2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Paul was the founding pastor of the church at Corinth, a cosmopolitan city on the Isthmus of Corinth connecting the mainland of Greece (Northern Greece) with the Peloponnese (Southern Greece) (an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two land masses) . Paul spent approximately eighteen months in Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-11).
After leaving Corinth, Paul traveled extensively (Acts 18:18-23), settling in Ephesus for an extended period of time (Acts 19). During that period, he wrote at least four letters to the Christians at Corinth. His first letter has been lost to us (see 1 Corinthians 5:9). His second letter is the letter that we know as 1 Corinthians. He wrote a third letter––a severe letter––”out of much affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:4) so that when he visited Corinth he “wouldn’t have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice” (2 Corinthians 2:3). He wrote a fourth letter, which we know as 2 Corinthians. He visited Corinth again after writing this fourth letter (2 Corinthians 12:14). (NOTE: There is considerable scholarly debate as to what constitutes which letter, but that goes beyond the scope of this commentary.)
Underlying much of 2 Corinthians is the fact that “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles” (11:13) have mounted significant opposition to Paul’s ministry. Paul deals with this opposition in detail in chapters 10-13, but the conflict influences what he has to say elsewhere as well. These opponents have treated Paul as an imposter (6:8). When we hear Paul talk about reconciliation (vv. 18-19)––and God “having committed to us the word of reconciliation” (v. 19)––and his claim to be an ambassador of Christ (v. 20)––we should keep in mind that he makes these statements, in part, in response to the opposition that he has been facing.
Paul said, “For we know that if the earthly house of our tent is dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens” (5:1). He went on to say that he longs for that heavenly habitation, and that God has created that habitation and “gave to us the down payment of the Spirit” (5:2-5).
2 CORINTHIANS 5:6-10. WE WALK BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT
6 Therefore, we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord; 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are courageous, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well pleasing to him. 10 For we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
“Therefore, we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord” (v. 6). As I was writing this commentary, I was also reading Michael Collins’ book, Carrying the Fire. Collins was one of three men on Apollo 11, the flight that put Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Collins flew the Command Module above the surface of the moon. I just read the description of Collins’ first glimpse of the earth after they attained orbit. There was an “absent from home while orbiting in space” quality to his description that reminded me of this verse––a pull on Collins’ heartstrings as he contemplated faraway earth that was not unlike the pull on Paul’s heartstrings as he contemplated the heavenly realm that awaited him.
As noted above, Paul has been talking about the “house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens” that he expects to inherit when “the earthly house of (his) tent is dissolved” (5:1). He has seen the risen Lord (Acts 9:1-20), but is now “absent from the Lord.” There is something poignant in Paul’s longing to see Christ again.
We must be careful here, however, lest we denigrate human bodies in favor of a spiritual reunion with the Lord. Elsewhere, Paul spoke of a bodily resurrection. Our resurrected body will, at the same time, be like our human bodies, but different. It will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). However, we must not press the word “spiritual” too far, because Jesus’ resurrected body was also clearly physical (Luke 24:39-43).
“for we walk by faith, not by sight” (v. 7). Earlier, Paul said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The author of Hebrews echoed Paul’s understanding of faith, saying, “Faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
“We are courageous (Greek: tharreo––confident), I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body (Greek: ek ho soma––out of the body), and to be at home with the Lord” (v. 8). This verse starts with the Greek word dio, which means “so” or “therefore.” That word links this verse with what went before.
I consulted two Greek texts, and did not find “I say” in either of them. Perhaps those words are intended to translate dio (so or therefore).
“Absent from the body” or “out of the body” equates to death. Paul seems to be referring to the period between death and the general resurrection. If so, he is confident that he won’t simply languish during that period, but will “be at home with the Lord.”
“Therefore also we make it our aim (Greek: philotimeomai), whether at home or absent, to be well pleasing to him” (v. 9). Philotimeomai means to aspire to a goal.
“Whether at home or absent” is Paul’s way of saying, “Dead or alive!” or “Regardless of our situation!”
