What compels you? What drives you to do what you do? What motivates you to act? These questions arise whenever I read 2 Corinthians 5. This passage so captivates me that I plan to write six articles on it in this year’s Bible Advocate. It’s compelling, not the least because it begins with Paul saying that Christ’s love compels Christ’s followers to live for something greater than themselves: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (vv. 14, 15).
What follows is Paul’s impassioned plea for those who have received Christ’s love to share His love with the world, to embrace the ministry and message of reconciliation. Each verse of the passage is pregnant with meaning, some of which will be delivered in coming articles. But let’s begin with this one word: compel. In English it communicates the idea of being forced, persuaded, or obliged to do something. These words attempt to express the range of meaning in the Greek word synechō.
Throughout the New Testament this word refers to those taken or overcome with sickness or fear, to the men who struck and mocked Jesus, and to the internal impulse that drove Him to the cross despite His suffering. It refers to those who stoned Stephen plugging their own ears, compelling themselves to not hear his words. Luke also uses synechō to describe Paul’s internal compulsion to share the gospel. Interestingly, Paul uses the word twice. Once in Philippians to express how he is torn between two desires: one to stay alive and minister and the other to die and be with Christ. The other time is here in 2 Corinthians to describe the way in which Christ’s love compels us to live for Him.
Among the metaphorical uses of compel in Greek are these: to be held by, closely occupied with any business, to be afflicted with, to urge. As we read Paul’s entreaty to the Corinthians, we sense each of these meanings. The love of Christ is like a crowd pushing us forward, a boat forced through a strait, a police officer arresting us, a disease that overwhelms our body, a business that monopolizes our ambitions, an urgent need that must be met. The love of Christ compels us. It motivates us. It moves us. It makes us live a certain way.
What is this love that captures and compels us to live? Paul simply says it is Christ’s love. Christ’s love that brought Him to the earth and drove Him to the cross. Christ’s love that caused Him to empty Himself of His divine privileges to become like His creation in order to save them from sin and death.
Jesus said it this way:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17).
And the apostle John described it like this:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9, 10).
This is the love of Christ that lives and dies and rises again to save. It has inspired thousands of poems and songs, like Frederick Martin Lehman’s “The Love of God,” which describes the breadth and depth of God’s love in its final verse:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
This love is not a “fancy or a feeling” but an action of self-giving, self-sacrifice, prioritizing the good of the beloved. We love Him because He first loved us. But God’s love is not intended to be simply given to us and returned back to Him. As John continues in his letter, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (vv. 11, 12).
This is divine love — love that grows and gives and greets the other. This is the love Paul commends in 2 Corinthians 5, love that compels us to live for Christ and for the world that Christ loves. Jesus died for us. As we join Him in death, we rise to new life in Him with new purpose for our lives. No longer do we live for ourselves; now we live for Him who died for us. And we realize He died not only for us but also for the whole world. So we live in love for them on His behalf.
This is where it all begins. Before we discuss the details of what it might look like for us to be messengers and ministers of reconciliation, we begin here with love. Without it, there is no reason, no motivation, no compelling force to make us live for someone other than ourselves. With it, we dare not continue living for ourselves or for anything less than the person and work of Jesus Christ.
And here is the incredible challenge of Paul’s impassioned plea in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. If we are not acting as Christ’s ambassadors, what does that say about us? If we are not practicing the ministry and preaching the message of reconciliation, why aren’t we? If we are not embodying new creation in Christ, what are we doing? Contrary to much of Christian history and our own Christian practice, evangelism is not simply one task of the church or a specialized duty for super Christians. It is not something we must be specifically called to or particularly gifted for. It is the fundamental response of Christ’s followers to God’s love,
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18).
Out of love for Christ we obey His commandments, trusting Him for the presence of the Holy Spirit, who allows Christ himself to live within us. This intimate connection among love, obedience, the Spirit, and being Christ’s messengers is evident here in John 14 and again in John’s version of the Great Commission:
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (20:21-23).
We also see it in Matthew’s Great Commission:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:18-20).
And look — here it is again in Luke’s version: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus came to this earth with a mission — the very mission of God — to redeem and restore all of His creation from the terrible effects of sin and death. Jesus’ time on earth was not the end of this mission but the beginning of the end, an ending He has entrusted to His followers.
Indwelt by His Spirit and compelled by His love, we share that love with the world, living for the One who died for us. This is the essence of what it means to love God, to obey His commandments, to be filled with His Spirit. The love of Christ compels us!