Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
To read 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 solely as a summary of Paul’s views on the body, as is often the case, would be a distortion of its powerful passage.
Rather, this text serves as a demonstration of Paul’s certitude in God’s power.
Within the context, Paul’s words illustrate his profound faith in God’s salvific acts. For a God who can defeat death itself, frail mortal bodies are no challenge to God’s power. Instead, God demonstrates God’s power in choosing mere mortals to bear witness to divine glory. With so great a God working among the Corinthians, there is no need to allow the sufferings of the present age to deter them from testifying to God’s new creation.
Paul’s Risky Mission
Paul’s life is certainly not an illustration of a health and wealth gospel. The apostle is no stranger to suffering. At the beginning of this letter, he makes reference to severe affliction experienced in Asia (2 Corinthians 1:8). In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, the apostle recounts beatings, shipwrecks, and other near-death experiences to demonstrate the danger of his mission and the sincerity of his faith. Furthermore, the passage under study immediately follows a catalog of hardships that illustrate human frailty (4:8-12). All these hardships exemplify that “death is at work in us” (4:12).
The stakes are high in Paul’s mission. Both death and life are at work. Though death is making small victories — afflicting, perplexing, persecuting, and striking down (4:8-10), God has already defeated death by raising the Lord Jesus. This same God “will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence” (4:14).
Certitude in God’s Power
Underlying the entire message of 2 Corinthians — and indeed Paul’s whole gospel — is the apostle’s certitude in God’s power. God made Paul a minister (3:4-6), and it is by God’s mercy that Paul has survived numerous hardships (4:1). God is a God of consolation (1:3-7) and reconciliation (5:18-21).
God has chosen mortal bodies in which to display God’s power. God is in the act of transforming bodies that are so fragile and vulnerable that Paul likens them to jars of clay (4:7). According to Paul, the reason that God has chosen such fragile vessels is to make clear “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (4:7). The good news is only possible because a powerful God is at work.
It is God’s spirit that indwells and transforms mortal bodies. If the holy law (Romans 7:12), that could not bring life, brought fleeting glory to Moses’ face, how much more lasting glory will God’s life-giving Spirit bring to whose who love God? (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). This mighty Spirit is working to transform mortal flesh and to bring life (4:11-12).
The apostle’s certitude in God’s power gives him strength to face any hardship. Since Paul has faith that God who raised Jesus will also raise up those who are in Jesus (4:13-14), he can say with confidence, “We do not lose heart” (4:16).
Outer versus Inner Nature
In the context of Paul’s certitude in God’s power to transform frail bodies, he writes: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16).
What is “our outer nature”? It has often been assumed that Paul here shares a Hellenistic notion that the physical matter of the body is inconsequential. Indeed some would go so far as to equate Paul’s statement with later Gnostic thought that the material world — including the body — is evil.
Paul, however, is not a Gnostic. Paul is a messenger of a God who not only created bodies, but has set out to redeem them. This God raised the body of Jesus from the dead and has allowed the divine Spirit to indwell and to transform fragile jars of clay. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is central to the hope of the believer and integral to Paul’s message (1 Corinthians 15:12-58).
In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul acknowledges the frailty of our human existence. In the context of this passage, the “outer nature” is subject to all the sufferings of this present age — beatings, shipwrecks, afflictions, and trials. This outer nature is aptly paralleled to earthen vessels that, by their very nature, are subject to weakness (4:7).
What is truly remarkable in this passage is not that the “outer nature” is wasting away. The frailty of humanity is not newsworthy. What is truly amazing is that Paul can say in the midst of hardship that there is hope. For Paul, this hope is worth allowing oneself to be exposed to hardship in order to proclaim the good news of God’s acts of redemption. Whatever happens to the body, God will rectify this frail “outer nature.”
The “inner nature” is what God is doing in us that makes the “life of Jesus” also “visible in our bodies” (4:10). This “inner nature” echoes Paul’s certainty that God is the one enacting transformation (3:18), bringing life (4:12), and shining light in our hearts (4:6). God’s work is ongoing — renewing everyday, even when it is not immediately apparent (4:18). The inner person is God’s new creation (5:17).
Paul can express hope in the midst of adversity and can subject his body to physical and emotional hardships because he knows with all certainty that God will rectify his body. The Spirit’s very presence is his assurance that God is at work creating life and redeeming all creation (5:5).
Building from God
Paul contrasts the transient nature of the “earthly tent” with the eternal nature of the heavenly building from God (5:1). Heaven is the very locus of God’s new creation. Paul’s appeal to this heavenly building is similar to Paul’s reminder in Philippians 3:20 that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Though trials and hardships may come in this old age that is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31), Paul calls the church to think in terms of God’s new kingdom where death is swallowed up by life.
Amidst real hardships and suffering, Paul expresses hope in God’s work to redeem and to transform. The threat of hardship would be enough to drive most believers away, but Paul will stop at nothing to be a bearer of God’s good news. He knows that the God who is at work in his mortal body is the same God who resurrected Jesus from the dead. It is in this God whom Paul places his unwavering hope.