Years ago one of my boys went on tour of the Middle East with Rick Wakeman, the rock composer and keyboard player. As I stood waiting at Heathrow for my son to arrive, I heard another parent say with a sneer. “Of course, he’s a ‘born-again’ Christian, you know”. Yet the only type of Christian the Bible knows is a ‘born-again’ Christian. John records the evening visit of Nicodemus to Jesus when Jesus spoke about the need to be “born again” (or “born from above”): “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3.3). Peter begins his First Letter on a note of praise to God “who by his great mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1.3) and later speaks of his readers having been “born anew… through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pet 1.23). Similarly Paul writing to the church at Corinth declared: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5.17). The reality is that when a person becomes a Christian, a radical change takes place. In the words of Joel Green, this transformation involves “a conversion of the imagination: personal reconstruction within a new web of relationships, resocialization within the new community, and the embodiment of a new life-world evidenced in altered dispositions and attitudes” (1 Peter, 2007, 26).
Since in the Lectionary 2 Cor 5. 16-21 is one of next Sunday’s readings I thought I would focus on what Paul has to say about the new creation which is ours in Christ. From 2 Cor 5.17 we learn seven things.
First, the new creation is a direct result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the immediately preceding verses Paul talks of the difference that the death and resurrection of Jesus makes, not least that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor 5.15). A consequence of this (“so”) is the new creation which is ours in Christ.
Secondly, this new creation is available to everybody, whoever they are and whatever they have done. “If anyone is in Christ”, wrote Paul. The Gospel is good news for all – whatever our race, gender, or status in life. The love of God in Christ embraces us all.
Thirdly, as the little word “if” indicates, there is a condition if we would experience this new creation: we need to be “in Christ”. “In Christ” is one of Paul’s favourite phrases and is found over 160 times in his writings (this includes occasions where Paul writes “in him” and where the reference is clearly to Christ). It appears in a wide range of contexts and can have a host of nuances, and includes both individual and corporate dimensions. “At a minimum”, wrote Colin Kruse, “to be in Christ means to belong to him through faith, and to belong to him means living in the sphere of his power, being united with him through the Spirit, and to have become part of the Christian community in baptism” (2 Corinthians, rev. edition, 2015, 168). Here in 2 Cor 5.17 the focus is on our personal relationship to Christ: to be “in Christ” is to be “united in faith to the risen Christ” (Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 2005, 432). The “new creation” is the work of God – but faith in Christ is the necessary catalyst.
Fourthly, the “new creation” is an act of God. Earlier in the letter Paul had drawn upon the imagery of creation to describe the difference God makes to the life of a believer: “It is God who said, ‘Let light shone out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4.6). In 2 Cor 5.17 the imagery is developed with the emphasis on God’s creative activity and not on our subjective experience. As Ernest Best pointed out: “Paul does not mean that Christians have been given new ideals to live by or that they will experience a slow moral change brought about by a new desire to be good. They would then be recreating themselves. It is God who makes the new creation as he made the first, and as, according to Genesis, the first was not a gradual process neither is the second. It took place in the death and resurrection of Christ” (Second Corinthians, 1987, 54). A Christian is not an improved person, but a changed person; we become a “new being” (GNB).
Fifthly, the “new creation” is superior to the “old” Paul uses here a special Greek word: kainos. To understand the significance we have to realise that in Greek there were two words to express the concept of newness, neos and kainos. The former refers to newness in terms of time, while the latter means ‘new’ not just in terms of time but also in terms of quality. Let me illustrate: many chairs produced today may be new in terms of time, but few if any are superior in terms of quality to those made by Thomas Chippendale, the 18th century cabinet maker – they may be neos, but not kainos. However, when people put their faith in Jesus, they become a ‘new’ (kainos) creation – new in the sense that the old becomes obsolete and inferior. According to ‘Kittel’ the great nine volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “kainos is what is new in nature, different from the usual, impressive, better than the old, superior in value or attraction” (Johannes Behm, TDNT III, English edition 1965 447). This is the word, for instance, found on the lips of God himself: “Behold I make all things new” (Rev 21.5); it is the word used of the “new wine” of the new age (Mark 2.22; Luke 5.37-38); the “new covenant” (Luke 22.20;b 1 Cor 11.25; 2 Cor 3.6; Heb 8.8, 13; 9.l15; 12.24), the “new humanity” (Eph 2.15; 4.24; Col 3.10); and in 2 Cor 5.17 as also in Gal 6.15 the “new creation”.
Sixthly, this act of new creation is truly amazing. This is brought out in Paul’s use of a Greek particle (idou) which is variously translated as ‘behold’ (ESV;RSV) or ‘see’ (NRSV; REB). Other English translations add an exclamation mark to convey “a sense of excitement and triumph” (Murray Harris 434).
Seventhly, this new creation is here to stay. Paul in 2 Cor 5.17 uses two different Greek past tenses when he declares “everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” The word translated by the NRSV as “passed away” is a simple past tense known as a Greek aorist. However, the word translated “has become new” (gegonen) is a Greek perfect, a past tense which continues into the present. The new creation is here to stay! Modern translations try various ways in which to express the contrast: “the old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV); “the old order has gone; a new order has already begun” (REB); “The old things have passed away; see they have become new” or as Peterson expresses it in his paraphrase, “The new life is gone; a new life burgeons” (The Message).
The “new creation” certainly involves a dramatic transformation!