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2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

My new creation hero in the Bible is Stephen. In Acts chapters six and seven, Stephen was accused of blasphemy and brought before the Sanhedrin to face charges. His defense came in the form of a very direct and convicting sermon (my favorite kind). The sermon, however, did not go well (probably around verse 51 when he called the religious leaders stiff-necked and uncircumcised) and in response the Sanhedrin dragged him out of the city so that they could stone him to death.

It is here where the story gets theologically fascinating. Luke writes, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56). This is an odd vision indeed, but one filled with significance. What Stephen saw and described is essentially the coming of God’s kingdom. The followers of Jesus are not simply waiting for him to be at the right hand of the Father. According to Stephen’s vision, Jesus is already exalted to the ultimate place of authority.

Stephen saw the reality of the kingdom, the advent of the new creation. He urged those preparing to kill him to look and see it as well. Instead, they covered their ears and refused to look. In response, Stephen knelt down and prayed a prayer of forgiveness (a prayer quite similar to the prayer Jesus prayed on the cross) upon his enemies. Each time I am confronted with the witness of Stephen, I wonder, what does it take for someone to respond to Saul (or Paul) and the angry mob with such grace and peace? I believe the answer is, that God’s Spirit had given him the ability to see – and therefore already live within – the new creation reign of Christ.

Once we understand that, our interpretation of this event shifts a bit. We certainly still feel pity for Stephen. Stoning is not a good way to die. However, our deepest pity is reserved for Paul and the others who are unable to see that we no longer live in a world where we have to throw rocks at one another.

Similarly, the epistle text for Ash Wednesday – 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 – is all about having the eyes to see the new creation. In the well-known verses that precede the text (v. 16-19), Paul is celebrating that when a person exchanges life in “the flesh” for life in Christ, there is a new creation! “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The reality of the new creation is critical for understanding Paul’s theological perspective. Like any good Pharisee, Paul likely viewed history as linear – it began with creation and it would someday end at the eschaton. On the last day of current history, at the beginning of the eschatological day of the new creation, the resurrection would occur; the dead would be raised, and judgment would take place. This is very different than believing that when a person dies their soul leaves the body and goes to a non-physical place like heaven. It is almost certain that Paul, like most Jews, thought of the body and soul as a unity. When a person dies their soul or spirit may go to the place of the dead (Sheol), or rest in the “Bosom of Abraham,” or even be “with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), but it is being held by God in anticipation of the day of the resurrection and the advent of the new (or renewed) creation.

That being the case, what seems to have blown Paul’s theological mind is not that Jesus came back from the dead, but that he resurrected from the dead. Let me be clear. Coming back from the dead is really amazing. If I was officiating a funeral and the body sat up and started talking, the video would certainly go viral. There are people in the Scripture who were reported to have come back from the dead. Elijah raised the widow’s son. Jesus raised up Jairus’ daughter and called Lazarus out of the tomb. They each came back from the dead. However, they each died again of something else. Only Jesus resurrected from the dead. Death no longer has dominion over him (Rom. 6:9).

If Christ is indeed resurrected from the dead, then that which was to occur at the end of history – the resurrection – has now broken into the middle. For Paul, the new creation, which was to be initiated on the last day of history, has now broken into the middle of that history through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Believers are no longer people simply waiting for the eschaton. If anyone is in Christ, right then and there, the new creation has begun.

The key term in the text before us to describe that new creation is reconciliation. The old world’s brokenness was embodied in a fragmented relationship between God and God’s creatures. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to God’s self. The shalom that was fractured between God and people – and thus between one another and with creation – has been restored through the self-giving love and grace of God in Christ. Thus, the text begins with a passionate cry to “Be reconciled to God!” (5:20b). Peace with God and with one another is a possibility. The new creation is at hand.

Paul emphasizes this point even further in chapter six by declaring that the time of salvation is now! Again, believers are not people waiting for a new creation but are people living into it now and inviting people into the life of the reconciled.

So, what’s the deal with verses 3-10? Paul goes into a series of what some commentators have referred to as “antithetic clauses.” Paul is persecuted and yet powerful. Paul is mistreated but also cared for. Paul is viewed with suspicion but also with admiration. Most importantly, Paul is dying and yet somehow still alive. What is going on?

Perhaps, Paul is describing in these various juxtapositions the difficulty of living as a new creation in a world still captured by the old. As NT Wright puts it, “These are the points at which the new creation of the gospel grinds against the old world like upper and lower millstones, with the apostle caught in the middle and feeling as if he’s being crushed to powder.”[1] To go back to my hero Stephen, his face shone like an angel and words of Christlike graciousness flowed from his lips, while simultaneously his bones were being crushed by stones. He was being saved but he was also being martyred. Like Stephen, and the Corinthian church receiving Paul’s letter, we are invited to live as reflections of Christ’s new creation kingdom while still living in and experiencing the challenges of the old. 

In the New Testament, the word martyr is also translated as “witness.” In his peacemaking death, Stephen was not just a martyr, but he was also a witness to the kingdom even the religious failed to see. I am convinced that Paul’s conversion did not begin on the road to Damascus, but in Acts 8:1 when he saw in Stephen a reconciled life with God and with others that he did not yet understand because he had not yet entered into it.

Perhaps that is the ironic life that we too embrace on Ash Wednesday. On a day when sin is confessed, grace is received. On a day filled with darkness, light breaks in. On a day that marks us with death, we are recipients of life. These are the tensions of those receiving the new while still living in the midst of the old. [1] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 69.