Wherever Paul is, he aspires to be well pleasing to the Lord. That can be a difficult business, as Paul acknowledged in his letter to the Roman church:
“For I don’t know what I am doing.
For I don’t practice what I desire to do;
but what I hate, that I do.
But if what I don’t desire, that I do,
I consent to the law that it is good.
So now it is no more I that do it,
but sin which dwells in me.
For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing.
For desire is present with me,
but I don’t find it doing that which is good.
For the good which I desire, I don’t do;
but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice.
But if what I don’t desire, that I do,
it is no more I that do it,
but sin which dwells in me” (Romans 7:15-20).
But whether we can always succeed in living lives pleasing to the Lord, we can always aspire to do so. Question: “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice!” If that is true for Carnegie Hall, it is also true in the spiritual realm. The more we aspire to please the Lord, the more likely we will do so. The more we try to bring our lives into congruence with his, the more likely we will succeed. We will never be perfect on this side of the great gulf that separates earth and heaven, but we can grow in holiness.
“For we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ” (v. 10a). We will have no secrets from Christ when he appears on his judgment seat. All will be an open book. It will be as if someone had filmed our lives from birth to death so that our every word and action would be available for instant replay––in slow motion, no less. How embarrassing would that be!
But Jesus will need no instant replay. He will easily separate the goats from the sheep––the sheep on his right hand and the goats on the left. The basis for his judgment will be whether the person has shown mercy to vulnerable people in his/her midst. Jesus will pronounce a blessing on the sheep, but a curse on the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). There will be no appellate court.
“that each one may receive the things in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (v. 10b). This brings up the question of faith and works. On which is our eternal salvation dependent? The answer, of course, is grace––accessed by faith.
But while Paul emphasizes that we cannot win salvation by our good works, he also acknowledges “that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortioners, will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
He says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh.” He says that the works of the flesh are: “adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”––and warns that “those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”
He says that the fruits of the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control”––and enjoins us to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).
James helps to clarify the faith/works dichotomy, saying, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself…. Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:17-18).
2 CORINTHIANS 5:11-15. THE LOVE OF GOD CONSTRAINS US
11 Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are revealed to God; and I hope that we are revealed also in your consciences. 12 For we are not commending ourselves to you again, but speak as giving you occasion of boasting on our behalf, that you may have something to answer those who boast in appearance, and not in heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God. Or if we are of sober mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ constrains us; because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died. 15 He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again.
“Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (v. 11a). Fear of the Lord involves reverence and faith that lead to obedience. Fear of the Lord:
- Requires serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13).
- Requires observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58).
- Is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7).
- Is “the beginning of wisdom”––wisdom being the kind of understanding that enables a person to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences (Proverbs 9:10).
- Is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31).
- Involves righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14).
- Insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31).
God has called Paul to proclaim the Gospel––in particular to the Gentiles––so he is under obligation. His reverence for God and his awareness of the coming judgment impel him to carry out his God-given mission, and to do so with the utmost integrity. His concern is not just for his own welfare, but focuses on the spiritual well-being of those to whom he proclaims the Gospel. They too will one day stand before the throne of judgment. Paul must do everything possible to prepare them.
“but we are revealed (Greek: phaneroo) to God, and I hope that we are revealed (Greek: phaneroo) also in your consciences” (suneidesis) (v. 11b). The word phaneroo means manifest or known. In this context, revealed is a good translation. Shown openly would also be good. Paul is saying that his life is an open book to God––no secrets––no hidden agenda––fully transparent.
Paul goes on to say that he hopes that the same is true in his relationship to the Corinthian Christians. He wants to be totally open to them––fully revealed to their consciences (suneidesis). The Greek word suneidesis has to do with self-awareness––especially the kind of self-awareness that has a strong moral base and has the potential to keep a person on the straight and narrow pathway. Conscience is a good translation.
Suneidesis can also mean consciousness––and I prefer that translation in this context––”I hope that we are revealed also in your consciousness.” Paul is hoping that the Corinthian Christians understand that he is being wholly transparent––completely honest and aboveboard––in his dealings with them.
