Editor’s note: This sermon was preached during the 2009 Annual Council, a gathering of Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders held in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
The cross of Christ always loomed large in Paul’s thinking; whenever he spoke of salvation, the Cross was the centerpiece. Second Corinthians 5:14–201 is a typical passage. Here the apostle begins his presentation by saying that in Christ’s death on the cross the sin problem is essentially solved. The key component is in place. God has done everything He can for our redemption. I say, “everything He can,” for there is, of course, the matter of our acceptance of God’s offer. That is your decision. That is my decision.
But by that one act on the cross, the defining moment in history, God bridged the gulf of alienation that sin had created. All of us, Paul says, “were dead in trespasses” and sins but now have been made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5, NKJV). We who “were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope, . . . have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:11–13). He “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). The barriers are gone. The ticket for our homeward journey has been bought. We can come home!
Because the Cross has fixed the relationship between heaven and humanity, said Paul, this reality must now impact our relationship with people. He wrote, We no longer view people as we used to. We relate to each other differently. The worldly point of view, by which we may, in the past, have considered other people, is done with. We are done with it because of what has happened to us—we ourselves have become a new creation. The old is gone—the new has come. It is a fact that salvation always affects relationships. Relationships between people, to whom salvation has come, is hallmarked by peace and the absence of hostility (see Eph. 2:14–22). So, let us look at what this says to us as a church family.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is an international, global community. In this church we will not—we must not—value people on the basis of wealth, position, status, education, race, gender, color of skin, language, culture, or dietary habits. There must be no sense of superiority or inferiority created. In this regard, we confess that we have often failed. But a change must come; it must come in Paul’s argument because of the Cross. The Cross is the catalyst—the great equalizer—which levels all of us. Regardless of whom we are or where we have come from, we, each and all, have the same value in the eyes of God. He has set the value, and that reality must shape all our relationships.
An assignment for you
Against the backdrop of these thoughts, God says, Therefore, since I have made this arrangement in Christ, My Son, I have an assignment for you. I want you to be ambassadors of reconciliation for Me! (See 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20.) That, in summary, is the scene God sets before us.
Consider how this new reality— this reconciliation reality—plays out in each of the various regions where we come from and where we have been placed as leaders. Each of us must consider our local areas, for if we get it right there, it will spill over into the larger global church. How does our reconciled community look in terms of relationships and the focus and emphasis that your ministers bring to their preaching and teaching? These are the two questions to which our text takes us.
People, by the millions, are on the move away from their home countries into new ones. They will bring with them as much of their culture as is portable. How do we receive them? Are they seen as intruders? Are we uncomfortable with their style and content of worship, and therefore, do some say, “I think I will go to another church”? Leadership has a responsibility to encourage and create a warm and receptive atmosphere in our local churches and make them truly homes and places of worship for all who come. When they do come, will they be received with open arms?
What is the catalyst to make this possible? The cross of Christ, of course. The Cross has made us all into brothers and sisters with no sense of anyone being of lesser or greater value. The Cross has made us all equal; and that, says God, must show in the way we behave and relate to each other, for salvation always affects relationships. We are told that “the secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ.”2 As leaders, we have a responsibility to protect this truth.
As God’s reconciled people, we hear this counsel echoing in our minds: “press together, press together”3 found a dozen different places in the writings of Ellen G. White, always in the context of unity.
This dynamic power of reconciliation also speaks to us as leaders when we consider the role of women in our church, as well as when we consider entrusting leadership responsibilities to those who are significantly younger than we are. In these matters, we have not done well. I appeal to you as leaders to look at it again. These words challenge us: “When a great and decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work, and it [the work] will feel the loss if the talents of both are not combined.”4 We have large segments of our spiritual family who need to be brought in from the cold. I am sensitive to the fact that culture and local conventions must be respected and cannot be abused, and there are great differences in this respect around the world. What you can do in some countries you cannot do in others, but, still, have we got it right? I think not.
We must, as a matter of honor to the whole church and in obedience to God, be proactive in attending to these matters. The power of reconciliation pulls us together. I speak to you from the advantage of some age. I long for the day when a much larger spectrum of those who are half my age will sit on the committees that make the decisions of our church and will occupy elected positions. They do it in politics in the choice of national and international secular leadership. Why should we not also be able to do it in the church? If we did, it would be a huge enrichment to the church, for they represent so many skills and come with such a spread of spiritual gifts.
