7. Out With the Old, In With the New (2 Cor. 5:1-21)
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. 4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. 6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—7 for we walk by faith, not by sight—8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. 11 Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. 12 We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearance, and not in heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. 16 Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
From verse 7 of chapter 4 through the end of chapter 5, Paul has been writing about a matter of life and death. Paul and his colleagues really stand out in contrast to the false apostles who are also attempting to win the hearts and minds of the Corinthians. Paul seeks to establish the fact that true apostles are willing to suffer and die in this life; they are assured by the gospel of our hope of eternal life after our death, through faith in the person of Jesus Christ, particularly His death, burial, and resurrection.
In verse 7 of chapter 4, Paul begins by comparing himself and his fellow-laborers to clay pots, which contain within them the glory of God in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ (see 4:6-7). When these “clay pots” are shattered by opposition and persecution, the glory of the Lord Jesus is broadcast to the world. This “shattering” should come as no surprise to us, for it is the norm for all who live out the dying and the resurrected life of Christ. Persistently, Paul and his colleagues experience in their bodies the dying of Jesus (see Colossians 1:24), so that the resurrection life of Christ is manifested through their “dead bodies” (4:10; see Romans 7:24; 8:10-11). The “death” Paul and others experience brings about “life” for the Corinthian saints (4:12). They do not lose heart in the midst of their trials and tribulations because they know their earthly afflictions are “light” and “momentary” in comparison with the glory which is certain to be theirs (4:16-18).
In chapter 5, Paul continues this theme of “dying” and “being made alive” in Christ. I especially wish to focus your attention on verses 14-18 in this lesson. These verses are frequently misunderstood and even misapplied. Briefly, I will summarize Paul’s argument through chapter 5 and then focus on verses 14-18, their interpretation and the practical implications which flow from them.
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. 4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
Summary: The Christian’s earthly body has been compared to a clay pot; now it is spoken of as a tent. Like a tent, our earthly body is temporary and far from perfect. At death, we shall put off this earthly body and be given a vastly superior “heavenly” body. In the meantime, we “groan” because of our imperfection and our desire for a more perfect body. Our possession of this better body is outwardly accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our assurance of heaven, and with it our glorious bodies, is inwardly attested to by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who indwells every saint and who is God’s pledge that His promises will be fulfilled.
6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—7 for we walk by faith, not by sight—8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
Summary: Knowing that our earthly body is only temporary, and that we will be given a glorious heavenly body at the time of our death, we have great courage to live and boldly proclaim the gospel. If we hasten the day of our death by living courageously for Christ, we hasten the day we receive our better body. The moment we become “absent” from this earthly body by our death, we are present with the Lord—in our new and glorious body. We should not dread the shortening or losing of our lives in His service, but look upon it as the hastening of our wonderful hope. David experiences and expresses in his psalm the truth Paul speaks in these verses:
1 For the choir director; according to Jonath elem rehokim. A Mikhtam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. Be gracious to me, O God, for man has trampled upon me; Fighting all day long he oppresses me. 2 My foes have trampled upon me all day long, For they are many who fight proudly against me. 3 When I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee. 4 In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me? 5 All day long they distort my words; All their thoughts are against me for evil. 6 They attack, they lurk, They watch my steps, As they have waited to take my life. 7 Because of wickedness, cast them forth, In anger put down the peoples, O God! 8 Thou hast taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Thy bottle; Are they not in Thy book? 9 Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call; This I know, that God is for me. 10 In God, whose word I praise, In the LORD, whose word I praise, 11 In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? 12 Thy vows are binding upon me, O God; I will render thank offerings to Thee. 13 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, Indeed my feet from stumbling, So that I may walk before God In the light of the living (Psalm 56:1-13, emphasis mine).
9 Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Summary: The assurance that we will leave these “disposable bodies” behind when we enter into the presence of our Lord, clothed in our glorious new bodies, is no excuse for being careless about the way we live now. These bodies will perish, but the deeds we have done in them (whether good or bad) are the basis of our future judgment when we stand before our Lord. The resurrection of our Lord, which assures us of our future resurrection, also assures us of our Lord’s return to this earth to subdue His enemies and judge all men according to their deeds. As Christians, our desire should be to live in these earthly bodies in a such way that we will be pleasing to the Lord on that day.
