“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
You can find this statement in 2 Corinthians 4:16. It’s relevant for thinking about the meaning of Easter. As several of my pastor/scholar friends have pointed out recently, Easter is not just one day. It’s a season that goes until Pentecost (when things really heat up). The season gives us opportunity to think slowly, to dwell on the Easter story, to ponder anew what the Almighty can do. Has done.
A common problem appears when reading a verse like this one from Saint Paul’s writings. “Outer nature” is thought to refer to the physical body and “inner nature” is thought of as something spiritual apart from the physical. This view is deeply entrenched in popular thinking, partly because it seems to make so much sense. The physical body’s decay as people age is empirically demonstrable. What remains after the physical body dies? The spiritual part, or so it seems. To think this way, however, is to miss the Gospel promise.
“Even though our outer nature is wasting away…” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek text. How about other versions? The New English Bible says “outward humanity.” The NIV simply says “outwardly” and the ESV matches the NRSV, “outward nature.”
“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” says the NRSV. The NEB says that we are being “inwardly renewed.” The NIV balances its adverbial expression with another, “inwardly.” And the ESV again matches the NRSV with “inner nature.”
These English translations render two words in the Greek text: “exo” (ἔξω) for “outer” and “eso” (ἔσω) for inner or within. “Exo” we recognize in scientific language, such as “exoskeleton.” Some animals have their skeletons on the outside. It’s paired with “endo-“(endoskeleton, on the inside) rather than our word here, “eso.” Notice the nice alliterative parallel, exo and eso, outer or outward and inner or inward.
What we don’t have here is “physical” or “material” set off from “spiritual.” And we should not think in such terms. If I could, I would open up every Christian’s memory bank and expunge the idea that “outer” means “physical” and “inner” means “spiritual.”
Reading scripture closely, noticing details, helps to re-wire our thinking. Notice that 2 Corinthians 5 finishes what chapter 4 started. “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). I love the contrast between “tent” and “building.” Paul’s Jewishness is probably showing here, with an allusion to the distinction between tabernacle and temple, which helps us ponder the difference between the temporary and the permanent, between the tent’s transitory nature and the solidity and stability and glory of the building.
In using these terms, we know that we are dealing with metaphors. In 1 Corinthians 15, we have agricultural metaphors to point to the same reality. We are sown, like seeds, a fleshly (sarkikos) body and we are raised, like the plant sprouting from the ground, a spiritual (pneumatikos) body. These metaphors point to something real. A real body though different from anything we now know.
Jesus’ resurrection body is not a metaphor. Through Christ, in the resurrection life, God peels off our sin-damaged bodies and clothes us with a gloriously alive body. That is what 2 Cor. 5:1 says by “a house not made with hands.” By God’s power, we leave the temporary tent and move into our eternal home, a building made for us by God.
On the third day, he rose from the dead…
O death, where is your victory?
I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
The Bible is very realistic about life’s troubles. It also boldly bears witness to the resurrection promise. It’s real.