2 Corinthians 5:16-17
14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
There was a time when a young, up and coming Pharisee named Saul Paulus of Tarsus judged Jesus of Nazareth to be nothing more than a deranged man whose mystical rantings were a danger to the One True God and to his chosen people, Israel. Jesus was just one more messianic pretender who got exactly what he deserved when condemned by the Sanhedrin and crucified by the Romans. Jesus’ death sentence was proof that he was a God-cursed imposter. Torah says, “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). God himself had rejected the claims of that uneducated, unpedigreed, day-laborer that crawled out of the backwaters of rural Palestine.
How ironic that in Corinth, Paul himself came to suffer the same disdain, the same disregard, the same rejection the Apostle had shown to Jesus so many years before. To the Corinthians, Paul was weak in both appearances and speaking skills – a point he readily and repeatedly admits. More than that, his perpetual sufferings, and near-death experiences (4:8; 11:23 ff.) were believed to be proof that he was a mere pretender to the office of Apostle. The two verses of our text, two of the more well-known in all New Testament literature, are part of Paul’s defense of his calling and ministry.
Paul experienced what it was like to judge Jesus according to terms of human, fleshly wisdom. He later experienced what it was like to be judged in the same way by others. This dramatic shift in circumstances came on a business trip to Damascus when Paul was arrested by the risen, ascended, glorified Messiah Jesus. The One who Paul had rejected in his fleshly wisdom suddenly became the center of his life. What Paul realized he records in verse 14, “14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.”
When Paul began to understand that basic gospel principle, all his fleshly wisdom became insignificant. His perspective was turned right-side up in an instant. Christ’s physical, historical death on a Roman cross was THE death available to all humanity who would, by trust alone, receive it. Paul’s old life of fleshly human wisdom, with its materialistic distinctions of people according to appearance, education, economics, and horizontal approval began to shrivel up and die. This led him to a ministry of disregard (v. 16) and new regard (v. 17).
MINISTRY OF DISREGARD (16)
First, Paul informed the Corinthians what new covenant ministry should properly disregard: the superficial. “16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.” As a result of that moment from which we “no longer” live for ourselves but for the One crucified and risen for us, “from now on” we believers do not “know” anyone, Christ in particular, “according to the flesh.”
The gospel should put an end to our shallow, external, materialistic evaluation of both Jesus and others – most especially our fellow believers. In fact, Paul literally says, “we know no one according to the flesh.” Paul’s passion for knowledge was driven by the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It was driven by revelation, not observation.
He knew by revelation that what impressed unbelievers was unimportant to God. Saul Paulus of Tarsus lived and worked in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He may have even seen and heard Jesus in person. He had certainly heard about Jesus at that time. And Saul judged him by the powers of his human observation to be weak, unimpressive, and deranged. “Grammatically, Paul’s ‘we knew’ suggests that he continued to remember Jesus as he had then noticed him.” But, when Saul was arrested and forced to confront the glory of God in the face of the risen, ascended, and glorified Messiah, he began to disregard mere fleshly, human observation in favor of divine revelation.
Paul’s declaration opposes the thinking of not only our age, but every generation since Adam turned from God’s wisdom and began to reason out his own corrupt world view. At least in our country, if we judge by the reading material at the checkout section of the grocery stores, the devotional literature of our culture is celebrity gossip and diet fads and its read with religious zeal for fame and good looks. Externals dominate our existence.
How we look is considered a moral virtue. In past ages, our moral values related to our ability to appear moral and display certain public Judeo-Christian attitudes and conduct. Our Western culture is still moralistic, but our idea of morality has shifted. Now, “good” people self-actualize; good people take care of their bodies, watch their diet, work out, and choose their own sexual identity, and jettison “toxic” people from their lives in order to self-actualize. “Bad” people are those stuck in the past with traditional identities and values. Either system of social values, no matter with which one you are comfortable, is all about seeking horizontal approval and achieving our own personal sense of self-fulfillment.