Whether here in these bodies, or with the Lord, our desire should be that of Paul and his fellow-laborers in the gospel—to be pleasing to the Lord now and in that coming great day of judgment. When we must choose between pleasing men and pleasing God, we should always choose pleasing God. Those who merchandise the gospel corrupt and pervert the truth, seeking to win man’s approval and favor. The apostles seek to please God, which they do by proclaiming the truth of the gospel without modification and with honest and straightforward methods (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2; also Galatians 1:6-10; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:4; Hebrews 11:6).36
11 Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. 12 We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearance, and not in heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. 16 Therefore from now on we recognize37 no man according to the flesh;38 even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
Summary: This coming day of judgment which motivates us to please God is one which true believers greatly desire. For the wicked and unbelieving, it is a day of dread. Knowing the fear of the Lord which the day of judgment should cause sinners, Paul and his colleagues seek to persuade men to turn to Christ to be reconciled with God. The apostolic method of “persuasion” is very different from that of the false apostles, who corrupt the truth to entice men to follow them. This persuasion is conducted in the sight of God, seeking His approval rather than men’s. Paul appeals to the conscience of the Corinthians, hoping they will acknowledge his apostleship and thus have grounds for boasting in the day of the Lord when he will be approved of God. If, in the eyes of the Corinthians, Paul is out of his mind, let them know he is this way to please God; if they think he is acting sanely, let them know it is for their sake. The love of Christ motivates Paul and his colleagues. They have concluded that the death of Christ is for every saint. Every true believer dies in Christ and is raised to new life in Him. And everyone who dies and is raised in Christ is given new life, that they might no longer live selfishly for their own benefit, but sacrificially in the service of Christ who gave Himself sacrificially for them. Every Christian is a new creature, and he is what he is in Christ. Every Christian was once dead in his or her transgressions and sins, hopeless and helpless apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 2:1-3). Every Christian is saved by his identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Thus, every Christian is equal in his or her standing before God. This means we cannot practice discrimination within the body of Christ. We must view Christ differently in the light of His death, burial, and resurrection. And likewise, we must view differently all those who have identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. We must not look upon them in terms of what they bring to their relationship with Christ but in terms of what they have become in Him.
The coming day of the Lord, with its judgment of all men, motivates Christians positively and negatively. Positively, it prompts us to live in a way which pleases God (5:9). Negatively, it should cause us to be fearful if we disregard Him and His Word, knowing that we will give account. Our salvation is not at risk here, but God’s approval or disapproval of our stewardship (see 1 Corinthian 3:10-15). In addition to this “fear of the Lord,” there is the “fear” which we sense on behalf of lost sinners who will spend eternity in hell. Apart from faith in Christ, we know they are eternally doomed. Knowing this fear, Paul and his co-workers are diligent to boldly proclaim the gospel, urging the lost to trust in Christ for salvation.
Paul is not opposed to persuasion altogether, but he is against those methods of persuasion which are unacceptable to God. God does not save men by appealing to fleshly lusts or by distorting the truth of the gospel. When Paul and his colleagues seek to persuade men, they do so “in the sight of God.” They are fully aware that their message, their methods, and their motives are evident to God as they preach the gospel to lost men. Paul knows that God sees all things, hidden beneath appearances, and these hidden realities are the basis of our future judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 4:1-5; see also Matthew 6:4-6, 18; Mark 4:22; Luke 12:1-3; 16:15).
Paul is concerned therefore about the heart—not the outward appearance. He is not seeking to impress God by appearances; neither is he attempting to impress the Corinthians on the basis of appearances. Paul appeals to the consciences of the Corinthians, hoping that the motives of his heart are apparent to their hearts. Paul is not seeking their approval, per se, but he is seeking their benefit. To reject Paul and embrace the false apostles will prove shameful in the coming day of judgment. To embrace Paul and his colleagues and reject the false apostles affords them the privilege of taking pride in the Corinthians in the day of our Lord. And if the Corinthians are in tune with Paul’s heart, they will be proud of him now, and therefore have a response to those who attack him based only upon appearances: “How can Paul be an authentic apostle and have so much opposition, suffering, and deprivation?”
No matter how it appears to the Corinthians, Paul’s ministry and motives are pure before God. Do Paul’s actions seem like those of a man who has lost his mind (see Acts 26:24-25)? He has done so for God. And let it not be forgotten that even our Lord was considered out of his mind because of His commitment to His ministry (see Mark 3:21). Does Paul appear to be in his right mind? Then let the Corinthians know that his being so is for their sake. Whatever they may conclude about Paul, his ministry is conducted to serve God and men.
Unlike the motives of the false apostles, the love of Christ controls and compels Paul and his fellow-apostles. Paul’s perception of our Lord governs his perception of all believers who are in Christ. We see this played out in verses 14-17. Follow the argument of these verses carefully, for what Paul means for us to learn from them is quite different from what most of us may think.
Paul begins in verse 14 with this statement: “… one died for all, therefore all died.” There is no question as to who died for all; the question is who are the all for whom Christ died? This question divides theologians into two groups: those who insist that Christ died for all men, and those who argue that Christ died in order to save the elect. I do not wish to try to settle this debate here, but it is my opinion that Paul does not mean “all mankind, without exception” here, but rather “all those who are saved.”
Paul is dealing with a very serious problem at Corinth—that of factions and divisions. These divisions are not only on the basis of the various “leaders” whom the Corinthians are following (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:4; 4:6), but also the perceived higher status of some Corinthians above others. As previously pointed out, at least a segment of those who are “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13) are Jews who consider themselves to be better than the Gentile saints (2 Corinthians 11:22; see also Galatians 2:15). Paul makes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ the heart of the gospel and the basis for our Christian hope. Here in our text, Paul makes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ the basis for how we view others. If all saints have died and been raised from the dead in Christ, then the identity of each and every saint is based upon their identity in Christ. If all saints have the same identity, then all saints must be viewed in the same way and on the same level. There are no “upper class Christians.”
Apart from Christ, we are all “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3). As true believers, we have no status apart from what we are in Christ. As a result of the grace of God in Christ, every Christian has been reconciled to God by his identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. All who have been saved have the same general calling, “to live no longer for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again on our behalf” (verse 15). As far as our standing before God, we are all the same, in Christ.
23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:23-29).39
This equality of all believers in Christ is a foundational truth. It requires us to cease looking upon some as inferior to others and to stop regarding others as superior to the rest. Paul concludes (“therefore,” verse 16) that the truth stated in verses 14 and 15 must change the way we regard other saints: “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.”
The “from now on” must mean “since Christ died, was buried, and was raised from the dead” (that is, since the inauguration of the new covenant—see chapter 3). Since Christ, in His death, burial, and resurrection stands in the place of every sinner who is identified with Him by faith, we dare not look upon fellow believers in any other way than God does: we must see each individual believer as one who has been reconciled to God through the work of Christ, and thus one who is absolutely equal with every other believer in his or her standing with God.
Paul writes that “even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (verse 16). How then must we now “know” Christ differently? This is important, because the way we view Christ determines the way we view those who are “in Christ.” I believe the Scriptures clearly indicate the change.
1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. 3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:1-4).
9 There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him (John 1:9-11).
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE SHOULD BOW, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:18-23).
Whether in the prophecy of Isaiah 53, the accounts of the gospels, or in Paul’s epistles, it is clear that when the Lord Jesus came to this earth as the perfect God-man, men did not recognize Him for who He was. The Jewish religious leaders not only felt free to reject Him, they even referred to Him as an illegitimate child and one who performed miracles in the power of the devil (John 8:41; Mark 3:22). Even the disciples often failed to see Him as much more than a man. Their acknowledgments of Him as the Son of God were the exception, not the rule. Peter even felt free to rebuke our Lord (Matthew 16:22). The transfiguration was required to give the inner three disciples a momentary glimpse of His glory (Matthew 17:1-8). Not until after our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection did they see Him for who He was. The same John who once leaned on our Lord’s breast (John 13:23) is the one who fell at our glorified Lord’s feet (Revelation 1:17). Our Lord’s glory was veiled in His earthly life, but that veil is removed and all of His glory is now evident (see John 17:1ff.).
It is no wonder that people around the world enjoy the stories of Jesus’ birth, for Jesus appears to be a helpless infant who poses no threat to sinners. Likewise, for the most part, the “Jesus” of the Gospels is an unthreatening figure. At the time of His death, He appears to be a tragic, helpless victim, at least to those who wish to think of Him this way. But the resurrected Lord is really intimidating. It is this glorified, resurrected Lord whom Paul encounters on the road to Damascus, and the sight blinds him for three days (see Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11). Now no one dares think of Jesus as a mere babe in a manger or even as the humble son of a carpenter, who went about preaching the gospel and doing good deeds. While we no longer see Him in the flesh, He is exalted at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He is the mighty, risen Lord, before whom every knee will bow and whom everyone will confess as Lord of all. The fact that we do not see Jesus according to the flesh is compelling testimony to His glorious majesty and the truth of His teaching (see John 16:10). The absence of Jesus in the flesh is said to be better for us, because He has sent His Spirit to dwell within us (see John 16:4-15).
