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2 Corinthians 5:9-11 meaning

Our goal is to please God in light of our coming appearance before the judgment seat of Christ. He will reward us for our obedience, but for our bad actions, we will suffer a loss of rewards which could have been. Paul lives in obedience to God to preach to others because he remembers that this judgment day is coming.

In this section, Paul explains what it means that we will all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

Paul lived the current reality of enduring difficulty while considering that faithful obedience would be well rewarded in heaven. This caused him to continue to focus on faithfulness, even while preferring to be in a better place in heaven. Given this reality, Paul concludes Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him (v.9). 

The Greek word translated have as our ambition is “philotimeomai.” It means to strive earnestly to gain an honor. Paul considers the difficulties he endures in his ministry to be “momentary, light affliction” as compared to the “eternal weight of glory” that is being produced in him (2 Corinthians 4:17). This glory comes from pleasing His Lord. Honor and glory are gained when an authority recognizes your achievement. Buying an Olympic medal won by someone else does not bring glory, because it does not come with the recognition of the authority of the Olympic committee. 

When we please Christ, we gain the greatest glory possible to achieve. Paul mentions this in his letter to the Romans, where he says, regarding the inevitable judgement of deeds before God, we can expect to receive “eternal life” as a reward if we “by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7). Paul has an ambition to seek glory, honor, and immortality from a place where it will be eternal: from Christ. The cost of this is rejection from men in this life. He considers this cost to be minimal compared to the gain. 

We can receive glory in this life, but it will fade away. We can receive honor and even immortality in this life, perhaps being inducted into a hall of fame. Notwithstanding, we will inevitably be forgotten. But that is not the case in heaven. In heaven, all the rewards we receive will endure. As Jesus said:

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal.” 
(Matthew 6:20) 

Paul is putting this admonition into practice, seeking to please the One for whom we were created to please. Paul’s goal is to please Christ whether at home or absent. By this, Paul might be referring to being at home in heaven, his true home, or absent from his true home, meaning the time period of living here on this earth as being absent from heaven, as he describes in verse 8. 

He could also mean being at home in his body and absent from the Lord as he described in verse 6. In either instance the meaning is the same; it is Paul’s goal to please God no matter where he is, living either here or in heaven. 

In saying this, Paul echoes something inferred in Jesus’s model prayer, namely that heaven is a place where God’s will is done, when He says:

“Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.” 
(Matthew 6:10)

Paul fully expected to spend his time in heaven seeking to please God. So he is dedicating himself to doing in this life what always occurs in heaven: God’s will. With Paul, or any believer who lives in the will of God, it is in a sense bringing heaven to earth, since heaven is a place where God’s will is done. Paul asserts that God’s will for each believer is that they be sanctified or set apart from sin and the world, and live consistent with God’s design for them to love and serve one another (1 Thessalonians 4:3). 

Paul was so thoroughly rooted in thinking from an eternal perspective that he considered his true home to be in heaven, in the next life (Philippians 3:20). 

We can have good ambition, or bad ambition. In Philippians 1:17, Paul describes some preachers as teaching about Jesus Christ out of “selfish ambition rather than from pure motives.” What he proclaims in verse 9 is an ambition with a pure motive; to be pleasing to God. This is similar to the passage from Romans 2 which shows a contrast between those who seek honor and glory from God and those who are “selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth” (Romans 2:8). 

Good ambition seeks to please God, bad ambition seeks to please self. Pride is the opposite of faith (Habakkuk 2:4). 

James tells us that “self” is that which leads us to destruction (James 1:13-16). Paul writes that he discovered that nothing good dwelt within his natural self, his “flesh” (Romans 7:18). Serving self leads to death. Death is separation, and when we serve self we separate ourselves from our God-given design. On the other hand, serving God leads to life. As Jesus said in prayer to His Father: 

“This is eternal life, that they [His disciples] may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” 
(John 17:3) 

When we walk by faith we come to know God by faith, which leads to the maximum experience of life we can gain. 

