Who are Christ’s ambassadors in 2 Cor 5:20? When Paul says “we are ambassadors for Christ,” does he refer to all believers, or only to himself?
In every or almost every instance of “we” in the preceding chapters, Paul refers to himself and his ministry colleagues. Probably in 5:20, then, Paul also refers not to all Christians as ambassadors, but only to those who are bringing God’s message of reconciliation. After all, those he is entreating to be reconciled to God are the Christians in Corinth, who are not ambassadors but those who are in need ambassadors to them. That is why he urges them to be reconciled to God (5:20; 6:1-2, 17-18)!
Perhaps ideally all Christians should be bringing God’s message of reconciliation, but in practice most of the Christians in Corinth weren’t. The Corinthian Christians were acting like non-Christians, so Paul and his colleagues act as representatives for Christ’s righteousness to them, just as Christ represented our sin for us on the cross (5:21). Paul may be using hyperbole, a figure of speech in which one rhetorically overstates something to graphically emphasize a point. The Corinthians may not be unconverted, but they are acting that way, so Paul urges them to be converted.
The Corinthians should recognize that they themselves attest Paul’s ministry (3:1-3), a ministry of God’s new covenant in Christ by the Spirit (3:4-18). Paul and his colleagues have suffered to bring others the gospel (4:7-12, 16), including for the sake of the believers in Corinth (4:12, 15; 5:12-13). The division between “us” and “you” has been sustained through most of the preceding context.
This section of 2 Corinthians is primarily a defense of Paul’s apostolic ministry; Paul summons the Corinthians to recognize his role and to reject his critics.
Nevertheless, Paul and his colleagues do offer us an example. Those who are reconciled to God may in some way carry the message of reconciliation (5:18), as Paul did. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation (5:17), and thus has the Spirit that guarantees our future with Christ (5:4-5), the trust on the basis of which Paul is ready to suffer and die for the gospel. Not only Paul, but all of us for whom Christ died should no longer live for ourselves but for Christ (5:15). Like Paul, we who fear the Lord must seek to persuade others (5:11). Paul elsewhere presented himself as a model for the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1). We may not all be apostles like Paul, but all of us can live and speak like ambassadors, representing Christ’s name to others.