Some years ago, when studying 2. Cor. 5:20, it struck me with great force that an ambassador (Greek presbus) in the days of Paul was most unlikely to occupy the same position as the ambassador to a great power now-a-days. And in fact, it is only since the Reformation that our modern conception of the ambassador has arisen. The founding of regular and uninterrupted intercourse between governments in Europe is generally ascribed to the French Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642). In the year 1814, a Congress at Vienna settled the precedence of the various ranks among diplomatic agents, ambassadors taking first place, followed by envoys and ministers and secretaries.
When the whole position was carefully reviewed, with all the evidence which the sacred writings provide for us, it was dear that the view that Paul possessed the rights and duties of a modern ambassador was very anachronistic, nay, ridiculous.
The word ambassador is defined as "a diplomatic minister of the highest order sent by one sovereign power to another." But we must note that one definition of the word embassage is, "a number of men despatched on an embassy or mission."
In Paul's time, the ambassador was a man of age and experience who was sent upon one single mission. He did not reside permanently or for a long time in a foreign country.
For these reasons we were very pleased to read what Brother Osgood wrote in the issue of "Theopneustos" for September, 1951, dealing with Phil. 3 and the so-called Out-resurrection, "in the Roman Empire, in its glory, when Paul wrote, there was no such office as an 'ambassador' as We know the term to-day." The importance of this lies in the fact that some teach that God will, like human governments, withdraw His ambassadors from the earth ere He declares war upon it. It seems also to be maintained, that all believers are ambassadors. Such views seem to be rooted in human selfishness and the love of pre-eminence, and are entirely at variance with the divine adjustment of Christ's Body as found in 1. Cor. 12:20-31. "First, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; thereupon powerful-works" and soon. "All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not powerful-works, are they? All have not grace-gifts of healing, have they? All are not talking in languages, are they?" We might add, All are not ambassadors surely, are they?
Examine the second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, and you will find that from chapter 10 onwards Paul is singularly personal. No longer is Timothy coupled with him. Paul is now grappling with his own adversaries, and shews up in unmistakeable manner how selfish and insincere they have been. But prior to chapter 10, there is a constant contrast between the "we" of Paul and Timothy, and the "you" of the Corinthians. Where Paul does intend others to be included in the "we," he shews this clearly, as at ch. 3:18, "now WE all, with uncovered face. . . . . are being transformed. . ." Immediately, however, Paul reverts to the case of Timothy and himself. See verses 12 and 14 of ch. 4. Again in ch. 5:10, he enlarges the scope, "for all of us must be manifested in front of the bema. . . ." while at ch. 7:1 he includes his audience, "we should be cleansing ourselves. . . ."
Nowhere has Paul even hinted that the Corinthians were ambassadors. Ambassadors must be worthy of their king, queen or government. The Corinthians had tolerated some very evil practices, which really denied God. How then could they represent such a Sovereign?
Paul was not an ambassador in our modern sense. He did not possess the privileges which such diplomats have now-a-days. But he was certainly a plenipotentiary on behalf of God and the Good News, in the sense that God invested him with sufficient power and authority to carry through his mission. Who would dare or presume to question that Paul had full authority from God for his task?
The Latin Vulgate version (about A.D. 350), in the four verses which mention an embassy or ambassadors (Luke 14:32; 19:14; 2. Cor. 5:20 and Eph. 6:20), uses the term legatio, from which we have our word legate and delegate. Paul was God's legate or envoy or plenipotentiary, not however in any diplomatic sense.
Another very ancient version is even more interesting. The Gothic version of Wulfila, made about the same time as the Vulgate is in a Germanic language related to Low German and Lithuanian and especially to Southern Scottish and Old English. It will be of great interest to see what word Wulfila used sixteen hundred years ago to translate the Greek words presbeia and presbeuO. Happily, the extant fragments of this venerable Version contain the four passages. The noun used in Gothic is airus and the verb airino, which correspond to ancient English aer meaning a messenger of various kinds or a herald or a mediator, and to our modern word errand.
No wonder the people of Lystra thought the gods had come down in the likeness of men (Acts 14:11), when they said Paul was Hermes, or Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Surely no human being was ever entrusted with such a Divine errand to the Gentiles.
