Let’s confirm – this post isn’t designed to discuss the reality of what happens to us when we die (i.e. do we go to heaven, do we stay in the grave until resurrection, etc.) I think that is an interesting discussion and certainly one worth having, but that isn’t the focus of this post. Therefore, do not draw any conclusions beyond the immediate context we are going to examine. I think the context of 2Corinthians 5 would demonstrate that we might be using verse 8 to mean something that verse 8 isn’t saying at all. This doesn’t mean what verse 8 is often used for is right or wrong, rather it simply means that verse 8 doesn’t appear to be designed to promote that idea. Let’s dive in.
2Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
When folks are discussing what happens to the believer after they die, this verse is often a go-to verse to show that when a believer dies, they go to heaven. This is usually defined by stating that a person becomes absent from their body when their soul or spirit (or the twain) leave the physical shell it dwelt in and returns unto its Maker. Again, not looking to discuss whether this idea is wrong or right, but is this what verse 8 actually says? As always, what is the context?
Paul opens the letter (chapters 1 and 2) in his usual fashion by greeting them in the Lord but as he gets into chapter 2, he recognizes how strong his previous letter was and it grieves him that what he wrote brought sorrow to the Corinthians, for that wasn’t the intention. Yet, as Paul says in chapter 7 of 2Corinthians, he is nonetheless joyful that the sorrow they experienced brought them to repentance. But, when you read 2Corinthians, you get a much different feel and flavor in the letter from 1Corinthians. 1Corinthians is all about correcting their divisiveness as they were creating contentions in the assembly. In 1Corinthians 1:13, Paul asks if Christ is divided and this is the key verse to the rest of the letter. The entire letter seeks to demonstrate to them that their behavior isn’t in line with a unified body of Christ. 2Corinthians, on the other hand, while offering rebuke where necessary, isn’t so much focused on their behavior, but deals with more of what they face in society and who they are as believers. Paul accomplishes this by using many accounts of his journeys and those with him (i.e. Titus) and what has happened there as ways to encourage these Corinthians.
In Chapter 3 of 2Corinthians, Paul says that they have been made able ministers of the New Testament. If we wanted to camp here, we would have to split this post up as it would get very lengthy. Suffice it to say that Paul understood there was a distinction between the old testament and the new. This isn’t about a collection of books in your Bible, but is about agreements that God had made with Israel and the workings thereof were ultimately brought to a head in Christ. The old testament worked death, while the new flourishes in the Spirit of Life. Paul is not journeying around the Mediterranean and preaching a message of death, where the letter of the law kills, but is rather ministering the things of God (as a priest would) and the things of God is the Spirit which gives life. Just as the old testament had a glory of itself, so too the new testament has a glory yet a glory that far exceeds the glory of the old. Just as, through Christ, the old testament was changed to the new testament (from one glory to another), Paul concludes chapter 3 by saying that you and I likewise have been changed from glory to glory – from the old glory (death) unto the new glory (life in Christ).
Paul is not one who is corrupting this message (see end of chapter 2). Yet, there are folks who seem to willfully blind themselves to this reality. These folks Paul calls, “lost” in chapter 4. If the good news of this new glory of life is hid, it is hidden to those who are proactively hiding it from themselves. Paul has done everything he can to make it crystal clear, but these folks were, pardon the pun, turning a blind eye to it. As he moves through chapter 4, he reminds the Corinthians thus:
2Corinthians 4:6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 4:7 But we have this treasure in EARTHEN VESSELS that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
Paul says that despite the darkness, God has shined His light nonetheless and this light lives in earthen vessels and this serves a real purpose – so that the manifestation of the power of God could only be concluded to be of God and not of man. This earthen vessel that Paul speaks of isn’t a box or some pot, but is an allegory to his physical body. As he goes on, he describes what is happening to his body/what his earthen vessel is experiencing.
2Corinthians 4:8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 4:9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; 4:10 Always bearing about IN THE BODY the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our BODY.
In other words, by bearing the the same things Jesus suffered, it produces humility in Paul (so that glory lands where it belongs – to God). Paul speaks very similar to this in chapter 12 of 2Corinthians as well (and in other places). The purpose his earthen vessel (physical body) suffers is because it gives the express opportunity for the glory of God to shine. He goes on,
2Corinthians 4:11 For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our MORTAL FLESH. 4:12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.
Paul recognizes that what they are going through out on the road works as death for them, but in turn, life for the Corinthians.
2Corinthians 4:13 We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; 4:14 Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. 4:15 For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.
Paul knows they are of the same faith and of the same spirit as the Corinthians and is therefore confident that regardless of what happens, they will all meet the same ultimate reality – resurrection. This is key – don’t gloss over this.