I hear the objection, “But they don’t have experience!” We are not short of experience in this church. We may not always have the best of judgment, but we have experience enough to share with many. Again, we are reminded to “let not the youth be ignored; let them share in the labor and responsibility.”5 In this matter there is still much to be done to get it right. When election time comes, please, remember this. As leaders, no one is better placed than we are to influence changes. Paul identifies the Cross as the catalyst both to help us view each other differently and to remove some barriers that divide believers and are obstacles on our journey. Remember, reconciliation always affects relationships!
Then there is the large number of academics and scholars who teach in our universities. They are sometimes viewed with discomfort by leaders such as us. But they are our partners in ministry. They perform an invaluable service, both to our youth and the church as an institution. Frankly, we could not be what we are and do what we do without them. They hold a very high position of trust. They teach and counsel our youth. Professors guide their values and influence their direction. Their search is in the discovery and clarification of truth. I have the greatest respect for professors and their integrity. In their quest for truth, they will sometimes state positions and argue findings in which we think they are wrong. And we will tell them—we will address that challenge. But we will not walk away from them nor do I want them to walk away from the church with the values that define and identify us. If there are aspects of our identity that should be adjusted—fine; we’ll talk about that. And we will test it by what God has revealed to us. But we must talk—openly, respectfully, and with care. And then we must journey together, bonded to each other by the power of God’s reconciliation. I appeal to you, as leaders, to reach out to your scholars and teachers in this spirit, care for them, and challenge them, as they will you.
Through the gift of His Son, God has bonded us to Himself, and He has bonded us as a family to each other.
Meaning of ambassador
Now, returning to the second half of the text, what does Paul mean by describing himself as an ambassador? He chooses a word (presbeuÅ), as he does at least one other time (Eph. 6:20), whose Latin counterpart (legatus) was well known in the Roman world. The ambassador was the Roman emperor’s personal representative. His authority lay in his direct commission from the emperor. But he carried another interesting function. When a territory was conquered, the ambassador was to accompany the victorious general and arrange the terms of peace for the vanquished people, determine the boundaries, and draw up the constitutional provisions. In a sense, the ambassadors were responsible for bringing the people into the family of the Roman Empire. So, it is almost as though Paul thinks of himself as a representative who brings to people the offer and conditions of God, whereby people may become citizens of God’s kingdom and members of His royal family.
It is actually quite breathtaking: God is making His appeal through us! Preaching the gospel is not talking about God; it is God talking through us, inviting people by saying, “Come, be reconciled to Me. Come home!” Preaching the gospel is about letting people hear this invitation. That is the core of the gospel. When we enter the pulpit to preach, the people must hear the invitation. It is a mistake to think people come to church to be entertained or hear something new; they come there primarily to hear the voice of Christ inviting them.
Back to the term ambassador. An ambassador functions away from home—in a sense, in a foreign land. Christians are always like that. They live in this world, for they have a function here, but they are a citizen of heaven. Is this not precisely what Christ senses in His very personal and moving prayer to His Father just before He goes into Gethsemane (John 17)? He says to His Father that His followers will encounter difficult times in this world; they will be exposed and vulnerable. And so He asks His Father to keep them safe. He says that the believers belong to a different world, that they are different. The inevitable conclusion one must draw is that individuals who are not willing to be different cannot be Christians!
Also, in a certain sense, the honor of the ambassador’s country is in his or her hands. His or her country will be judged by his or her performance. His or her words are listened to and deeds watched. It is the great responsibility of an ambassador to commend his or her country and indicate what it stands for to the men and women among whom he or she is placed to function. You both speak and act as an ambassador. That is how Paul saw himself. The honor of Christ was entrusted to him.
One of the first functions of ambassadors is to present their credentials. That is their official way of saying who they are and whom they represent. Listen to Paul, writing from his Roman imprisonment (Eph. 6:19, 20). What he, in 2 Corinthians 5:19, 20, calls the “message of reconciliation,” he here simply calls the “gospel.” For the two are the same. In sending his “credentials” to the believers in Rome ahead of his going there, he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone” (Rom. 1:16).