Paul desires to serve God whether at home in heaven or absent (living in this earthly tent). In other words, this is not just a desire to achieve a particular end, but a way of life now as well as in our eternal home. It is not just a phrase or a nice thought or something maybe we hope we can do at some point, but is an ambition.  

It is a way of life that looks from a perspective that “things which are not seen” are more real and more lasting than the things we can see in this world, which is passing away. It is arguable that the true ending of our life on this earth is when we are rewarded for the deeds done while living on this earth: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (v 10a).  

An important component in the gospel, the good news of Christ, is the element of accountability. God accepts us unconditionally as His child by grace through faith (John 3:14-15, Ephesians 2:8-9). This is independent of our actions. Then, as children of the king, we have great responsibility, and with that responsibility comes accountability. Acceptance is given unconditionally, our acceptance by God as His child comes solely through the work of Jesus, and nothing of ourselves. However, as a loving Father ought, God only approves our deeds when we act in a manner that is good for us—a manner that is consistent with our design. 

Sin is acting outside our God-given design. When we act outside our design, we harm ourselves and others. God does not approve when we harm ourselves and one another, and will hold us accountable for our stewardship. Paul mentioned this accountabilty a number of times in his first letter to Corinth. 

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul speaks of standing before Christ with our deeds done while on earth being like building materials we send ahead to heaven. If the “house” of our deeds is built with materials that last, like gold and silver, then the judgment fire will make it pure and it will last forever. Then we get a reward. But if the “house” of our deeds is built with temporal materials like wood and hay, they will burn, and we will have nothing to show for our stewardship while living on earth. Therefore, we will experience “loss” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

This is consistent with Jesus’s admonition to lay up treasures in heaven, as He stated in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 
(Matthew 6:19-21)

Paul also said in his first letter that the rewards God will give to those who love Him are beyond our ability to comprehend (1 Corinthians 2:9). He further described his spiritual journey as being like an Olympic athlete training for the games. His goal is to win. And to win means setting aside self and working diligently to please God by following His calling on Paul’s life (1 Corinthians 9:17, 24-27). 

We will all face Jesus and give an accounting for our stewardship on earth. 

The we must all in the phrase For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ appears to refer to Paul and all the believers in Corinth; if that is the case, then by extension it would apply to all believers. It might also apply to all people. It appears that even unbelievers will be judged for their deeds, as we are told in Revelation:

“And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.”
(Revelation 20:12)

Christ’s judgment of believers will determine eternal rewards. Those believers who overcome as Jesus overcame will gain great rewards, as outlined in Revelation 1-3. Arguably, the ultimate reward is to share Christ’s authority in reigning over the new earth (Revelation 3:21). It seems that to reign with Christ, sharing His kingdom, is a full restoration of our design and therefore our greatest fulfillment. We get a hint of that from the Parable of the Talents where Jesus says “well done” to His servants who were faithful stewards and gives them a reward of doubly increased responsibility. Jesus called this “the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21). 

In Hebrews, we are told that Jesus restored the “glory and honor” to humans to reign over the earth “through the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus was given all authority as a human because of His obedience to His Father (Philippians 2:8-9, Matthew 28:18). It seems that His great joy is to share His own joy with fellow “sons” who He will lead to the same glory He gained from His Father (Hebrews 2:10). 

It is not clear why unbelievers are judged for their deeds, but we get some indications. Jesus asserted that the wicked city of Sodom would get a less severe judgment than the cities that saw Jesus’s miracles because they had less accountability (less revelation from God) (Matthew 11:24). This would indicate that there are degrees of severity to God’s judgment of unbelievers. 

All non-believers are consumed in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). But it seems that this lake of fire has differing effects on different people. It could be that the reciprocity principle applies, where each person will get for themselves what they wished upon others, which results in a portion of the distinction in degrees of judgment (Matthew 6:14-15). 

The message is clear: we are all accountable to God with what we have done or not done with our life. Unbelievers will be consumed in judgement fire, believers will be refined and purged in judgement fire. All believers will be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). But it seems that each believer has a choice whether to have their faith refined through faithful obedience through the trials of this life to gain great rewards, or to have their faith purged of impurities at the judgment of Christ and suffer loss of rewards (James 1:2-3, 12, 1 Corinthians 3:13-15). 

