We Don’t Give Up Because We Know . . . (2 Corinthians 4:18-5:10)

A Keynote Address for Harbor, Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, on May 6, 2022

Influenced by both their Greco-Roman culture and egged on by the intruders Paul called the “super-apostles,” the Corinthians apparently thought the ministry of a celebrity pastor like Paul should be characterized by thrilling and brilliant rhetoric about his visionary experiences, triumphant successes, and generous rewards from grateful patrons.

But Paul’s ministry of reconciliation played out in weakness rather than power, in suffering rather than prosperity, in anxious care for the churches rather than victorious pride, and with manual labor rather than a paycheck from a generous patron.

Though called by God and empowered by God’s grace, Paul endured hardships, beatings, shipwrecks, hostility, afflictions, perplexity, and accusations. Today his ministry would not easily recruit apprentices or interns nor impress elders who held the purse-strings. This is not the resume one would expect from an apostle of God’s Messiah, or at least so the Corinthians thought.

But, for Paul, it was exactly what one should expect. Though rich, Christ become poor so that we who are poor might become rich. Moreover, Christ was crucified in weakness. As followers of Jesus, the ministry of reconciliation boasts in weakness rather than revelations, success, or prosperity. The ministry of reconciliation invites its ministers to follow Jesus to the cross and to give themselves over to suffering and death so that others might have life. Ministers of the crucified Messiah give their lives for the life of the world and the life of the church, even a church like Corinth. Ministers yield themselves to the gospel of reconciliation by imitating a crucified Jesus.

Why do we do this?

I suppose Paul could have answered that question in many ways. What he offers in 2 Corinthians 4-5 is not the only possible answer, but it is the one that, in this conversation with Corinth, grounds him in the gospel and moves him to continue his participation in the ministry of the gospel. Paul will not give up; he will not lose heart.

One reason is the present power of the gospel in his life. It renews his inner life.

Paul draws an important contrast in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, though it is often misunderstood. Paul is not applying some kind of Platonic distinction between the soul and the body. On the contrary, he is comparing present suffering with an already/not eschatological vision. That is a mouth full, but it is important to grasp in order to see what Paul is doing here and what it means.

The outer body is the dying body; it is the body of Adam, an Adamic body. It belongs to this age, the age of decay and the enslavement of creation to death. It suffers affliction; it is what we see day by day. We see it in our bodies. We see it in the world around us filled with injustice, violence, and abuse. It belongs to this old world.

At the same time, the inner person is renewed—not by the old age, but by the new age. It is renewed by the power of God, and more specifically by the resurrection power of the living Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit. Our inner transformation by the power of the Spirit belongs to the new age as new creatures in Christ.

More specifically, Paul compares what is temporary and what is eternal, what is now seen and what is unseen. We walk by sight in this old world, but the power of the new age—which has already begun—enables us to walk by faith in what is unseen. We walk by faith in our confession of the presence of the Spirit of God who guarantees our hope in the resurrection.

It is in the light of this hope, that we perceive the wisdom of Paul’s comparison, though the comparison stings a bit at first look. For those who are in the midst of struggle and suffering, who are presently, enduring their affliction, that pain seems neither light nor temporary. It is crippling and long-lasting. It seems like, at times, it will never end, and in some sense perhaps it doesn’t. Suffering is a burden; it is real, unavoidable, and consuming. It is why we just might give up!

We might even be a bit miffed at Paul for diminishing our suffering as well as his own. We want to honor the weight of suffering in the lives of people rather than dismiss it. We don’t want to use Paul’s words to suppress lament, shame lamenters, and silence protests. We must give suffering its due weight, but not, however, more weight than it is due. Suffering is real, painful, and frustrating, and, at the same time, the journey is worth it. It doesn’t often feel that way, but our feelings can deceive us even as those feelings are genuine and authentic. We feel what we feel, but we also believe what we believe as Christ-followers.

