The word of the day is “resurrection.” In our reading of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, St. Paul uses a metaphor to describe our hope of transformation from the corruptible physical body to the resurrection of the incorruptible body. He states, “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (vs. 1).
Remember that in Plato’s Greek philosophy, the body is the “prison house of the soul.” The body’s functions, such as the five senses and the body’s sensations of pleasure and pain, are restraints to realizing the soul’s true nature. Death is the release of the soul and its return to the “World of the Perfect” (Plato, Phaedo).
St. Paul’s opponents in Corinth seem to reflect these ancient Greek views. They ask, “How are the dead raised? With what sort of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). These queries are sarcastic. They reflect the mindset that the physical existence of the body is incompatible with the life of immortality.
The Sacredness of the Body
In contrast, Christianity inherited the Hebrew belief that the body is sacred. It is God’s creation. And we should treat it with the utmost respect. St. Paul reflects this elevated view when he says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you… “? (vs. 1 Cor. 6:19).
In today’s passage, St. Paul extends the metaphor of the body as a dwelling place. But to contrast the physical body with the resurrected body, the Apostle compares a tent that is temporary and easily taken down (Chrysostom NfPf1:13, 655) with a permanent structure that is eternal. The Greek word for this “edifice” suggests a house with a roof (Strong’s #1420, 73). That is, the building is a complete, solid, and lasting structure.
This contrast reminds us of the tabernacle that God commanded the Israelites to build. Through Moses, the Almighty commanded the Israelites, “… have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them”(Exodus 25:8). The “Tent of Meeting” was so constructed that the Chosen People could take it with them as they wandered in the desert. It was not solid but consisted of curtains of linen (Exodus 26:1) and goat hair (Exodus 26:7) that were hung on acacia wood frames (Exodus 26:15).
Tent Compared with Temple
Imagine the contrast between this momentary dwelling place with the magnificence of Solomon’s temple. The Lord had said to David, “Your son [Solomon], whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build a house for my name“ (1 Kings 5:6 ). Made of quarried stone, this magnificent structure took thousands of forced laborers eleven years to build.
The point is that the vast difference between tent and temple also applies to the “tent” of the physical body and the edifice of the resurrected body. It is not that the earthly body is bad, but that the heavenly body is infinitely better ( vs. 2). Nor do we merely want to be rid of the inferior body (vs. 4). But we want another kind of body.
Changing the metaphor, Paul compares the soul’s existence without a body to being “naked.” The Orthodox Study Bible notes, “The soul is naked (vs. 3) or unclothed (v. 4) when it departs the body, that is, when one dies (OSB fn. on 5:1-4). Therefore, as the OSB suggests, Paul is not speaking of the Platonic escape of the soul from the body. Our hope is not that the soul will be free to live in immortal yet bodiless perfection. No, the Orthodox Study Bible notes that Paul is describing “the union of the soul with the glorified body [of the resurrection]” (OSB fn. on 5:1-4).
Such is the expectation of our resurrection in Christ. Yes, death separates the soul from the body. But the fulfillment of our hope will not be complete until our souls are “further clothed” with the resurrected body on the Last Day (John 6:40). Then the Lord Jesus Christ “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the workings by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21).
Euphemisms are expressions that blunt the reality of what would otherwise upset us. Thus, we don’t say that someone “died,” but rather “passed away” or “went to a better place.” St. John Chrysostom comments on Paul’s comforting words, “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent in the Lord” (vs. 6). He asks, “Are these words just euphemisms that encourage the denial of death? Could it be, he writes, that Paul is just protecting his readers from what is painful? Could it be that Paul is neglecting to say that we must all “appear before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ (The Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church?
The great preacher answers that it is not so simple as to say that life on earth is “grievous” and death “pleasurable.” The Greek philosophers who believed in immortality without a resurrection of the body would agree. But Chrysostom writes, “…for as to depart is not absolutely good, but to do so in [God’s] favor, which is what makes departing also become a good; so to remain here is not absolutely grievous, but what is grievous is to remain in the body and to keep on offending Him” NfPf1:13, 667).
Thus, our reading has a two-fold purpose. Yes, Paul intends to bolster our confidence in the resurrection of the body. And he wants us to look forward to it with eagerness. At the same time, Paul urges us to strive to please God, whether we live or die. Chrysostom summarizes, “What we seek for is this, saith [Paul], whether we be there or here, to live according to His will; for this is the principal thing” (NfPF1:13, 667)