Clergy and laity alike have often stumbled over some of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Scattered among the letters that he addressed to the churches are a few verses that almost seem to contradict what he wrote in other epistles. At least they have been interpreted as contradictions. But did the great, spiritual, straight-thinking Paul write confusing things? Or is the contradiction only in the way readers have twisted his words?
A perfect example of the problem appears in the first few verses of 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul speaks about life and death. His language has been understood by many to teach that the reward of the righteous is bestowed at the moment of death and that an immortal soul leaves the body to face an immediate reward or punishment. If this is the true meaning of Paul's words, we are faced with some serious inconsistencies within the epistles. Let us examine the verses in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and discover what Paul actually did teach on this crucial subject:
"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.
For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven:
If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.
For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.
Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."
In order to get the picture clearly in mind, let us review the verses point by point.
Vs. 1 Paul introduces an earthly house and a heavenly house, and says: "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."
Vs. 2 He states our condition while in the earthly house. "In this we groan" and "being burdened."
Vs. 2, 3 He tells us what we desire in that state. "Earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked."
Vs. 4 Paul repeats these facts once again. "For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon."
Vs. 4 He then states the result of being clothed with the house from heaven that he so greatly desired. "But clothed upon, that MORTALITY might be SWALLOWED UP OF LIFE."
Vs. 5 The Spirit is a pledge that mortality shall eventually be swallowed up of life. "Who also hath given unto us the earnest (assurance, pledge) of the Spirit." Vs. 6 Paul states the grounds of his confidence. "Therefore we are always confident, knowing that whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord." Vs. 7 A parenthetical comment on successful Christian living. "(We walk by faith, not by sight.)" Vs. 8 He repeats a willingness to be absent from the body and to be with the Lord. "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord."
With the subject fully before us, let us determine the meaning of the terms
Paul uses in the text. What does he mean by the "earthly house" and the "heavenly house"? By being "clothed upon" and "unclothed"? By "mortality" being "swallowed up of life"? By being "absent from the body" and "present with the Lord"?
The apostle answers all of these questions for us. In verse 6, he defines "our earthly house" as being "at home in the body." The chief characteristic of this house is that it may be "dissolved." In other words, it is mortal. This earthly house is, therefore, our mortal body or our present mortal condition. This fact appears too obvious for further comment.
The house from heaven is "eternal" or immortal and represents the state of immortality that awaits the redeemed beyond the resurrection. Here is where the greatest misunderstanding enters the picture. Some have thought that the "house from heaven" is put on at the moment of death. But the apostle clearly spells out the TIME when he will put on immortality.
Notice how he explains when "mortality is swallowed up of life," in Romans 8:22, 23, "...ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." This verse in Romans is a perfect, striking parallel to the verses in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and clarifies when we shall be clothed with that immortality. Notice the similarity of language and thought:
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