As we hear Paul’s words, let us remember three significant markers in Paul’s life. First, Paul knows suffering. When Paul was compelled to boast in 2 Corinthians 11, he boasted in his suffering, his endurance. His suffering for the ministry of reconciliation is long, intense, and painful. Paul knows the trauma of hostility, natural disasters, and losses. Paul does not diminish suffering but compares it with something greater. Paul does not dismiss suffering but knows it gives birth to something better. Therefore, he does not give up.

Second, Paul knows glory. He has been to the third heaven, to Paradise. He has experienced the glory of God in ways he is not even permitted to describe or discuss. The glory experienced—whether mystical or visionary or whatever it was (even Paul is not too sure himself)—shapes Paul’s sense of divine presence and redemptive work. He has seen the glory, and, therefore, he does not give up.

And, lastly, Paul knows resurrection. He has seen the risen Lord, and the God he serves is, as he said in the first chapter, the God who raises the dead. This is his fundamental confession, and it is the nature of his ministry. He ministers bearing the marks of the death of Christ, but lives by the Spirit’s power of resurrection demonstrated in Jesu. He participates in the ministry of crucified Jesus even to suffering his own cross but knows a resurrection life awaits him. Therefore, he does not give up.

The resurrection is an eternal weight of glory that far surpasses the temporary light affliction we presently experience. We don’t give up because we know an eternal building fashioned by God awaits us, which is our resurrected body.

As Paul points it, we focus on the unseen and the eternal because we know resurrection is coming! Our present Adamic body is a temporary, earthly tent that will be clothed over with an eternal dwelling. We are dying; we are all dying. This earthly tabernacle is a burden because it is the mode of our suffering. Our bodies, like the creation itself, are enslaved to decay and death.

But we don’t want to be body-less; we don’t want to be naked as if without a body. Rather, we desire a resurrection body, one that comes from God so that our mortality is swallowed up in life. The resurrection body, in fact, is the very thing that God is at work to accomplish; it is the redemption God intends for the good creation. The resurrection of the body is also the resurrection of creation itself. The transformation or transfiguration of this body in conformity to the resurrection body of Jesus himself is the transformation or transfiguration of the creation itself.

This is why we groan. We groan for transformation; we groan for an eternal life; we groan for new birth. To groan is to utter deep signs of distress and pain. We long for resurrection! The temporary and light affliction generates these groans and a deep desire for something more, something better. Don’t get me wrong, even though this life is filled with evil and suffering, it is still God’s good creation, and life is good. But resurrection is better.

It is not uncommon to hear this sort of hope described as escapist. But I am no escapist. I am not an escapist; I’m a liberationist. I don’t want to escape God’s creation but participate in its liberation. I want to liberate God’s good creation through the eradication of evil. I want to liberate God’s good creation from injustice and greed through conformation to the image of Christ. I want to liberate the creation from its bondage to decay and decay through renewal and recreation in a new heaven and new earth.

I don’t want to escape this body. I want it to be clothed from heaven, to be given a body that will not die and live with God eternally as a redeemed and glorified human being. I don’t want to escape this body, but I want it liberated. I want it set free along with all of God’s good creation so that life might flourish and abound, where everyone will sit under their own fig tree, and the wolves and the lambs will lie down together.

This good creation is my home, but it is filled with evil, with violence and injustice. Our hope is that even now, by the work of the Spirit and the ministry of reconciliation, the darkness is passing way and a fuller day is dawning. We don’t want to escape this process but participate in it. If we want to follow Jesus into resurrection, then we must follow him to the cross first.

Therefore, Paul says, we are always confident. We are determined; we are courageous. We have a confident and firm purpose despite the danger and the risks that lie before us. We know when we carry a cross that suffering lurks at the door.

This confidence or courage is quite breathtaking in the light of Paul’s own suffering. Paul looks life in the eye and knows the suffering, anxiety, and afflictions associated with the ministry of reconciliation that will arise just as they have in the past. But he is courageous, and he is confident because he knows the work of God that is preparing an eternal body for dwelling with God forever, and the presence of the Spirit in his life, including the renewal in his inner person, is the guarantee of that future.

