In much of 2 Corinthians, Paul is occupied with defending his ministry against critics who question his integrity, motives, and fitness for ministry.
Some are concerned by his lack of credentials or letters of recommendation (3:1-3). Some have apparently accused him of being a "peddler of God's word" (2:17) or of practicing cunning and deceit (4:2). Some claim that while Paul's letters to the Corinthians are bold and strong, his physical presence is weak and his speech unimpressive, even "contemptible" (10:1, 10).
A consistent theme of Paul's defense is his insistence that his ministry is to be judged by God and not by human standards. Paul's critics look at his physical weakness -- his old (by first century standards), beat up, scarred body and his weak rhetorical skills -- and they find no evidence of the glory of Christ he proclaims. Paul counters that we have the treasure of the gospel in clay jars, "so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" (4:7).
It is helpful to note that in the ancient Hellenistic world, bodily scars from beatings and lashings were considered a sign of shame and dishonor. Yet Paul argues that these scars authenticate his ministry, for they are a sign of his participation in Christ's suffering and death in order to bring life to others (4:10-12).
Paul goes on to draw a contrast between the outer nature that is wasting away and the inner nature that is being renewed daily, between temporary affliction and eternal glory. He emphasizes the importance of looking "not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (4:16-18).
Paul continues in this vein by contrasting the earthly tent under which we groan and the heavenly dwelling for which we long. Here he emphasizes that what is mortal will be "swallowed up by life" and God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (5:1-5).
Looking at what cannot be seen means that "we walk by faith and not by sight" (5:7). When Paul says "while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord," he does not mean that the Lord is not with us in this life. Rather, it is a presence experienced by faith and not by sight. We still await the time when we will be fully "at home with the Lord" (5:8).
Meanwhile we make it our aim to please the Lord, remembering that "each of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (5:9-10).
In other words, Paul reminds the Corinthians that human opinions of his person and ministry, based on external appearances and earthly standards, do not matter. It is Christ who will judge Paul and each of us according to what we have done (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Paul goes on to defend the motivation of his ministry in saying that "the love of Christ urges us on" (5:14). Christ's love is shown most clearly in his death on our behalf, for "he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them" (5:15). Paul sees his own ministry authenticated by his vulnerability, weakness, and suffering, for he is living not for himself but for Christ.
Christ's death and resurrection have changed everything, so that "from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view" (5:16). Paul acknowledges that he once regarded Christ from a human point of view. Of course, Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he met his followers.
From Paul's human point of view, Jesus' followers were heretics following a false Messiah, apostates who deserved to be thrown in prison or killed. All of that changed when the risen Christ encountered Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul learned in a dramatic way how completely wrong human judgment can be. In what seemed to be foolishness -- God's Messiah suffering a humiliating death -- God was at work to reconcile the world to himself and to make all things new.
Just as Paul's view of Christ was dramatically transformed, so his view of all people is transformed by the love of Christ. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (5:17).
Paul's language of new creation echoes the language of Isaiah (65:17; 66:22), where along with the restoration of God's people, God promises a new heavens and a new earth. Paul goes on to speak of God reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself in Christ and entrusting us with the ministry of reconciliation (5:18-21; cf. Colossians 1:20).
Paul's words have surely been needed in every time and culture, but it strikes me that they are especially needed in a time and culture such as ours.
We are obsessed with externals -- with youth and beauty, accomplishments and credentials, productivity and profit. We are constantly tempted to judge our own worth and that of others according to "a human point of view." We are tempted to view worldly success as a sign of God's favor, and conversely, to view weakness and suffering as a sign of God's absence or even God's punishment.
Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God's eyes. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life.
It is not that Paul is calling us to seek martyrdom. Rather, he claims that in our lives, God places the greatest value on our service to others, even when service means suffering and rejection.
Christ died for all, so that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised for us. In Christ we are a new creation, even in our weakness and vulnerability. We are reconciled to God and entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation as agents of God's reconciling love for the world (5:17-21).
Participate in an online text study group or create your own at our Join the Conversation page.