2. Corinthians 5 – Longing for Heaven
Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 5 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)
The Perishable Switched to the Imperishable – 2 Cor 5:1-5
In this brief section St. Paul uses two images of the change happening in the resurrection of a Christian. In verse 1 he describes it as switching a tent to an eternal dwelling. On the other hand, in verses 2-5 he speaks about undressing and dressing as a picture of the transition from the old to the new.
The temporal tent in verse 1 might not speak to us as strongly as to Paul’s first readers. Even today you might see nomad shepherds in Israel: They set up a tent wherever there is grass for the kettle or goats. When it is time to switch to another area, they disassemble the tent and reassemble close to new pastures. Paul does not speak about houses of bricks or wood, but temporal tents. It is good to note that by profession Paul himself was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3).
This same image is used in other parts of the New Testament. St. Peter speaks about our earthly dwelling in 2nd Peter 1:13. Jesus said that He will build up the Temple in three days (John 2:18-22) which is a clear reference to resurrection. Hebrews 9:11 speaks of Heaven as a tent.
In verses 2-5 Paul speaks about the image of undressing and dressing just like he spoke also in 1 Cor 15:35-58. There he made a comparison between resurrection and the death and growing of a seed sowed into the ground. We also change into the likeness of Christ in our resurrection (Phil 3:21).
Why did Paul not want to undress or put away the old (verse 4)? It cannot be the fear of death since he already longed to enter Heaven (verse 8). Apparently, Paul was hoping Christ to return so soon that he would not need to die before it (see 1 Thess 4:17).
“The guarantee” in verse 5 could also be translated as a deposit (payment in advance. See 2 Cor 1:22). The difference might seem small, but there is one major difference between the two. A deposit is a small part of the total sum while a guarantee is something that is returned after paying the total sum. In this understanding of the words the Holy Spirit is not a mere guarantee to point to the future inheritance, but one part of the everlasting life already given to us.
Is There a Longing for Heaven?
When Christians are accused for not taking responsibility of their lives and longing only for Heaven, people quote: “Religion is opium of the people” (from Karl Marx). Longing for everlasting life should never mean undermining this current life. This life is also a great gift from God. But it is even more foolish to refuse everlasting life on the account of the current life. Why drive a Russian Moskvitch if you can have a Cadillac?
Karl Marx based his views on the thought that there is no afterlife. But when it is the opposite, things in life go into a different order. Another example from the car world is the case of the East-German Trabantia. Before the fall of DDR people had to wait many years for a new Trabantia, but when the folk had access to Western cars, nobody interested in Trabantia anymore. Everlasting life is the most precious life we can have, since it is an eternal life with God.
What if I don’t have a strong feeling of longing for Heaven? St. Paul longed for the life in Heaven (verse 2; Phil 1:21-26), but he was a great man of God. Perhaps, one of the reasons why Paul so earnestly longed for Heaven was that he had already had a glimpse of the Divine: In a revelation he had experienced something which is usually impossible (2 Cor 12:1-5). We might not have as strong a faith as he to the things to come as Paul did. But the main point is not our earnestness or assurance of Heaven, but that we will never stop waiting for it and abandon Christ. Even with our weak faith we can cling on to Christ, but it is necessary that we put our trust in Him instead of other things.
Death Is Also a Possibility – 2 Cor 5:6-10
As Christians it is important to understand that death is also a possibility. Death is not only the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26) but also the gate to everlasting life. Immortality on earth would mean eternal separation from God, even that the earth would become as hell for us (verse 6).
Christians are a nation living by the promises of God (verse 7, Heb 11:1). This has a comforting perspective: Nobody can rob us from salvation since it has been completed on the cross of Golgotha (Rom 8:37-39). If salvation would depend on us, we might easily and surely fail. But instead, God has already prevailed on behalf of us.
Verses 9 and 10 are easily misinterpreted as a reason to be justified through works. It is important to note the difference: We are not saved by good works but for good works (ref. Matt 25:37-39, 44, the replies of those saved and condemned).
All people could be saved through the atoning death of Christ, but all do not want to put their trust into this sacrifice of Jesus on Golgotha.
Paul reminds again that Christians, and especially himself, have a responsibility of their lives (ref. Rom 6:15-23). Our life should not be an obstacle for salvation. Sin is “a rope” that Satan tries to pull us away from Jesus into damnation. Our life should not be an obstacle for our neighbour’s salvation either but an invitation to come follow Jesus. This can be done only if our lives reflect at least a bit of how Jesus treats His own.
The Whole World Universally Justified – 2 Cor 5:11-15
Many interpret verse 11 as if St. Paul would emphasize the unworthiness of man. But on the contrary, Paul wants to say that he is not what his opponents speak of him. Indeed, God knew the truth and Paul hoped that the Corinthians would see it also (verse 12).
In verses 12 and 13 Paul speaks about accusations against him: Paul has been recommending himself and now he is out of order. Recommending himself was said because Paul didn’t have a letter of recommendation from others (2 Cor 3:1). Being out of order might refer to speaking in tongues, but according to 1 Cor 14:28 Paul denied it from the church meeting if there was no one to interpret it (see also 1 Cor 14:18-19). Possibly it was only about the eagerness and intensity of Paul’s argument with his opponents they blamed him of.
Paul reminds the Corinthians in verse 12 that the core of our faith is not visible: Not a letter of recommendation, not circumcision, not gifts of the Spirit, and not outward customs. The most important trait of a Christian is what is found in his heart, faith in Christ (see 1 Cor 2:1-5). This is visible only to God and that is most important. We human beings evaluate our neighbours mistakenly: Sometimes too negatively and sometimes too positively.
Verses 14 and 15 speak about things that have been described by Lutherans as “the Universal Justification”. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he atoned the sins of the whole world (see 1 Cor 15:3-4). Sometimes these words are opposed because the idea might be misinterpreted as if all people are saved regardless of faith. But if we decide to teach a limited version of the atonement of Christ, we do something which is not in our authority. Wrong use or the fear of wrong use should not prevent the correct us of our authority. The sins off all people have been atoned but a person might still perish if he rejects this atonement of Jesus on his behalf.
Because sins are atoned for, a Christian should live in Christ and fight against sin in his own life (see also Rom 6). Christ won us from Satan, and we now belong to God’s kingdom. We must live according to the goal of that kingdom.
Who Is Jesus? – 2 Cor 5:16-21
Scholars have debated based on verse 16 whether St. Paul knew Jesus during His public ministry or not. In Gal 1:12-16 Paul says that he has not receive the gospel from any man, but this does not necessarily mean that Paul didn’t know Jesus while He lived on earth. In verse Gal 1:16 Paul says that it pleased God to reveal His Son to him on the road to Damascus, but this doesn’t deny the possibility of them meeting sometime before (see also Acts 9:5). The matter of how well Paul knew Jesus while He lived remains unclear.
In Acts 20:35 Paul quotes words from Jesus that are not found in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. But this can also be a quotation from Early Christian tradition which did not end up in any of the Gospels. This does not need to be interpreted so that Paul received these words directly from Jesus.
In this account Paul says that before Jesus had revealed himself to him on the road to Damascus, he knew Him only according to the flesh, that is, naturally. But the true knowledge of Jesus comes from God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Even today we must confess that the core truths of our Christian faith are beyond reasoning: Birth of the Virgin Mary, atonement the death on the cross, resurrection, and the return of Jesus Christ.
The liberal interpretation of the Bible is that according to verse 16 Paul views the historic Jesus as worthless. But Paul does not say so. He emphasizes that the human mind cannot understand the full meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul knew the historical Jesus before he went to Damascus. The crucifixion of the historical Jesus was at that time a sign to him that He could not be the Messiah (Gal 3:13). Paul did not have a problem with knowing the historical Jesus but that he did not understand the true and spiritual meaning of His death (ref. John 20:30-31). Now, Paul wants his readers to understand that it is irrelevant whether he knew the historical Jesus while He walked on the earth, as the Pharisees and Pilate also knew him. But the point is that who knows Jesus and His true meaning trough the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, another accusation against Paul was that he did not know Jesus before His crucifixion. Therefore, Paul’s opponents gave such importance for having letters of recommendation from the original apostles.
The last verses of the chapter are one of the most concise expositions of the core truths of the Christian faith. It contains the core of the gospel: Christ died so that all people could live. As Christians, we are called to proclaim this to all people.