If we must view our Lord differently in the light of His death, burial, and resurrection, we must also look differently upon those who are “in Christ.” We dare not view men merely according to the flesh, according to outward appearances. This is especially true of those who have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ. “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Up until now, I have viewed Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17 in a way I now see as inconsistent with the context in which they are found. I have been wrong in two ways. First, I have been wrong in seeing this verse as applying primarily to me and my new identity in Christ. Do not misunderstand; I do not mean that this verse has nothing to say about my new identity in Christ. But the primary thrust of this verse concerns the way I view others who are in Christ by faith. Second, I have been wrong in assuming that the “old things” to which Paul refers are “evil things” or “sins.” It is true that, in Christ, my sins are forgiven, forever washed clean through the blood of Jesus Christ. Our church supports a man who works with Campus Crusade ministering to prisoners and ex-offenders. This man was convicted of committing a double murder. After he was saved, he received a full pardon and went to Wheaton College where he recently graduated. This man’s sins are wiped out by virtue of his union with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. We dare not view him as a second-class Christian.
Though all of our sins are washed away when we come to trust in Jesus Christ, I do not think Paul is teaching us this in our text. Rather, Paul refers here to those things we think we bring with us into the faith, things we wrongly suppose make us superior to some other saints. The “old things” Paul refers to are “good things,” as men view them, which they suppose gives them some ground for pride or boasting. What kind of things might Paul have in mind? We see a good example in chapter 11, verse 22. Those who oppose Paul (whom Paul has just called “false apostles”) are proud that they are “Hebrews,” “Israelites,” and “descendants of Abraham.” They are proud of their Jewishness, as though this makes them superior to Gentiles. This attitude of superiority is very clear in the statement Paul makes in Galatians 2:15 “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles.”
A number of the Jews feel they are superior to the Gentiles and believe they automatically possess their ticket to the kingdom of God. They reluctantly allow a few Gentiles to enter into the kingdom, but only by embracing Judaism. This is the why Jonah was so angry with God for sending him to preach to the (Gentile) Ninevites (read Jonah 1-4). This is why the Jews boast that they are physical descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). This is the reason some Judaizers insist that a Gentile cannot be saved unless they are circumcised (Acts 15:1). It is the reason the Jews are so enraged by Paul’s statement that God has called him to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). And this is also why the Jews of Nazareth are so incensed when Jesus says that He has come to save and bless Gentiles as well as Jews (Luke 4:16-30).
You may remember how shocked the disciples were when Jesus said that it is extremely difficult for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, like a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). A rich man is in danger of thinking that his riches contribute something to his salvation, when they do not (see Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:17). By instructing the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30) to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus is not suggesting that by so doing, he can earn his way to heaven. He is trying to show the rich man that his riches contribute nothing to his salvation. It is hard for a rich man to enter heaven because he may trust too much in what he possesses and fail to cast himself on the grace of God alone. This is why Jesus said that the poor are blessed (Luke 6:20); they have nothing to offer God and must look to Him alone for salvation by grace, not works.
I believe Paul says essentially the same thing in our text: the “assets” a man brings to the cross are not what saves him, but only the assets which God has provided in the cross. What a man was before his identification with our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection contributes nothing to his standing before God or men in Christ. When we are joined to Christ by faith, the old creation dies with Christ, and a whole new creation comes into being. What we were before our salvation—no matter how good or great it may appear to men—means nothing in regard to our status in Christ. Every Christian is on the same footing before God, and that footing is the work of Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection in the sinner’s place. There is absolutely no basis for pride in Christ, for what we are in Christ is due solely to His work on our behalf. Whatever we are, whatever we have, or whatever we do as new creations in Christ is the result of His grace. We dare not take credit for it as though it were our doing.
7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7).
No one knows this personally better than Paul, as he describes his radical change of heart and mind in Philippians 3:
1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; 3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:1-14).
Those Paul warns us about in this third chapter of his Philippian epistle are the “false circumcision” (3:2), those Judaizers who take great pride in their Jewishness. Paul then tells us that the “true circumcision” is not that which takes place in the physical body, but the “circumcision” which God brings about in the heart (see also Colossians 2:11). Such persons “worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (3:3). Paul then uses himself as an illustration of the change of heart and mind which genuine conversion brought about in him. Do these Judaizers take pride in their Jewishness and zealous works as Jews? He is a better Jew than they. These things which characterize Paul and give him a sense of spiritual superiority before his conversion are the very things he came to be ashamed of as a Christian. In fact, the things which were once “gain” (3:7) to Paul he now counts as “loss” for Christ’s sake. Those things in which he once took great pride have become as nothing but “dung” (or “rubbish,” verse 8). Paul gladly renounces his standing as an unbelieving Jew and boasts in his new standing in Christ alone. This is what we all must do. And when we see ourselves, and others, as we truly are in Christ, we will understand that we dare not view any person in the body of Christ as superior to anyone else in their standing before God.