We are confident, Paul says, because we know a future resurrection awaits us. We are confident because we know the meaning of life and death. Life in this Adamic body is absence from the Lord, though it is present with the Spirit. Death is absence from this Adamic body but it is presence with the Lord.

We walk by faith, not by sight. What we see is this Adamic body of death are the struggles that come with the ministry of reconciliation. That is cause for discouragement, even despair. However, the gospel in which Paul trusts answers that despair with hope. We walk by faith because our future hope is the defeat of death. We trust in the God who raises the dead. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we are confident that God will raise us from the dead as well.

Moreover, we are confident that even in death we will find ourselves in the presence (“at home with”) of the Lord. Literally, the word “at home” is “to be in a dwelling” which is a metaphor for bodily existence or life. Living in the Adamic body, we are away from the Lord whose embodied existence is in the heavens. But when we are absent from the Adamic body, we are “at home” or living in a dwelling with the Lord. In other words, though we no longer have an Adamic body, we do have a dwelling the Lord, an eternal building not made with hands. Perhaps Paul means that we have a resurrection body (eternal building in contrast to this earthly tent). If so, then Paul may envision the reception of the resurrection body upon death, or perhaps we sleep in death and awaken with a resurrection body, or perhaps the presence Paul envisions is a naked state where we are present with the Lord without a resurrection body that awaits the future.

Whatever the point, the pastoral point is the most significant point here.  Whatever the present condition of those who have died in the Lord is (whether sleeping awaiting their awakening in the resurrection, consciously living in God’s presence as naked souls, or living in the presence of God with resurrected bodies), we live with courage and boldness because we believe that those who are absent from the body are “at home with the Lord.”

The righteous dead are with Christ. Whatever that means, it is an assuring comfort. God does not abandon the dead but receives them and welcomes them into the presence of the living Christ. They are “at home” with the Lord. And it because we walk by faith and not by sight that we rest in that confidence. 

Every Easter morning, before dawn, I visit Joshua’s grave, my son who died at the age of sixteen in 2001. I visit to lament, mourn, protest, and wonder about might have been. The grave is traumatic for me, but I visit it to remember, lament, and give suffering its due weight. I rub my hand across his name plate as if reading braille, and I confess, “you are home with the Lord.”

However, I arise from the graveside to join the assembly of God’s people to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which is also our resurrection and the resurrection of creation itself. I join the assembly that is not only gathered in that church building, or a park, or a home, but to join the angelic choir gathered around the throne of God. The whole church, scattered across the globe, is there as well as the church militant confesses its faith, encourages each other, and encounters the living God. And the church militant joins the church triumphant as all the saints who have borne witness to the power of faith surround the throne. In that moment, heaven and earth are one as the host in heaven and the faithful on earth sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” In that Easter assembly, as in every assembly whether under a tree or in a building, Joshua and I sing together!

We entrust those who have passed to the Lord and confess, “They are at home with the Lord.” And we entrust our living—whether at home in the body and away from the Lord or away from the body and at home with the Lord—to the Lord. Because we entrust it to Christ, we are not distracted from our main goal: to please the Lord, which is to participate in Christ’s reconciling ministry. We seek to conform our lives to the image of Christ through daily renewal by the power of the Spirit. We want to become like Christ in every way and live worthy of the gospel of reconciliation, and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. Our identity in Christ moves us to seek this goal and the presence of the Spirit empowers our transformation.

We don’t live by what we see but by faith in what is unseen, which is ultimately the hope of the resurrection. The God we serve is the “God who raises the dead” (1:9).

Therefore, we don’t lose heart. We are the ministers of eternal glory, both now and in the future. We are ministers of God’s eschatological reality, God’s glory. Consequently, we don’t give up!

We don’t give up because we walk by faith in God’s reconciling work that is making all things new rather by the sight of the world’s enslavement to the powers. We see and lament the graves, the traumas, and the wounds, and, at the same time and more gloriously, we believe that new creation has already begun in Christ and God will make all things new as evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, we confidently and boldly continue to participate in God’s reconciling mission.

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