by Grant Hawley
Recently, I found myself curious about the English Standard Version (ESV) translation because a lot of my Reformed friends use it. As I was hopping around to a few of my favorite passages, 2 Cor 5:14 jumped out at me. It says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.” The word “controls” seemed odd to me in this context,1 so I decided to look into it a bit. I got out my Greek New Testament and my Strong’s Concordance and found that the word was sunechō from sun, denoting accompaniment or linkage, and echō, meaning “to have.” The lexicons all had “to hold together” as the First meaning and if “controls” was listed at all, it was with a note that it was the possible meaning in 2 Cor 5:14 and no other reference was made.
The word only appears twelve times in the New Testament (only one other time by Paul, Phil 1:23), and never in a similar context. None of the other uses seem to mean “controls,” but none of them mean “to hold together” either. But in the Septuagint the idea of joining or putting together emerges as a common meaning, especially where the idea of creating, making garments, and building is concerned (a few very clear examples of this are Gen 1:9; Ex 28:7; 1 Kgs 6:10, 15). This was immediately interesting to me because all of those concepts are apparent in 2 Corinthians 5. When I applied that possible meaning to 2 Cor 5:14, the whole passage (4:11–5:21) became clearer and seemed to have a new depth.
Together at the Bema
In 2 Cor 4:14, Paul introduces an interesting point, that when Paul and Timothy (“us”) and the Corinthians believers (“you”) appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, in some sense they will be there together, “knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you” (emphasis added). This is similar to the point Paul makes when he calls the Philippian believers, “my joy and crown” in Phil 4:1. He has already talked about the fact that Timothy’s and his suffering is for the benefit of the Corinthian believers (2 Cor 4:11-12), but in 2 Cor 4:14, Paul shows that their being built up will also benefit Paul and Timothy at the Bema. This is bringing in a theme which Paul introduced earlier in 2 Cor 1:14 “…we are your boast as you also are ours, in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
These passages show that this relationship is not just one way, as if a pastor is benefitted by the growth of his congregation but not the other way around. The Epistle to the Philippians is a great illustration of this. In addition to the Philippians being Paul’s “joy and crown” (Phil 4:1), in Phil 1:5-7 Paul points out that their support of his ministry makes them partners with him in ministry (koinōnia), and will continue to be completed (perfected) until the Lord’s return. In addition, Phil 4:17 shows that their support bears “fruit that abounds to [their] account.” This all refers to eternal rewards that are being stored up for them through Paul’s ministry.
Living in Light of the Day
In 2 Cor 4:16–5:11, Paul turns the Corinthians’ attention from present sufferings to the joys to come, showing, as well as words can communicate, how worth it all the suffering will be. Even Paul’s extreme suffering (see 2 Cor 11:22-28) is called “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” compared to the “exceeding and eternal weight of glory” that is being worked out (4:17). But this glory is conditional, “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (5:10).
It is here that most interpreters move entirely to an individualistic focus, making “the body” refer to the physical body rather than the Body of Christ, making the “new creation” of 5:17 the individual Christian rather than the Church,2 and seeing only the reconciliation of the individual to God while missing the reconciliation of all men to each other.3 But why should we do this? Yes, we will all stand individually before the judgment seat of Christ (see Rom 14:10-12) and be recompensed for our works whether good or bad, yet those we have impacted will also be presented “with us.”
As far as I can tell, not a single passage tells of reward for works that have nothing to do with other people.4 Even a labor of prayer should be filled with prayers benefiting others, as we have an example from the Lord (John 17) and the apostles (Eph 3:14-19; Heb 13:18). And in 5:11, Paul said, “Knowing, therefore, the terror5 of the Lord, we persuade men” (5:11, emphasis added). A focus on eternal rewards should drive us toward others to share with them the good news. To make this all individualistic loses a great deal of the weight of Paul’s argument where he is contrasting his ministry of reconciling men to God, irrespective of race and in freedom from the Law with the false teachers “who boast in appearance” (5:12, see also chapter 3, especially vv. 1-3).
In 2 Cor 5:14, Paul begins to take this point to the next level, “For the love of Christ joins us together, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died” (5:14, author’s translation). Because all died in Christ, there is no longer distinction between the races but Gentiles also are to be “partakers of His promise” of Kingdom inheritance and even have the opportunity to rule in the Kingdom (cf. Eph 3:1-13; Col 1:27-29; Rev 3:21, Laodicea was a Gentile city). This is what Paul is talking about in 2 Cor 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, behold a new creation! Old things have passed away; all things have been made new” (author’s translation). All Christians, no matter who they were in the flesh, are part of a new creation, the Body of Christ, and that’s the way we should see each other (5:16).
United in Christ
But the weight of the passage as a whole takes this even further. Paul is saying that because we are all united together by the love of Christ, our eternal glory is even greater as we help others grow in grace and aid their ministry. If you disciple someone, financially support someone, or pray diligently for someone who goes on to have a great ministry, their ministry will be commendation for you at the Bema. And as they go on to minister to others, they can rejoice in the fact that they are helping build a greater experience of life for you for all eternity (cf. 4:12). And for those who minister to you, you can rejoice in the fact that you will be a credit to their account at the Bema (4:14).
We are all together in this—more than we know. We are joined together by the fact that we can be a blessing to others at the Bema (and vice versa), by the love of Christ, by the ministry of reconciliation that we all have, and by the fact that we are united together as one new creation. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul urges believers to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2)? Let us all work diligently to serve one another and to build up the Body of Christ and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb 10:24); there’s an “exceeding and eternal weight of glory” awaiting us if we do.
3. 5:18-19 clearly focus on the individual’s reconciliation to God, but 5:14-17 is best understood as breaking down barriers that separate individuals (race, sex, social class, etc.) and making one new body with all men in Christ together, see the following discussion. Compare to Gal 3:27-28; Eph 2:14-16; and Col 3:10-11.
4. Many people make the mistake of thinking that they will be rewarded for holy living as if they will be rewarded for what they don’t do, but this doesn’t seem to be the focus of Scripture. Holy living (through the power of the Spirit) provides the foundation by which we can do the works that will be rewarded. A person who abstains from sinful habits but never gets involved in the mission is still burying his or her talent.
5. Better translated fear, “terror” is inappropriate here because the Bema is a place for the giving of rewards and no possibility of eternal condemnation exists for those being judged (see 1 Cor 3:9-15).