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“Ambassadors for Christ”

By Kyle Pope

I

n Second Corinthians 5:20 Paul declares, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (NKJV).  Paul uses a similar description of himself in Ephesians 6:20 when he says, “I am an ambassador in chains.” Within the religious world this term “ambassador” is applied to individuals and even man-made organizations that engage in benevolent or evangelistic works. Often, any who would bring religious teaching to others are described as “ambassadors for Christ.” Is that the sense in which Paul uses this word, or is there more that he teaches in describing himself as an “ambassador?”      

            The word translated “ambassador” is presbeuo, which is the verb form of the word presbuteros (the noun referring to an “elder”).  It is literally “to be an elder,” however it can clearly have a very special sense.  In Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War different forms of the word were used numerous times for official representatives in war who alone had the power to negotiate terms of war and peace.  Deissmann explains that presbeuo is, “The proper term in the Greek East for the Emperor’s Legate” (Light from the Ancient East, p. 374).  This is similar to the way our government appoints ambassadors. An ambassador acts as a special representative of the government.  He or she acts for the government.  An ambassador’s actions are officially recognized as the actions of the government itself. If this is the sense that Paul uses in 2 Cor. 5:20 he is not talking about a role that all believers can play. Only the apostles represented Christ in this way (Matt. 10:40). As those led directly by the Holy Spirit the “apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42) was the “doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9). It is because of this that the church is said to be built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). 

            The question is whether that is the only sense that presbeuo can have and if that is the only thing it can mean in 2 Cor. 5:20? In a second century text written by a Christian named Ignatius, he urged the church in Philadelphia to appoint a deacon so that he could “be sent as an ambassador of God” to the church in Antioch (To the Philadelphians, 10.1; cf. To the Smyrneans,  11.2). One of the earliest commentators to refer to 2 Cor. 5:20, Origen (ca. 185-254) understood “ambassadors” to include all those who would teach the gospel (Against Celsus, 8.1).  These instances are significant because Greek was the native tongue of both Ignatius and Origen.  In addition to this, when ancient translations rendered presbeuo they used words that had a rather broad meaning. The Peshitta (ca. 200s) used ’yzgd’  a word meaning “ambassador; legate; representative,” but the Coptic (ca. 200s) used faish a word meaning “news-bearer, messenger.”  The Gothic (ca. 300s) used airinom a word meaning “messenger,” but the Vulgate (ca. 400) used legatio meaning “embassy; member of an embassy; mission.”  Even some of the earliest English translations did not use the more technical term “ambassadors” but rendered 2 Cor. 5:20 “messengers,” e.g. Tyndale  (1526), Coverdale (1535), Great Bible (1539), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568).

            What does the context tell us about its meaning? In 2 Cor. 5:20 when “we” is used earlier in the chapter it is talking about what is common to all believers: “in this we groan” (5:2); “we who are in this tent” (5:4); “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (5:10).  When that isn’t the case, Paul uses it of himself—“we do not commend ourselves again to you” (5:12); “if we are of sound mind it is for you” (5:13).  However, Paul begins the next chapter declaring, “we then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (6:1).  Who are these “workers together” who plead with the Corinthians?  If it is the apostles, then we would have to conclude that presbeuo has its special and official sense in this passage.  Yet, the next identifier mentioned in the text is in 6:4 where he speaks simply of “ministers of God.”  That could suggest that “workers together” could be all those who teach the gospel (or the apostles specifically).

            Clearly, the apostles had a special sense in which they represented Christ in ways that believers in general do not.  If that is Paul’s meaning in 2 Cor 5:20 and Eph. 6:20 it is not a description that can be applied to all believers. To apply it to man-made organizations minimizes this special role. However, if Paul is not using it in its specialized sense, we must still recognize that Christians do not represent Christ to the world in the same way the apostles did. If we are in any way “ambassadors” it is only in the more general sense of messengers who allow our light to shine before men for the glory of God (Matt. 5:16). We cannot legislate, negotiate, or set the terms of that “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Pope, Kyle. "Ambassadors for Christ" Biblical Insights 11.6 (June 2011): 23  

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