We can view Paul’s assertion For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ in the context of Ephesians 2:8-10. We become children of God by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). But God makes us new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17) for a reason: to do the works He prepared for each of us to accomplish (Ephesians 2:10). And even though God prepared these works beforehand, He rewards us greatly when we walk in them. 

Each believer is judged so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (v 10b). 

It seems apparent from the context that a good deed will receive a good reward and a bad deed will receive a bad reward. The Greek word “komizo” translated may be recompensed can be translated “may receive” or “may be repaid.” The word deeds is added by translators, as it is inferred from the Greek word translated he has done, which indicates actions (deeds) based on decisions. The things we decide and act upon will be judged, and we will receive rewards, good or bad, based on our decisions and actions. 

The sense of the phrase may be recompensed indicates purpose. “Komizo” could be translated as “for the purpose to receive” rewards for actions taken. The purpose of the judgment is that our deeds will be judged and rewarded appropriately. In large part, scripture indicates that this judgment will deal with stewardship of what we did with opportunities we were given, and the motives we had for our actions (Hebrews 4:12-13). 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confirms the importance of having eternal motivation when He exhorts His disciples to adopt a particular perspective about reality, namely that what we send ahead is real and permanent. If we believe this, we should be intentional about making investments of time and energy accordingly. 

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal.” 
(Matthew 6:20)

There are numerous Scriptures that point toward rewards or recompense given by God in relation to what we have done on the earth. (Matthew 16:27, Acts10:42; Romans 2:16, 14:10, 12, Ephesians 6:8) As stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, this judgment of deeds is not to determine whether we are justified in God’s sight, as that depends solely upon believing upon Jesus (John 3:14-15). We are received unconditionally as a child of God through faith. Upon belief, we are granted an inheritance (Ephesians 1:11). 

God’s rewards determine the extent to which we possess and gain benefit of the inheritance we are granted when we believe. We are given a picture of this in the first and second generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt. Both possessed a grant of the inheritance of the Promised Land, which was granted centuries earlier (Genesis 15:18). However, the first generation to escape from Egypt failed to possess the inheritance because they did not exercise faith to walk in obedience to possess it (Hebrews 3:16 - 4:2). 

The rewards given by God will be directly proportional to our obedience. Jesus desires that seeking His rewards above those of the world be a primary driver behind our actions, as He asserts in Revelation: 

“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” 
(Revelation 22:12)

Paul speaks of this judgement seat of Christ in terms of the fear of the Lord. Scripture asserts that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge as well as the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). To live in knowledge and wisdom also takes into account the reality of the coming judgment seat of Christ. Accordingly, Paul asserts Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (v 11).

It appears here that Paul is applying this knowledge of the judgement seat of Christ to himself. His charge from Christ was to persuade men. Paul spoke of this in his first letter, saying that he was “under compulsion” to preach the gospel, saying even “woe is me” if he did not follow the command God had given him to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16, Acts 26:16-18). 

In exercising his stewardship to preach the gospel as he was commanded, Paul and his fellow ministers of the gospel are made manifest to God. To make manifest means to be made known. By walking faithful and preaching the gospel, Paul and his fellow ministers are making their faithfulness known to God. God is always watching and is a judge not only of actions but of the intents behind the actions (Hebrews 4:12). 

Paul knows his deeds are being made manifest to God, because all people’s deeds are seen by God, and are apparently being recorded for use in a future judgment (Revelation 20:12-13). But Paul also hopes the Corinthian believers see and understand his actions as well. Paul says I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. Paul desires that each believer search their conscience and test whether what Paul is doing is right. 

