2 Corinthians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Christian Hope Beyond the Grave

Second Corinthians 5:1-10 is one of the most researched and written-about passages in Paul's writings--and for a good reason. Paul is tackling the topic of the Christian hope beyond the grave, and more specifically, what happens to the believer at the point of death. In our culture the subject of death holds a certain fascination as well as repulsion. On the one hand, we try to mask the fact of death with euphemisms such as "he passed on" and "she went to a better place" and with funeral rites such as viewing the body, remarking how well someone looks and placing flowers on the grave. On the other hand, our culture, especially in recent years, has displayed an attraction to the topic of death in the form of accounts of near-death experiences, a resurgence of spiritism, the growing popularity of the New Age movement and the like. In fact, among the books on the bestseller list in the 1970s were Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1970), and Raymond Moody Jr., Life After Life (1975); in the 1980s, Raymond Moody Jr., The Light Beyond (1988); and in the early 1990s, Betty J. Eadie and Curtis Taylor, Embraced by the Light (1992).

There was the same ambivalence toward death in Paul's time. Some viewed death positively as the release of the immortal soul from its mortal bodily tomb, while others looked on death as life's end--as the popular maxim "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor 15:32) attests. Paul, however, puts forward a different expectation for the Christian in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. There is the certainty of physical resurrection and transformation (vv. 1-5), the confidence that death begins a journey in the realm of sight (vv. 6-7) and the assurance that death places us in the presence of Christ (v. 8). All this is confirmed by the deposit of the Spirit within us, guaranteeing what is to come (v. 5).

What motivated Paul to write on this subject? The notion in 4:16-18 of the decay of the outer self and the renewal of the inner self leads quite naturally to the question of what happens when these dual processes reach their point of completion. Yet, Paul's comments seem to go beyond routine doctrinal teaching. They have an air of correction about them, as evidenced by the repetitiveness of the instruction and the coining of terms. Twice Paul says that his current situation causes him to groan (vv. 2, 4), toice he states that he does not want to be unclothed but "overclothed" (vv. 2-3, 4), and toice he remarks that he is "confident" about what he is telling them (vv. 6, 8). There is also a piling up of compound verbs not found elsewhere in the New Testament, as Paul strains the limits of the language to express himself (ependyomai, endemeo, ekdemeo).

Whom and what is he correcting? It does not appear to be the Corinthians. When a problem exists in one of his churches, Paul normally tackles it head-on. He does not do that here. Mention in verse 12 of "those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart" makes it likely that Paul's remarks are intended primarily as a criticism of outsiders who were attempting to convert the Corinthians to their way of thinking. What was this way of thinking? His emphasis in verse 7 that he lives "by faith, not by sight" points to those who valued the visible manifestations of the Spirit and took pride in visions, the working of miracles and ecstatic experiences (see the introduction). References to being found naked (v. 3) and unclothed (v. 4) suggest that Paul is also combating some form of Greek dualism, where immortality is viewed as the shedding of the physical body at death and the persistence of the soul beyond the grave. To a church that prided itself on having arrived spiritually (1 Cor 4:8) and tended to look at the physical side of things as a matter of indifference (6:12-13), this would be an especially appealing notion.

The NIV now obscures the connection with the preceding section. The opening gar (for) points back to 4:18 and answers why the gospel preacher focuses on what is unseen rather than on what is seen. It is because we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God. This is not new information that Paul is passing along to the Corinthians. He has dealt at length with the Christian hope of resurrection-transformation in his second letter to them (1 Cor 15). But he does make several advances over what he taught them earlier. The Greek is literally "our earthly dwelling of tent" (he epigeios hemwn oikia tou skenous). The term earthly recalls the formation of Adam from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7) and his return to dust at death (Gen 3:19). In Attic law the oikia (omitted by the NIV) was the "dwelling-house," while the oikos was the property left at a person's death (Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). Our body is thus likened to a house that we dwell in during our sojourn on earth (contrast v. 1 in heaven).

The verb translated destroyed actually means "to dismantle" (kata + luo, "take down"). Paul likens the process of physical decay and death to the dismantling of a tent-dwelling (oikia tou skenous). The Greek word skene (tent) brings to mind the Old Testament tabernacle that could be dismantled and carried along wherever the people of Israel traveled. As something that can be easily swept away by storm, wind or other accident of nature, the comparison of the body to a tent is a particularly apt one--as the inexperienced camper can readily testify to. Paul would have had intimate knowledge of this kind of dwelling as a professional tentmaker.