“For we are not commending ourselves to you again” (v. 12a). Paul has been explaining the nature of his discipleship. In doing so, he was defending himself against the charges of his opponents. But he is aware that people might misunderstand––might discount what he is saying as self-serving. So he begins this verse by stating that his purpose is not self-defense, but something greater.
“but speak as giving you occasion of boasting on our behalf, that you may have something to answer those who boast in appearance, and not in heart” (v. 12b). A literal translation of this verse would be:
“We are not commending ourselves to you again,
but are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us,
so that you might have an answer for those
who take pride in the outward appearance rather than in the heart.”
This is the something greater. Paul’s purpose is not self-defense, but is to provide the Corinthian Christians with the answer they need to counter the claims of the false teachers––the false apostles––the super-apostles––those who are doing everything possible to compromise the faith that Paul has brought to Corinth.
“For if we are beside ourselves (Greek: existemi), it is for God” (v. 13a). The word existemi combines ek (out) and histemi (to stand). In the New Testament, it is used only metaphorically to mean “out of our mind” or “amazed.”
Paul is apparently answering a charge by his opponents that he is out of his mind. It was not unusual for people to claim that a man of God was crazy (2 Kings 9:11; Jeremiah 29:26; Hosea 9:7). That could be true for two reasons:
- First, people who have devoted their lives to God often do things that fail to make sense to less spiritual people. They trust God, even (or especially in) dire circumstances. They live sacrificially, accepting far fewer comforts than they might otherwise enjoy. Sometimes they even suffer death because they refuse to renounce their faith.
- Second, calling someone crazy is a way of discounting that person and undercutting that person’s integrity or reliability. No one will take seriously the counsel of someone whom they believe to be crazy.
But Paul counters the charge that he is crazy by saying that his actions can be understood by those who realize that his actions are dictated by his commitment to God––by his dedication to serve God rather than to please people.
Or he might be suggesting that his unusual behavior or understanding is due to his experience of the presence of God.
“Or if we are of sober mind (Greek: sophroneo), it is for you” (v. 13b). Sophroneo means of sober mind or sound mind or sane. It can also be extended to mean acting with good judgment or in a disciplined manner.
Paul is saying that, if he is of sound mind––if he acts with good judgment and discipline––that is for the sake of the Corinthian believers.
“For the love of Christ constrains us” (v. 14a). Does this mean Christ’s love for Paul or Paul’s love for Christ? The Greek genitive permits either interpretation––and both interpretations make sense––but the reference to Christ’s death in 14b suggests that Paul is talking about Christ’s love for us.
Christ’s love constrains Paul––limits him––causes him to act in particular ways––dictates his actions. People who understand that Christ died to save them develop a loyalty to Christ that causes them to want to act as Christ would have them act. They want to love God and neighbor as Jesus commanded. They want to avoid actions that would hurt someone––or that would sully the name of Christ.
“because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died” (v. 14b). In his letter to the Roman church, Paul says, “The wages of sin is death”––sin is a deadly business. But then he goes on to say, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
The Jews knew that sin was a deadly business. Jewish law required them to make animal sacrifices on a regular basis to redeem themselves from their sins. The idea was that sin led to death, but God permitted the Jews to substitute the death of an animal for their own death.
Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice––a once-for-all sacrifice that ended the requirement for sacrifices. It was as if all had died.
“He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves” (v. 15a). Those who appreciate the full impact of Christ’s sufferings on their behalf find themselves able to live a new kind of life––an unselfish life.
“but to him who for their sakes died and rose again” (v. 15b). In appreciation to Christ for what he did for them, they are able to devote their lives to him in return.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-17. IN CHRIST = A NEW CREATION
16 Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.
“Therefore we know no one after the flesh (Greek: kata sarx––according to the flesh) from now on“ (v. 16a). “Therefore” refers back to what Paul said in verses 14-15. Because Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again” (v. 15), Paul no longer regards others “after the flesh” or “according to the flesh” (v. 16).
