Questions From Readers
● Can 2 Corinthians 5:16 be used to establish that Jesus would not return in the flesh?—C. N., England.
The text in question reads: “Consequently from now on we know no man according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, certainly we now know him so no more.” The primary meaning of these words can best be understood if we first determine what the apostle Paul was proving in the context.
At 2 Corinthians 5:14 the apostle indicated that Christ had died as a ransom sacrifice for all. His sacrifice did not cover just the Jews or benefit only Gentiles. No, but all who would accept him and exercise faith might live because of him. (Gal. 3:8, 11) Since Jesus died for all, it would be improper for Christians to view persons on a human or fleshly basis, looking down on some because they were Gentiles or had a low station in life, or looking up to others because they were Jews or held some prominent position. This attitude based on external, fleshly appearances was a thing of the past for those who became Christians.
Then Paul concluded in 2 Co 5 verse 16 that anointed Christians would now know no man according to the flesh. The important spiritual relationship they could have with their brothers was the important thing. Jesus showed the same view at Matthew 12:47-50. He emphasized the spiritual relationship he had with those who accepted him as the Messiah.
Finally, Paul spoke about those who knew Jesus according to the flesh. He did not necessarily mean just persons who had personally seen Jesus with their physical eyes, since some, many or all the members of the Corinthian congregation, never saw Jesus as a human. Rather, he meant that even if individuals, such as Jews who hoped in the Messiah to restore an earthly kingdom, at one time had looked at Christ only on the basis of his flesh, Christians no longer would do so. All this was changed by the fact that Christ not merely “died for them” but was also “raised up.”—2 Cor. 5:14, 15.
While this is the primary point the writer was establishing in 2 Corinthians 5:16, it is also proof that Jesus would not return again in the flesh, because we cannot separate the change of knowing Christ and his followers from Christ’s resurrection, his being “raised up” from death. If he had been raised up flesh and blood, unable to go to heaven and sit at God’s right hand, he would not have been the Christ or Messiah. (1 Cor. 15:50; Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:32-36) In that case he would still have to be known according to the flesh.
Well, how was he raised from the dead? The apostle knew, for in his first letter to the same Corinthian congregation he told them that Jesus was resurrected a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor. 15:45) And in this second letter he said that anointed Christians would have to give up their fleshly bodies in order to receive immortality. (2 Cor. 5:1-4) Also, he appreciated that Jesus had given his fleshly body as a ransom and could not take it back in resurrection without nullifying the ransom. (Heb. 9:28; 10:10) Yes, without question, the apostle Paul realized that no human would see Christ in the flesh again. So in a double sense Paul could state that humans would know Jesus according to the flesh no longer. And for this reason this text can be used to establish that Christ’s return would not be visible and fleshly.