[K:NWTS 4/3 (Dec 1989) 4-13]
For the love of Christ constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (NKJV)
Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ:
Even if this word of the apostle Paul, upon first hearing, is not in every respect clear to us, it nevertheless is clear that it contains one especially great thought, namely, the new point of view of the congregation of the Lord Jesus. In general, it is of course an important matter from what perspective we view things and in what light we see life. When the sun shines, like today, it is as if everything is different. It is the same world as yesterday but it is another world than the one we have seen for so long and have had to endure. This is also so in the life of man in general. When you are under the pressure of life's disappointments you see things differently, in another light. You feel your world closing in around you and everything is gloomy. On the contrary, when you are living in joyful expectation, when you have the feeling that you can cope with life, things are also different–those same things. You then go about things in another manner; you view life in another way and you become another person. We could go round and round on whether it is a question of optimism or pessimism, but we would not get very far. Naturally it is more pleasant to be an optimist, or to have an optimistic wife, than to be a pessimist, but it finally boils down to what reality most closely approximates. You can also be too optimistic.
The church, the congregation of Christ, also has her point of view, her faith point of view. She received it from Christ and from the Bible. If she lives according to the Bible, she views things in a particular light, from the particular viewpoint of faith. That is why the congregation in her confession and the believer in his confessing usually speak a different language and characterize things in a different way than people who do not stand in that faith. That is why the confessions and declarations of the church are sometimes so difficult for the unchurched to understand. They are annoyed by what the church says. They say, "it is nothing but idle chatter. It does not harmonize with the experience of life. The church is out of touch with the real world! She uses a lot of fancy words! She speaks with an impressive style, but there is nothing to it."
Who would not object, congregation, to a cheap use of language? Nevertheless, there is the viewpoint of faith. And this is what our text is talking about. Here in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is waging a war against those who are criticizing the way he views and characterizes things. He is waging war against the Jews and the Judaizers, as well as the Greek philosophers, who all were viewing and characterizing life in their way, and instructing the people in their perspective.. The Jews kept busy with the law, busy teaching people morals, busy bringing life to a higher plane with good works. The Greek philosophers had another point of view. They saw things in terms of the apparent irrationality of life. They kept busy trying as much as possible to make yet a little sense out of the riddle and tragedy of life, in order to somehow rise above it all.
When Paul comes and speaks his word as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he goes against what the Jews were saying and what the Greeks were teaching, the apostle himself even calling it foolishness. Then come the attacks against this Paul who, as they maintain, makes things much nicer than they are in reality and who speaks with arrogance–Paul himself calls it boldness, but they call it arrogance–as if he has a corner on wisdom and as if he is able to understand the world better than they. Paul answers these attacks in this second letter to the Corinthians. He is making room for that new point of view and does so in a variety of ways in this deep and beautiful letter.
He also speaks of this in our text and he holds up what inspires and moves him as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He says, "the love of Jesus Christ constrains us." That means, the love of Christ overwhelms us, has overpowered us. What inspires Paul is that he has learned to know the love of Christ. He has come so much under the power of Christ's love that he is viewing life in another way and, therefore, also the congregations–and those congregations did not really amount to much in those days. Those little, weak, unsightly congregations that he organized, he nevertheless dares to characterize in terms of that which is from all appearances far from reality. This is all due to the fact that he has come under the influence of love, Christ's work of love. He says we are convinced that One has died for all. That is how he sees Christ's death. Earlier he had thought quite differently about it, and he will also mention that, but now he has been brought under the conviction that the death of Christ was an act of his complete and all-embracing love.
Paul sees the Lord Jesus Christ as the center of a new humanity. He sees him as One who has come in order to bring an end to the old existence of man and to make a new existence possible. Paul sees that in a unique, all-embracing way, the great event for all mankind has taken place in that One man. Congregation, that is how it is in the world and in life. We often think that we stand all alone and that life is a matter of every man for himself. That is not how things are in reality because our lot and life are in so many ways bound up and interwoven with those of others. There are in history, for example, various great figures who dominate and who must make important decisions for the rest. In the history of one's country and of the world it is not difficult to point to such figures to whom we refer, for example, as "the father of our country," a figure with whom the destiny of an entire nation is decided. Similarly, Paul sees Christ not merely as One who has fallen prey to destiny or as One who did not stand up for himself, but he sees Christ as One who embraces all in his love, and as One who, when he died, died for all. How mysterious and unfathomable this may sound to us. Paul describes this in a unique way with the following words: "Then all died." That is to say, when Christ died, he died not for himself, he did not die alone, but they all were with him then. At that moment he embraced them all in his love and he carried them with him into death. For, congregation, Christ has united his destiny to ours. Christ died for all because he came to be like us and he took upon himself our existence, our existence which is tempted by sin, suffering and death. So that when he died, he bore all that. Or it could be put this way: he came as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That is why you can say he died for all; he died on behalf of all. But you can say that even more strongly: "Then all died." They were all with him when he underwent that existence of the old man, when he submitted himself to that sin-and-death-ravaged life, when in great love he gave himself over to the cross of Golgotha.
