Watch John Piper preach about God’s global heart from 2 Corinthians 5 at The Gospel Coalition’s 2013 Missions Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando.
The following is an edited transcript of the sermon.
We are making our way through 2 Corinthians 4–5 with a view to its implications for world missions. Missions is the great and glorious calling of Jesus for the church to make disciples among the remaining unreached peoples of the world. Local evangelism and frontier missions are not the same. Frontier missions is the specialized calling to plant the church in a people group where the church hasn’t yet taken root.
The International Board of Missions estimates about 3,100 of these unreached peoples are presently unengaged — that is, no evangelical group yet is pursuing a strategy for planting the church among these peoples.
3,100 is a small number of remaining peoples to reach when compared to the scope of Jesus’s church. There are 305 million evangelicals in the world. That’s 98,000 evangelicals for every unengaged people group. If 1% of those 98,000 were newly called to frontier missions, 980 could be assigned to each of the unengaged peoples. There are 4.6 million Christian congregations in the world. That’s 1,483 congregations for every unengaged people. There are 44,000 Christian denominations in the world. That’s 14 whole denominations for every unengaged people. There are 4,900 foreign mission sending agencies in the world. That’s two whole sending agencies for every unengaged people. If just 10% of the attenders at Passion, Urbana, and the Cru Christmas conferences last year were called to these peoples, we could have three missionaries immediately for everyone of these remaining 3,100 peoples. And the point here is that these gatherings are an infinitesimal part of the Christian students in the world, especially in India, China, and South Korea — and those are the largest missionary sending countries in the world after the United States.
The remaining task of world missions is not a staggering task statistically. We can do this if we will. That is a big if. The human will is weak when it comes to doing the will of God. The world, the flesh, and the devil war against the human will to finish the Great Commission. All hell is arrayed against this mission. And therefore the church can find a thousand good things to do instead of doing this.
Therefore, it is no accident that the heart of this missions pre-conference is exposition of Scripture because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the message of Christ. And the will to reach the unengaged peoples of the world will be carried by faith or not at all.
What I would like to do is stir up your faith in the Lord of the harvest, and strengthen your will that you can actually be a significant part of this, and perhaps clarify your own calling. And the way I am going to do that is by focusing your attention on 2 Corinthians 5:1–10. There are here some astonishing realities to build your life on — and your mission.
Our Text in Context
First, here is how 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 fits into the larger unit of chapters 4–5. The section begins in 4:1 with Paul saying that he has his ministry of proclamation by the mercy of God. “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God.” That text had a huge impact on me when I was 28 years old and without a job and wondering if God would open something up for me. A great teacher reminded me, You will have your ministry as much by mercy as you have your salvation by mercy. That was true.
In 4:5, Paul says his ministry is to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and not himself. In 4:7, he begins to focus on this ministry of proclaiming Jesus as coming from a jar of clay so that all the glory of its effectiveness will go to God. The rest of chapter 4 describes the weakness of that clay pot. And the chapter comes to an end with Paul exulting that in all this weakness and affliction and wasting away, he is being renewed and does not lose heart. Verse 16: “We do not lose heart.”
Our text, 2 Corinthians 5:1–10, continues the ground for that hope-filled attitude in the face of weakness. And when the text comes to an end in verse 10, it launches the final section in verse 11 (“Therefore . . . we persuade others . . .”) and leads to the resounding missionary language of verse 20: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
So the function of 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 in the larger unit is to give added reasons for not losing heart in the proclamation of Christ. Or to put it positively, the aim of this text is to awaken and sustain a joyfully serious courage in the ministry of the word — or for our purposes, a joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions.
I will point out four ways that it does this, and give them four headings: realism, resurrection, reunion, and reward.
Few things are more disillusioning for Christian life and Christian missions than dashed expectations. One remedy for the disillusionment of shattered expectations is realistic expectations. Missionaries — and all other Christians — need a strong dose of biblical realism, and that is what Paul has been giving since 2 Corinthians 4:7 (jars-of-clay realism). And that is what he gives here in 5:1–5.
Paul pops the bubble of any lingering romanticism or naiveté about this life and ministry in it. First, he says that we live in a tent. He calls the body not a castle, not a fortress, not even a building, but a tent. Verse 1: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home . . .” Again in verse 2: “For in this tent . . .” Again in verse 4: “For while we are still in this tent . . .” The point is that tents are weak against the harsh weather of life, and tents are temporary. Nobody expects a tent to last very long. So we would do well to forget any notion of escaping frailty and transience. That was the point of 4:7 (“jars of clay”) and the point of 4:18 (“the things that are seen are transient”). We do missions in our bodies. And our bodies are as frail and temporary as tents.
