Exposition of II Corinthians 4 & 5
There is a fair amount of misunderstanding about the proper interpretation of II Corinthians four and five among Preterists. In this article we set forward what we hold to be the proper, intended meaning of the text.
Context of the Passage:
Surety of Resurrection vis-à-vis Apostolic Persecution & Death
Many problems of interpretation rise from failing to define terms in light of a passage’s overall context. Once the larger theme and context are established, understanding the particulars is much easier. So, what is the context of II Corinthians four and five? Ans: The surety of resurrection vis-à-vis apostolic persecution and death. This means that individual resurrection is in view, not a mystical resurrection involving the corporate body of believers. We will survey the passage a few verses at a time to see if this is not so:
II Cor. 4:1-6 - “Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not…For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Having received mercy to be put in the ministry, Paul said he and his associates (Timothy, Titus, etc) fainted not. “Fainting not” refers to the difficulties and discouragement associated with preaching the gospel. In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul said he was unfit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church of God, but had received mercy to show forth a pattern of God’s longsuffering, that all men might know the boundless measure of God’s grace (I Tim. 1:11-16). “Shining in our hearts” is a poetic reference to the inward illumination of the Holy Ghost, revealing the gospel mystery of God’s salvation in the person (“face”) of Jesus Christ. Paul told the Galatians that he did not learn the gospel from man, but received it directly from God by inspiration (Gal. 1:11, 12); it is to that inspiration he alludes here.
II Cor. 4:7-9 - “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
To the worldly-minded Corinthians who were still carnal and thought as men I Cor. 3:3), some elements of Paul’s life and ministry were a matter of reproach. He was not an exalted leader that inspired followers; but a man of diminutive stature and weak bodily presence; he was not an eloquent speaker, or numbered among the “chiefest apostles;” his lack of authority and reputation in the gospel was supposedly evidenced by the fact he received no wage, but preached the gospel of God freely. However, the very things that worldly men thought reproachful, to Paul were his very glory and crown. Paul gloried in the weakness of the messenger, that the power of the message might not be obscured. He and his fellow-workers were “earthen vessels” – they were not vessels of gold, silver, or precious stone. They were humble, frail, foible men (the “off-scouring of all things” I Cor. 4:13) – ministers of the gospel, proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified.
II Cor. 4:10-12 - “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So death worketh in us, but life in you.”
Elsewhere, Paul describes the apostles as a spectacle to the world, “men appointed unto death” (I Cor. 4:9). They were the very image of Christ, bearing about in their persons the life the Lord himself led while upon earth: hated, rejected, despised, persecuted, always at risk of stoning and death. In observing the apostles, one saw, as it were, Christ himself. Nay, more, it was Jesus himself that animated and empowered the apostles to carry out the work of evangelizing the world; he dwelt in and acted through them, and it was his name that made the apostles hated and exposed them to danger and death. But if death was at work in them, life (reconciliation and justification) was at work in those who obeyed their message. Notice use of the singular “bearing about in the body” the dying of Jesus, coupled with the plural “that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal flesh.” Use of the singular “body” is clearly idiomatic and not a reference to a mystical, corporate body. “Our mortal flesh” refers to the apostles’ common humanity and mortality; the “body” to each apostle’s earthen vessel. Each was an image of Christ and bore the sufferings of Christ in his flesh. This becomes important as we progress through to chapter five, and forecloses entirely the possibility that the corporate body of believers is in view.
II Cor. 4:13, 14 - “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.”
Here we plainly see that individual resurrection is the hope that sustained the apostles. The death at work in them was not “sin-death” but physical death; the apostles were men appointed unto death; they lived hourly in mortal danger. Although death worked in them, they could persevere knowing that they too would be partakers of the resurrection. Again, the notion of a corporate body resurrection (justification from sin) is totally away from the text.
II Cor. 4:16-18 - “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; buy the things which are not seen are eternal.”
The apostles could live as men appointed to death because of the exceeding and eternal weight of glory that would be their reward. Although the outward man (physical life and existence) perish, the inward man of the spirit was renewed and would receive the inheritance of eternal life in glory. Did they see persecutions and afflictions at every turn? Never mind that: the things seen were temporal, but the things unseen (promise of heaven) were eternal and carried them through their trials.
