St. Paul mosaic

Studying 2 Corinthians 4 16 – 5 10

We are winding up our summer study of “hopeful” texts with 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Paul’s emphatic statement of hope for what cannot be seen in preference to what can, the text we’re studying for Sunday, August 29. Here are some notes [and some questions are here] on that text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As we might recall from past looks at 2 Corinthians, this is a letter Paul seems to have written to the Corinthian church while engaged in missionary work around the region. It follows a more forceful letter (the “painful letter”) that rebuked something specific going on in the church in Corinth. Readers reconstruct the history of this letter differently. Some read the current chapters 10-13 as that letter, or part of it; others assume “the painful letter” has been lost to the canon. Also, depending on how readers read the text we actually have, some see it as a compilation of portions of more than one letter, while others see it as a reasonably single document.

However people read it, everyone seems to treat all or most of chapters 1-7 as a unit. [I’d argue that the stress on “consolation” in 1:3 and the return to the theme of “consolation” in chapter 7, and the way this “consolation” connects to the argument Paul is making in the intervening chapters about what really matters, constitutes rhetorical support for this understanding.]

Our specific text comes around the middle of this section. Paul started off by introducing the theme of “consolation,” and then updated the Corinthians on the afflictions he’s been experiencing on his journey (1:3-1:14). Then he reviewed some of his thinking around the events that have colored his relationship with the Corinthians (1:15-2:17). Then in 3-6, he laid out the understanding of reality that informs his ministry and keeps him going through all the affliction it entails. And (as I read it), in 6:14-18 he winds up with a statement about the membership of the community [not so much individuals’ marriages], before concluding again with the theme of “consolation,” this time in a review of the most recent reports that things are taking a turn for the better in Corinth.

We’re focusing on verses that finish up a line of argument he begins in 4:1, about why “we” “don’t lose heart” when engaged in this ministry, despite the hardship it involves.

The difficulty of reconciling the experience of hardship with the truth of the gospel might make a little more sense to us in light of the criticism of the “super-apostles” later in the letter. The super-apostles seem to have looked like they were much better off than Paul. Maybe that made them look like better ministers. The suffering of the church in Jerusalem, the collection for which is the subject of chapters 8 & 9, might be connected to this problem, too. To paraphrase a cliché, “if the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, why aren’t you rich?”

[This problem isn’t new with the gospel, or exclusive to it, surely! Job’s friends, for instance, might have had something in common with those super-apostles.]

Portions of this text are in the lectionary, for the Tenth and Eleventh Sundays in Ordinary Time, year B. So, there’s a chance they could make it into a church service. On the other hand, 2 Corinthians 5:2-5 is something you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. [Bible Content Exam-inees, be warned.]  

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CLOSER READING: Paul is working really intensively with contrasts between “inner” and “outer,” visible and invisible, temporary and eternal in these verses. These contrasts point us towards the vital question of where we – Christians, Paul’s readers then and now – locate real value.

In v16, the “outer nature” – literally, the exo-man, might remind us of an exo-skeleton if we remember our 6th grade biology – is decaying, while the “inner” – the eso [nature], like esoteric, like “inner circle” – is being renewed. Which reality do we imagine is more real and lasting?

In v17, the afflictions are momentary, and trivial. They are preparing “us” for – or producing in us or for us, perhaps – something eternal. We will see this preparation or production or finishing/accomplishing again in verse 5:5, when it will become clear that Christ is doing the finishing and accomplishing here. They are preparing us for an eternal glory that far outweighs this cost. [I think that’s how we want to take the “weight of glory” here, though perhaps he is thinking of glory as actually having weight.]

So then in v18, he repeats the contrast of what can be seen vs. what cannot be seen, to stress that what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal. He’s not done repeating the idea of what’s eternal.

Next he creates a complicated metaphor, in which the body becomes a house or dwelling, and a house or dwelling becomes clothing. Still sticking with the contrast of what’s temporary and what’s eternal.

Right now we’re living in a temporary kind of house, a tent (v1). But we have an eternal built house, a house “not made with hands,” in heaven. So, it’s a building, but not an ordinary building. And it is what we live in – a dwelling – and a dwelling like that is like clothing. [And we post-1st century readers, who have read Paul’s other letters, too, might remember that clothing can be like baptism into Christ. Galatians 3:27]

Of course, we want to put on the heavenly clothing, so we groan in our earthly situation.

And then, here is the very curious verse 3. We want to put on that eternal dwelling, or else take off this temporary one, unless when we have put that on, or taken that off [depending on which text the reader is using, evidently] we should be found naked.

Paul seems [to me] to be suggesting that there is a chance that people can put off the temporary dwelling/clothing of the body and put on the eternal dwelling/clothing of what has been built not by hands and lo and behold, find out they haven’t built much to put on. Something like the Emperor’s New Clothes, before that story had even been written.

[He might EVEN be reiterating a point he actually made to these same people once before, in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, about them being engaged right now in a significant spiritual building project.]

If we are not groaning now, in our temporary earthly tent, perhaps it is because we are a little worried that we might be found naked in heaven, considering what we have done – or not done – to prepare our heavenly abode/attire. Not that he’s still trying to guilt them or anything. Just sayin’.

The mention of death being swallowed up by life in v4 is surely a reference to Isaiah 25:8!! Isn’t it?

I read that, and it suddenly hit me how much Paul had to have known and loved the Scriptures. And how little his typical Gentile audience could possibly have appreciated that, or them. And how much he had to hold back his own mind, to be able to communicate with people the way he did. And how indebted we are to him for doing that, because how much of a treasure we have in these letters he wrote. And I just sobbed, and felt inexpressibly grateful.

We should want to be found in life. Which is – v5 – the equivalent of being found in God, who is the one who’s really doing this renewing and building and preparing.

Verses 6-9 are an extended play on being (in English) at home vs. away from home (in Greek, en- vs. ek-), which reinforces the recurrent contrast of what’s seen vs. what’s unseen, what’s unreal vs. what’s real, what’s less valuable vs. what’s more valuable.

We – well, Paul, and those like him – walk by faith and not by sight. In putting all the effort into pleasing Jesus Christ. Which is what counts (v9). NRSV says “we make it our aim” to please Jesus. It’s a very pale translation of a vivid Greek verb that sounds something like “we love honor so much we strive for it.” The honor of pleasing Jesus Christ.

Because one of these days, everyone will appear as they really are – that seems to be the sense of the verb in v10, more than “put in an appearance” – before Christ. And we will reap what we sow.

“The just shall live by faith” doesn’t mean what some people think it means. Some people think it doesn’t matter how we live, that it doesn’t matter in the end whether we more nearly resemble Pilate, or Herod, or Jesus. Those folks need to read more 2 Corinthians.

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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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