All human beings experience the dismantling of their earthly tent-dwelling. Christians, however, look forward to a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. In contrast to tent (skene), the word building (oikodome) denotes a stable and permanent structure. Paul's language has led some to think in terms of a literal house in heaven (Charles Hodge; compare Jn 14:2, "in my Father's house are many rooms"), a heavenly church (Earle Ellis; J. A. T. Robinson), a heavenly temple (Guy Wagner) or the realm of the unseen and eternal (Victor Furnish). Later references to what is mortal being swallowed up by life (v. 4) and being away from the body (v. 8) point, rather, to the believer's hope of a material existence beyond the grave. The present tense, we have, has suggested to some the expectation of a material mode of existence at death. But, as in English, the present tense in Greek can have a future sense--"we will have" (as in "I am going to the store after lunch"). Most, consequently, believe that Paul is talking about the resurrection-transformation of the believer at Christ's return.

All this, however, misses the point Paul is trying to make. The emphatic position of the verb stresses the certain possession of this building. God's intention for the believer is bodily existence, not disembodiment as some would claim. More specifically, those who face physical hardship and suffering as a result of their labors in the gospel ministry are assured that, come what may, a house of God's own designing (ek theou--from God) awaits them. This house is distinguished in three ways. It is of heavenly versus earthly origin (in heaven). It is a permanent (eternal) as opposed to a temporary structure. And it is assembled by God rather than by human hands (not built by human hands).

Meanwhile, Paul says, we groan (v. 2). Meanwhile is literally "in this state"--that is, while in our tent-dwelling. The verb "to groan" can mean to sigh out of longing for something or to moan in response to physical suffering, loss or distress. Paul sighs out of a longing to be clothed with his heavenly dwelling and be done with the burdens of this present existence. There is a shift of metaphors. While the culmination of physical decay is compared to dismantling a tent, the climax of renewal is likened to putting on an overcoat. To be clothed with is actually a reflexive verb meaning to put on over something that is already in place (epi + en + dysasthai). That which is perishable is pictured as clothing itself with an imperishable topcoat (compare 1 Cor 15:53-54).

Verse 3 is notoriously difficult. It is usual to treat this verse as a parenthetical remark explaining why Paul longs to put on his heavenly dwelling (so that he will not experience the nakedness of bodiless existence). But this is, by no means, the most plausible way to interpret the text. Most modern translations follow the reading endysamenoi and render the verse along the lines of the NIV: because when we are clothed we will not be found naked. But this makes verse 3 a mere repetition of verses 2 (we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling) and 4 (we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling) and, thus, without point or purpose in the paragraph. It is preferable to follow the Greek text adopted by the 4th edition of the UBS and the 27th Nestlé-Aland edition, which read "but even if we are unclothed [ekdysamenoi], we will not be found naked."

What point would Paul be trying to make? It could be that he is repudiating the Greek idea that disembodiment is desirable. The noun gymnos was frequently used in Greek philosophy to describe the state of the soul separated from the body. That this was a common notion is reflected in the judgment of Wisdom of Solomon 9:15 that "a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind." He could also be reflecting Jewish feelings about nakedness. Unlike the Greeks, who gloried in the unclothed body, the Jews considered nakedness a disgraceful state. Nakedness and shame are equated in the Old Testament. Babylon's punishment is to have its nakedness exposed and its shame uncovered (Is 47:3), while Israel is to be left naked and bare and its shame exposed (Ezek 23:29). Indeed, m. Berakot 3:5 stipulates that a person must be clothed to recite the Shema--even if one's bathwater is the only handy covering at the time.

Verse 3 is perhaps best construed against this latter background. What Paul longs for is to be overclothed with his heavenly body at the parousia. But if he should die before Christ returns, the dissolution of his body does not mean that he is left naked. That is the state of the non-Christian. Christians, by contrast, have been undergoing the progressive renewal of their inner person, which provides them with an appropriate covering at death. So even if Paul is in a state of undress (that is, lacking a physical body), he will nonetheless not be found naked (that is, in a state of shame), because his sufferings have been achieving for him "an eternal glory that far outoeighs them all" (4:17). Taken in this way, the aorist is ingressive, "to enter into a state of undress" (ekdysamenoi). The form of the conditional statement (ei + aorist participle) admits the real possibility of this occurring (that is, that Paul will die before Christ returns). The passive "to be found" (heurisko) is frequently used to denote the result of a judicial investigation (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). To be found naked, then, would be to experience God's judgment and not the freedom from bodily existence that many Greeks (and perhaps some Corinthians) expected.

