Seeing Others Spiritually: A Practical Consequence of the Cross (2 Cor. 5:16)
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the death and resurrection of Christ? I suspect that most would point to such truths as the forgiveness of sins, or the fact that in his death the wrath of God was satisfied, or that we are redeemed and Satan is defeated and heaven is secured. Surely, all these and countless other truths are the consequence of what Christ accomplished on our behalf.
But what are the implications of his atoning work for how we relate to other people? What are the horizontal effects of what he achieved at Calvary? Does the cross have any meaningful influence on how we think of others and how we relate to them?
My reason for asking this question is something Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:16, a verse often overlooked in favor of the glorious assertion that precedes it in vv. 14-15 and the monumental declaration that follows in v. 17. It’s all too easy for v. 16 to get lost in the valley, as it were, overshadowed by the towering twin peaks of what comes before and what follows.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 we read of the love of Christ revealed in his death for sinners and their new life in him. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we are told that because of this remarkable achievement, all who are now “in Christ” are “a new creation” in which the “old” has passed away. A marvelous pair of theological truths indeed! But we dare not ignore the equally profound practical implications that flow from them.
I’m alerted to this by the word “therefore” in v. 16. There is obviously a significant conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Christ died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Christ who died for them and was raised again. And here it is:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”
Christ’s redemptive sufferings on Paul’s behalf have done far more than simply alter his relationship with God. Yes, his sins are forgiven and all guilt is washed away. He is justified, adopted, and destined for eternal bliss. But it is also the case that, because of what Christ has achieved in his atoning death, Paul has experienced a radical and far-reaching transformation in his relationship with other people. And so should we.
“Therefore,” says Paul; because of the love of Christ revealed in his death for me I no longer regard or evaluate or assess people “according to the flesh” (v. 16a). What does the apostle mean by this?
The phrase, “according to the flesh,” has been interpreted in countless ways. The consensus today is that it has nothing to do with the so-called sinful nature or sensual passions, but rather means “in accordance with the standards and values that derive from living as if physical life in this world is all that exists” (Hafemann, 242).
Before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul (then Saul) evaluated other people on the basis of external and worldly standards. Of greatest concern to him were such things as: “What is your nationality? Are you a Jew or a Gentile? Are you educated or ignorant? Are you wealthy or poor? Are you male or female? Are you circumcised? Are you “barbarian, Scythian, slave, [or] free” (Col. 3:11).
Let’s be honest. We all have our own personal standards of judgment. We unconsciously appeal to certain criteria to evaluate the worth of people in our world. It may be the color of their skin or their financial portfolio. How often do we draw conclusions based on physical attractiveness or style of dress? Other criteria that inform our assessment include such things as political party affiliation, social influence, educational achievement, nobility of birth, bloodline, verbal eloquence, athletic prowess, and the list could go on.
For Paul, perhaps the most important distinction that governed his pre-Christian value system was whether one was a Jew or a Gentile. But the blood of the cross has forever obliterated any spiritual significance in that racial difference (Eph. 2:11-22). While one’s ethnicity remains (in that sense I will always be a Gentile and Paul will always be Jew), it has lost any value in determining one’s status with God or place within his kingdom. The only relevant factor is one’s relationship with Christ. Indeed, “if anyone is in Christ,” as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” And one critical element of the “old” that has passed away is the appeal to external, worldly, physical, or ethnic standards for determining what is worthy of our devotion or who is qualified to inherit the promises of God.
I want to be perfectly clear. I am an American citizen. I love my country. I cherish my heritage. I am as patriotic as the next guy (perhaps more so). And if the need should arise, I would happily fight in defense of this land and the freedom that it affords. But I have a deeper connection with and a greater commitment to Christians in Russia and Iraq than I do to non-Christians in America. My primary, foundational, and fundamental allegiance is to the universal body of Christ, the church. I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20). My greatest allegiance is to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22), and only secondarily to Washington, D.C.
The apostle Paul was born a Jew, “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5). But that was of absolutely no importance and carried no weight when it came to his relationship with God or his inheritance within the kingdom of the promises that God had made. All that mattered, said Paul, was whether or not you are “in Christ Jesus” by faith (Gal. 3:26). And “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29), regardless of your ethnicity (“Jew or Greek”), your social status (“slave or free”), or your gender (“male or female”).
Everything must now be viewed in light of the “new creation” that has come with the redemptive work and resurrection life of Christ! Conversion for each of us entails a radically transformed standard for assessing what is valuable and true and deserving of our allegiance and sacrifice.
In the second half of v. 16 Paul extends this principle to his relationship with Christ himself. “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh,” says Paul, “we regard him thus no longer” (v. 16b).
Did Paul know of Jesus prior to his conversion? Certainly he had heard of him. Jesus spent considerable time in Jerusalem during his years of public ministry, as did the young rabbi, Saul of Tarsus. Whether or not he met him personally prior to his Damascus Road experience is not stated (but is doubtful, in my opinion). But v. 16 has nothing to do with whether or not Paul had personal knowledge of Jesus during his earthly life or whether or not he was interested in the historical facts concerning Jesus’ existence in Palestine. Nor is Paul referring to knowing “Jesus” in his humanity as over against knowing him in his exalted and supernatural status as risen “Christ”.
Rather, here (v. 16b) Paul is repudiating his pre-Christian evaluation of Jesus. Before conversion he saw him as a blasphemer, a “misguided messianic pretender, [and] a crucified heretic” (Harris, 429; cf. Acts 22:3-4; 26:9-11). He now sees him as the Son of God in human flesh whose death on a cross is the power of God unto salvation.
To what extent do worldly or merely human standards still govern and shape how you evaluate other people? What criteria do you employ: ethnic, financial, and physical, or spiritual, biblical, and moral? Whom do you admire: the self-centered, “successful” reprobate, or the humble and rarely recognized servant of others? Why are you attracted to them (or, conversely, repulsed): is it the color of their skin or the character of their soul? What matters most: the flag that flies over their country or the faith that resides in their heart?
If you are “in Christ” then all things are new (v. 17), including how you think, feel, and will, as well as the basis on which you judge, assess, and evaluate. May the truth of the cross and the principles of the Spirit govern our perspective on others, rather than the warped ways of this fallen world.