2Corinthians 4:16 For which cause we faint not; but though our OUTWARD MAN perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. 4:17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; 4:18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Because of what his persecution is producing – it is redounding to the glory of God in these Corinthians, and being fully confident that resurrection by the operation of Christ will ultimately happen anyway, he can boldly state that regardless of what happens to his outward man, his inward man (his spirit) is renewed day by day because of the exciting opportunity his persecution is fulfilling in the grand plan of God, as it relates to these Corinthians. This light affliction is temporal and he says that his focus is not on the temporal, but the eternal.
Now, we are ready to jump into chapter 5, but let’s take some stock –
Paul has been describing things that are happening in his EARTHEN VESSEL/MORTAL FLESH/OUTWARD MAN and recognizes that these things are TEMPORAL. This contrasts with the confidence Paul has that this isn’t the eternal reality for Paul knows there is a RESURRECTION to an ETERNAL reality. If you compare this to 1Corinthians 15, you can find that this resurrection to an eternal reality means that Paul’s INWARD MAN will be given a changed OUTWARD MAN. Keep all of this in mind as we go to chapter 5.
2Corinthians 5:1 For we know that if our EARTHLY HOUSE OF THIS TABERNACLE were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, ETERNAL in the heavens.
Paul is continuing on with his thoughts from chapter 4 and plainly states that if something happened to our physical body (the dissolving of the earthly house of this tabernacle), we nonetheless have a house of God, eternal in the heavens.
2Corinthians 5:2 For in this we groan, earnestly DESIRING to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: 5:3 If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.
While at home in the body, Paul shares in an earnest groaning/yearning to be clothed with the heavenly body rather than the earthly one. Paul also makes it clear that there is no intermediate state – we cannot have our physical body dissolve and not be put into a heavenly body, otherwise, as Paul says, we would be found naked. Again, think of 1Corinthians 15 – this exit of the earthly body and entrance to the heavenly body happens in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
2Corinthians 5:4 For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that morality might be swallowed up of life. 5:5 Now he that have wrought us for the self-same thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
Paul says that we who are in this tabernacle (this earthly vessel) do groan because of the burden (persecution, despair, etc.) that we experience, yet the yearning to get out of this body isn’t one-sided. Paul isn’t simply interested in getting out of his earthly vessel (and by proxy, the things that ail it), but his desire is that his earthly body can be swallowed up in life. It is this reality that Paul claims that the Spirit of God is the token of – it is the earnest of. In other words, the presence of the Spirit of God in Paul’s life was God’s surety that when the earthly body dissolves, it will be raised to something much better.
2Corinthians 5:6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 5:7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:)
Paul concludes then that while we dwell in our EARTHLY VESSEL, we are absent from the Lord. It is important to note that Paul is not describing the believer’s proximity to the Lord, by faith, but the proximity of the believer’s body. In other words, there is no transcendent state for the believer. While we are at home in our physical bodies, we might as well be absent from the Lord’s presence. Yet, the earnest of the Spirit tells us that there will be a time when we will no longer be absent from the Lord’s presence (in our bodies). In this, we walk by faith – by accepting the Spirit’s promise – and not by sight. This reality isn’t something we can look around us and see. We cannot look to our physical bodies and confirm the reality of the heavenly body. It isn’t the OUTWARD MAN which gives us the earnest of the heavenly body, but it is the Spirit of God. We walk in this life, yearning to be clothed with our heavenly body and that walk is a walk of faith, not sight.
2Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
And there it is. Paul is saying nothing more than knowing he is currently in his earthly body and while he is at home in that body, he is absent from the Lord (because he is absent from his heavenly body), he’s not only confident of knowing he will get his heavenly body, but he is willing to have it. But remember from chapter 4, this is all centered around RESURRECTION. Paul’s desire, as he expresses through his willingness, is to be resurrected right now. His desire is to move out of his earthly vessel and move into his heavenly vessel. Paul is not indicating a locative change process, whereby he spells out an order of how the location changes. Paul is simply stating the desire to experience the change of location. But, in Paul’s mind, this is location change is tied to his bodily resurrection.
Does this mean believers don’t go to heaven when they die? That’s not the point of Paul’s statements. Paul was never trying to answer that question. Does this mean the soul sleeps in the body until resurrection? That’s not the point of Paul’s statements. Likewise, Paul was never trying to answer that question. These are the wrong questions to ask at this juncture. The question we should ask is, what does verse 8 mean in light of its context? And, hopefully you can see that there is more going on that we should take note of than to simply lift verse 8 to support something it may not actually be designed to support.
In fact, if you keep reading in 2Corinthians 5, you might start to get the impression that Paul is describing an aspect of our heavenly body ALREADY being a reality.
2Corinthians 5:16 Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the FLESH: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a NEW CREATURE: OLD THINGS are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
Are we experiencing something of our heavenly body as believers?…that’s for you to ponder.