In verse 4 Paul repeats what he said in verse 2: For while we are in this tent, we groan--or more accurately, "for truly [kai gar] we groan." To this he adds and are burdened. Baroumenoi (are burdened) means "to be weighed down" or "made to carry a heavy load." The nominal form was used in 4:17 of the weight of eternal glory that affliction produces for those who serve Christ in the gospel ministry. Here Paul is weighed down because he does not wish to be unclothed but to be [over]clothed with his heavenly dwelling. The NIV translates the aorist infinitives as passives (be unclothed/be clothed) when in fact they are middles ("to unclothe/clothe ourselves over").

Why does Paul repeat himself? Some think that Paul's recent close encounter with death, related in 1:8-11, forced him to come to terms with the possibility that he would not be alive when Christ returned and in turn raised the question of the state of the believer betoeen death and resurrection. Yet Paul is no stranger to perilous encounters. In 1 Co-rinthians 15:30 he tells the Corinthians that he risked his life "every hour." So the deadly peril that he faced in Asia was hardly a new experience for him. Being stoned at Lystra and left outside the city for dead certainly qualifies as a comparable ordeal (Acts 14:19). Others suppose that Paul is expressing his desire to avoid a state of bodily undress--as any pious Jew would.

Neither a close encounter with death nor a Jewish abhorrence of nakedness accounts, however, for the way Paul belabors the thought in verses 1-4. It is more likely that he is correcting what his opponents claimed to be a superior state of affairs--the soul's being stripped of the physical body. Like his opponents, Paul is burdened with a longing, but not a longing to be rid of the body and all that ails it (as these intruders would have it). His desire is rather to have his present existence with all its mortal ills swallowed up by life (v. 4). The metaphor once again shifts. The Christian hope of transformation, pictured as putting on an overcoat in verse 2, is now depicted as an animal swallowing its prey whole. The verb katapino means "to gulp down" or "to consume entirely" (swallowed up; Goppelt 1968:158-59). As Jonah was swallowed up (katapiein) by a huge fish (Jon 2:1 [1:17]), life, as it were, swallows up the entirety of our earthly, fragile, expendable, clay-pot existence.

How can the Corinthians be sure that this expectation is correct? Paul goes on in verse 5 to provide them with too very good reasons. One, God has made us for this very purpose; and, too, God has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Made is probably not the best translation. The verb katergazomai means "to equip" or "to prepare" someone for something (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979; TEV, RSV, NRSV, LB, NASB, NKJV). The something for which we are being prepared is to have our mortal existence swallowed up by immortality. This is accomplished through the Spirit given to us as an arrabon.

Arrabon (deposit) is a legal term pertaining to contracts of sale or service. The arrabon was the earnest money that a buyer would give the seller prior to the actual sale and delivery of the item or that a hirer would give the laborers toward work to be carried out at a later date (see the commentary on 1:22). The idea is of a first installment or down payment of the full amount yet to come. In chapter 1 the Spirit was given as the down payment toward the church's full redemption. Here the Spirit is the first installment toward the believer's full possession of an eternal house in heaven (v. 1). The aorists katergasamenos (prepared) and dous (gave) point to a decisive moment in the past. Paul is undoubtedly thinking of the receipt of the Spirit at conversion.

The second installment he looks forward to is the complete transformation of our present perishable mode of existence into an imperishable one. The Spirit's job is not merely to point forward to or give assurance of this future transformation. He is currently working to bring it about through renewal of the inner self (4:17)--what Paul refers to in 4:12 as "life at work in you."

There is a great deal of controversy in the church today about what Paul teaches in these verses regarding death and beyond and what he does not. So it is important to be clear where the text is clear and to acknowledge where the text does not provide us with enough information to draw an exact conclusion. The following points are explicitly taught.

First, resurrection-transformation is the inevitable result of the Spirit's regenerative and renewing work within us. This is the privilege of the Christian, not the non-Christian. Second, the language of building, house and "overclothing" indicates that our future life with the Lord will involve some form of material existence. Disembodiment is not the hope of the Christian. This means that there is some manner of continuity betoeen our present and future forms of existence. Finally, it is the down payment of the Spirit that ensures continuity betoeen present and future modes of existence.

To go beyond this is to speculate without textual justification. Whether we will possess a temporary body in the interim period or even receive our heavenly dwelling at death, Paul does not explicitly say--but neither possibility is explicitly excluded. Whether resurrection-transformation involves little or substantial physical change is impossible to determine. The fact of the matter is that Paul does not dwell on the details of the when and what of our future bodily existence. So we, in turn, do well to "not go beyond what is written" (1 Cor 4:6).

Next commentary:
The Expectation of Eternal Life with Christ

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations