Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
It is common for Christians to think about resurrection mostly at Easter, celebrating Jesus’ victory over death two thousand years ago, or at funerals, embracing the promised future that awaits our departed loved ones. While such thinking is appropriate, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 calls us to consider how the ultimate end we hope for is also a source of strength and new life in the present.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul attempts to repair his strained relationship with the Corinthian church that his ministry established. We do not get all the details of what went wrong, but the Corinthians are now drawn to other so-called apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5, 12-15) and Paul is deeply concerned that they are being led astray from the one true gospel that he preached to them (11:2-4). By defending his authority to the Corinthians, Paul reasserts the very gospel that both made him an apostle and gave birth to the Corinthian church.
The core of this gospel is expressed in 2 Corinthians 4:14: “…we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”
Before and after this declaration of faith, Paul describes the affliction that he and his co-workers endure to spread the gospel (4:7-12, 16-17). Indeed, their suffering shows that they embody their preaching of the gospel of the One who died to liberate people from sin and death—a victory made complete by God raising Jesus from the dead. Paul’s focus on Christ’s resurrection in verse 14, therefore, presupposes Jesus’ death (see also 4:10-11).
Embedding talk of the resurrection in the reality of human weakness and suffering is significant for a couple of reasons. One is that the Corinthian believers apparently considered themselves to already have the fullness of resurrection life because of their powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit, which often did not translate into a communal life of mutual care that reflects a mature grasp of the gospel (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:5-7, 10-11; 4:8-13; 15:12). Paul’s talk of suffering that incites longing for a future, eternal life in God’s own presence (2 Corinthians 4:16-18), thus reminds the Corinthians that their current experiences of the Spirit are only part of the fullness of life that is yet to come (5:5).
It also serves as a defense of his ministry and apostolic authority. Paul argues that persecution and suffering are not signs of failure that should cause the Corinthians to doubt his leadership. Instead, these demonstrate that Paul’s ministry on behalf of the gospel—and indeed, all of Christian life—involves continual death and resurrection in conformity with the crucified and risen Christ.
Resurrection life is apparent not only in the absence of suffering or strife, but also—and even especially—in the midst of these, as God’s Spirit is present and working to bring new life in ways often unseen. Paul’s loving commitment to the Corinthians is, in fact, demonstrated by his willingness to endure suffering to bring the gospel to them (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 15). Suffering itself is not redemptive, but it is an inevitable part of living and preaching the gospel of life and truth in a world where the powers of death and deception still attack, until the fullness of God’s purposes is realized.
Paul’s claims that our “outer nature is wasting away” while our “inner nature is being renewed,” and that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 4:16; 5:1), need to be understood in this light. To see the “inner nature” as a person’s true self that longs to escape the trap of a physical body (“outer nature”) at the end-time resurrection is contrary to Paul’s understanding that even then, life will be embodied (1 Corinthians 15:44), and that resurrection life is present now in believers to some extent. These statements instead reflect the reality that believers live in a time “in-between,” when their embodied lives can still be wounded by sin and decay even while Christ’s Spirit sustains and renews them.
In this context, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 4:14 to look forward to Christ’s ultimate victory over death in the final resurrection is not meant to promote an escapist spirituality that is indifferent to the real struggles of embodied life in the present. To the contrary, it gives Christians the hope and grounding in the life of God needed to face the unavoidable pain and struggle of life in this world. It allows us to envision God’s healing and new life coming into painful circumstances in such a way that motivates us to act in accordance with this transformation.
The resurrection, in fact, is a powerful pillar of Paul’s appeal for reconciliation with the Corinthians. The fact that the God who raised Christ from the dead is alive in both Paul and the Corinthians presents the real possibility that their strained relationship can be renewed. Paul invites them to envision the end of time, when human distinctions between various groups of people will be leveled in the glorious presence of God (2 Corinthians 4:14), as the foundation for a new beginning of mutual trust in Christ in the present.
Considering the resurrection beyond Easter and funerals can inspire similar visions for reconciliation in our own relationships and communities. The powers that alienate people from God and each other have been defeated, even though they continue to assail. Preaching the reality of the resurrection now provides hope that God is present in broken lives, relationships, and communities, working to bring new life out of pain and strife. It also reminds us that life in the Spirit means living in conformity with both the death and resurrection of Christ, which compels us to acts of other-oriented service that may be costly to ourselves, but that are expressions of the future we claim now in hope.