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2 Corinthians 5:21 meaning

God the Father and God the Son acted out a plan to restore the relationship between man and God. God the Father sent God the Son in a human body to live in perfect obedience and die as the perfect sacrifice for everyone’s sins, then He raised Him back to life. Now, by believing in Jesus the Son, we can choose not to sin, and can now live rightly according to God’s good design.

Chapter 5 ends with this assertion: He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

This verse is profound. It begins with He made. Here He refers to God. God made, meaning it was God’s active plan for Jesus to die for our sins. It was God’s will for Jesus to die for the sins of the world, and Jesus was obedient to His Father’s will, and came to earth to accomplish that purpose (Philippians 2:2-8, Hebrews 10:7, Psalm 40:7-8).

God made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin. Jesus lived as we did, being tempted as we are, but was without sin (Hebrews 4:14-15). John puts it simply, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

Jesus was without sin, though He was fully God and fully man (John 1:1-18). How, then, did He come to be sin on our behalf? The answer is that Jesus took our sins upon Himself when He was nailed to the cross. Paul writes to the Galatians,

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
(Galatians 3:13)

Jesus was hung on a tree when He was nailed to the cross. He took upon Himself the curse of sin. When Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) we can infer this was because He was separated from His Father while He was taking the sins of the world upon Himself (Colossians 2:14). For more on Jesus’s last words on the cross, see our article, “A Word of Desolation.

Death is separation, and sin brings death. Jesus took on not only physical death but also separation from His Father as He bore the sins of the world. Jesus bore our sins on the cross; all of our guilt and shame.

There is a cosmic upheaval as Christ wrestles with the enemy: darkness over the land, the veil being torn in the temple, earthquakes as the earth shook, rocks split, and tombs opened (Matthew 27:51-53). Jesus, fully conscious of what He was facing, took on our sins and he bore them, understanding and enduring pain that we cannot fathom. He became sin on our behalf. That is an amazing truth, but it does not stop there. Jesus came to take away our sin, but there is more to what He has done for us.

So that we might become the righteousness of God (v 21). The word righteousness translates the Greek word “dikaiosyne” which carries the thought of all things working together in harmony, according to its design. When humans fell, we separated ourselves from God’s good design, which was death, as death is separation. This affected the entire human race (Romans 3:10).

But Jesus came to deliver (or save) us from this fallen state. In Him, we can appropriate by faith the righteousness of God. This is not apart from God, however. The original fall of humanity was due to us deciding to seek our own way, apart from God and His plan. Now we can be restored to our original design and gain the righteousness of God, but this takes place in Him.

That we gain the righteousness of God in Him underscores that this restoration does not emanate from us, but is a gift. As Paul says in Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” 
(Ephesians 2:8-9)

It is in Him, through His grace that we receive reconciliation with God. But, as Paul emphasized earlier in this chapter, this great favor/grace God gives us comes with a great responsibility. We are in Him by grace, but God makes us a new creation in Him with a purpose (2 Corinthians 5:17). That purpose is to do the works He prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus will judge us and give us rewards based on our faithfulness, or lack thereof, during our life on earth (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Righteousness is both an action of God that establishes our position in Him, as well as a state of being, a condition of fellowship. In terms of our position, it is established permanently as being fully reconciled to God through Christ. This was the case with Abraham, who believed and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3, 21-22). This is something God does, apart from our works or deeds. Our position in Christ as a new creation is secured permanently through His work, not our work.

It is different with our condition. The status of our condition or fellowship with God depends on our actions. This is reflected by the Apostle John in his first letter, where he writes,

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 
(1 John 1:9)

This is similar to the statement made in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, when He said:

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
(Matthew 6:14-15)

These verses speak of the status of fellowship, relational intimacy which reflect the condition of our fellowship with one another. The basic idea is that if we are unwilling to forgive one another, it soils our ability to have fellowship with anyone, including God. So our position in Christ is established solely by God, through His grace, while the condition of our fellowship and walk with God and with one another depends on our willingness to confess our sins to God and receive His forgiveness, and to then extend His forgiveness to others.

Jesus’s death was not only to reconcile individual humans to Himself, but also to restore all of creation to its original design (Romans 8:22). Jesus has restored humanity’s right to steward the earth (Hebrews 2:7-9). God will ultimately create a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

So, in light of the reality that we who are in Christ have become the righteousness of God in Him, we can rejoice in what is coming in the New Jerusalem and the New Earth, “There will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3). The righteousness of God will ultimately prevail. 

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