Most English versions of the Bible translate 2 Corinthians 5:21 in basically the same way that the King James Version does. The King James Version reads: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin….” Was Jesus Christ really made “sin”? Is that even possible? The evidence shows that there is a better way to translate and understand this verse.
The Revised English Version reads, “He [God] made him [Christ] who did not know sin to be a sin offering on our behalf…”
The Old Testament sacrifices pointed to the work of Christ. And the Old Testament sin offering pointed to the fact that Jesus Christ would be an offering for our sin.
The Greek word translated “sin offering” in the Revised English Version is hamartia (#266 ἁμαρτία). Hamartia usually means “sin,” but it can also mean “sin offering.” Many Greek lexicons do not mention that hamartia can mean “sin offering,” but that is one of its meanings. For example, A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament by Barclay Neman says hamartia means, “sin” and “sin offering,” and the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible lists both “sin” and “sin offering” under “sin” as a translation of hamartia. English Bibles that have “sin offering” or an equivalent in 2 Corinthians 5:21 include the CJB, NLT, REV, The New Testament by Charles Williams, and The Holy Bible: New European Version. Hamartia is the translation of the Hebrew word for “sin offering” many times in the Septuagint (cp. Septuagint text of Exod. 29:14, 36; 30:10; Lev. 4:3, 8, 21, 24, 25, etc.).
Also, just as the Greek word hamartia can be “sin” or “sin offering,” the Hebrew word chattath (#02403חַטָּאָה), the most common word for “sin” in the Hebrew Bible, means either “sin” or “sin offering,” depending on the context. In fact, we would expect if the Hebrew word chattath can be “sin” or “sin offering,” then the Greek translation of it would do the same and then that concept be brought into the Greek-speaking Jewish culture, because although the language was Greek, the Jewish concepts of sin and sacrifice for sin were carried with them as many of them changed from speaking Hebrew (or Aramaic) to speaking Greek.
The Hebrew-English lexicons list both the meaning “sin” and “sin offering” for chattath (cp. HALOT Hebrew-English lexicon; Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon; Holladay Hebrew-English Lexicon; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). Also chattath is translated “sin offering” in a large number of verses in the Old Testament (cp. Exod. 29:14, 36; 30:10; Lev. 4:3, 8, 14, 20, 21, 24, 25, 29, etc.). In fact, in a few Old Testament verses where chattath occurs more than once, it is translated both ways: as “sin” and “sin offering” (cp. Lev. 4:3, 4:14; and 5:6).
F. F. Bruce writes about the phrase hamartian epoiesen (“made him to be a sin offering”) in The New Century Bible Commentary: “…this remarkable expression…can best be understood on the assumption that Paul had in mind the Hebrew idiom in which certain words for sin can mean not only sin, but ‘sin offering.’” We must keep in mind that Corinth was a large Greek city. Both Acts (primarily 18) and the Epistles to the Corinthians indicate that the congregation in Corinth had a large percentage of Gentiles. They, as well as many Jews, used the Septuagint as their Bible, and so would have been very familiar with the use of hamartia as “sin offering.”
Albert Barnes (Barnes’ Notes) explains that Jesus had to be a sin offering, saying he could not become “sin,” nor “a sinner,” nor “guilty.” First, Jesus could not literally become “sin.” Sin is breaking the commandments of God. No person can become “sin.” We are not “sin,” and Jesus did not become “sin” for us. Nor could Jesus have become “a sinner.” Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon (BDAG) treats hamartia as if it should be translated “sin” but understood as referring to “the guilty one,” i.e., the sinful one. If that were the case, then by the figure of speech metonymy, “sin” would stand for the one who had sin, i.e., the sinner himself. Thayer’s Greek lexicon does a similar thing, and says that “sin” puts the “abstract for the concrete,” using “sin” but meaning “the sinner.” Thus, both Bauer and Thayer see this verse as saying Christ becomes “a sinner” for us, but that cannot be correct. For one thing, the whole Bible testifies to the holiness and sinlessness of Christ. More to the point, however, is that if Jesus did become “a sinner,” then he could not have been our savior, because the death of one sinner does not in any way impute righteousness to another sinner. There is no merit in the death of a sinner. The only reason Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to provide salvation for all people is that he was not a sinner. Similarly, Christ could not have become “guilty,” as if “sin” were put by metonymy for the effect of sin, which is guilt. Again, one guilty person cannot atone for the life of another guilty person. The correct conclusion, and the one that Barnes arrives at, is that Christ is a “sin-offering.” This fulfills the prophecy in Isa. 53:10 that God’s Servant would be a trespass offering, although here it is called a sin offering. No doubt it was both of those offerings, and more. He was sinless, and because of that fact he could give his life as an offering to God for the sin of others. The New Testament in the Language of the People by Charles Williams is one of the English versions that has “sin offering” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 and notes the use of hamartia for sin offering in Old Testament Greek.
That Jesus was a sin offering for us shows us the great love, grace, and mercy of God. It truly confirms Psalm 103:10: “He [God] does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” We all deserve death, but in His great love, God provided a sacrifice for sin that would justly provide a way for us to have everlasting life.