Summary of the Text
Eyes of Faith: Verse 17 summarizes the Apostle Paul’s argument in this passage: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Throughout this epistle, Paul has been describing surprising relationships within his ministry. At the beginning of chapter 5, Paul says, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (verse 1). This sort of thinking isn’t natural.
Job’s Response to Loss: It requires the eyes of faith (vs 7). Paul’s thinking here is more in line with Job’s. Who among us, if we lost everything, including the lives of our families, would be able to respond in the same manner that Paul and Job did? When all of Job’s children died in a tragic catastrophe, and when Job’s own body was afflicted with sores and disease, most people would say something like what Job’s wife said: “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job responded by saying, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Verse 10). This aligns well with Paul’s expression of faith—though our material bodies waste away, our dwelling in the Almighty remains secure.
Pulled in Two Directions: In verse 6, Paul continues his argument with significant juxtapositions. Life on earth requires using one’s eyesight (or other means for those visually impaired), but walking by faith, walking with the vision of heaven, that’s more important than physical eyesight (verse 7). In verse 8, Paul juxtaposes the joy of life in Heaven with Jesus with continued life on Earth. This gravity of this statement can be easily missed by we who enjoy great things in this life. Do you wish to leave life on Earth right now and be present with the Lord? Many believers would be ambivalent at best, not to mention most of us fear the dying process. Yet, enjoying the presence of Jesus would be more satisfying than anything else.
So, as long as God calls us to continue in this life, we will be satisfied with serving as Christ’s ambassadors here on earth, much like the way Paul served the churches he served (verse 9). Achieving these goals, through the power of the Spirit to the glory of Christ, will be those things which stand the test on Judgement Day (verse 10).
Furthermore, because the Judgement Day draws nearer with the passing of each day, Paul and his companions “persuade others,” including the Corinthian church (verse 11), and they persuade others to believe the Gospel and understand the fear of the Lord.
We Boast in What We Value: In verses 11-13, Paul anticipates a likely response by outsiders to his message. Some people will boast about their own outward appearances; some may boast in power, money, wisdom, etc. People boast in these things because they carry significant value. However, Paul juxtaposes these with the “fear of the Lord” (verse 11) and the fact that “what we are is known to God” (verse 11). As Solomon reminds us, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). If we value what others think about us, or what we think they think about us, we can become obsessed with the passing trends and fashions of the day, rather than the eternal will of God.
A DIfferent Kind of Control: Paul builds several more significant ironies and juxtapositions in verses 14-15. He says, “The love of Christ controls us….” How can love control someone else? Our modern assumptions about freedom, love, and desire do not help us understand Paul’s statement here, but Paul is clear: when a person loves Christ and Christ loves a person (ἡ γὰρ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ); that love compels or controls us. Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we love God so much that we would do anything to please Him. Our hearts are so filled with His love that we can’t help but obey His commands. Now, to be sure, we can’t love God perfectly this way in this life, but through His grace and His sanctifying power, God helps us love Him and our neighbors.
One for All, and All for One: Paul’s next ironic juxtaposition is “that one died for all….” We hear, know, and believe this truth so much and so often that it’s power can be lost on us, but notice the irony here. Why should one person die for all? What a terrible injustice! What could be so terrible that one person would die in the place of every other person who deserves death?
Here it is: every person, barring Jesus, carries Adam’s sin and has him/herself sinned. Yet, in the mercy of God, one man dies for all. Jesus bore in his human nature the sins of the world. But then Paul an unexpected step forward. He says, “therefore all have died….” Well, if Jesus died for all, why then must all die? The Apostle gives us the answer in the next half of the sentence: “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.”
Don’t let the irony escape you. He died that we might live. That’s powerful. And since he died, we died. And with another ironic juxtaposition, now that we have died, we live again because He lives again. Jesus is our faithful leader. He leads us through death and into life. And because we still live this life here before the great Judgement Day, we continue to live “for him” and for His glory.
How We Perceive Others: In light of this great Gospel truth, Paul makes this necessary application: “we regard no one according to the flesh” (verse 16). To regard others or even Christ “according to the flesh” seems to mean that we regard or consider them with earthly wisdom or earthly power. In 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, Paul says, “For Jews demand signs and Greek seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” To regard others or Christ with “the flesh” would be to do so through these fallen means.
Regarding others and regarding Christ according to the Spirit requires that we “walk by faith and not by sight” as we saw in verse 7. Furthermore, it’s this faith that is necessary for becoming a new creation in Christ (verse 17). Paul says, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This statement takes faith to believe. I am aware of my life, my sin, my struggles, and I know that the old man/woman has not passed away. However, in Christ, I am declared righteous (justification). That means that I have to use my eyes of faith rather than my eyes of flesh to live to the glory of God. As God leads me and as I follow Him, He makes me trust, act, and become more like Jesus (sanctification).
One does not surrender a life in an instant. That which is lifelong can only be surrendered in a lifetime. Nor is surrender to the will of God (per se) adequate to fullness of power in Christ. Maturity is the accomplishment of years, and I can only surrender to the will of God as I know what that will is.
Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot
It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) ‘vegetarian’ substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too ‘illustrious with being.’ They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.”
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Everything Is There from the Beginning
When a child is born, it is at once endowed with all the faculties of humanity. If those powers are lacking at first, they will not come afterward. It has eyes, it has hands, it has feet, and all its physical organs. These of course are, as it were, in embryo. The senses, though perfect at first, must be gradually developed, and the understanding gradually matured. It can see only a little; it cannot discern distances. It can hear, but it cannot hear distinctly enough at first to know from what direction the sound comes. But you never find a new leg, a new arm, a new eye, or a new ear growing on that child.
Each of these powers will expand and enlarge, but still there is the whole man there at first, and the child is sufficient for a man. If only God in his infinite providence causes it to feed, and gives it strength and increase, it has enough for manhood. It does not need either arm or leg, nose or ear. You cannot make it grow a new limb; nor does it require a new limb either. All are there. In like manner, the moment a man is regenerated, there is every faculty in his new creation that there shall be, even when he gets to heaven. It only needs to be developed and brought out.
He will not have a new power; he will not have a new grace. He will have those that he had before, developed and brought out. Just as we are told by the careful observer that in the acorn there is in embryo every root and every bough and every leaf of the future tree, which only requires to be developed and brought out in their fullness, so, in the true believer, there is a sufficiency or adequacy for the inheritance of the saints in light. All that he requires is not that a new thing should be implanted, but that that which God has put there in the moment of regeneration shall be cherished and nurtured, and made to grow and increase, until it comes unto perfection and he enters into “the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1:12).”
Charles H. Spurgeon, “Special Thanksgiving to the Father,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, vol. 6 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1860), 263.