So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5.16)
Knowing What We Believe; Believing What We Know
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul plunges into the deep end and never looks back. Staying with him demands stamina, because he keeps diving below the surface and coming up with another gem. In many ways, this chapter serves as a companion piece to John 3, where Jesus and Nicodemus discuss Christianity’s most profound mystery: spiritual transformation. Jesus describes it as rebirth: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3.3) Paul calls it re-creation: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17) Point of view differentiates the two passages, however. Jesus defines transformation from His perspective as the Agent of change. Paul explains it from our side as beneficiaries of change. Both lines of thought intersect at faith, the point where our hopeless mortality is transformed into eternal hope. In John 3.16, Jesus says, “whoever believes shall have eternal life.” In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul writes, “We live by faith.”
Faith begins by knowing what we believe. Most Christians start with John 3.16. Longing to restore our relationship with Him, God loved us so much He took on mortal flesh to defeat death and sin through the power of resurrection. When we believe that, Jesus says, we too are transformed from death to new life. Of course, Paul reaches the same conclusion. But he gets there from the opposite direction. He opens chapter 5 with the importance of believing what we know. And what do we know without any doubt? We die. Being aware our bodies are temporary dwellings, Paul says we intrinsically know “we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (v1) Why is he so sure of this? Verse 5 says, “It is God who has made us… and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” In the mean time, Paul says, “we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” (v2) In other words, God’s longing for reconciliation with us described in John 3.16 is matched by our longing to be reconciled with Him. Knowing He created us to live forever in harmony with Him is why we believe we will.
Eternal Life Begins Now
Tim McGraw scored a hit a few years back with “Live Like You’re Dyin’,” a ballad about a man whose fatal disease inspired him to enjoy every moment he had left. The Freeman-Nicholson comedy, The Bucket List, covered similar territory. Paul would say “Pshaw!” to both. He says eternal life begins now. Instead of living like we’re dying, we live now like God intended us to live always. “So we make it our goal to please him,” Paul writes in verse 9, “whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” We’re no longer limited by what we can see—to our human faculties. Reconciliation through faith in Christ broadens the meaning of life. Indeed, it redefines life’s meaning.
Many assume John 3.16 says if we believe in Christ, then we shall have eternal life. This skews the sentence’s tense, which is not conditional but future-simple. “Shall” denotes spontaneous action following a prior action—when, not if. Eternal life is ours the moment we believe. No New Testament writer is more convinced of this than Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15.54-55 he writes: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Yet neither Jesus nor Paul discusses eternal life solely in future terms of escaping inevitable death. Both explain it as present transformation. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” Jesus says. “The old is gone; the new has come!” Paul says. New life and eternal life coexist in the now. This changes how we view everything—including one another.
New life in Christ gives us a new outlook on life. We view others and ourselves with fresh regard. Here’s how Paul puts it: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” (v16) From the moment Jesus entered the world until the second prior to His resurrection, He was as human as His contemporaries—or, for that matter, you and I. He was no less vulnerable to death and disease, temptation and stress than anyone else. And that’s how the world saw Him. But after Easter, it was impossible to view Him from “a worldly perspective” any longer. Now brace yourself: Paul says this changes how we regard everyone. There are no exceptions.
Your faith doesn’t make you special. Neither does mine. Everyone who believes has eternal life. Regarding people from a worldly point of view invites us to assess their behaviors. We’re looking at them through dead eyes. Our new outlook focuses on their potential to believe, seeing them not as they are, but as they can be. Our worst enemy can have eternal life if he/she believes. Our most scathing judge can have eternal life. The murder, the abuser, the rapist, the adulterer, the murderer, the hypocrite, the liar—you name it—can have eternal life. As new creations, transformed by God’s grace and power to live forever, we of all people should be convinced if Christ made eternal life possible for one, it’s possible for all.
Knowing Christ offers eternal life to all people changes how we regard everyone. There are no exceptions.
(Tomorrow: Our Right to Representation)