Having now surveyed the relevant portions of chapter four, we are prepared to look at the much vaunted chapter five. We think the context has already demonstrated that the Max King approach is completely without merit; but let us continue and see if our analysis holds up.
II Cor. 5:1 - “For we know that if our earthly house of [this] tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
“Our earthly house of this tabernacle” is the earthen vessel or physical body of the believer. Peter makes this abundantly clear when he says “I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (II Pet. 1:13, 14). Peter’s reference is to his impending martyrdom, which Jesus foretold many years before (John 21:18). This one verse shows that the reference is not a mystical body of believers looking for the dissolution of a corporate “body of death” under the Mosaic law. Nay, rather, the context established in chapter four makes conclusive that the dissolution of the body in view is the apostle’s own body; Paul say that death of the physical body is of little moment to the Christian because he has another house, another body eternal in heaven. Use of the plural pronoun “our” with the singular “earthly house” should not mislead us; it is merely an idiom of speech, not a mystical allusion to the body of believers.
II Cor. 5:2-4 - “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in [this] tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.”
All believers, burdened with the trials of earthly life, groan, earnestly desiring to depart and be with Christ in heaven. The motions of sin in our members make our very habitation here a burden, endlessly wrestling against the sins of the flesh. Paul exclaimed elsewhere “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). However, it is not enough merely to put off the body in death, for that would leave the soul or spirit “naked” and without a body. Rather, Paul says our hope is to be further clothed upon with a body suited to eternal life in heaven.
There is language here that can be confusing and should be addressed. Disobedience rendered Adam and Eve spiritually naked; obedience clothes us with righteousness. John speaks of the believer’s righteousness as a garment that covers the shame of his nakedness, allowing him to stand before God. “Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame” (Rev. 16:15). This metaphor is fairly common in scripture (cf. Jude 24; Rev. 3:4, 17; 6:11; 19:8), and speaks to the believer’s obedience, purity, and perseverance, which, like a garment, covers the transgressions of the flesh. That is not Paul’s meaning here. Paul is not describing the garment of righteousness that clothes the believer. The context is the apostles’ persecutions “as men delivered unto death,” and the assurance that, as God raised up Jesus, so he would raise them up also, and present them with other believers in heaven (II Cor. 4:7-14).
Moreover, the eschatological change is not in view either. In I Cor. 15:54, Paul speaks about death being swallowed up in victory. For the dead in Hades this meant the reception of eternal life in heaven; for believers alive at Christ’s return, the mystery of the eschatological change meant they would receive juridical life; viz., adoption and sonship by which they were deemed putative heirs of eternal life. Elsewhere this is described as the marriage of the Lamb and bride, and speaks to the covenantal union of Christ and the church by which the latter was washed and made pure without “spot, or blemish, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). The one was actual and spatial, consisting in removal from Hades to heaven; the other legal and soteriological, consisting in justification by the blood of Christ. But that is not the context here; here Paul is not speaking about the living saints and the eschatological change. The context is the death of the physical body, the dissolution of the outward man, and the resurrection of the spirit to eternal life.
II Cor. 5:5-8 - “Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing [is] God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Therefore [we are] always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, [I say], and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
This passage dispels entirely the notion that the corporate body of believers is in view. At home in the earthly tabernacle of the physical body is to be absent from the Lord in heaven; but to be absent from the physical body is to be present with the Lord above. This is every true believer’s ultimate hope: the time when the sorrows and troubles of earthly life are laid aside and we hear those words “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
II Cor. 5:9, 10 - “Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things [done] in [his] body, according to that he hath done, whether [it be] good or bad.”
Here we encounter the singular “body” but the context makes impossible any interpretation other than the individual’s physical body, inhabited during earthly life. Each of us is judged for the things done in his or her own body; where we spend eternity will be decided by our faith and obedience, including works of charity toward our fellowman and labor in the gospel of Christ.
II Cor. 4:1-5:1-10 turns upon the promise of individual resurrection of the believer. This assurance sustained the apostles as “men appointed to death” in their ministries and lives of self-sacrifice. The idea of a covenantal resurrection (justification) of the corporate church is nowhere present in the text.
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