Vol. 12 No. 5 May 2010
T. Pierce Brown
Increasingly, I am hearing preachers, both young and old, educated and otherwise, read, quote and/or paraphrase 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ” and urge upon their listeners that since we are ambassadors for Christ, we should do certain things.
Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” One may say, “The word “church” is from the Greek “ekklesia,” which means “the called out ones.” “This football team has been called out. Therefore the football team is the church.” One may say, “The word ‘elder’ is from the Greek ‘presbuteros,’ meaning ‘an older person.’ So, any older person is to shepherd the flock according to 2 Peter 5:2.” One may say, “Paul speaks of ‘the word of reconciliation’ being spoken by ambassadors. Therefore anyone who has anything to do with reconciling man to God is an ambassador.” The logic (?) of the three conclusions above is comparable. It is wrong in each case.
There is a little truth woven throughout the previous paragraph, but any person who approaches serious Bible study in that sort of superficial, haphazard way is in terrible danger. The most dangerous errors are usually those that are mixed with truth. A rat will eat a peanut that has only 2% poison more readily than pure poison.
The basic question with which we wish to deal now is: When Paul uses the word “presbeuo” in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20 (translated “ambassador”), to what does it refer? It is my judgment that it refers to the apostles of Christ, and NOT to all Christians.
These are some reasons for that conclusion. The word “apostle” has the basic meaning of “one sent from.” However, in the New Testament, it always has a more specialized meaning, and involves being sent from another with a special commission and authority. The apostles of Christ were a special group of persons, and just any person sent by Christ to take a message to a centurion, or to wash in the Pool of Siloam would not be an apostle of Christ.
In a comparable way, although we may use the English word, “ambassador” in a generic sense if we say, “our tourists are ambassadors of good will (or should be) to the countries to which they travel,” everyone should recognize that this is but a figurative and limited use of the term. If one should speak in a general conversation of a person being the Ambassador of the United States to some country, it should be known that he is not speaking of just any tourist who happens to go to that country.
Paul and the other apostles were apostles of Christ, and ambassadors for Christ in a special sense that applies to no other group of persons. We have as much right to speak of ourselves as apostles as we do to speak of ourselves as ambassadors. I am an elder in the sense that I am no longer young, but it would be improper for me to say, “I am an elder in some specific church where I may be preaching.” I have a commission from Christ or the Holy Spirit to “teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2), but it would be improper for me to say, “I have a commission; therefore I am an apostle.” I am an ambassador in the same sense in which all Americans should be “ambassadors of good will,” but I am not an ambassador in the sense that Paul uses the term in 2 Corinthians 5:20, for he uses the term “us” in referring to himself and the other apostles, and the term “ye” in referring to the Corinthian Christians. We know of no exception to the fact that the term “ambassador” both in Old and New Testaments refers to a special person, with a special commission, in contradistinction to others in the same general category.
It is true that Dwight M. Pratt, says in ISBE, “As the imprisoned representative of Christ at Rome, Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains” (Eph. 6:20); and in 2 Cor. 5:20 includes with himself, all ministers of the gospel as ambassador – on behalf of Christ.” Yet, he, along with most denominational commentators, classifies preachers (clergy) in a special class and assumes for them certain honors, rights and powers not authorized of God. We need to learn to distinguish between comments and opinions expressed by scholarly persons, and an authoritative conclusion based upon linguistic or grammatical bases. A scholarly opinion may be worth more than a non-scholarly one, but it not authoritative!
Pratt had already shown that “ambassador” from the Hebrew “mal’akh” was an official representative of a king or government. Not all the children of Israel were ambassadors. Neither are all the spiritual children of Israel (Christians) ambassadors any more than all “older persons” are “elders of the church” or all who are sent by the Great Commission to preach the Gospel are apostles of Christ.
Josephus mentions in Antiquities of the Jews (Book 10, Chapter 32) that “The King of Babylon sent ambassadors to Hezekiah with presents.” This record is referred to in 2 Kings 20:12 and 2 Chronicles 32:31. These “presbeutais” or “aggelous” as in 2 Chronicles were special messengers, not just older persons, or messengers of any kind. The word “angel” in the Old Testament is used of one who was an “official messenger.” Surely we do not have to use space to prove that! However, they were not only heavenly beings, sent on special missions, but prophets, such as in Haggai 1:12-13, and priests, such as are spoken of in Malachi 2:7. Both prophets and priests were all specially appointed to a position and a task not given to the rest of God’s people.
So, when Paul speaks of “us” as ambassadors, he is not speaking of “us-Christians” in contradistinction to sinners, but “us-apostles” in contrast to “ye-Corinthians.” It is also my conviction that part of the problems we have seen in recent years that tend to divide the body of Christ by cultish practices are partly a result of the assumption that all Christians, especially those who have an active part in helping reconcile the world to God, are ambassadors of Christ, and therefore, have ambassadorial authority to correct, chastise and control those whom they are teaching. If that is true, all of us should know it, and act with such apostolic authority. If it is not so, we should give a proper exegesis of the passage, and act in accordance with the authority given us of God, and no more!