Chapter five is a kind of “reverse parallel” from chapter four. In the previous chapter, the first section focused on Paul’s ministry and the second on his perspective on this life. Chapter five reverses this, with the first section continuing his perspective from chapter four (2 Corinthians 5:1-10) and the second section focusing back on his ministry (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Some well-known verses are found here and some key truths that make this one of my favorite chapters of Scripture.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10 provides us with a great deal of information regarding the afterlife. Paul referred to his temporary body as an “earthly house” and a “tent,” noting that there is a “heavenly dwelling” awaiting us so that “we will not be found naked” (apparently a reference to a bodiless soul). God created us to be both physical and spiritual beings, and Paul said that the afterlife will be no different. Our bodies will be different, but they will still be physical bodies.
A second major truth in this section deals with the believer between death and resurrection. Although some people believe in “soul sleep” (where the soul is unconscious), the apostle knew of only two states: “alive here on earth” (or “at home in the body”) and “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). He specifically noted that being on earth means to be “absent from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6). Thus, when a believer dies, he immediately goes into the presence of Jesus in a conscious state of existence.
Following the resurrection “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul had already written about this in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, explaining the trial of our works by fire. Here he confirmed that it will be not the works themselves that are judged but the quality of our works. The Greek words translated “good or evil” are quality words (rather than moral words) and should be understood as “beneficial or worthless.” Since Paul’s ultimate “ambition” was “to please” Christ because of this judgment (2 Corinthians 5:9), we can interpret this to mean that the motives behind our service for God contribute to their worthiness of reward. Good deeds that come out of a wrong motive are worthless for the purposes of rewarding our faithfulness.
The second half of the chapter focuses again on Paul’s ministry based in his perspective of pleasing God during this life. “Because we know the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade people” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Knowing God well results in knowing and living our mission well. In other words, significant ministry is the result of significant maturity. Paul insisted that, regardless of what it might look like to his accusers or the Corinthians themselves, it was the love of Christ that controlled him (2 Corinthians 5:14). Knowing what Christ did for us changed the way Paul looked at other people, both believers and unbelievers (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
In the final four verses, Paul used some form of the word “reconcile” four times. This message that he preached was not just “Jesus died for you.” Paul knew the good news meant a complete change in status from enemies against God to friends with God (Romans 5:6-11). This was part of God’s intent in Jesus’ death – reconciling all things back to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Colossians 1:19-23). Paul insisted that even believers must continually “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20) on a practical level, even after salvation. Jesus became “sin for us,” not just so we could go to heaven but “so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the daily aspect of salvation – becoming in practice the new creation we are in position.