The compulsion with which Paul had to preach the gospel—driven in an uncompromising way to be obedient to that call or assignment—cannot be overstated. Listen to his own words: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross . . . is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:17, 18). “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2); and “When I preach the gospel, . . . I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
As Paul now reflects on the fact that he is an ambassador, sent out by the Lord on a certain mission, and that mission is to communicate the “message of reconciliation,” which, in fact, is the gospel, what were the primary thoughts passing through his mind? As he reflects on the content of the gospel, what are the elements that must come out forcefully in his preaching?
The content of the message
The answers to these questions have importance for us as a church, as those who are entrusted with such a broad-based array of biblical truths and as those who run evangelism programs with titles and topics. What is it that must top our list?
Let me be absolutely clear: As Seventh-day Adventists, we have been entrusted with a broad spread of truth-filled messages that we will proclaim. We will preach the biblical prophecies of Daniel and Revelation; we will preach the sanctity of the Sabbath; we will preach the health message; we will preach about the state of the dead; we will preach about judgment; we will preach and present the moral and ethical values that define the Christian life; and, yes, we will preach about God’s creation as recorded in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2.
But I am led back to the text again (2 Cor. 5:19, 20) where Paul says that God, having committed to us the message of reconciliation, is now making His appeal through us: “Be reconciled to God.” Being true and loyal ambassadors, that particular ministry must top our agenda.
The first thing you and I must tell the world of unbelief is that God has reconciled them to Himself by the death of Jesus Christ. If we do not, our ambassadorial assignment has lost its meaning, and we have failed.
So, I appeal to you as leaders, remind your pastors and evangelists that all of our preaching and teaching must be placed within, and be framed, by the gospel of reconciliation. We are not there to be interesting or entertaining; we are there to present Christ as Savior.
There are four core elements to the gospel—the message of reconciliation—which we must identify. I find it striking that Paul, in presenting his credentials to the Roman believers, makes the point that he carries his ambassadorial assignment without shame. Consider what he had been through: he has been imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Berea, and laughed at in Athens. And, yet, he says that he is not ashamed of any of that. Clearly, something in the gospel made Paul triumphant over all that men could do to him.
Here are the key components of the message of reconciliation.
1. There’s only one way. Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised by the Old Testament prophets. He is the One of whom the prophets spoke, said Peter, and of whom they “searched intently and with the greatest care” (1 Pet. 1:10). He is the one Man “ ‘accredited by God’ ” (Acts 2:22), and when it comes to salvation, He is the only way. Apart from Jesus Christ, God has no other way of saving us. In a world of many religions, is that exclusive? Is that arrogant? Maybe, but it is the truth.
This is the beginning of the gospel. It means that through Him, God opens the future. Without Him, there is no future. The unbeliever must know that today. Our own youth must hear that preached and asserted strongly in our churches and schools. They study at university, plan their chosen profession, marry, and raise a family. But, alas, without Jesus Christ, there is no future for them. In the words of the wise man, it is all chasing the wind.
The first point of the gospel is simply this: any distance that sin has caused between God and humanity has been overcome and healed by the death of God’s Son. God said, “I alone can solve it; and I have! There is no other way by which humanity can be reconciled to God” (see 2 Cor. 5:19).
“He died for us so that, . . . we may live together with him” (1 Thess. 5:10).
Precisely, because He died as a ransom to set us free, He is involved in mediation on our behalf (see Heb. 9:15). That takes us immediately to the next central point in the gospel.
2. Death to death. Christ did not stay in the grave as we do. His death signaled the death to death (“the last enemy to be destroyed is death” [1 Cor. 15:26]); and, says Paul, had that not been the case, we would have been the “most miserable” of all (1 Cor. 15:19, KJV). If we do not keep in focus that Christ rose from death, and what that means, our faith is meaningless and our preaching is useless (see 1 Cor. 15:14). Paul writes, “I want to know Christ,” and I mean by that to know “the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). The knowledge of which Paul speaks is not intellectual knowledge, or the knowledge of certain facts or theories. He is talking about something very personal. The word he uses for “to know” indicates the closest and most intimate knowledge of another person; not knowledge about Christ, but to personally know Christ.
