In this passage, Paul continues to defend the character of his apostolic ministry, and as he does so, deals with the subject of death and its consequence for believers.
v16. Paul begins by pointing out that although our outward body is wasting away, our real self is in a process of renewal. To the observer it is clear that the natural body is subject to decay. Yet, those touched by the Spirit of God experience a renewal of the inward self. This renewal can only be seen through the eyes of faith. Seen from without, there is only decay and corruption; seen from within, there is change and renewal. It is important to note that Paul is not pushing a Platonic dualism of body and soul at this point. He is not suggesting that the body is a cage for the soul, and once decayed, the soul is able to break free and be united with the cosmic force of the Universe. Paul is speaking of the whole person, outwardly withering while at the same time bursting into new life.
v17. And this wasting away, with all its troubles and afflictions, actually serves to shape a renewal in our lives which finally leads to glorification. Affliction schools us for eternity, shapes us into the image of Jesus. The troubles Paul has in mind are not just the bitter-sweet experiences of life, but also the troubles that come our way as followers of Christ. Our sufferings for Christ range from persecution through to the difficulties of discipleship. Paul is in no way suggesting that such troubles earn us salvation. There is no merit in suffering, rather the troubles of life burn out the dross of our lives; troubles shape us for eternity.
v18. So, rather than being focused on our present frailty with all its afflictions, we focus on eternity and on the glory we are about to share.
5:1. Even though our earthly body withers and decays, there awaits for us a heavenly body, a glorious frame to serve us for eternity. Paul uses the imagery of the wilderness wanderings to describe the old and the new self. The old is like a tent in the wilderness, an impermanent building suitable for camp life. The new is like a permanent building in the promised land. In that new land we will receive a "tabernacle not made with hands, Heb.9:11. Ambrose explains it in these words: "this house signifies the immortal body in which, when we rise again, we shall ever be, and the form of which is already made clear in the body of the Lord of Heaven."
v2. In the meantime we yearn for the day when we will put on the glorious resurrection body; we groan for that day. In fact Paul tells us in Romans 8:22 that the whole of creation yearns for the day when the corruptible creation puts on incorruptibility. Note how Paul has changed his simile of the resurrection body from a habitat to be lived in to a garment to be put on. He does not speak of the putting off of the old garment of the body, but rather of the putting on of a new garment over the old, and thus the transforming of the old into something new. Augustine used the following words to describe the process; "the natural body will rise a spiritual body, the outward man too shall attain the dignity of celestial character."
v3-4. Paul now touches on a very real part of our experience. Death is something we find no pleasure in. It is a disruptive and destructive event, something shunned at all cost. It leaves us naked and lost. None-the-less, we yearn for the day of our glorification and the swallowing up of our mortal flesh. Paul's point, of course, is that we will not be found naked in that day, rather we will be found clothed in glorious cloths indeed. In Biblical thought it is not possible to separate body and soul, as the Biblical view of humanity is holistic. At the resurrection our soul and our new body will be reintegrated and thus give life again to our being.
v5. God's ultimate purpose for mankind is that we share in His deity. He has even given us a foretaste of his glory. This taste, this earnest, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. cf. Rom.8:11, 8:15f. Our daily renewal, by means of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, prepares us for the coming day.
Sometimes we forget that we are sensual beings, that we are flesh and blood. We forget that behind our sophistication there lies a bundle of brute instincts tamed only by the vagaries of society, by education, pier group pressure, religion..... We assume that we have arrived at wisdom and that we have tamed the brute within. But if we think that, we are living a sham, a life of suppressed sensuality.
There is much in each one of us that is pure Victorian and so we need to make our journey to the Hanging Rock, we need to take Passage to India. Those ancient rocks, those caves at Marabar, those brute forces of primeval creation surge about us. We can respond to the revelation of our humanity either by running in fear, or delighting in its sensuality. If we delight it is then we cast off the trappings of civilization. Or better still, we can understand who and what we are, and from that wisdom learn dignity and humanity.
The denial of the brute and sensual self is most prominent in the denial of death. Our whole being cries out for the survival of the species. Our life-force surges within and we strive to possess, be possessed and procreate. But then nature has its way, and all of a sudden, like a revelation from above, we see that our time is coming to an end. That revelation is a denial of all that we have felt and dreamt. The cold hand of death touches our shoulder and the shiver convulses our whole body. For a man it may be the end of the breeding cycle. He has passed on his genes and so now he has reached his use-by date. For a woman it comes when the kids fly the nest. The cycle is done and at an end. The realization of coming death is triggered by hormonal, social, environmental factors, and it comes in different ways and at different times to each one of us. But it does come, of that we can be sure.
For we urban dwellers, unrelated to the earth, imbibed with the sham of our sophistication, suppressing our primeval sensuality, any thought of death is denied in a flurry of activity. We take up jogging, change our job, change our bed partner, we adopt any behavior which might help suppress thoughts of our mortality. What we want is life, and we will chase it at any cost.
Yet, instead of denying our mortality, let us pursue the truth:
Although our body wastes away we are inwardly renewed day by day. The Holy Spirit, a "deposit" given by God, is daily renewing our being. So, although we only see the "wasting away", within our being there is an unseen, life giving renewal, progressing day by day. We are being shaped into the image of Christ, and this a work of grace progressed in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
The limitations of our humanity, which are ever increasing with the onset of age and the constant eroding of our strength through suffering, serves as a foil to the renewing work of the Spirit. This renewal prepares us for our rule with Christ in eternity. Let us be willing to learn from life's limitations that we may handle the glory of the age to come.
Our flesh and blood is but "temporary", a transitory "house", about to be "swallowed up by life". That which is "mortal" in our beings is about to be "clothed with our heavenly body". So, day by day we should live "longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling", for that's where substance, permanence lies.
Sooner or later we will come to realize our mortality, and in that moment we will be filled with fear because "we do not wish to be unclothed", we do not wish to be left naked. Yet, to sublimate that fear, to deny it, will lead to disaster. We must look beyond the mortal to the new life prepared for us in Christ; for this purpose God created us. The Holy Spirit is even now active in our lives, such that "we are being renewed day by day." So, "do not lose heart". Accept what is and think on what is to come.
1. In what sense are we being inwardly renewed? 4:16
2. How does suffering achieve for us an eternal glory? 4:17
3. What unseen thing should we fix our eyes on? 4:18
4. What is this "building", "eternal house" that awaits us in heaven? 5:1
5. What does it mean to be naked? 5:3. Is a Christian naked between death and the resurrection? Discuss.
6. Discuss the issue of mid-life crisis and its relationship with a denial of impending death. What factors would make an easy transition through this stage in our lives?