The right look is everything. It’s all about optics – how things appear to other people. The standard proverb of our culture is, “Appearance is reality.” This is why political debates include arguments over background colors, lighting, camera angles, and graphics. Image is everything. Appearance is reality. And who “won” a political debate becomes fodder for the news channels, based entirely upon the poise and appearance and gesture and slogans of the candidates.
This is absolutely no different now than it was in Paul’s day. Image IS everything in a fallen world. And it goes right back to the Garden of Eden: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” 
Fallen humanity evaluates itself externally by wealth, position, connectedness, fame, and even infamy. Infamy is as good as fame because what matters to us personally is being noticed and approved of. Every community has either a formal or informal social registry based on family connections, wealth, and education.
Barnett sums up verse 16 this way:
In the first sentence “according to the flesh” qualifies the verb “know.” Who is intended by the words “no one”? In all probability Paul has in mind “those who take pride in what is seen” of a few verses earlier (v. 12). These are the newcomers who are mere “peddlers” of the word of God (2:17), false apostles who masquerade as apostles of Christ (11:13). Others, including the Corinthians, may be duped by such people; Paul, a man of apostolic insight, is not deceived. Indeed, not only have the Corinthians been wrong in welcoming the newcomers; correspondingly, they have also been wrong in their coolness toward Paul. “From now on,” that is, from the time of his incorporation “in Christ,” he has been able to discern the truth about such people, though he would not have been able to do so beforehand. Perhaps there is a barb here. Should not the Corinthians, as a Spirit-anointed community (1:21–22), have had the insight to recognize these men as peddlers of a now superseded dispensation?
The newly arrived Jewish counter-missionaries have no real understanding of Jesus (2:17–3:1; 5:11–13). To them he is a merely Jewish Jesus confined within the existing physical and Sinai-based covenant of Israel. Paul is targeting the counter-missionaries who proclaimed, “another Jesus” (11:4), a Christ “according to the flesh,” whom Paul “no longer” knows. The Christ Paul and his readers “know” is the cosmic and eternal figure who “died and was raised for all.”
Even churches often function in human terms. When there’s a dispute in church, there will always be those who believe their opinion ought to count more because they have a long attendance record, or they hold a title, or they give more money. We naturally want to deny that Christ died for all and that all died in him. We fall back on distinctions that were destroyed when Christ died because we fail to trust what God says it true.
But we are told that the death of Christ changed absolutely everything about our existence. We who trust into Christ and are given the Holy Spirit as our deposit for that great getting up morning, are to regard no one according to the standards of our fleshly human wisdom. Doing that allows us to extend grace to everyone around us. We can see everyone – senators, athletes, and ditch diggers alike – as pre-believers and fellow beggars in need of the love of Christ. You don’t need to be a professional evangelist to do this. You just need to recognize you have died in Christ and been raised into a new creation without horizontal merit. If it’s truly good, God did it. If it’s bad, you did it.
MINISTRY OF REGARD (17)
Paul has told us there is a proper disregard of natural human values that flows from our trust union with Christ in his sacrificial, substitutionary death. Now, he tells us what the proper regard to hold for our fellow believers ought to be. “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This is the story of everyone who trusts into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial blood-shedding death of risen, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ.
In Acts 22, Paul gives his testimony before an angry mob of fellow Jews:
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 2 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
What relates to our passage is Paul’s implicit admission in Acts 22 that he regarded Jesus and his followers “according to the flesh” and his fellow Jews regarded the Gentiles “according to the flesh.” They wanted to kill Paul for obeying God’s call to preach to Gentiles because that would obliterate the fleshly distinctions their culture had created. The false prophets of Corinth were teaching that Gentiles needed to arrange their flesh to look like, act like, eat like, dress like, and be circumcised like Jews – to regard Christ and one another “according to the flesh.” That made Jesus into a mere fleshly example to be imitated, not the God-Man who takes away the sins of the world.
