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2 Corinthians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Expectation of Eternal Life with Christ

What Paul does dwell on in these verses is how what we believe about the future should affect our lives today. It most certainly affected Paul. The knowledge that he possessed an eternal house in heaven allowed him to have a positive attitude toward life's adversities. Therefore, he says, we are always confident. The verb tharreo means "to be of good courage or cheerful." Paul maintains a cheery attitude toward his present circumstances. This is the opposite of losing heart or growing weary (4:16)--a temptation that all of us in full-time ministry face from time to time. Moreover, he is cheerful not only when things are going well but always. Not even the prospect of death affects his basic attitude.

Paul's cheerfulness stems in part from knowing that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. Some Greeks drew courage in the face of death from the belief that they possessed an immortal soul. Others, who had no such hope, felt only despair over their eventual demise (1 Thess 4:13). Paul, on the other hand, was cheerful about the prospect of death. Death for him was not an enemy but a friend. This was because death, or being away from the body, meant being at home with the Lord (v. 8). The verbs endemeo ("at home") and ekdemeo ("away from home", "abroad") are found only here in the Greek Bible. The noun dhmos refers to the city or land where a particular group of people live (Grundmann 1964c:63). It is what we call our "hometown."

Cleveland is my hometown, the place where I grew up and where my mother and many of my friends still live. But Chicago is the city where I now make my home--where my colleagues, church family, spouse and children live. In a similar way, Paul speaks of in the body and with the Lord as too different homes in diverse locations. He cannot be in both places at the same time. And his preference is to be at home with the Lord (v. 8). But for this to happen he must be away from the hometown of his mortal body.

Has Paul slipped unknowingly into a dualistic way of thinking? Not at all. Body and Lord merely represent too different places that he can call home--like Cleveland and Chicago for me--without any necessary implication of a body-soul framework. Body is simply a catchword for his present mortal existence, much like the expression "home is where your heart is."

But what does it mean to be away from the Lord (v. 6)? To forestall misunderstanding, Paul adds parenthetically we live by faith, not by sight (v. 7). Live is literally "to walk" (peripateo), a word that Paul uses with regularity to describe the Christian life. The preposition by (dia + genitive) probably denotes realm (M. J. Harris 1978a:1182-83). To live by faith is to walk in the realm of faith. By faith, not by sight does not reflect a belief in the immaterial over against the material world but represents a conviction about what is yet to be seen compared to what can now be seen. This is similar to Hebrews 11:1, where faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.

In religious parlance, to be away from the Lord (v. 6) can mean to be relationally distant from God. Paul, however, is speaking in spatial, not relational language. Our present existence offers to the visible eye merely a dim reflection of the Lord (1 Cor 13:12), so that our relationship with him, for the time being, is in the realm of faith, not sight. But at death we will see Christ "face to face" (1 Cor 13:12), for we will be at home with the Lord (v. 8). The preposition pros + the accusative ton kyrion (with the Lord) suggests not just impassive spatial proximity to Christ but dynamic, interpersonal communion with him (M. J. Harris 1978c:1205). Paul's use of the aorist tense (endhmesai/ekdhmesai; v. 8), as opposed to the present tense (v. 6), denotes a once-for-all turn of events (Martin 1986:112). This is why death is preferable to life in the mortal body. In fact, Paul can say to the Philippians that for him "to die is gain" (Phil 1:21).

In light of the expectation of face-to-face communion with Christ, Paul makes it his goal to please him (v. 9). The verb philotimoumetha means "to strive eagerly to do something," "to aspire earnestly" (Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). The something Paul strives eagerly to do is to please Christ. His ambition is an eternal one. He makes pleasing Christ his goal, whether at home in the body or away from it. The NIV adds in the body; the Greek says merely "whether at home or away." Some consequently think that being at home or away from the Lord, not the body, is what is in view. If, however, verse 9 completes the thought left hanging in verse 6 (see the note), then Paul is speaking of life in or away from the body. This is suggested as well by the fact that Paul goes on in verse 10 to speak of our accountability for what we do through (dia + the genitive) the body.

Either way, his lifelong and eternal ambition is to please Christ. David Brainerd expressed a similar thought when he said, "I do not go to heaven to be advanced but to give honor to God. It is no matter where I shall be stationed in heaven, whether I have a high or low seat there. . . . My heaven is to please God and glorify him and give all to him and to be wholly devoted to his glory." Second Corinthians 5:9 is the only place that Paul speaks of pleasing Christ. Elsewhere we are exhorted to find out what pleases God and then live that way (Eph 5:10). The Philippians' financial support of Paul (Phil 4:18), our offering ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) and children's obeying their parents (Col 3:20) are examples of activities that are pleasing to God.

The second reason Paul strives to please Christ is the prospect of appearing before his judgment seat (v. 10). This prospect is an inclusive one, "we all must appear"--pantas placed first for emphasis. The tone is one of warning. Must appear evokes images of being called before the judge's bench to give an account of one's actions--though in Paul's day the judge did not sit on a highly polished piece of wood but on a stone seat or dais. The ministry of all who claim to be preachers of the gospel (including Paul's critics) will be subject to divine judgment. The Greek word dei (must) is commonly used of what is divinely ordained. Divine judgment is a requirement, not an option. Nor is this judgment to be taken lightly. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Christian workers are cautioned that the quality of their work will be tested by fire. If what they have built survives, they will "receive a reward." But if it is "burned up," they will "suffer loss."