That, to Paul, expresses itself first and foremost as to know “the power of his resurrection.” Paul is not here thinking about the event that happened to Jesus, amazing though it was, but he is thinking of a living, dynamic power that operates in the life of an individual believer—your life and my life, if we let it. It is a power that gives direction and purpose to life, it gives victories, it changes radically our lives, and it gives hope.
The resurrection of Christ means that He “holds the keys to death and Hades” (see Rev. 1:18). Without the resurrection of Jesus, death would have been for us all—for die is what we all do—a never-ending darkness. His resurrection is the light at the end of the tunnel. His resurrection guarantees us access to eternity.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is so much a part of the gospel that without it there would be no gospel.
3. A reconciling ministry. Furthermore, the gospel says consider what happened to Him after He rose from death. Listen to Peter again: We are saved by the “resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand” (1 Pet. 3:21, 22); and in his powerful sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “We are all witnesses to the fact that God has raised Him to life, and now He is exalted to the right hand of God” (see Acts 2:32, 33); and there He is, involved in an ongoing ministry of reconciliation. This is the whole point of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Without this ministry, we cannot effectively be set free from our past or present failures or the impending destruction of the future. It is this ministry of reconciliation that Christ is engaged in today, giving us access to “the power of his resurrection.”
This is not speculation, it is simply the truth! The doctrine of the intercessory ministry of Christ, with all that it entails, is very much at the heart of the gospel and should be held high and asserted boldly by all who believe.
4. The certainty of His return. You cannot be a believer in the New Testament sense of the term without believing in the second coming of Christ. “Men of Galilee: Why do you stand gazing into empty space? He will come again,” said the heavenly messenger (see Acts 1:11). Without the doctrine of the second coming of Christ, we are all left standing there, gazing into empty space. The New Testament promises are too numerous and familiar to spend time here repeating these texts. I am only doing it to re-emphasize that this central Seventh-day Adventist point of faith is part of the core gospel and not peripheral to it.
The words in 2 Peter, chapter 3, are familiar to us all, but also ominous, as we, with eyes of faith, look to the second coming of Christ. The apostle says that belief in the second coming is something that, since the first generation of believers, has been the object of mockery by the cynics and scoffers. The cynics are here. Every generation has them. They do not go away.
All these constitute the core pillars of the gospel: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, His ascension, His intercessory ministry in heaven today, His second coming, our own resurrection, the earth made new—all of this belongs to the world of miracles; they are all a display of God’s unfathomable creative powers.
But miracles have no place in the world of cynics and scoffers. The only reality they will accept is that which can be tested, and for which there is a history.
The problem with the scoffers is that they sometimes put on soft clothing, come into the church, and mix with the believers. They cause uneasiness among believers by appearing to be intellectuals, well read, and ever so clever. They demand intellectual respectability of that which is to be believed. They will then often intimidate the believers. Peter says that the problem with these scoffers is that “they deliberately forget”—in fact they choose to deny—the Almightiness of the Creator who caused the earth to be formed. But, says Peter, you, my dear friends are not to forget (2 Pet. 3:5, 8). The deliberateness of their forgetting simply signals the fact that it is a choice they have made. Freedom gives men that option, and God has no answer to it except to hold them accountable in the judgment.
Faith cannot be suspended until it has gained respectability. Faith accepts the truth as it comes to us from the Scriptures. Faith disappears the moment it has to qualify itself by criteria that are basically and purely intellectual. Faith receives the Word of God and accepts it without qualification.
This is the gospel! In a sense, the gospel is a generous container that holds all that ultimately matters for faith to survive and salvation to be secured. It is also the context in which all other articles of faith must be placed to make sense and have validity. I urge you as leaders to remind your ministers, evangelists, and teachers of this. Every pulpit must carry the message of reconciliation, and every church must be a witness to what a reconciled community is and how it acts. Our children and grandchildren must hear the gospel from the lips of their parents and grandparents. Your children want to know your story of how you met Jesus and how He has changed you as a person. They don’t need truth statements apart from you; they want to know what happened to you.
With Paul, I say, that it does not really matter what accolade or honor, or whether any at all, they bestow on me, but “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” for that is my ambassadorial assignment.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the
New International Version.
2. Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him (Washington, DC:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1964), 99.
3. White, Selected Messages (Washington, DC: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 2:374.
4. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1970), 469.
5. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA:
Pacifi c Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 6:435.