Now that, says Paul, changes my perspective on life. This has happened so "that those who live, should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and rose again." In other words, so that they should no longer exist in themselves and no longer exist for themselves. For that, congregation, is really the curse of our life: that we are alone, that we must carry our own weight, that we must keep plodding along, that we must stand up for ourselves. There are indeed people who contend that the real meaning of human existence is, after all, every man for himself. When push comes to shove, no one is going to do it for you. It does often appear to be this way and this is at any rate often how life is when we are not taken up into the new fellowship of Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism says that our only comfort in life and death is that we are no longer our own but that we belong to him. That is what Paul means when he says that they "should no longer live for themselves." They should realize that their life stands no longer on its own and that they no longer live for their own account, but that they have been taken up into the great salvation deed of Christ, when he died. For he who died, congregation, is also the One who has risen. He not only suffered with our life and suffered for us to the death, he also arose with our life. He had us, if I may put it this way, constantly in his hand and in his heart, when he rose from the dead.
That is why, says Paul, that is why life is no longer "every man for himself" and that is why he is no longer alone, responsible to no one but himself. He is united with Christ, living for him who died and rose again. Bound to Christ, in union with him, he has become a new creature in Christ who is risen. That is why Paul says, "from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh." That is to say, now we regard no one as he is in himself. I have received another perspective. I look at them with another point of view. He says that if earlier we have done that, we do it no more. If before I viewed Christ according to the flesh, I do so no longer. With this he wants to say that there was also a time when he still looked at people according to the old point of view and that he was also not able to see Christ except as One who became a victim of destiny or, perhaps even worse, as One who received his just reward for going against the law of the Jews. In any case, he earlier viewed Christ as One who also could not stand up to death.
This is also how Christ was viewed by the women who went to the grave. They came there also according to the old pattern of life and with the old point of view. They could believe nothing else than that Christ had died and would not rise again. That is to view Christ according to the flesh, to view him as he was before he arose. That is also why you see a short-circuiting at the resurrection. Precisely there the two points of view meet head on. There come the people, those who still view Christ according to the flesh; they come to the grave with spices. They have everything which death proclaims. They are pallbearers for the dead. Oh, they do it with love. They had expected so much from Christ. But they come to the grave under the old point of view. "It began to dawn," it says, but they do not see the sun. They see only the darkness of the grave and that their hope had vanished. But then, congregation, come the questions of the resurrection from the other side. Then come the questions to the women: Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? You might say that those are questions with quite obvious answers! After all, who else would the women be seeking than Jesus who was crucified? And for what other reason would they be crying than that their Lord has been taken away? But that voice that is ringing from the other side sees things from another point of view. It sees things from the viewpoint of the resurrection and says to them, "Why are you weeping?" That is the short-circuiting. Two points of view are colliding with each other.
On the evening of that same day, you see the same thing with the men on the road to Emmaus. They are absorbed with their gloomy thoughts as they talk about what had happened. They see everything according to the viewpoint of death. They cannot see even a tiny ray of light any more. When Jesus comes, it says, "their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him." That is to say that they still see everything according to the old point of view. Then Jesus starts to ask questions from the new point of view. "Why are you so sad?" He is looking at it from the side of the resurrection. The men respond, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have you not known the things which happened there in these days?" Are you out of touch with reality? You cannot understand what is bothering us and why we are so upset and grieving? Then Jesus again asks, "What things?" It is as if he is astonished–just like the angel that morning! Jesus then explains it all and shares with them the new point of view. It is with this new point of view that the disciples go back to Jerusalem and their way must have seemed much shorter than when they were going to Emmaus. It had become evening but for them the lights had come on. They say to each other, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road?" Did we not have a feeling that there was nevertheless something more and that something had happened! They no longer see Jesus "according to the flesh."
In this way, says Paul, I see things. I see people and I see congregations no longer according to the flesh. I view them with the view-point of life and not with that of death.
For us as people of the here and now, as we like to refer to ourselves, this is now the question of faith and conversion. If we do not see things in terms of the reality of Christ, then we can never speak the language of faith. It is a difficult matter for us because it does indeed appear as if nothing really changes. Paul says otherwise. He says, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." He who is in Christ is a new creation. With this he is saying that he who is in Christ, he who belongs to Jesus, belongs to the new order of things. He does not say that the person becomes new in every respect all at once, but that he belongs to the new creation. He is taken up into the new life-context. He may also have that new perspective on things. "The old things have passed away." What has passed away? Yes, that death has the last word, that has passed away. That death is stronger than life, that has, as the final and supreme wisdom, passed away.
