Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 16, 2024

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13) 14-17 Commentary

Students decorated the back bumpers of cars on the campus of the dispensationalist Christian college near which I grew up with a number of eye-catching bumper stickers. Among the most memorable was “Read the Bible. It will scare the hell out of you.”

I’m not sure reading the Bible ever scared anyone away from eternal separation from God and toward Jesus. But I do sometimes worry that misreading of the Scriptures can unnecessarily terrify people who have received God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve known Christians whom some Bible-reading has not comforted, but petrified.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains one of the texts that have most frightened some of Jesus’ followers. In verse 10, after all, Paul and Timothy write, “We must all [pantas hemas]* appear [phanerothenai] before [emprosthen] the judgment seat [bematos] of Christ, that each one [hekastos] may receive [komisetai] what is due him for the things done while in the body [dia tou somatos], whether [eite] good [agathon] or bad [phaulon].”

Preachers may fairly quickly want to point to the immense difficulty of translating verse 10’s Greek, much less understanding what it means for God’s dearly beloved people. Several of its Greek words and phrases are unique to the Scriptures. Among other things, komisetai (“receive what is due”) is financial transactional language. Such language makes it very hard to know to what exactly the apostles refer when they claim that we’ll receive “what is due” us at Christ’s judgment seat.

What’s more, verse 10 seems to advocate for a kind of salvation by good works rather than grace that’s received by faith. In it, after all, the apostles seem to suggest that even Jesus’ followers are going to somehow get what we have coming to us when we die because of the good or bad we’ve done while we were alive. Given the control we naturally give to sin over our lives, that prospect frightens some Christians to death.

Preachers and our hearers who like our texts’ meaning and sermons neat and tidy should probably look toward another theme in 2 Corinthians 5. Those who choose not to look away will long for the Spirit to help us humbly think and preach about how it speaks to salvation by grace alone through faith.

Verse 10’s context is hugely important to its proper understanding. After all, its gar (“for”) links it to what the apostles have just written. In verse 9, for example, they write, “We make it our goal [philotimoutha] to please him [euarestoi autou], whether at home in the body [endemountes] or away from it [ekdemountes].”

Christians’ ambition is, in other words, to be somehow pleasing to God. We aim to love and serve God by faithfully responding to God’s grace with Christlike words, actions and even thoughts. 2 Corinthians 5’s Paul and Timothy seem to use our awareness that we’ll have to account for those responses before Christ’s judgment seat to summon Christians to holy living.

The apostles make a similar point in verses 14 and 15. Christ, they profess in verse 14, “died [apethanen] for all [hyper panton], and therefore [ara] all died [pantes apethanon].” Again in verse 15 they insist that Christ “died [apethanen] for all [hyper panton]” and then continue, “that those who live [zontes] should no longer live [zosin] for themselves [heautois] but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Jesus’ death rescues all of his friends from the judgment that we naturally deserve because of our sin, sins and sinfulness. God confirmed the effectiveness of that saving work by raising Jesus from the dead. So the good things Christians do and say don’t and, in fact, can’t rescue us any more than the bad things we do and say can doom us.

The Spirit uses that assurance to free God’s dearly beloved people to live in ways that honor and glorify the Lord. Christ died and rose in order to not only encourage people to live Christlike lives, but also, by his Spirit, to empower us to live in ways that are appropriate responses to God’s grace.

So how might Jesus’ friends, in the light of all this, think about the relationship between God’s grace and our future appearance before Christ’s judgment seat? We might begin by pointing back to verse 14 and 15’s assertions about Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

Christ, the apostles there insist, died “for all.” Not just, in other words, for God’s adopted children who have done “good,” but also for those who have done “bad” (10). God’s adopted children’s redemption lies not in what we’ve done – thanks be to God — but in what Christ has done.

Of course, in a text that’s already challenging to interpret, it’s not easy to understand to whom the “all” for whom Christ died refers. Preachers will have to interpret this assertion in the light of their own theology and tradition. But it may be enough to say that Christ’s death was so monumental that it had universal implications.

What’s more, Christians confess were any of us to receive at Christ’s judgment seat what is “due” us, Christ would be the only resurrected person in the whole new earth and heaven. All people, even the godliest Christians among us, have fallen short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23). So were God to somehow strictly and only pay us back for what we’ve done, God would only repay us with eternal separation from God.

On top of all that, those who try to understand, with the Spirit’s help, verse 10, may want to note the apostles are insisting by it that what Jesus’ friends do matters to God. What we do, say and even think is of great importance. We don’t get to choose how we respond to God’s grace. That grace is no license for deliberate licentiousness. It’s, instead, a summons to holy living. This echoes, for example, James’ letter that includes 2:17’s, “Faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.”

The biblical scholar James Kay (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001) sees in verse 10’s reference to Christ’s judgment seat an allusion to Jesus’ own suffering before Pilate’s judgment seat. He notes, “The one who is the Judge is the God made ‘to be sin’ for us (5:21). The one who is the Judge is the one ‘who loved us and gave himself for us’.” In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess something similar: “I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ … will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.”

What’s more, the biblical scholar Lois Malcolm sees the apostles’ reference to Christ’s judgment seat as not a threat but a comforting promise. We now, after all, live in a world where things like money and power seem to so often overpower God’s mercy, justice and righteousness. In verse 10 Paul and Timothy assert that God’s judgments will finally prevail.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist and extraordinary prophet whose story Kate Clifford Larsen tells in her book, Walk With Me. White politicians, officials, policemen and even ordinary citizen assumed that her skin color and prophetic voice gave them license to do to her whatever their racial hatred proposed.

Larsen tells of one instance in which Winona, MS police officer Will Surrell assaulted Miss Fannie while she was in jail. She was there because authorities had charged her with disturbing the peace for defending her black friends who’d asked to be served at a whites-only café.

Surrell later drove a still-weakened Fannie Lou Hamer to the courthouse for her trial. As he drove, she asked him, “Do you people ever wonder how you’ll feel when the time comes, you have to meet God?” Neither Larsen nor history records Surrell’s answer to Miss Fannie’s question. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t a good answer.


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