Throughout his letters to Corinth, Paul refers to the importance of having a clear conscience and the important function the conscience has in making good judgments: 

  •     In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul spoke of protecting those with weak consciences, and not leading them to sin doing things they believed were wrong (even though such actions might not have been inherently sinful).
  •    In 1 Corinthians 10:25-30, Paul spoke of how to maintain a clear conscience by doing all unto the glory of God.
  •    In 2 Corinthians 1:12, Paul appealed to his own conscience as a testimony of his sincerity in ministering to the Corinthians.
  •   In 2 Corinthians 4:2, Paul appealed to the conscience of those judging him, to judge as in the sight of God.

The implication is that at the level of our conscience, the Spirit is speaking and will direct us into what is true if we will listen. The conscience of each person tells them what is right because God places a knowledge of what is right within each person’s conscience (Romans 2:14). 

Paul expands on this concept in Galatians, where he speaks of a contest within us between our old nature (“flesh”) and new nature (“Spirit”). The implication in all cases is that the truth is within us if we are willing to listen. By saying he hopes to be made manifest also in your consciences, Paul infers that if they are willing to seek what is true, they will see that Paul is also seeking that which is true. 

Paul follows his assertion of the inevitable reality that each person will stand before the judgement seat of Christ by saying: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade men (v. 11). 

Human fear is arguably our most basic motivation. For example, fear of death drives us to seek safety. Seeking safety drives us to labor and make provision for food and shelter. Fear of rejection shapes our social behavior. Our fear motivations are ordered, following a hierarchy of needs. We might have little to no fear of being trapped in a movie theatre until we smell smoke. At that point all other fears take a backseat to the fear of burning to death. 

Scripture helps us choose a proper hierarchy for our fear. The new worldview/perspective/mental model Paul offers brings us true reality. In Christ, God offers complete deliverance from fear of death, if we will receive it by faith (John 3:14-15). This allows us to live our lives on earth with an immensely increased degree of enjoyment, knowing that Jesus has conquered death. 

But as Paul has just stated in verse 10, all of us will stand before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Much of our social behavior is driven by fear of what others think of us. Whether it is the car we drive, the clothes we wear, our choice of language, the job we take, or most any other action, we naturally take into account, “What will people think of me?”

We might call this the “fear of man.” 

If our social behavior, how we treat others, is driven by the “fear of man,” then we will inevitably be captured to serve the fleeting opinions of others. Worse, since we cannot truly know what anyone thinks of us (they are probably telling us what they think we want to hear for fear of rejection from us) we end up being controlled by an illusion of what others think of us. Thus, we end up living in an imaginary world and miss out on the true blessings available to us through living in the real world. 

The way to avoid this is to displace “fear of man” with the fear of the Lord. If we care foremost what God thinks of us, and orient our behavior toward pleasing Him, the rest should fall in order. People are fickle, but we know what God approves because He tells us, and He is always true. 

If we please God and recognize that we never really know whether we please people, and that their pleasure can soon turn to scorn, then we can live to please God and any rejection we get from humans will be greatly diminished by comparison. If someone rejects us for serving God, then we can adopt the perspective that we are suffering the sufferings of Christ, and Jesus has promised that if we overcome as He overcame, He will share with us His great reward (Romans 8:17b, Revelation 3:21). 

The admonition to adopt this perspective is nothing new. The Old Testament tells us that the fear of the Lord is the very beginning point of both knowledge as well as wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). When we fear man, we end up living in an illusion, where there is no true knowledge. When we fear man, we end up doing things that are self-destructive rather than living in wisdom. Fearing the Lord, caring most about what He thinks, gives us a foundation to seek His words, which leads to both knowledge (seeing reality as it is) and wisdom (skill in living effectively). 

A part of the illusory world of fearing man is to believe we control others through managing our image and putting on fronts. This leads to double-mindedness and loss of mental health. When we live in the fear of the Lord, we realize that He sees into the deepest part of our being, and nothing is hidden from Him (Hebrews 4:13). He already knows all our secrets. But He has also paid for all our sins on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 2:14). All of our sins have already been dealt with in His sight through the death of Jesus. So when we confess to Him, we are not telling God something He didn’t know. Rather we are aligning ourselves with reality. 