Second, he pops the bubble of our unrealistic expectations by saying this tent may be destroyed. Verse 1: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed . . .” It doesn’t just become tattered and shabby and threadbare. It gets destroyed. Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary to leave our shores, buried three wives (Ann, Sarah, and Emily) before he died in his mission to Burma. And all three of his and Ann’s children died. The first baby was born dead just as they sailed from India to Burma. The second child, a son, lived seventeen months and died. The third, a girl, lived to be two, and outlived her mother by six months, and then died. This is the way it’s been since Adam, and this is how the mission will go forward until Jesus comes. Our tents are not only tattered, they are destroyed.
Third, he pops the bubble of unrealistic expectations by describing not just the objective destruction of the tent but the subjective groaning in the text. Verse 2: “In this tent we groan . . .” Verse 4: “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened . . .” Not just once in a while, but “while we are in this tent.” While we live in this body. Being a Christian does not lessen the groaning of being human. And being a missionary does not lessen the groaning of being a Christian. The guilt and hopelessness of the groaning is removed, but the groaning remains. The tent has nerve endings. And the tent has physical and emotional limits. They can break. I know one great veteran missionary whose spouse has valiantly battled seasonally immobilizing depression for decades. In this tent we groan.
Fourth, he pops the bubble of unrealistic expectations by calling the Holy Spirit a down-payment. Verse 5b: “. . . he has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” “Guarantee” is right, but it misses half the meaning. The Greek word arrabon means “payment of part of a purchase price in advance” (BDAG). The point is: It is really a down-payment, and it is only a down-payment. Both halves of that meaning are crucial. It is a strong word of hope: the full payment of blessing will someday be made. But it is also a strong word of realism: someday. Not yet. You will bury your babies in Burma.
So the first support Paul gives for a joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions is a strong dose of realism to prevent the disillusionment of false expectations. Tent. Destroyed. Groaning. Down-payment.
The second way Paul awakens and sustains a joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions is by proclaiming the resurrection of the body, that is, by promising a beautiful and durable building for those who live in rotting tents. He promises that God will swallow up mortality in life.
Verse 1: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building . . .” Buildings last; tents don’t. He’s not talking about a heavenly dwelling between the time we die and when we are raised. He will talk about the intermediate state in verses 6–8. But here he ponders the possibility of being without a body — he calls it being naked or unclothed — and shrinks back from it. A disembodied soul is not the ideal.
He says this twice, once in verses 2–3 and once in verse 4. Verse 2: “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.” Verse 4: “While we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
“Not be found naked” in verse 2 corresponds to “not that we would be unclothed” in verse 4. Both of those refer to what it would be like to die before resurrection day. Paul is declaring loud and clear: The ultimate Christian hope is not release from the tent. Mere release is nakedness. We were not made for bodiless existence. That is not our final destiny.
Rather, we are destined to be swallowed up by life (verse 4b), and Paul lays it down as a rock-solid certainty that this will happen because, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (verse 5). He used the same logic in Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you!” God made us for this — not bodiless existence, but a glorious resurrection body. He is preparing us for this in all our trials. And he gave us a down-payment of resurrection life in the Holy Spirit.
And if we wonder what the new body will be like, he tells us three things. First, it is like a building, not a tent, and God is the builder. Verse 1: “We have a building from God.”
Second, it is like a house not made with hands. Verse 1, “a building from God, a house not made with hands.” And I cannot help thinking that Paul is alluding here to Jesus’s resurrection body because both the word “destroy” and “not made with hands” in 2 Corinthians 5:1 are in Mark 14:58 where Jesus says, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” We know Paul thought of our new bodies as like Jesus’s body because of Philippians 3:21: Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” So Paul promises that all the groaning tent-dwellers will get a new body like Jesus’s glorious body.
Then, third, he calls it eternal, and he says it is in the heavens — which I take to mean kept safely in the mind and hand of God in the heavens. Verse 1b: “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Being a missionary has always been very risky for this tent we live it. Weariness, disease, torture, death have been very present realities. And more often than we know, the profound confidence of the resurrection of this familiar old tent overclothed with Life and glory and eternal, building-like stability has sustained the missionary cause in the terrible prospects of the Coliseum and the jungle and the hostile city.
An old Scottish Christian objected to young John Paton’s plan to go as a missionary to the South Sea Islands. “You’ll be eaten by Cannibals,” he said. To which Paton responded:
Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer (Autobiography, 56).
The third way Paul awakens and sustains a joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions is assuring the tent-dwellers there will be a reunion with Christ between death and the resurrection and that this “naked” state with Jesus (though not our final destiny) is better than groaning in these tents — better than life here and now in our bodies. See 2 Corinthians 5:6–8.
Verse 8 is extremely important. “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This is important because it protects against a very discouraging misunderstanding of verse 4. There Paul said, “We do not want to be unclothed but further clothed.” If you only had that verse you might infer that Paul only considers two good options: life here in the tent or life in the resurrection body. You might think that the prospect of being unclothed — bodiless between death and resurrection — was totally undesirable. But he does not say that. And in verse 8, he explicitly denies it.
He does want to be bodiless, if he can be with Jesus. “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” He said the same thing in Philippians 1:23: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
So to any missionary who has lost a believing loved one — a funeral just before they leave the country or the burying of three wives overseas — there is the wonderful confidence: They are not waiting for the resurrection in a worse situation than if they had stayed. No. It is far better. Where are they? They are at home with the Lord.
So twice in verses 6–8, Paul sounds the note of courage. Verse 6: “So we are always of good courage.” And verse 8: “Yes, we are of good courage.” That is why I said his aim is to awaken and sustain joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions.
Realism now. Resurrection as a glorious outcome. And Reunion if we die before he comes. This is the ground of joyful courage in the cause of missions.
And the reason I chose to say that Paul is awakening and sustaining joyfully serious courage in the cause of missions is because of verses 9 and 10. So we turn finally to these verses under this fourth and final heading.
And the reason I draw out the word “serious” from these verses is because in the next verse, Paul draws out the word “fear.” Verse 11: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord (that is, in view of the judgment seat of Christ, there is in us a very serious awe and reverence and trembling, and so), we persuade men.”
Fear Compatible with Good Courage
The “fear” that Paul refers to in verse 11, because of the judgment in verse 10, is perfectly compatible with the “good courage” in verse 8, and the “good courage” in verse 6, and the down-payment of the Spirit in verse 5, and the “we know we have an eternal house” in verse 1, and the “we do not lose heart” in 4:16. It’s a fear of the Lord that in no way keeps Paul from saying in verse 8, “We want to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
The judgment of believers by the Lord Jesus (and it is believers that are in view in the “we must appear” of verse 10 because of the link with verse 9) — the judgment of believers awakens in Paul a kind of fear that does not push him away from Jesus but draws him in. He embraces it. He wants it, because this is the path to Christ.
Peter described this fear in the same kind of connection, perfectly compatible with trust in a loving Father. First Peter 1:17: “If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” Your judge is your father, so have a joyful fear. Luke describes the early church experiencing this kind of happy fear (Acts 9:31): “And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church was multiplied.” For Paul and Peter and the early church, “the fear of Christ” (as Paul calls it in Ephesians 5:21) was a serious, sobering expectation of judgment that they embraced as good and healthy and strengthening and motivating.
Fear Motivating Holiness
Two chapters later, in 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul makes the fear of God the motive of Christian holiness: Since God promises (in 6:18) to be your Father, “bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
And what is it about the judgment seat of Christ that awakens this holy, motivating fear here in 2 Corinthians 5:10? We will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (verse 10) “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
I think the best commentary on this judgment from Jesus on our good and evil is 1 Corinthians 3. In verse 8, Paul refers to himself and Apollos: “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Then he illustrates how that labor of building on the foundation of Christ can be rewarded or not. Verses 12–15:
If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Reward for good building on the foundation. The experience of loss for bad building on the foundation. This corresponds to 2 Corinthians 5:10: “That each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
From this awesome scene of rewards and losses, Paul draws this conclusion (in verse 9): “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” He says this “because” we must all appear before the judge. Two of the great motives of the happy, sober, serious Christian soul is the fear of experiencing loss at the judgment seat of Christ, and the joy of receiving our reward for pleasing the Lord. And without faith, it is impossible to please the Lord (Hebrews 11:6), and so the works that are rewarded are the works that come from faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Hebrews 11:8), and the works that endure loss are out of step with faith and the gospel (Galatians 2:14).
These Are the Goers and Senders
In summary, then, Paul is modeling and awakening and sustaining a joyfully serious courage in the ministry of the word — in the cause of world missions. These joyfully serious and courageous missionaries are protected from disillusionment by the realism of our groaning in this tent. They are filled with joyful and confident hope by the promise of someday being overclothed with an eternal, glorious resurrection body. They have unshakeable good courage because if they die before the resurrection, there will be reunion at home with the Lord, which is far better than life in this tent. And they are a cheerfully serious band, knowing the fear of Christ because they will face him to receive rewards or losses for what they have done.
This is the kind of people — the kind of radical goers and senders — God is building and calling for the finishing of the tasking of world evangelization among the unreached peoples of the world for the glory Christ. I pray you will be one.