” Do you get the beauty of Christ? Do you get the beauty of Jesus that the Bible teaches to us and that Paul is writing here of the one who knew no sin?
The Ugliness of Sin
And yet, and yet in this one who is most beautiful, there is something ugly about His life as well. And the ugliness is this. It’s what Paul writes. It’s that “He made him to be sin.” The ugliness is the ugliness of sin. It is the awful reality of God’s judgment on sin. And we know about the ugliness of sin, don’t we? Not just from the effects of sin that we see in the world around us. We see it in natural disasters, disease, violence, death. We’ve all been impacted by reports this past week and beyond, even before this week, out of Syria. And you see the effects of sin in a fallen world. But we also see the evidence of the ugliness of sin just by the way our culture wants to remove the word “sin” from the modern vocabulary. Sin is an offensive word. And what is a greater sin in our culture than to be offensive, than to offend someone? And we’re not always that much better in the church, are we? We kind of tend towards little safer words like “brokenness” and “messiness.” And like a child who seems to be incapable of saying, “I’m sorry!” how hard do we find it at times to ask for forgiveness or to confess our sins to one another? Even when we’re in prayer, don’t we find that we kind of go to generalities and we confess our sin in general, generically, instead of confessing specific sins before God? Sin is ugly. It’s offensive to God.
Christ Was Made Sin
And there is no greater display of the awful sinfulness of sin than what we see at the cross when Jesus’ hands and feet are nailed to the wooden beam, His blood is pouring out to the ground, He’s at the point of death, and He cries out, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” The shame and the guilt and the condemnation that was placed on Jesus, Jesus drank the wrath of God. He drank that cup. He took the punishment that we deserve as sinners. He experienced alienation from the Father. You think about all the things that Jesus said when He was warning about the realities of hell – the weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s the anguish that Jesus took on the cross when He was made to be sin. If we want to try to grasp the dreadfulness of sin and the dreadfulness of sin’s punishment, look to Jesus on the cross. Look to Him on the cross. And what do we see? We see that this one who is of unmatched beauty is also one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” Why? Because He was made sin.
In 1945, the World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle, was shot and killed on the island of Il Shima. When they brought his body back, they recovered his last article, his last column. It was in his pocket unfinished. And in that column, this is what he wrote. I think it expresses something of the effects of sin in a fallen world. He says, “There are so many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold, dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass production, in one country after another, month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter; dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you almost come to hate them.” That term even, “monstrous infinity,” that hints at something of the punishment that was placed on Jesus. Not that it was monstrous because it is what sin deserves. It was justice and yet it is disturbing.
I was preparing this week and I looked at my phone in my office and it has a little button there and it says, “Do Not Disturb.” And you push that button and it will send calls to voicemail. How often do we wish we had a “Do Not Disturb” button? Do not disturb us with the effects and the consequences of sin. What we see here in this verse is, just as the beauty of Jesus is staggering, so is the ugliness of His being made sin. And yet, at the same time, He is still unimaginably beautiful. Why is that? Because what we see here, as the one who knew no sin, He was made sin out of sacrificial love. He was made sin, why? “For our sake!” You see, the guilt of the righteousness was necessary to accomplish the righteousness of the guilty.
The Righteousness of the Guilty
And that’s the second thing we see in this passage is, the righteousness of the guilty. Why was Jesus made to be sin? Why was He made to take the penalty for sin? It was “for our sake.” It was for His people. It was on behalf of the guilty. Isn’t that an amazing phrase? For us. For you. For me. If we were to translate this verse from the Greek, literally it would say, “The one not knowing sin, on our behalf, sin he was made.” You see that word, “on our behalf” or “for our sake” – it’s kind of sandwiched in there between sin on either side. This is the hinge on which this exchange took place; the purpose that this happened. That the one without sin was made sin for us.
I remember speaking to a member of our congregation, he passed away about a year ago, and he told me this story of when he was stationed in the military, he was in the service, and I think he was in the United States, he was still in training, and it came time for Christmas. And some of the men were sent home, they were relieved from duty to go home and be with their families for Christmas. Some had to stay and do some sort of menial jobs around the base over the Christmas holidays. He was on that list. He was on the list of those who had to stay and stay on duty during Christmas holiday. Well, out of no instigation of himself, one of his friends came to him and said, “I’ve taken your place. I’m not married; you have a family. You go home and be with them over Christmas. I’ll stay and do your job.” He was telling me this sixty or seventy years later. It still stuck in his mind that he would say about this exchange, “He did this for me. He did this for us.”
“For Our Sake”
You see, when we read this in this passage, “for our sake” this happened, do you see what that’s saying? It’s saying that God’s whole plan of salvation which He ordained from before the creation of the world, from all eternity, the whole message of the Bible, all of Jesus’ suffering and death, He did it for us. He did it for our sake. He took the wages of sin out of love for us. He was cursed in our place, as our substitute. And what’s so astounding about that is that what He took for us, He took because of us. You see, it was our sin that He took on Himself, that was placed on Him. It was His guilt on the cross that was our guilt; the guilt of all of His people – past, present, and future. And our guilt is deep. Our guilt is widespread.