If we want to live as a high functioning person, consistent with our design, what we have to deal with is a) sin that mars the harmony God intended us to have in our relationships (Matthew 6:14-15) and b) sin in our flesh that seeks to mar our own souls. Even though believers are new creations in Christ, we still have our old nature dwelling within us, what Paul calls the “flesh.” When we follow the flesh, it leads to self-serving, controlling, and exploitative behavior with the social result that we “bite and devour” one another (Galatians 5:15). 

God desires us to walk in our new nature and walk in the Spirit. When we do, we fulfill the law (Romans 8:4). When we fulfill the law we love others as ourselves (Galatians 5:13-14). He desires that we forgive one another, and submit to one another, meaning seek the best for others even over ourselves (Ephesians 5:21). 

The Apostle John says that “…perfect love casts out fear because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). We fear rejection from humans because rejection from them causes pain. We fear that which can hurt us or cause us loss. This verse says that if we have “perfect love” then we have no reason to fear the judgment of God. The prior verse tells us what “perfect love” is: 

“By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.” 
(1 John 4:17)

We see from this verse that perfect love occurs when we live in this world as Jesus lived. This verse presents a great challenge on at least two fronts. 

First, it seems that we do have the potential to live as Christ lived. This would follow from the fact that Christ dwells within us, and He has shaped us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

Second, it also tells us that until such time as we are living in this world as Christ lived, we should fear the judgment. This should create a fear of the Lord within us that will drive us toward living as Christ lived in this world, overcoming sin and serving in obedience to His Father.

As mentioned earlier, Paul provided an illustration of the judgment of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians. He used the image of our deeds being like building materials we send ahead to heaven that Jesus will test with fire. Those that endure the fire (gold, silver, precious stones) remain, and are there to build with. 

The point seems to be that deeds done to please the Lord are deeds we take with us after death. However, the things we do for the approval of men that do not endure the judgment fire (wood, hay, straw) simply end up as loss (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Whatever reward we gained on earth is all we will get, just like the money and possessions we leave behind (Matthew 6:19-20). 

Thus, Pauls says knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men because all men, meaning all people, will appear before the judgment of Christ. In persuading others, Paul recognizes that he is being watched by God, who will judge him, saying But we are made manifest to God (v 11a). 

To be made manifest is to show plainly and clearly, without any deception or pretense. Paul recognizes that all things are laid bare before God. In his first letter, Paul noted that he had examined himself and found no fault. However, he recognized that this did not mean he was right. He knew he would face God in the judgment and find out the truth (1 Corinthians 4:4-5). 

Paul is continuing to answer his critics and to be as open and vulnerable as possible, saying and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (v 11b). As he has previously stressed (2 Corinthians 3:5), “our adequacy is from God.” Man looks on the external, but God knows what is inside, what is in the heart. 

Paul appeals that before God, he is open to all, then he appeals to the moral conscience of the Corinthian believers, that we are made manifest also in your consciences. As previously noted, Paul consistently appealed to the conscience as a witness. 

As Paul notes in his letter to the Romans, God wrote into the conscience of all people the knowledge of what is right (Romans 2:14, see commentary on Romans 2:14-16 for an extended discussion of the conscience). 

In this letter to Corinth, Paul provides an outstanding instruction on the true perspective we need to adopt in order to gain the most from this life. We need to bear in mind that all we do will be judged. We need to bear in mind that true glory comes from reflecting Jesus in our walk. We can do that by living out the reality of the new creation we have become through Him. We are an “earthly tent,” an “earthen vessel” that holds a priceless treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). 

When we are walking in obedience to the Spirit, we live our true and best life, a life that will gain us the greatest benefit both now and to eternity. That is why Paul considers the difficulties of living an obedient life as “momentary” and “light affliction” as compared to the “eternal weight of glory” that will be the reward of those who walk in obedience to God (2 Corinthians 4:17). 

In this teaching of Paul, we can hear echoes of the wisdom of Solomon. Solomon ended his treatise on wisdom, summing it up as follows:

“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” 
(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

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