Paul’s death wish examined

Posted: May 2, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

We’ve looked a bit at 2 Cor 5 before now here at The Grit. It’s a corker of a passage. Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s thoughts about death.

First, he feels like he is dying. All the time. “Always carrying around in the body the death of the Lord Jesus” (4:10) etc. Being an apostle wasn’t all beer and skittles.

while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake” (4:11)

Second, they weren’t too happy about this dying business. It didn’t appeal. Paul calls it ‘affliction’, and explains how he managed to not lose heart, even though death is staring him in the face. This is not an enthusiastic martyr in the style of Ignatius!

Third, the way they keep their pecker up is to look forward to bodily resurrection: “so we speak, because 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.” (4:13-14)

So this ‘presence of the Lord’ scenario is strictly future. It’s going to be with the Corinthian Christians, at the general resurrection of the dead, once they are raised again – that’s when they get to enjoy ‘his presence.’

Now that’s the context in which to read Paul’s statements about ‘at home’ and ‘away’.

What does all this mean for Paul’s feeling about his current bodily life?

It’s true that Paul is looking forward to exchanging his current ‘tent’ for a better one, i.e. a new body. He’s careful to say he’s not wanting to be disembodied:

For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, not because we wish to be unclothed, but we wish to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.   (5:4)

That’s not a death wish, friends. The answer to Paul’s problems is not death but resurrection: not to be unclothed but to be further clothed.

They have the Spirit as a guarantee of resurrection, so Paul is able to be confident, even though

even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. (5:6-7)

Even though they haven’t got their new body and aren’t enjoying the Lord’s presence the way they long to, they’re confident it’s coming. But his current ‘tent’ is not the place for that. He knows as long as he’s ‘at home’ in his current body, he’s still waiting, walking by faith not sight.

So how do Paul and friends keep cheerful in their suffering? By reflecting that even if they have to die, it’s a step on the way toward the future they’re awaiting: for putting off this old flesh and inheriting the new was always the plan anyway:

Yes, we do have confidence, and we are satisfied rather to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  (5:8)

Death is the painful affliction through which Paul knows he must go to reach the things he really wants: resurrection, new bodies, the presence of friends and above all of the Lord. He’s not that keen about the death part –  but he finds this hope gives him the courage to keep on with the mission even when death is snapping at his heels.

In this way we are able to keep focussed in our aim – whether we see this existence as ‘at home’ or ‘away from home’ – our aim to please Christ.  (5:9)

And that’s a very different reading from the one I was always taught, growing up. Take your pick!


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