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Closing Months (2)

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Letter R (2 Corinthians 1 - 9), continued  

With the burden of the Corinthian crisis off his shoulders, Paul’s mind was now free to be theologian and spiritual director to the Corinthians, as he much preferred. We find here in Letter R a noteworthy convergence of his spirituality teaching and of his theologizing about Christ, atonement, and end-of-time expectations.


Theologizing about Christ, and Atonement

We cannot say that Paul ever worked out a consistent view of the incarnation, that is to say, the entrance into human history of the pre-existent Christ. In Philippians 2:7 he can use language of Christ’s abandoning his divine prerogatives and taking the form of a servant, while in 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul can tell the Corinthians that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Whether the emphasis is upon Christ’s setting aside divine attributes or God’s reconciling presence in Christ, the results are the same, a peerless Christ, bringing about a new relationship with God.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19   18. . . [God] reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.





Another way of expressing incarnation has been noted in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come,  God sent his Son, born of a  woman . . . .”

The remarkable fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians comes to a close with the startling and paradoxical statement (5:21) that the sinless Christ has been made sin so that believers may become the righteousness of God. Paul of course is emphasizing the reciprocal character of vicarious suffering, the innocent dying for the sinful, so that their trespasses are not counted against them (5:19), and so that the virtue of Christ is imputed or credited to the sinner. Paul’s epigrammatic and paradoxical way of describing sin-bearing does not imply any separation from God as a result of Christ’s taking sin upon himself, since it is precisely in his suffering that God is in Christ (5:19).

2 Corinthians 5:21   For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Thus we are introduced to two additional metaphors for the experience of getting right with God. Earlier we called attention to the metaphor from the law court which was employed by Paul in his doctrine of justification by faith. Here in 2 Corinthians Paul uses the metaphor of the reconciliation of those who have been alienated (5:19). Then in 5:21 he uses the metaphor of sin-bearing drawn from sacrifice in the Temple. These and other metaphors are developed by Paul in Romans.



Click for metaphorical language in Galatians and in Romans.


Paul’s End-of-Time Thinking Revised

In the depiction of end-of-time things in Letter R, some of Paul’s older language persists, as we find in these two passages:

2 Corinthians 1:13-14   13. . . I hope you will understand until the end— 14as you have already understood us in part—that on the day of the Lord Jesus we are your boast even as you are our boast.
2 Corinthians 5:10   For all of us must appear before the judgment seat off Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.









Similarly, Romans 14:10-12. Paul never succeeded (if he ever tried to do so) in reconciling this stern judgment scene with his doctrine of justification by faith.

But along side this older language, we observe the newer. Having looked death in the face (2 Corinthians 1:8-10), Paul no longer speaks of his being among those who will still be alive for the end-of-time events, whether he is among the many (1 Thessalonians) or the few (1 Corinthians). 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51.


Instead, death and resurrection are the doorway to eternity. We have already noted this perspective in our earlier discussion of Philippians, where Paul was ready to depart and be with Christ (1:23). Now in 2 Corinthians he is describing a person’s transition to the new life of the coming age in similar language, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (5:8).

2 Corinthians 4:11-14.

Compare Philippians 1:20-23.

The transition to the next life is also described in 2 Corinthians as the destruction of our earthly tent, which gives way to the enjoyment of a building from God, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (5:1-4). We have here an almost Platonic contrast between the temporary and the permanent. Also Platonic in tone is the contrast Paul draws between visible things which are transient and things unseen which are eternal (4:18). However, he keeps this bit of Platonism within the Christian orbit by adding, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (5:7).

2  Corinthians 4:11-14, 18   11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12Sodeath is at work in us, but life in you. . . . 14[We know] that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence [i.e. Paul will be among those who die, but the Corinthians may still be alive]. . . . 18Because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 5:1-9   1For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. . . . 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. . . . 6So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . . 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.



Spirituality and the End-of-Time

Of special interest is the way Paul accommodates his end-of-time teaching to his spirituality: the future somehow time-warps into the present; end-of-time events now become in-this-time events. Those beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face are being transformed into his spiritual image or likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18; compare Romans 12:2). Paul says that we are already experiencing what will happen in the end-of-time, when we are to be transformed into Christ’s glorified, spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:51   [At the end-of-time] we will all be changed.
Philippians 3:21   [At the end-of-time, Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory . . . . 
2 Corinthians 3:18   And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed [metamorphoumetha] into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.  





Greek, metamorphousthai (verb) or metamorphôsis (noun).


Romans 12:2   Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It seems that a kind of corporate, body-of-Christ transfiguration is already going on within us!

The end-of-time transformation may also be expressed in yet another figure of speech as a new creation, which is already happening. God is saying, “Let there be a new humanity, a new person!” Old things have passed away, and new things have happened.

2 Corinthians 5:17   So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!


The reality of present transformation now calls for the imperative! (Is this yet another stage in Paul’s thinking?)
Revised February 10, 2003
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