You know, we live in a day of WikiLeaks and account hacks, and there are people in powerful positions that could be ruined if what they thought was done in secret is exposed. But I wonder how many of us, if there were text messages or conversation that were recorded and released, at the very least we’d be embarrassed and maybe have some strained relationships. See, our guilt is deep; it’s to the core. And our guilt against God deserves death and judgment. But Jesus took that guilt and He took that guilt fully. He took it “for our sake” so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. So that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God.
One In Christ
Think about that! Think about how much in this verse hangs on prepositional phrases. How much of our salvation is settled by prepositional phrases? There are two prepositional phrases in this verse – “for our sake” and “in Him.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His substitution was “for us.” The forgiveness of sin, the righteousness of Christ, and the blessings of God are ours in “Him.” It is only by trusting in Jesus, by going to Him in faith and believing and receiving Him as our Savior and Lord, that we are united to Him. We are found in Him. And when we are found in Him by faith, then His being made sin was for us. His punishment was the punishment that we deserve. His resurrection was our resurrection and our eternal life and His sinlessness, His righteousness, is our righteousness. When we are one in Christ, by faith and through the work of the Holy Spirit, then our sin is completely paid for, it’s washed away, it’s done away with. “Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds, we are healed.” We are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. And God looks at us and He sees the perfect righteousness of Jesus. He looks at us and He sees the obedience and the purity and the love and the goodness of Christ, of the Son of God. You know what that means? It means that God looks at us and He says, “You are beautiful!” It means that we are precious and beautiful in the sight of God.
I was listening to a radio show podcast the other day and the host was talking about the song, “You are so beautiful to me.” And he’s kind of talking about that song and he said, “That song starts out pretty well, ‘You are so beautiful.’ Sounds nice; sounds lovely. But then the writer says, ‘to me.’” It’s kind of insulting isn’t it, that you’re not beautiful to everybody; you’re just beautiful to me! See when God says that in Christ you are righteous, then you are beautiful to the core because you have been given a new heart, a new identity, and no matter how you may feel and no matter what people say, you are loved and secure in the sight of God and nothing can change that ever. What an amazing message that is that we find right here in this one little verse. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – it is a powerful teaching of the doctrines of justification and atonement. Those are two of the most critical doctrines in the Christian faith, in the Christian life. Atonement – that our punishment was taken by Jesus as our substitute. Justification – that we have had our sins forgiven and Christ’s righteous record is given to us in the place of our guilt. They’re precious truths.
Why is it that we need to preach these things to ourselves every day? Why is it that we need to hear the sermon of 2 Corinthians 5:21 every day of our lives? It’s because so many of our problems are righteousness problems. And that affects all of us. I was reading something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones said once. If you know Lloyd-Jones, he was a doctor in Great Britain and later in his career he changed and became a pastor. He’s considered maybe the greatest preacher of the 20th century. And Lloyd-Jones said that as a doctor he would have pastors that would come to him and they would complain of experiencing headaches, having a nervous stomach, and those sorts of things. And he kind of thought, “Well this is kind of a neurotic bunch, isn’t it?” And then he became a pastor and he started experiencing headaches and a nervous stomach! I wonder how much of that is due to the stress of others’ expectations.
And just as an attempt at some sort of pastoral transparency tonight, how many times I may be visiting someone in our congregation who won’t remember that I’m there in a few minutes. And I think, “I’m not going to get credit for this!” Do I need credit for this? What is my righteousness? My righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. What can be better than that? What can I improve upon that? And yet how many of us run ourselves ragged trying to live up to others’ expectations? How many of us are gripped with anxiety, the anxiety about receiving someone else’s affirmation? And isn’t there a tendency to define our identity by a label or by a cause or by need and we will not be justified until that label is properly respected or until that need is met? But you see, our righteousness is in Christ. It is His righteousness that is credited to us and we are made right with God through Him, accepted, beloved, and beautiful. And doesn’t that make you want to put Jesus above everything else? To make Him more important than reputation or money or sports or appearance? Doesn’t that make you want to be who we are in Christ – that we would pursue obedience to Him, that we would be able to see this righteousness in the experience just as it is in the sight of God? Doesn’t that make you want to be what you are in Christ Jesus? Because, “For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Let’s give Him thanks for that!
Our Father God, we thank You for Your Word to us tonight. We thank You for the way in which Your Word speaks so simply and clearly and concisely. And yet we thank You that You have not just given us this one verse, but You have given us a whole Bible to show us Christ and show us our need for Him and to show us His goodness and our righteousness in Him. We pray that You would give us more love for Christ, give us more devotion to Him and that we would live in this settled peace and joy of being right in Your sight. And we pray all of these things in Christ’s name, amen.
© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.
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