Paul required and requested the prayers and petitions of the saints at Ephesus, with their perseverance, concerning all the saints, and for himself, that he might be bold, while conducting his embassy in a chain, to talk as he should (Eph. 6:19, 20). Did he hint there were other ambassadors, for whom the saints should also pray?
That Paul was no ambassador in the modern sense is clearly proved from Luke 19:14. How could the citizens of any town send the highest diplomatic personage in the land after a nobleman who had gone into a far country to obtain a kingdom? Would such a high-ranking official be sent all that distance in order to say merely, "We are not wanting this one to reign over us?"
The same applies more or less to Luke 14:32. Any envoy, armed with sufficient powers, could seek for peace. But we might ask, should not the ambassador of the weaker power have been already resident in the stronger country, until war did break out?
As for the use of the Greek word presbus in the Old Testament in the sense of ambassador, as standing for the Hebrew word mlak, at Num. 21:21 and Deut. 2:26, it is hardly fair to argue that the Septuagint changed the Hebrew sense into that of ambassadors, because these messengers brought peace. Exactly the same "change" occurs at Num. 22:5, where Balak sends messengers to Balaam. But their message was not concerning peace. They begged Balaam to curse Israel.
It may be, however, that the Greek word presbus (ambassador) does closely represent the meaning of the Hebrew word mlak, which we shewed in chapter 1 of "Who is our God?" (Differentiator, May-June, 1950) signifies a messenger who also performs business, like one who has executive authority. Strictly and concordantly mlak (often rendered "angel") should mean simply a "worker."
Furthermore, no modern ambassador would be despatched upon a mission of cursing, or he would very quickly be expelled. Nor was Balaam a king or a government.
If this Greek word presbus has a background of Hebrew, let us have all the evidence. At Isa. 37:6 this Greek word is used in the Septuagint to represent, not an elderly person, but a youth (Hebrew na'ar), in the A.V. "servants." Elsewhere the Greek word stands for the Hebrew, tzir, rendered in the A.V. by "messenger" (twice) and by "ambassador" (four times). This word means an envoy or agent of some kind. Sennacherib's youthful "ambassadors" (Isa. 37:4, 6) reproached and blasphemed the living God and grossly insulted Israel.
In their volumes on "The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri," (1914 onwards) Moulton and Milligan state presbeuO, 'I am an ambassador' "was the regular word in the Greek East for the Emperor's legate." It was used "in regard to embassies between town and town," while the "office of ambassador" (presbeia) was "in everyday use in the intercourse between the Greek cities, and between them and the kings."
In studying the term presbus (ambassador) we ought to some extent to be guided by its comparative form, presbuteros(elder), of which the word priest is merely a contraction. Moulton and Milligan state this term was familiar in Egypt as an honorific title with reference to certain village or communal officers. Their duties were of the most varied kind. The term was employed in Asia Minor of members of a corporation, or parish councillors. It was used in a similar sense of the priests in pagan temples as a technical term.
At 2. Cor. 5:20 Webster and Wilkinson render very sanely by "we act as commissioners, representatives of Christ." Paul and Timothy at least proclaimed Good News from God such as was and is capable of breaking the power of sin; of making it difficult to repeat the sin; of producing in the sinner an intense moral agony because his wrongdoings have hurt and wounded and dishonoured God.
This is the chief lack in all modern preaching. It is useless to appeal to the sinner to become "conciliated" to God apart from the closely related fact that the Sinless One was made Sin, and all that this implies.
No one can possibly call himself an "ambassador" for Christ who is ignorant of the tremendous dynamic of the Cross and its power to change lives. Paul knew and wielded that mighty power. Therefore he was no ambassador in our modern sense, as it is no business of any ambassador to-day to reside in a foreign State for the purpose of producing a spiritual upheaval in the lives of the subjects, which eventuates in a complete change of moral concern and life.
We would suggest that the proper idea required in 2. Cor. 5:20 and Eph. 6:20 is that Paul was conducting a mission, a Divine mission, and that he was rather a missionary than an ambassador. Read the passage Eph. 6:18-20 and you will observe that it concerns "all the saints" and the making known boldly of the "secret of the Good News," for which Paul was conducting a mission in a chain. Divine secrets are not for outsiders, but for God's own people. Ambassadors are only for foreign, external affairs. But Paul had a Divine mission not only to outsiders, but to all God's chosen people.
A.T. Last updated 22.12.2005