Third Sunday after Pentecost

God’s act of new creation completely changes the way Paul sees the world around him — including his perception of death.

June 17, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

God’s act of new creation completely changes the way Paul sees the world around him — including his perception of death.

In this passage, the apostle expresses hope in the promise of resurrection, but the passage itself is fraught with difficulty.  There are two interrelated dilemmas presented by this text:

(1) Paul’s longing to be away from the body and at home with the Lord could easily be misconstrued as a condemnation of bodily existence.

(2) Paul seems to be looking forward to being with the Lord immediately upon death instead of awaiting a future resurrection.  We will take up each of these points in turn.

Away from the Body

Regarding the first dilemma, does Paul denigrate the body?  In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, the two options of existence seem to be a bodily existence that is separated from the Lord and an existence that is “away from the body” and at home with the Lord.  According to 1 Corinthians 15:35-57, however, the resurrected person is not “away from the body,” but rather transformed into a new body that is free from its mortality.  The perishable body will be changed into an imperishable body. 

Paul does not believe in the immortality of the soul.  Bodily resurrection is central to Paul’s message.  “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, the our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).  The apostle believes that God will ultimately defeat death, and when that occurs mortality will no longer have dominion over the body.  Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so also God will give us victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Has Paul somehow changed his perspective on the body in 2 Corinthians 5?  Both in 2 Corinthians and in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul acknowledges the frailty of the body.  In the context of 2 Corinthians 5, Paul has compared the body to a jar of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7) and an “earthly tent” (5:1).  Furthermore, in imagery reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, he refers to being clothed with immortality and the mortal being swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:3-4).

Does being “away from the body” necessitate a non-bodily existence?  If Paul means to imply that some part of the body is immortal, then it is odd that he would talk about “new creation” (5:17) or the transformation into the Lord’s likeness by the Spirit that is at work within us (3:18).  The “heavenly building” is still a form, but a form from heaven — the very locus of the new age.

Taken in its context, the reference to being away from the body seems most naturally to refer to the body that suffers all the affliction of this present age, an age that is subject to sin and death.  This body has limitations.  This body will die.  Yet, Paul has abundant hope that God will raise this body.  The timeframe of this resurrection, however, stands in some tension with what Paul says elsewhere.

At Home with the Lord

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul expresses hope of being with the Lord immediately after death.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, though, the apostle has maintained hope in a future resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15, the time frame is carefully sketched with each event happening “in its own order” (15:23).  Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as the first fruit and declares that at Christ’s second coming (parousia) “those who belong to Christ” will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:23).   After this comes “the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24).  This timeline seems to be assumed as well in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Romans 8.

Is Paul now revising his timeline?  Scholarship is certainly divided on the answer to this question.  While verses 6-8 seem to anticipate a more immediate hope, the context is not lacking references to the future.  The reference to judgment in 5:10 looks forward to a time when all will come before the “judgment seat of Christ.”  We find this same tension in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In Philippians 1:20-24, Paul implies that upon physical death he will be with the Lord, but later in the letter he talks of the hope of future resurrection and the reality of waiting (3:10-14, 20-21).

In 2 Corinthians 5, as in Philippians, Paul does not offer a timeline nor does he try to make sense of these events chronologically.  God’s new creation has disrupted time.  He does not attempt to explain the details of what happens between death and resurrection.  He merely leaves the Corinthians with the certainty that God is in the business of reconciliation, and this God, who is powerful enough to raise Jesus from the dead, can rescue them from death’s grips.  As Paul says in Romans 8, nothing can “separate us from the love of God” — including death! (Romans 8:38-39).

New Creation

The sign of the Spirit is indeed a marker of God’s new creation.  Those who are “in Christ” can already celebrate what God has done.  Paul can say that the old has passed away and that the new has already come. 

The invasion of the new age into the old has created a new way of knowing.  To regard in a human way is to see all the limitations and boundaries of human existence.  To see from the perspective of new creation, though, is to see neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free — but to see one’s identity in Christ (Galatians 3:28).  This perspective causes Paul to risk life and limb to bring God’s good news to all nations.

Though 2 Corinthians 5 has much hope to offer as believers grieve the loss of loved ones, it is much more a challenge to the church to live as God’s new creation now, to be ambassadors for Christ, and to bear witness to the good news of a God who is in the business of reconciliation.