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Thursday, April 21, 2016

'Absent From the Body, Present With the Lord'

The apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth that he longed 'to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord' ( II Corinthians 5:8 ). Previous to this though, he wrote 'while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord'. Contrasting 'absent from' with 'at home in', we should note that there might be more at stake here than mere physicality; for instance, while one may feel more or less comfortable in this biology, that one knows that this biology is, at best, temporary housing. Sooner or later, this physical body of ours, called a 'tent' ( II Corinthians 5:1 & 4 ) by the apostle, will perish & return to the dust from which it came: this is a biological fact!

'At home in', considering the context of Scripture, is quite an interesting phrase! Paul's letters, as indeed all of Scripture, were written to a People in Transition. These People were struggling with the Paradigm Shift of moving from the first, or Old Covenant to a New & Better Covenant. As they were to Jesus, Paul & the Apostles, the greatest Adversary of the People of God were the apostate Jews, those Judaizers who sought to cling to their Law & the requisite Temple & its trappings. To them, the Land & the Temple were 'home'!

Most Christians today look at these passages that are quoted & base their theology on a merely individualistic reading of them! Because Paul makes such a strong & plain statement, it is well accepted that, in order to 'be with the Lord' ( I Thessalonians 4:17 ), one must first pass from this life. But the apostle also says elsewhere that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God'. From a very literalistic & individualistic reading of these words, it is abundantly clear that we cannot, after all, be present with the Lord unless we are absent from the body!

Let's pick at 'the body' for a bit; in that culture, like in this culture, the use of metaphor was common-place! When we speak of a person's 'body of work' we are metaphorically speaking of their portfolio, whether of art, music, or written work. We might also think of Paul's use of the word 'tent' to describe his own biology as rather peculiar. Although one's biology is rather temporal, like a tent, the heavy use of metaphorical language in Scripture should also put us in mind of the fact that the first 'temple', the tabernacle in the wilderness, was housed in a 'tent' ( Exodus 25 & 26 ). Was the apostle here making a reference to this tent that had once housed the Presence of God? Very likely!

The writers of what we know as the New Testament used several different Greek words which our English translators have rendered 'body' in our Bibles! Most of these are rather ambiguous when it comes to nailing them down as to whether the writers were using the term in a plain & literal way, or in a metaphorical way, in speaking of the ( corporate ) body of Israel, for instance. The 'body', therefore, that the apostle had in mind in these passages was not primarily his own or those of certain individuals, but of the 'body' which is in view throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the ( corporate ) 'body' of Israel, that which had been corrupted & was about to perish!
 

In this day & age, we may well read passages such as those above & understand that Paul's usage of these terms indicate certain individualistic truths! While we may apply much of what he wrote in this manner, we must also understand that, as the Scriptures are a Covenant Book, so we must read them in the Light of that Covenant, or from a covenantal viewpoint. Thus, when he writes of the body, we should realize that while the apostle may use individualistic language, he used it metaphorically, to describe the body of Israel. Ezekiel 37 is probably the clearest passage in Scripture that speaks to the fact that this 'body' had died & was in need of resurrection. This passage describes the Resurrection of Israel in terminology not unlike that of the Genesis of Creation!

While it is very likely the apostle did long to be free of the physical constraints of his biology, we must understand that his primary concern was not selfish! Paul was in a lot of pain, both emotionally & physically; not only did his body bear the scars of numerous beatings, several of which well-nigh took his breath away, he also bore the scars of 'children' that were wayward ( Galatians 4:19, et al ). However, Paul's primary concern was for his 'brethren', the people of Israel. In fact, he wrote of them, 'I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen[a] according to the flesh' ( Romans 9:3 ) This is why he wrote later, to the Church at Philippi, 'I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, [ which is ] far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh [ is ] more needful for you.'  ( Philippians 1:23 & 24 ) The thing to understand here is that Paul wrote these words during the transition period; technically, while the Temple still stood & the Law was religiously observed, they still labored under that first covenant, thoiugh the Blessings of the New were about to be fully & finally revealed!

Charles Haddon Shank

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