In the New Testament, sarx (flesh) is most frequently used as a contrast with spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6; Galatians 5:17). That is how Paul uses sarx in this verse. To view someone kata sarx (according to the flesh) means to view them by worldly standards––by their wealth or physical beauty or political influence or power. Those are the concerns of the natural person. Paul now regards people from a different perspective––from a spiritual perspective.
One reason for this change in viewpoint is that Paul has become aware that the things that the world treasures are passing away (v. 17). In the end, wealth, beauty, influence, and power will prove transient. Christ has come to point us to eternal values––and to offer us eternal life.
“Even though we have known Christ after the flesh“ (v. 16b). Prior to becoming a Christian, Paul’s name was Saul. Saul’s role as a persecutor of the church is well known. He was complicit in the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58 – 8:1). He ravaged the church by entering Christian homes and committing Christians to prison (Acts 8:3). He breathed “threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He saw Jesus as a charlatan and blasphemer––and Jesus’ crucifixion as just punishment––and Christians as promulgators of a false religion.
People today often see Christ kata sarx––”after the flesh” or “according to the flesh”. We are tempted to see Jesus as a good teacher––or a foolish visionary. Or we think of him as someone who lived “way back there,” in a time and place that have no significance for our lives. More likely, we simply fail to think of him at all.
“yet now we know him so no more“ (v. 16c). Saul’s spiritual eyes were opened as a consequence of his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road––an encounter that temporarily blinded him physically. A light from heaven drove Saul to his knees, and a voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). When he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” the response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise up and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:5-6).
Saul went to the home of Ananias, who laid hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). “Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. He took food and was strengthened” (Acts 9:18-19). “Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).
This last phrase, “he is the Son of God,” shows how completely Saul’s view of Jesus had changed––from charlatan to Son of God––from blasphemer to Messiah.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ” (v. 17a). The phrase, “in Christ,” is important. Paul uses it frequently. Some examples:
- Christians are “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
- Those “who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
- We must “consider (ourselves) also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).
- Christians “are sanctified (made holy) in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
- Paul describes the Corinthian Christians as “babies in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
- “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
- God “who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
- “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
- “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Being “in Christ” involves an all-encompassing relationship with Christ Jesus––a relationship that has saving power. That relationship involves receiving justification (being made righteous) as a gift rather than as an achievement, which makes us all equal at the foot of the cross, so there is “neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.” There is no room for boastfulness “in Christ,” because we have all received the same gift.
“he is a new creation” (v. 17b). The vision of a new creation was important to the prophets. Ezekiel had a vision of a new temple, filled with the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 40-47). Isaiah had a vision of the Lord comforting the exiles and leading them through the wilderness on straight highways (Isaiah 40)––of God’s servant bringing justice to the nations (Isaiah 42)––of Cyrus of Persia making possible the new creation of Israel (Isaiah 45)––of Zion’s children returning home (Isaiah 49).
This idea of a new creation or a new age carries forward into the New Testament. Christ makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).
“The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new“ (v. 17c). In one sense, this is not true. We still live in the old kosmos––the world that is opposed to God. We still see people living their old kosmos lives––and, try as we might, we find ourselves too often living by kosmos standards and doing kosmos things.
However, in another sense, Paul is pointing to the ultimate reality. Christ’s coming to earth has divided history into “Before Christ” and “After Christ.” We no longer have to look for the Messiah––the Savior––because he has come. Christ is in the process of redeeming the kosmos. He has already redeemed those of us who have placed our faith in him. We have become new and different people. The difference will not be complete until we are permitted to join Christ in the heavenly realm––but Christ has already started his work in our lives. We are, indeed, new people.
The contrast between old and new is most apparent to those whom Christ has saved from addictions––or lives of crime––or other self-destructive behaviors. While those of us who were raised as Christians are still sinners, we may have been spared the worst of the “old” behaviors, so that the contrast between old and new is less apparent. I am reminded of the famous Luther quotation:
“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.
Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly),
but let your trust in Christ be strong,
and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
We will commit sins while we are here,
for this life is not a place where justice resides.
We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13)
are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth
where justice will reign.”
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan