If I had to pick one word to sum up 2 Corinthians so far, do you know what it would be?
Reading this letter is like walking into a room where two people who clearly know each other well are having a very intense conversation.
We’re not sure if we should stay or go as Paul lays out own trustworthiness and love, and for them; as he underlines that God speaks and works (revealing his glory) through the proclamation of the gospel, and pleads with them to stick with him in the long haul, relying on all that God has given them in Christ, and as we reach chapter 5, things don’t let up.
In this chapter, Paul piles on four more features of the church, four more ways of thinking and living that make life here in the people of God so utterly different from anything else on earth. You’ll see the first in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. It’s not complicated.
WE LOOK TO THE FUTURE (5:1-10)
Looking to the future is harder than it sounds. There is enormous pressure on us to focus only the present.
Comfort will do that. Here’s how Mark McCrindle, the Australian Social Researcher, describes the year 12s of 2020:
The youth of 2020 are part of the most formally educated generation in history – starting education younger than ever and projected to stay in education for longer than ever. As the children of older, wealthier parents with fewer siblings and more entertainment and technological options, it is likely that they will be the most entertained and materially endowed generation of children ever.’
Now as the parent of a daughter who has just finished grade 12, I’m not saying they were the worst ever, nor is McCrindle. He’s just making the point that comfort makes us focus on what’s in front of us right now, and whilst Covid may have slightly disrupted that, I suspect that it won’t actually change anything.
But it’s not just comfort.
Conflict will make us short-sighted. That’s what was going on in Corinth – the fact that Paul had gone to Macedonia instead, the unfavourable contrast between his rhetoric and that of the philosophers, who said what to whom, who was mean to whom, who told the fullest truth at the congregational meeting, conflict inevitably drags us down into detail, and will gradually strip us of hope.
On top of that, there is the crushing contemporary focus on the self.
What I want , what I feel, what I need right now is the dominant dogma of the day. The entire discussion around sex and gender for example is all about me and my internal dialogue in this moment. The reality is that whether we’re in Corinth in the first century or Brisbane in the 21st
, looking to the future is not easy – but it is what marks us out as the people of God. We look to the future.
Look with me at how Paul comes at this first in verses 1-5: 2Cor. 5:1
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
Paul compares our bodies to a tent, and our resurrection bodies to a permanent home built by God himself, which will last forever in the new creation! Please notice Paul is not saying that life is like a camping trip gone wrong, and the best we can hope for is that it will be over soon. We have an eternal house
to look forward to!
So verse 2 – Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling…
Paul starts to mix his metaphors here, as he compares our heavenly house to a jacket, it’s clear what he’s getting at, which is more than we can say about verse 3… because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.
It could be that Paul is assuring us that we won’t be stuck in an intermediate, resurrection-body-less state forever, or he could be alluding to the events in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. Or he could just be saying ‘Don’t panic – God has everything under control and we will get to enjoy life with him forever in the new heavens and the new earth.’ But it is clear that the main thing we have to complain about now is that the prospect of our future is so good and so enticing that having to wait for it is almost too much. In verse 2, we’re groaning, and in verse 4? We’re at it again –
For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
We look to the future because it’s going to be GREAT
! And God himself has already guaranteed that: 5Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
From the beginning, God set things up and worked relentlessly to reach this great goal – that we might know him and enjoy him and delight in him and live for him and with him forever. How do we
know that? Because God has already paid the deposit for the new creation. We get to experience the power and presence of God through the Spirit now, in a way that anticipates the full-blown version in the age to come. And not to put it too bluntly – that changes everything now. It puts the messy and painful and challenging details of our lives into vibrant perspective. There is a real-time payout in the local church.
Paul then builds on this in verses 6-10, and explains how and why this makes a real difference to the way we think and act and relate. Verse 6 reads like this:
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7For we live by faith, not by sight. This
is NOT it, and so we walk in a way which is shaped by what God has revealed, not by what can be seen. We don’t live by our wits or wisdom. We don’t act like we are in control, or as if we can fix things. We walk in weakness, trusting God to do the heavy lifting. We live in a way which demonstrates that what’s coming next is the real deal.
It is really hard to do this from moment to moment, isn’t it? Yesterday, for a glorious moment, I thought my phone had died. I confess that for many years, I was an early iPhone adopter.
As every new phone came out, I knew that my happiness depended on keeping up with my fellow cult members. And then, by the grace of God and a massive act of self-control, I stopped at 8. My security and significance, I reminded myself, come from the Lord Jesus, and not the number of my iPhone. And then yesterday, it died. A voice inside me rose up ‘Yes – I NEED a new phone – my misery is over – happiness will be mine again!’ And then it came back to life. We are so susceptible to the lie that complete happiness is a now
thing. Not according to Paul – joy is the mess now, yes, but the real thing lies ahead! We look to the future.
Paul’s words from verse 8-10 are pretty arresting, as he spells out what looking to the future looks like: 8We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Three things: (1) It means remembering that being ‘at home with Jesus’ is going to be better. He may be speaking of stepping into Christ’s presence immediately when we die, or looking forward to the resurrection body.
(2) It then follows that because we’re going to be with him forever,
Pleasing him NOW is the main game (3) It also means that what
We do now really does matter, because we’ll have to answer to Jesus for it. According to verse 10, we’ll all approach the divine bench, and a comprehensive judgment will be handed down to each of us, by which I think Paul means everyone who belongs to Jesus. And on top of that, Paul implies that God will actually reward us!
How on earth can that be? We have just stepped into a theological minefield. But thankfully, we have almost two thousand years to lean on to help – so here we go – 90 seconds of Systematic Theology to help us out here: Hermann Bavinck, the 20th
century Dutch Theologian, explains this beautifully:
If we had done everything we were supposed to do, we would still be ‘unworthy slaves’ who gave the master more trouble than profit. … As the most saintly people have only a small beginning of perfect obedience, now that even their best works are defective and impure, and they own everything they are, own and do as believers to the grace of God, now all notions on their part of a reward, of merit, which would give them a right to reward in the true sense of the word are out of the question.
What child of God would have the nerve to let such an idea arise and express it before the judgment seat of God? The situation is very different, however, if God on his part wants to picture the salvation and glory he desires to give his children using the imagery of wages and reward. And that is indeed what he does throughout the scriptures. He does that to spur on, to encourage and to comfort his children, who being his children are already his heirs…
The inheritance which is then kept for us in heaven is not a wage paid out to employees in proportion to what they have earned, but a reward that the Father in heaven grants to his children out of sheer grace. That reward is one of the many incentives for moral conduct, but by no means a rule or law, for it arises from God’s will alone.
So this isn’t payback, but it is an incentive for us to live by faith, not by sight, knowing the grace that awaits us. It is God’s tender, gentle encouragement to us to live to please him as we follow in the steps of the one who has already defined what a life pleasing to God looks like, and lived that life for us. It’s an encouragement for us to look to the future.
That’s verses 1-10. Now in the second half of the chapter, Paul speeds things up, and fires three more distinctives of people who know and love Jesus. The second is in verses 11-13.
WE FEAR GOD NOT PEOPLE (5:11-13)
In the rest of this chapter, although it’s not always easy to work out why
Paul is arguing as he does, what
he is pushing for is pretty clear. The over-riding principle in this little section is not hard to pick: verse 11 –
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.
Because he knows he is answerable to God, not people (because he ‘fears God’ in the sense of being accountable to him’, he gets on with gospel ministry.
This isn’t the first time that Paul has taken up the matter of people pleasing
with the Corinthians, but it was a big issue for them. Partly because they are human, and partly because they lived in an atmosphere in which deriving your significance from other people’s opinion of you thrived. Listen to what he said back in 1 Corinthians 4:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
Paul said we need to learn to live before an audience of one. We need to fear God, not people.
That explains his commitment to transparency in the rest of verses 11-13:
What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
Here’s what Paul prescribes: take your stance as an open book before God.
This is the only posture that will free us up to love others, to persuade them of the truth of the gospel, to speak the gospel into their lives, even if they resent us, even if they think we are crazy. That’s what he means in verse 11 when he adds But what we are is known to God
. Paul’s own stance before God, his relationship with God, is characterised by simple, straightforward honesty. It’s so easy to pretend before God. To try to persuade God and ourselves that we are better than we actually are – that we are making more progress, that we are more together, that we are less sinful than we actually are. But that is unbelievably dumb. The only sensible thing for people like us – for people like Paul – is to start and end each day saying ‘Here I am Lord – this is all I’ve got. I am what I am – and even then, it’s only by your grace.’
It is so hard to pull this off. And I reckon even the most strong-minded and independent of us there is a little people-pleaser inside fighting to get out. But be warned: Nothing will cause us more pain that being enslaved by the opinions of other people. Nothing will crush us more effectively than the criticism of other people if we haven’t got this right. Nothing will puff us up more quickly, or with more toxicity than the praise of other people if that’s what we’re living for. This will devastate your heart, compromise your decision making and ultimately undermine your whole service of the Lord Jesus. And the problem with it is that for almost all of us, it comes so very naturally. Which of us doesn’t enjoy praise, and recoil from criticism? Which of us would opt for a crushing rebuke, rather than a pat on the back? So what are we to do? We are to set ourselves again to fear God, not people. Fearing people does so much damage to our lives. It stops our evangelism in its tracks, it hamstrings our ability to lead, it stops us saying the hard thing, and pushes us into lying, saying things to manipulate people into saying things to make us feel good. But thank God that in Christ, we have no need to act like that, because Christ has died and risen, we are united to him, and so we fear God alone – which will take us to the third distinctive of God’s people.
WE LOVE PEOPLE LIKE CHRIST (5:14-17)
In the rest of this chapter, Paul keeps piling up some of the most rich and memorable statements ever made about the Christian life – so in verse 14,
Paul says that For Christ’s love compels us
to live in a very particular way. Having met Christ on the Damascus Road, having encountered him in the gospel, Paul’s way of relating to people could never be the same again. Now, as a follower of Christ, he is forced, compelled, driven to love people like Christ. And how has he reached the point where loving people isn’t an option?
It’s becauseone has died for all, therefore all have died. 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
This verse is difficult and controversial. But here’s how the logic runs: Christ died for all (as in all of us who have trusted Christ) and we have all been brought to new life in Christ, dying to ourselves, the only real option for us is to live for Christ, which, as Paul goes on to explain, means loving other people. You can see that’s what he’s getting at in the next couple of statements. Paul says that getting it so spectacularly wrong about Jesus has cured him of making damning judgments about anyone!
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here
!17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
There isn’t actually a verb in verse 17 – which makes it hard to tie down exactly what Paul is saying – ‘if anyone is in Christ … new creation
!’ is how it reads. Paul may be saying that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation – or his point may be, and I think this might be more likely, that for anyone who is in Christ, the new creation has already broken in, transforming the way in which we look at everyone and everything. Either way, Paul’s point is very clear – the love that God has shown us in Christ’s death and resurrection drives us to love people like the Lord Jesus Christ.
So what’s our greatest need in MPC just now? We face all kinds of challenges – restoring transparency, and trust, and integrity. Rebuilding relationships – but for now, I suspect we could do far worse than focusing on loving one another like Christ. And how do we do that? It’s not about gritting our teeth and saying ‘I am going to love you’. But the glorious truth us that as our grasp of the gospel increases, then so will our love for other people. Being around the church of the Lord Jesus should always translate into a greater depth of love for people. Is that happening for you? This is the measure, the gauge of the length and breadth and depth of the work of Christ in us. Didn’t Jesus say repeatedly that ‘by this shall all men know you are my disciples?’ For when we encounter the love of Christ, it constrains and compels us to pour out our lives for others. We love people like Christ himself. And one more…
WE PURSUE GOSPEL RELATIONSHIPS RELENTLESSLY (5:18-21)
One of the remarkable things about Paul is that despite the number of churches with which he has links, the number of people he knows, he still sticks with the Corinthians come what may. What is it that drives him in this? What is the theological underpinning for his relational capacity and his determination to do whatever it takes to stick with them, and to ensure that they opt to stick with him and with the gospel? It’s Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation. Look with me at how this chapter ends:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
There is, it turns out, remarkably little space in the NT devoted to reconciliation as an explicit topic – reconciliation language occurs only in Paul, and even then only three times: here in this passage, in 1 Corinthians 7, and in Romans 5, and that’s it. At one level, it is a relatively unimportant doctrine which is barely mentioned – yet at another it takes us right to the heart of the gospel, and is the heartbeat of the NT, because the work of reconciliation takes us to the very heart of the work of the Christ our mediator.
Leon Morris explains: Now when there is an enmity the way to reconciliation is by dealing with the root cause of the quarrel. Unless this is faced there can never be any real and lasting peace. There can be nothing better than a patched up truce. Real peace, genuine re- conciliation takes place when the causes of the enmity are sought out and dealt with.
Which means that wrapped up in this one idea of reconciliation is the way in which God deals with his wrath and our sin in Christ. To restore our relationship to that of delight and intimacy as we revel in his glory, demand a massive reversal, which happens when God himself takes the initiative to heal this rift, dealing with his own wrath and our guilt at the same time. How does he do that?
He does it by making him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul it seems, is drawing on Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus Christ, God’s perfect, flawless Son, who becomes our sin bearing, standing as our substitute, to bring about a radical change in which we who were guilty are now joined to Christ, sharing in his righteousness, and enjoying the peace which flows to us in a restored relationship with the father. This is what Calvin called the wonderful exchange.
And, as you know, we could spend weeks unpacking just this single, astounding phrase. But I want you this morning to make sure that you see where Paul goes with this.
This isn’t just theological rumination for the sake of it – Paul writes this because of his longing to see his relationship with the Corinthians restored.
Look with me at verse 20, which is really the heart of this entire section, and perhaps the entire letter of 2 Corinthians: 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
An ambassador was normally sent as a representative of a lesser nation to suck up to a local superpower like Rome. But God has condescended in the gospel to send people like us, making not his demands but his appeal through us.
This is God’s method. This is the task with which we have been charged. That’s why Paul says We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Paul’s great concern in all this is that his relationship with the Corinthians is out of step with the gospel.
So he calls not pagans, but his Christian brothers and sisters in Corinth to be reconciled to God – now that comes as a bit of a shock. Think about the implications of this – if our relationships with one another, our gospel partnerships are disrupted, then we can’t simply let it go – we can’t run away into our preferred friendship groups. That simply isn’t an option. Because God has reconciled us to himself through the gospel, then we must pursue authentic gospel relationships. This is how God’s reconciling power is proclaimed and demonstrated to the world.
Because Jesus’ work of reconciliation, his sin-bearing, righteousness giving, relationship restoring work on the cross and in his resurrection, we are people who relentlessly pursue gospel relationships – who are prepared to face pain, and say hard things, and take the initiative over and over again, to pursue things until they are right, because this is the way of the gospel. This is the challenge before us. To pursue the richness and authenticity of gospel-shaped relationships.
As you’ll see in the bulletin, over these next weeks, this is the task before us. Over the next week, you will all receive a document from the elders laying out as fully as we can what has happened over these months, where leadership has been ineffective, identifying enduring challenges and suggesting some things we need to do as we pursue reconciliation as we must. Next Sunday, after we share the Lord’s Supper together, we will invite anyone who wants to speak, airing hurts, frustrations, pain, concerns, without comment or argument or censure, as we listen together. There may well be follow up conversations that need to take place formally and informally after that, before together, on March 20th
, we’ll set aside a Saturday morning as a church family to pray, lament, repent, as well as to look forward. All this is done out of a desire to pursue and restore gospel-shaped relationships at MPC.
This is a hard chapter. It calls us to look to the future. Fear God not people. Love people like Christ. Pursue gospel relationships relentlessly. But this is the word of God to us.
The God who made him who had no sin to be sinfor us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Let’s look to the God who has already given us everything we need and more in the Lord Jesus.