It is easy to see how Paul’s teaching in this passage relates to the Corinthian church, to the false apostles who are there undercutting his authority and teaching, and to Paul and his relationship with the church. Paul says that the gospel puts all people on the same level. All unbelievers are equal in that they are guilty sinners, deserving of the penalty of eternal condemnation (hell). All believers are equal in that their only standing before God is in Christ. All of the cliques, quarrels and division which exist in the Corinthian church are centered around particular personalities in whom some take pride. To associate with a certain group of people based upon the assumption that their leader is somehow better than other saints is clearly inconsistent with Paul’s teaching in our text. To associate with a few saints, and separate ourselves from others, is to deny the equality of all saints in Christ and the unity we have in Christ which we are to manifest to the world:
11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Paul’s words therefore strike at the very heart of many of the problems he addresses in the Corinthian church.
But his words are recorded for our benefit, as well as the edification of the saints of Paul’s day. What does this text say to us? Let me first begin by reiterating the principle Paul sets down, and then we will move on to some of its practical implications. The principle is this: THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST MAKES ALL SAINTS EQUAL IN THEIR STANDING BEFORE GOD, AND SINCE GOD VIEWS US IN CHRIST, WE MUST DO LIKEWISE, WHICH PROHIBITS ANY POSITION OF SPIRITUAL STATUS ABOVE OTHERS. IN CHRIST, EVERY BELIEVER IS A NEW CREATION, WHO IS NEITHER SUPERIOR NOR INFERIOR TO ANY OTHER CHRISTIAN.
This principle condemns every form of spiritual status-seeking. Discrimination among Christians—racial, cultural, socio-economic—is forbidden. Let me now suggest some of the ways we practice discrimination in the church.40 The practice of homogeneous grouping is called into question here. The principle that “birds of a feather more comfortably flock together” may appear to work on a human level, but it must not be tolerated in the church. Any church which represents a very small portion of the spectrum of age, sex, race, or socio-economic status misrepresents Christ. How easily we relate to and get along “with our own kind.” But this is not God’s way. God has called upon His church to be a representation of the body of Christ, a body composed of all nations, of all levels of society. This may be a lofty goal, but it is a biblical one. Homogeneous grouping (especially establishing churches which appeal to one particular segment of society) is a very popular concept in the church growth movement of today. It may seem to produce favorable results (“churches which are made up of similar people grow faster”), but it does not square with the principle Paul sets down in our text and elsewhere in Scripture (see also Romans 12:16; James 2:1-13).
Other “status segments” in Christian society must be considered. Is it true that those in “full-time Christian work” are more spiritual? Are those who have attended seminary, have a degree, or are ordained to be put in a separate class which divides the church into “laity” and “clergy”? Are those who have a public, visible ministry more spiritual than those whose ministry is less visible and more behind-the-scenes? Are pastors of fast growing churches more spiritual or more effective than those who labor in small, struggling churches? Are people who possess certain spiritual gifts really more spiritual than those who possess seemingly lesser gifts?41 Are women less spiritual than men, especially if the roles permitted them in public ministry seem to be less significant?
I suggest to you that the problems the Corinthian church faced centuries ago are the very same problems we face in the church today, and the same principle set down by Paul in our text and elsewhere, is the same standard for our thinking and actions. What a wonderful thing the cross of Christ is! Our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection are the basis for our salvation. They are also the basis for our equality and unity in the body of Christ. Let us see to it that we live up to this standard in a world which always seeks to see some people as better than others.
39 In this passage, “you” refers to Gentile believers and “we” refers to Jewish believers. Paul’s point here, as elsewhere, is that in Christ, Gentiles become the offspring of Abraham, the very thing some Jews believe distinguishes them from Gentiles, and which they falsely suppose is the basis for their assurance of God’s blessings (see Matthew 3:9).
40 Please do not misinterpret my words to suggest or imply that discrimination outside the church is being advocated or condoned here. But Paul’s teaching here specifically relates to our attitudes and actions toward other Christians.