(1) For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved.—Better, be broken up, as more in harmony with the image of the tent. The words that follow give the secret of his calmness and courage in the midst of sufferings. He looks beyond them. A new train of imagery begins to rise in his mind: linked, perhaps, to that of the preceding chapter by the idea of the tabernacle; in part, perhaps, suggested by his own occupation as a tentmaker. His daily work was to him as a parable, and as his hands were making the temporary shelter for those who were travellers on earth, he thought of the house “not made with hands,” eternal in the heavens. The comparison of the body to the house or dwelling-place of the Spirit was, of course, natural, and common enough, and, it may be noted, was common among the Greek medical writers (as, e.g., in Hippocrates, with whom St. Luke must have been familiar). The modification introduced by the idea of the “tent” emphasises the transitory character of the habitation. “What if the tent be broken up?” He, the true inward man, who dwells in the tent will find a more permanent, an eternal, home in heaven: a house which comes from God. What follows shows that he is thinking of that spiritual body of which he had said such glorious things in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49.
Earnestly desiring to be clothed upon.—The words have suggested the question whether St. Paul spoke of the “spiritual body” to be received at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42-49), or of some intermediate stage of being, like that represented in the visions which poets have imagined and schoolmen theorised about, in the visions of the world of the dead in the Odyssey (Book 11), in the Æneid (Book vi.), in Dante’s Divina Commedia throughout. The answer to that question is found in the manifest fact that the intermediate state occupied but a subordinate position in St. Paul’s thoughts. He would not speak overconfidently as to times and seasons, but his practical belief was that he, and most of those who were then living, would survive till the coming of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:15). He did not speculate accordingly about that state, but was content to rest in the belief that when absent from the body he would in some more immediate sense, be present with the Lord. But the longing of his soul was, like that of St. John (Revelation 22:20), that the Lord might come quickly—that he might put on the new and glorious body without the pain and struggle of the “dissolution” of the old. In the words “be clothed upon” (literally, the verb being in the middle voice, to clothe ourselves, to put on) we have a slight change of imagery. The transition from the thought of a dwelling to that of a garment is, however, as in Psalm 104:1-3, sufficiently natural. Each shelters the man. Each is separable from the man himself. Each answers in these respects to the body which invests the spirit.
Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon.—Better, Seeing that we do not seek to put off, but to put on a garment. The thought is that of one who thinks that the Coming of the Lord is near. He wishes, as he expects, to remain till that Coming (comp. 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:15), to let the incorruptible body supervene on the corruptible, to be changed instead of dying. In this way that which is mortal, subject to death, would be swallowed up of life, as death itself is swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:54.)
Before the judgment seat of Christ.—The Greek word shows the influence of Roman associations. In the Gospels the imagery of the last judgment is that of a king sitting on his throne (Matthew 25:31), and the word is the ever-recurring note of the Apocalypse, in which it occurs forty-nine times. Here the judgment-seat, or bema, is the tribunal of the Roman magistrate, raised high above the level of the basilica, or hall, at the end of which it stood. (Comp. Matthew 27:19; Acts 12:21; Acts 18:12.) The word was transferred, when basilicas were turned into churches, to the throne of the bishop, and in classical Greek had been used, not for the judge’s seat, but for the orator’s pulpit.
That every one may receive the things done in his body.—It would have seemed almost impossible, but for the perverse ingenuity of the system-builders of theology, to evade the force of this unqualified assertion of the working of the universal law of retribution. No formula of justification by faith, or imputed righteousness, or pardon sealed in the blood of Christ, or priestly absolution, is permitted by St. Paul to mingle with his expectations of that great day, as revealing the secrets of men’s hearts, awarding to each man according to his works. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7) was to him an eternal, unchanging law. The revelation of all that had been secret, for good or evil; the perfectly equitable measurement of each element of good or evil; the apportionment to each of that which, according to this measurement, each one deserves for the good and evil which he has done: that is the sum and substance of St. Paul’s eschatology here and in 1 Corinthians 4:5. At times his language seems to point to a yet fuller manifestation of the divine mercy as following on that of the divine righteousness, as in Romans 5:17-18; Romans 11:32. At times, again, he speaks as if sins were washed away by baptism (1 Corinthians 6:11), or forgiven freely through faith in the atoning blood (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 2:13); as though the judgment of the great day was anticipated for all who are in Christ by the absence of an accuser able to sustain his charge (Romans 8:3), by the certainty of a sentence of acquittal (Romans 8:1). If we ask how we can reconcile these seeming inconsistencies, the answer is, that we are not wise in attempting to reconcile them by any logical formula or ingenious system. Here, as in other truths of the spiritual life—God’s foreknowledge and man’s free-will, God’s election and man’s power to frustrate it, God’s absolute goodness and the permission of pain and evil—the highest truth is presented to us in phases that seem to issue in contradictory conclusions, and we must be content to accept that result as following from the necessary limitations of human knowledge.
We persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God.—The antithesis is singularly indicative of the rapid turn of thought in the Apostle’s mind. “We go on our way of winning men to Christ.” (Comp. the use of the same Greek word in Acts 12:20, “having made Blastus . . . their friend.”) It is singular to note that, in an Epistle probably nearly contemporary with this, St. Paul uses the phrase almost in a bad sense: “Do we now persuade men, or God?” i.e., “Are we seeking to please our friends or God?” (Galatians 1:10.) And here, apparently, the imperfection of the phrase and its liability to misconstruction occurs to him, and he therefore immediately adds, “Yes, we do our work of persuading men” (the case of Felix, in Acts 24:25, may be noted as showing the prominence of “the judgment to come” in St. Paul’s method), “but it is all along with the thought that our own lives also have been laid open in their inmost recesses to the sight of God.” The word “made manifest” is clearly used in reference to the same word (in the Greek) as is translated “appear” in 2 Corinthians 5:10.
And I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.—The words are an echo of what had already been said in 2 Corinthians 4:2. He trusts that in their inmost consciences, in the effect of his preaching there, in the new standard of right and wrong which they now acknowledge—perhaps, also, in the estimate which their illumined judgment passes on his own conduct—he has been made manifest as indeed he is, as he is sure that he will be before the judgment-seat of Christ.
That ye may have somewhat to answer.—The opponents, of whom we are to hear more hereafter (see Notes on 2 Corinthians 10:7-18; 2 Corinthians 11:12-33), rise up once more in his thoughts. “That such as these should be boasting of their work and their success!” What did they glory in? In appearance. The words may apply to anything external—claims of authority, training, knowledge, and the like. The use of the word, however, in 2 Corinthians 10:1 seems to imply a more definite meaning. Men contrasted what we should call the dignified “presence” of his rivals with his personal defects, the weakness of his body, the lowness of his stature. “Take your stand,” he seems to say, “against that boast, on the work done by us in your consciences.”
Because we thus judge, that if one died for all.—Better, as expressing the force of the Greek tense, Because we formed this judgment. The form of expression implies that the conviction dated from a given time, i.e., probably, from the hour when, in the new birth of his conversion, he first learnt to know the universality of the love of Christ manifested in His death. Many MSS. omit the “if,” but without any real change of meaning. It is obvious that St. Paul assumes the fact, even if it be stated hypothetically. The thought is the same as in the nearly contemporary passage of Romans 5:15-19, and takes its place among St. Paul’s most unqualified assertions of the universality of the atonement effected by Christ’s death. The Greek preposition does not in itself imply more than the fact that the death was on behalf of all; but this runs up—as we see by comparing Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, with Mark 14:24, John 15:13—into the thought that the death was, in some very real sense, vicarious: in the place of the death of all men. The sequence of thought involves that meaning here.
Then were all dead.—These strange, mysterious words have received very different interpretations. They cannot be rightly understood without bearing in view what we may call the mystic aspect of one phase of St. Paul’s teaching. We may, perhaps, clear the way by setting aside untenable expositions. (1) They cannot mean, however true the fact may be in itself, that the death of Christ for all showed that all were previously under a sentence of condemnation and of death, for the verb is in the tense which indicates the momentary act of dying, not the state of death. (2) They cannot mean, for the same reason, that all were, before that sacrifice, “dead in trespasses and sins.” (3) They can hardly mean that all men, in and through that death, paid vicariously the penalty of death for their past sins, for the context implies that stress is laid not on the satisfaction of the claims of justice, but on personal union with Christ. The real solution of the problem is found in the line of thought of Romans 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 15:22, as to the relation of Christ to every member of the human family, in the teaching of Romans 6:10, as to the meaning of His death—(“He died unto sin once”). “Christ died for all”—this is the Apostle’s thought—“as the head and representative of the race.” But if so, the race, in its collective unity, died, as He died, to sin, and should live, as He lives, to God. Each member of the race is then only in a true and normal state when he ceases to live for himself and actually lives for Christ. That is the mystic ideal which St. Paul placed before himself and others, and every advance in holiness is, in its measure, an approximation to it.
Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh.—What, we ask, gave occasion to this strange parenthesis? What did it mean? To what stage of the Apostle’s life does it refer? (1) The answer to the first question is probably to be found in once more reading between the lines. There was, we know, a party at Corinth claiming a special relation to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). They probably did so as having been personal disciples. If they were like those who elsewhere claimed to speak in the name of James (Acts 15:24; Galatians 2:12), they were likely to urge his claims as the brother of the Lord. To St. Paul such a way of judging would be to know Christ after the flesh—to judge of Him, as of others, by the lower standard of the world. (2) The next question is more difficult. The hypothetical form of the proposition practically implies an admission of its truth. It is hardly conceivable that he refers to the time before his conversion, and means that he too had once seen and known Jesus of Nazareth, judging of Him “after the flesh,” by an earthly standard, and therefore had thought that He ought to do many things against him; or that, after the revelation of Christ in him, at the time of his conversion, he had, for a time, known Him after a manner which he now saw to be at least imperfect. The true solution of the problem is probably to be found in the fact that he had once thought, even before he appeared as the persecutor of the Church, of the Christ that was to come as others thought, that his Messianic expectations had been those of an earthly kingdom restored to Israel. Jesus of Nazareth did not fulfil those expectations, and therefore he had opposed His claim to be the Messiah. Now, he says, he had come to take a different view of the work and office of the Christ. (3) It follows, if this interpretation is correct, that he speaks of the period that preceded his conversion. not of an imperfect state of knowledge after it, out of which he had risen by progressive stages of illumination and clearer vision of the truth. Now and from henceforth, he seems to say, we think of Christ not as the King of Israel, but as the Saviour of mankind.
Who hath reconciled us to himself. . . . and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.—It is worthy of note that this is the first occurrence, in order of time, in St. Paul’s Epistles, of this word “reconcile” as describing God’s work in Christ, and that so applied it occurs only in this Epistle and in Romans 5:10, written shortly afterwards. The idea involved is that man had been at enmity and was now atoned (at-oned) and brought into concord with God. It will be noted that the work is described as originating with the Father and accomplished by the mediation of the Son. It is obvious that the personal pronoun is used with a different extent in the two clauses: the first embracing, as the context shows, the whole race of mankind; the last limited to those who, like the Apostles, were preachers of the Word. More accurately, the verbs should run: who reconciled. . . . and gave. The word translated “reconciliation” is, it should be noted, the same as that rendered “atonement” in Romans 5:11.
Not imputing their trespasses unto them . . .—The two participial clauses that follow describe the result of the reconciling work. The first is that God no longer charges their transgressions against men: the pronouns being used in the third person plural, as being more individualising than the “world,” and more appropriate than would have been the first person, which he had used in 2 Corinthians 5:18, and which he wanted, in its narrower extension, for the clause which was to follow. The word for “imputing,” or reckoning, is specially prominent in the Epistles of this period, occurring, though in very varied shades of meaning, eight times in this Epistle and nineteen times in that to the Romans. The difficulty of maintaining a logical coherence of this truth with that of a judgment according to works does not present itself to the Apostle’s mind, and need not trouble us. (See Note on 2 Corinthians 5:10.)
And hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.—Literally, to maintain the participial construction, placing with (or in) us the word of reconciliation. Tyndale gives “atonement” here, as in Romans 5:11.
We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.—It will be seen, in this conclusion of the language of St. Paul as to the atonement, how entirely, on the one hand, he recognises the representative and vicarious character of the redeeming work of Christ; how entirely, on the other, he stands aloof from the speculative theories on that work which have sometimes been built upon his teaching. He does not present, as the system-builders of theology have too often done, the picture of the wrath of the Father averted by the compassion of the Son, or satisfied by the infliction upon Him of a penalty which is a quantitative equivalent for that due to the sins of mankind. The whole work, from his point of view, originates in the love of the Father, sending His Son to manifest that love in its highest and noblest form. He does not need to be reconciled to man. He sends His Son, and His Son sends His ministers to entreat them to be reconciled to Him, to accept the pardon which is freely offered. In the background there lies the thought that the death of Christ was in some way, as the highest act of Divine love, connected with the work of reconciliation; but the mode in which it was effective, is, as Butler says (Analogy, 2:5), “mysterious, and left, in part at least, unrevealed,” and it is not wise to “endeavour to explain the efficacy of what Christ has done and suffered for us beyond what the Scripture has authorised.”
That we might be made the righteousness of God in him.—Better, that we might become. The “righteousness of God,” as in Romans 3:21-22, expresses not simply the righteousness which He gives, nor that which He requires, though neither of these meanings is excluded, but rather that which belongs to Him as His essential attribute. The thought of St. Paul is that, by our identification with Christ—first ideally and objectively, as far as God’s action is concerned, and then actually and subjectively, by that act of will which he calls faith—we are made sharers in the divine righteousness. So, under like conditions, St. Peter speaks of believers as “made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In actual experience, of course, this participation is manifested in infinitely varying degrees. St. Paul contemplates it as a single objective fact. The importance of the passage lies in its presenting the truth that the purpose of God in the death of Christ was not only or chiefly that men might escape punishment, but that they might become righteous.