Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
The experience of being truly loved is transformative.
When someone who sees both our virtues and our flaws is committed to walking with us through life’s highs and lows, it strengthens us and helps us to live more fully as ourselves. When a friend takes our call in the middle of the night because we are anxious about the loss of a job or grieving the loss of a loved one, we gain hope to face another day—not necessarily because our problems have been solved, but because we know that someone deeply cares for us. As seen so often during this trying past year, people often come to know love precisely when they are at the end of their own strength or resources and others step in to give sacrificially of themselves. Such experiences can change us and motivate us to in turn love and care for others.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes as one who has experienced the unsurpassable love of Christ that transformed him from a persecutor of the church into a servant of the gospel. When he confidently declares in verse 17 that, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”, he is speaking out of his own experience into the lives of the Corinthian believers. This new birth is humanly impossible. It only occurs because Christ, fueled by divine love, took on the sin and death that alienates all people from God, who is the source of true life (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19, 21). Christ’s love is ultimate. It brings people into trusting relationship with God and each other and empowers them to live out that same love, which seeks the good and growth of others. This love compels Paul and his co-workers to continue their ministry of reconciliation amidst ongoing persecution, suffering, and threat of death (5:14, 18; see also 4:8-12).
Death, in fact, is necessary for new life to emerge. Those who are included in Christ share in both his death and resurrection; not just at the moment they come to faith, but as a dynamic process that continually transforms them into the image of the One who is true love.
Paul’s talk of “new creation” thus presents both a promise and a challenge. It boldly affirms that the eschatological era of God’s salvation is now encompassing all of creation because the crucified Messiah has been raised to new life. It assures those who are in Christ that we have been freed from a vain way of living that compels us to prove our worth by our accomplishments and seek our own interests at the expense of others. We live confidently knowing that the Holy Spirit has already claimed us for Christ and is preparing us to receive the fullness of God’s life (5:5-8). When our illusion of control over matters is stripped away, we can expect God to surprise us again and again by doing “a new thing,” making “a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).
But dying is painful. Although God alone can transform us into those who live and love like Christ, we are called to surrender to being made anew. It is often easier for us to keep judging others (including ourselves) by human standards (2 Corinthians 5:16) than it is to allow the Spirit to give us new vision to see everyone through the lens of Christ’s love for them. Embracing newness of life in the Spirit means letting go of the strange comfort of old thought patterns and habits that are not life-giving. Living for Christ means openness to embodying divine love to those we would otherwise deem unlovable. From a human perspective, in fact, even Christ appears to be an outcast or failure because of his shameful death. A crucified Messiah is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23; see also 2 Corinthians 5:16b). Staking one’s life on this Christ might invite ridicule, or even persecution, at some point.
Preaching this text in 2 Corinthians 5 allows us to name these realities inherent to the Christian life. While care should be taken not to attribute all forms of suffering to God’s redemptive work in an individual or community’s life, the text illuminates the reality that until we are finally “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), there will be struggles. Although Christ has already claimed us, the old era of sin and death still seeks to derail us.
But the text is ultimately one of hope and much needed promise amidst all sorts of challenges. The true love that every human being deeply longs for has already been given to us in Christ. It is a love that knows everything about us and embraces us anyway. It is the love that transforms us to reflect Christ to our neighbors. It is a powerful, reconciling love that makes it possible for people who mistrust or misunderstand each other to be brought into mutually-edifying relationships. Declaring that the old life has passed and God’s new life has already come is an act of faith that refuses to be complacent with anything less than what God has promised us.