Divine assessment of our work will take place before the judgment seat of Christ. The bhma or judgment seat was the place where civil officials held session to hear certain legal cases and render judgment (McComiskey 1976:369-70). Jesus was brought before the bhma of Pilate (Jn 19:13; compare Mt 27:19). Paul came before the bhma of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17) and the bhma of Festus in Caesarea (Acts 25:6). According to Romans 14:10 we will stand before God's judgment seat, whereas here we come before Christ's bhma. These need not be too different occasions. In Romans 2:16 Paul states that God will judge the secret thoughts of all through (dia + the genitive) Christ.

This provocative text has elicited a fair amount of comment. Who is to be judged? What kind of judgment is this? When is this judgment to occur? Paul is not talking about the last judgment, when all of humanity past and present will be judged and those who have done good rise to live while those who have done evil rise to be condemned (Jn 5:28-29; compare Rom 2:6-11). For we at the start of verse 10 looks back to verse 9 and those who make it their aim to please Christ. So it is judgment of the believer that is in view. Paul's intention is to remind the Corinthians that all those who serve Christ will have to give an account of what they have accomplished for the Lord, not how they have increased their own reputation (5:12). Even the Corinthians are not exempt from this divine scrutiny and assessment. Though "washed, sanctified and justified" (1 Cor 6:11), they too will have to give an account of themselves (compare Rom 14:12).

How will we be judged? According to Paul, we are to receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. While he began by saying that we as a whole must appear (tous pantas hemas; literally, "the whole of us," v. 10), each, nonetheless, is responsible for his or her own actions (v. 10; compare Rom 14:12). The middle voice is reflexive: "to receive for oneself." The term for what is due refers to receiving one's just deserts. What our just deserts will be is determined by the things done through the body. It is a judgment based on works that Paul puts forward.

This could be construed as in conflict with salvation by grace (as in Eph 2:8), if it were a judgment that determined destiny or status. But this is not the case. Paul is thinking, rather, of a divine assessment that results in praise or blame (1 Cor 4:5). A final assessment of the Christian is a recurring theme in Paul. Christian slaves are instructed to serve their masters wholeheartedly, because the Lord will pay back all for whatever good they do (Eph 6:8) and for whatever wrongs they commit (Col 3:25). Paul does not say what the reward or punishment will be, so it is useless to speculate. The punishment is a real one, however. In 1 Corinthians 3:15 there will be those who will "suffer loss" even though they themselves "will be saved." Here, as well, it is written that Christians can expect to receive in kind for the good and the bad that they have done.

When will this happen? It is not clear whether judgment will occur at death or at the parousia. Paul does not say one way or the other. What he does say is that we will be held accountable for what we do through our body (dia tou somatos; v. 10). Paul's emphasis on our moral accountability with respect to the body is no accident. As F. F. Bruce observes, though the mortal body belongs to a passing order of things, we are nevertheless accountable for its deeds (1971:206). It is easy to think that because the body will eventually be dismantled (v. 1), it matters little what we do with our bodies. Some in the Corinthian church thought this (1 Cor 6:12-17), as have others since. Paul, however, did not. Indeed, he teaches elsewhere that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and, as such, the object of redemption. We are called, therefore, to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:18-20).

One final question needs to be raised, especially since this is one of the few places that Paul touches on what happens to the believer at death: does the believer face an embodied or a disembodied existence in the interim betoeen death and the parousia? The difficulty is that Paul does not explicitly address this issue. We must read betoeen the lines, and as with any venture of this sort, there is a wide margin for error. This explains the current disparity of interpretations. Some argue on the basis of these verses that there is no period of disembodiment (for example, F. F. Bruce, Murray J. Harris). Others maintain that Paul is indeed acknowledging a time of disembodiment betoeen death and resurrection. But perhaps even to phrase the question in this way misses the central truth of these verses. The question of life beyond the grave is primarily not a metaphysical one (that is, what happens to the body at death and when a new body is given) but a Christian one (that is, what happens to the believer at death; see, for example, Philip E. Hughes 1962:175). Embodiment or disembodiment is, at best, peripheral. What matters the most to Paul is that to be absent from this present world is to be at home with the Lord (v. 8).

This is absolutely critical to communicate to those grieving the death of a Christian loved one, facing a terminal illness or struggling with the concept of personal mortality. We do not float somewhere in limbo at death or sleep the sleep of the unaware--even though our language at times wrongly communicates this. For the believer, death initiates face-to-face fellowship and communion with Christ--a "going home," as it were.

A little girl whose father had just died asked her mother where he had gone. "To be with Jesus," replied her mother.

A few days later, talking to a friend, the mother said, "I am so grieved to have lost my husband."

The little girl heard her and, remembering the earlier conversation, asked, "Mother, is a thing lost when you know where it is?"

"No, of course not," said her mother.

"Well then, how can Daddy be lost when he has gone to be with Jesus?"

The little girl had hit the nail on the head. To say that at death a Christian "goes to be with Jesus" is not a euphemism but a reality.

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