Oh congregation, we are so often seized by the old point of view. We often live, in our personal lives and in our view of the world, people and the church, merely "according to the flesh." We do not take into account the resurrection of Jesus even though we perhaps still confess that resurrection so frequently. We are more under the impression of the flesh than of the Spirit. We are more often under the impression of death than of life. This is the question with which we are confronted whenever the gospel of the resurrection, of which we are especially reminded in these weeks, is again proclaimed to us: with which point of view now do we really view things? Is the confession that Jesus is risen a piece of dogmatics or orthodoxy about which you must say, "Yes, that is what the church has always confessed"? Or has the new point of view made its striking impact upon us so that we can say, "therefore, from now on, we regard nothing and no one according to the flesh"? That is the theology of hope. More: it is living out of the hope.
Oh, when in our lives we come into contact with the reality of death, sin and disappointment–all those things with which the wisdom of the world is also kept busy, the Jews, the Greeks and the wisdom of modern man–we have a tendency to dismiss Paul's words as grandiose language. We do not understand his words because we so easily walk along in the funeral procession of death There are indeed reasons for this. Today, here in the congregation of Kampen, only an hour or so ago, a sister died who just this morning was in church with her husband. We then say, "Death is so dreadfully powerful!" There seems to be nothing else we can do than go along as pallbearers for the dead, wailing and lamenting the power of death. Indeed, in the life of every man, even when that last enemy has not yet taken its toll, there is so much that tunes us to despair. What a tremendous struggle there is against sin and against all sorts of brokenness. You feel compelled to ask, "What's the use?" When you look at society around you, is there not too much about which you must say that it is the kingdom of evil, and not the good, that is victorious time and again? It is no wonder that people who think deeply about life are pessimistic. It is no wonder that optimism is not taken seriously. It is no wonder that in our day, if it matters, in spite of all the prosperity and all the apparent cheerfulness, there are nevertheless more pessimists than optimists.
But congregation, Christ is risen from the dead. That is the new point of view. And it is with that point of view that the apostle Paul wants us to look at life, our own life and the life of the world. Indeed, also the latter. For if we can only see the world, as many Christians do, from the viewpoint of evil, then we are acting as if the devil is the boss in this world and as if Christ is not risen.
It is Christian, congregation, to go into the world as people of hope and to expect something from the world. Not because the world is something in itself but because Christ died for the world. Perhaps you would say, "People of hope even in the midst of all the harsh realities of this world? Doesn't the apostle see these things?" Then I would tell you that Paul has a much better understanding of these things than any of us: that paradox, that tension, that intense struggle. Paul says, "we have this treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power," the power which rises above all, that new point of view with which we view things, "may be of God and not from us." Paul says, "we are hard pressed on every side;" but, he adds, "yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body." That is the tension and the paradox: the old order still makes its power felt, but the new has come. When we say that the old has passed away, that means that as the controlling point of view it has passed away and that a new point of view has come. That is why we live differently, that is why we go about things differently in the world, and that is also why we cannot abandon the world. That is why this is not only a text for the congregation and her personal living, but it is also a text that, in spite of everything, can see past the power of death and sin. For we say, "Christ is risen."
You may finally ask, "But how can you be so sure and know this with such certainty? How can the church remain in the confession of the resurrection of Christ? How can she believe it and keep believing it?" The answer is that with which our text begins: "For the love of Christ constrains us." That is to say, we can believe that Christ has risen from the dead because the love of Christ was so great. He has embraced everything with his love. In his love God has come to us. We cannot by ourselves believe that he is risen. With the Lord Jesus Christ we can believe that he is risen because his love constrains us, overwhelms us and gives us that point of view on things. When we see that love we must say that God himself has come to us. He has not abandoned us. He has taken our misery upon himself. There is something other than the power of death.
It is certainly not as if the resurrection of Christ is a product of our faith. We do not say that Christ is risen because his death makes such an impression upon us! No, there were also many witnesses of the resurrection, and the testimony of the resurrection constitutes the heart of the whole gospel. It is the only ground of existence and the only possible explanation for the Christian church. Therefore, we can only believe this in its full meaning because he is risen. For we know him whom we have believed, and we confess that God, who has revealed himself in Christ, is not the God of death, but is the God of the living. He did not bring his love from heaven to earth in order with that love to let us go to ruin. He brought that love so we could live.
For this reason, congregation, let us not be faithless, but faithful, in spite of everything. Let us keep before our eyes the love of Christ, so that we may keep and preserve that point of view for the church, for our personal lives, for that brother who now is so alone, for all those people about whom you say, "It is hopeless for them." Let us see these with the viewpoint of the new and not of the old. Let us have hope for the world. Let us, in the midst of the world, not be as those who only judge the world, but those who direct the hungry eyes of mankind to the love of Christ, so that we will live up to what we confess and what we also now with each other will sing:
Amen, Blessed Jesus, Amen!
You shall in the whole world wide
Evil's kingdom rack and ruin
And its darkness nullify!
Original Title: "Het Nieuwe Gezichtspunt," in God is Liefde by H. N. Ridderbos. Comp. G. Vander Veere. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1979, pp. 17-26. Translated with the kind permission of J. H. Kok Publishers.