But Jesus didn’t come to be an example “according to the flesh” so that we can earn merit by imitating him. His death obliterated such fleshly distinctions – even the old covenant distinction between Jew and Gentile was destroyed. He came to gather a people of every race, tribe, tongue, and nation to be a part of his new creation. Fleshly distinctions were now irrelevant! Jesus is building a new creation, a new and true and eternal temple composed of every kind and size of living stones (1 Pt. 2:5).
He proclaims in verse 17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (lit. ‘so that, if anyone in Christ, a new creation’). One commentator explains:
The thrust of this statement is that when a person is in Christ, he or she is part of the new creation. God’s plan of salvation, while primarily concerned with humanity, encompasses the whole created order (Rom. 8:21). When a person is in Christ, he or she has become already part of the new creation so that it may be said, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. This participation in the new creation is reflected in the changed outlook of which v. 16 spoke and in a new holiness of life (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–11), and will culminate in the renewal of the whole person by resurrection to immortality in the new created order at the [second coming of Christ] (cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Rom. 8:19–23).
Paul teaches that we who are united into Christ by trust into his person and work are united into him as the Last Adam. The first Adam split heaven and earth apart by his regarding God according to the flesh. The Last Adam, like Moses, brings his people into a new land free of the presence and power of the first Adam’s sin (1 Cor. 15:22, 45). We are on a journey from the old, obliterated Garden of Eden where man once lived with God to a new, eternal garden-temple. There and then, all things will be made perfect and new. Here and now, our destination is SO certain that Paul can speak of us as already being part of that which has not yet fully come.
We who trust into Christ’s person and work are secure in the One who has borne in his own body God’s judgment against sin. We are accepted in Christ the beloved (Eph. 1:6) with whom the Father is well pleased. In Christ, we are assured of our future because he is the Resurrection and the Life. In him, we have an inheritance of his glory as the sole heir of the Father. In him, we participate in the divine nature since he is the everlasting Word. In him, we know the truth and are set free because he is ALL truth. And those are just a few of the things it means for us to be in Christ!
To be in Christ is to possess the most intimate union possible. R. Kent Hughes writes of this verse:
And when we are in Christ, there is a detonation. In fact, the Greek is explosive, “Therefore, if anyone in Christ (boom!) new creation.” Sometimes the detonation is a bang, other times it is a long, rolling thunder, but the outcome is the same — “new creation.” Just as with the creation in Genesis, God’s Word (his will) does it. As Paul said in 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We became “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God’s finger sculpted us (so to speak) and then carved out a life for us to serve him.
The last phrase of these two verses sums up the new creation into which Christ has drawn us: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The old is gone. It is permanently dead for we who are in Christ. For us, the new has come to stay. It is not a new car that will lose its value and “new car smell.” We have been carried into an everlasting newness, the abiding joy of the new creation brought about by the new covenant Paul described in 3:6, where he wrote we have been made “sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 
Isaiah sang of the old verses the new covenant in Isaiah 43:18-19, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. 19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  Presently, we trudge through the wilderness of sin and God’s constant judgment of it (the wilderness), but God has made a way to the new and true Garden-City in which the great river of life flows, lined on either side with the new and true trees of life.
This is why we no longer regard Messiah Jesus or his people according to the flesh, but with the regard of new covenant ministry. We have been brought out of bondage and set upon a journey through the wilderness to the new and true Mt. Zion. We are set free to obey the Lord. We are his people, and he knows each one of us in overflowing love. We are forgiven and there is no longer any reason for us to bear our shame. It has been taken away! The old has passed away and the eternally new has come.
What does that mean for you? It requires regard for Christ as the crucified, risen, reigning, glorious Savior. It requires gospel regard for your brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow members of the new creation, liberated from bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil and living out the glories of the new covenant. As the Apostle John wrote:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:14–17.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:14.
 Barnett, 293.
 Id., 295.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:6.
 Barnett, 294–295.
 Id., 296.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 22:1–22.
 Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 8, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 124. Emphasis added.
 Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 3:6.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 43:18–19.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 2:15–17.