CAN YOU EXPLAIN 2 CORINTHIANS 5:16?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.” Many preachers have grown quite disappointed and angry after reading or hearing these eternal words of the everlasting God. Why? What is so controversial here? What exactly does it mean to “know no man after the flesh?” How can Jesus Christ be “known after the flesh?” How can He not be “known after the flesh?”
The “flesh” here is something physical and literal (as opposed to the Bible’s other usage of the term—“flesh” in Romans 8:1, for example, is a metaphor for our sin nature). Specifically, in 2 Corinthians 5:16, “flesh” is circumcised (Jew) or uncircumcised (non-Jew, or Gentile). In other words, it refers to the differentiation underscored in Ephesians chapter 2: “ Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;  That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:….”
Verses 13-18 describe the Dispensation of Grace, the opposite of the previous two verses in the chapter: “ But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;  Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;  And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:  And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.  For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”
In this the Dispensation of Grace, “but now,” there is no distinction between Jew (circumcision) and Gentile (uncircumcision). Almighty God only sees saved and lost, those in Christ and those in Adam, respectively. Turn to Galatians 5:6, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” Now, Galatians 6:15: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” There is no longer an advantage of physical circumcision before God, and there is no more a disadvantage of physical uncircumcision before God. What He sees is the “new creature” (Galatians 6:15), the “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15), the Church the Body of Christ. These are all believers in Jesus Christ. God sees all unbelievers outside of that one Body. This is the only distinction God acknowledges today. Thus, 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Any fleshly distinction is not important before God; that old identity has passed away, and the believer gains a spiritual identity in Christ.
Knowing a man “after the flesh” and “though we have known Christ after the flesh” all relates to the “time past” distinction highlighted in Ephesians 2:11-12. Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, Matthew through John, operated on the basis of the division between Jew and Gentile, circumcision and uncircumcision, respectively. Ephesians 2:12 says we Gentiles (nations) were “without Christ.” Romans 9:4-5 says of the Jews, “and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came.” The “flesh” here is physically circumcised flesh, Jewish flesh. Christ’s earthly ministry was to the nation Israel only, and not to the nations (Gentiles). This can be easily proved from Scripture.
The Lord Jesus said in John 4:22: “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.” Notice the emphasis on “the Jews;” no Gentiles are in view here. Matthew 10:5-7: “ These twelve [apostles] Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Christ said in Matthew 15:24: “But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Romans 15:8 summarizes, “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision [Jews] for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:….” This expression, “was a minister,” is key—it is past tense in the King James Bible (changed in modern versions).
Back to 2 Corinthians 5:16, “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.” We want to concentrate on the phrase, “yet now henceforth know we him no more.” Now, with Paul’s ministry (the “but now” of Ephesians 2:13), we do not know Jesus Christ according to His earthly ministry, when there was a difference between Jew and Gentile. The middle wall of partition has been removed—God Himself has abolished it. We know Jesus Christ according to His “all-man” (Jew and Gentile) ministry. Again, this new program began with the Apostle Paul’s ministry and message.
First Timothy 2:4-7: “ Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;  Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.  Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not; ) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.” (Pay special attention to verse 7. Paul is the “due-time testifier” of Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork as sufficient payment for all sins—both Jew and Gentile. Prior to Paul, soul salvation was limited to Israel. See Isaiah 53:8 and Matthew 20:28, for example. Isaiah’s people and the “many” are Israel. No Gentiles are in view.)
Romans 3:22,29: “ Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:…  Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:….” Romans 10:12: “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,….” These “no-difference” statements, these “all-men” statements, could not be said of Christ’s earthly ministry. They were only true until the Lord Jesus Christ said them through Paul’s ministry. Notice more Pauline verses on this subject.
Romans chapter 1: “ By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name:….  I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.  So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Notice verse 5—“all nations.” Paul has an unrestricted apostleship to all nations. Contrast this with Peter and the 11 other Apostles, who had to preach to all Israel before going to all nations [Matthew 10:5-7; Matthew 28:18-20].)
Romans 16:25-26: “ Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,  But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:…..” (Verse 26 says “all nations.” Paul has a ministry to all nations, where Peter and the 11 had to evangelize all Israel before preaching to all nations [Matthew 10:5-7; Matthew 28:18-20].)
It is therefore dangerous for people to continue with their mindless chant, “I follow Jesus, I do not follow Paul.” To “follow Jesus”—specifically, they mean the Four Gospel Records (Matthew through John)—means to know Him today in a manner in which God says we do not know Him today. The middle wall of partition that was up during the Four Gospel Records has since been done away. God has temporarily suspended that distinction between Jew and Gentile. He has changed the dispensations, the instructions given to man. Conditions that were true in Matthew through John are not necessarily true today, so it is more appropriate that we follow the Apostle Paul as he follows Jesus Christ rather than we “following Jesus.” We are not exalting Paul; we are exalting the Jesus Christ whom Paul preached, the Jesus Christ as presented in the mystery truth committed to Paul’s trust.
Paul wrote the following verses as God the Holy Spirit guided him:
- 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”
- Ephesians 5:1: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;….”
- 1 Corinthians 4:16: “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.”
- Philippians 3:17: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.”
- 1 Thessalonians 1:6: “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.”
We follow Paul as he follows Jesus Christ, and he follows Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery (Romans 16:25-26). Part of that revelation is that all believing Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) form the one Church the Body of Christ. You are here strongly encouraged to read Ephesians 2:11–3:11, with special emphasis on the verses in chapter 3.
Yet, 99 percent of “Christian” preaching and teaching today is Matthew through John. They proclaim God’s Word to Israel as though it were God’s Word to us Gentiles. It is all about God’s program for Israel and yet they speak of it as though it were for the Church the Body of Christ! Jesus Christ’s ministry through Paul is almost, and sometimes entirely, ignored. No wonder there is no power of God in our churches and lives. We stay focused on things God is not doing today, stressing concepts that are no longer applicable to God’s will for man. It is either (1) back to Pauline truth, or (2) onward to more apostasy!
We do not know Jesus Christ after the flesh any longer. We do not know any person after the flesh any longer. Christ’s earthly ministry, based on the middle wall of partition, is not how people should relate to God or each other today. From the time the Dispensation of Grace began with Paul’s salvation and ministry, Almighty God has revealed to us (mankind) how to no longer know or relate to people according to their fleshly identity. Unlike “time past,” physical circumcision and physical uncircumcision are not the issue today in the “but now.” Rather, we understand people to be either in Christ (saved, going to Heaven) or in Adam (lost, going to Hell).
The Bible says, in this Dispensation of Grace, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. This was not true during Christ’s earthly ministry. Today, however, there is no spiritual advantage to being a Jew and there is no spiritual disadvantage to being a Gentile. Unless we recognize the radical dispensational change that occurred in the Book of Acts (particularly, with Paul’s conversion and commission in chapter 9), we will not understand that God is dealing differently with man today in the “but now” than how He dealt with him in “time past.” We will major on issues that God no longer emphasizes; we will ignore the issues that God currently upholds. Absolute confusion and disappointment are sure to result!