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2 Corinthians 5:6-7 (ESV)

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.

What does it mean to "walk by faith and not by sight"?


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In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Paul is pulling together all the strands of chapters 3 and 4. One point he mentions is the persecutions and hardships they suffered, for being ministers of the gospel. To all appearances, their faith in the gospel of Christ would look like nonsense to those without faith. Yet Paul wrote,

"We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, 'I believed and therefore have I spoken' [Psalm 116:30] we also believe, and therefore speak, knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall preset us with you... While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (4:8-18).

That is the necessary link in to chapter 5. The first verse speaks of that invisible "house", or habitation, in heaven, eternal, made by God, for them. Paul spoke of it as what the believers would be "clothed" with when they departed their earthly "tent". While "in the body" (vs. 6) they were "absent from the Lord" (who was then back in heaven). Because they were walking by faith, not by sight, "We are confident, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (vs. 8).

Now, those who walk by sight, and not by faith, cannot begin to understand such expressed faith about those invisible, future realities!

Bear that in mind when, long ago, a friend of the retired, 80-year-old 6th President of the United States met him in the street. He asked, “How is John Quincy Adams today?” The reply; “Oh, John Quincy Adams is quite well but his house which he inhabits is very dilapidated and it crumbles a bit more with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out quite soon. But John Quincy Adams himself is quite well.” Nice one!

He was seeing by faith the heavenly habitation prepared for him in heaven, and he had no qualms about leaving his earthly state of old age, at death. He agreed with what Paul expressed in 2 Cor. 5:6-8. That's what it means to walk by faith, and not by sight.

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The key to understanding such verses is actually the verb περιπατέω = "to walk about". Both BDAG and Thayer list only two meanings for this verb:

  1. to go here and there in walking (ie, literal walking about)
  2. to conduct one's life, comport oneself, behave, live as habit of conduct.

It is in the second sense that 2 Cor 5:7 uses the verb. We see this many times in the NT.

  • 1 John 2:6 - Whoever claims to abide in Him must walk as Jesus walked.
  • Eph 4:1 - As a prisoner in the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received:
  • Col 1:10 - so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,
  • 1 Thess 2:12 - encouraging you, comforting you, and urging you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.
  • 1 Thess 4:12 - so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
  • 2 Thess 3:6 - Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
  • Rom 13:13 - Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.

Walk by faith and not by sight

In 2 Cor 5:7 we are told to walk by faith and not by sight. This idea is also repeated in other places such as:

  • Heb 11:3, 6 - By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. ... And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who approaches Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. The entire chapter of Heb 11 expands on this point of living the life by faith.
  • Rom 1:17 - For the gospel reveals the righteousness of God that comes by faith from start to finish, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
  • Gal 3:11 - Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”

Heb 11:1 - Now faith is the assurance of what we hope for and the certainty of what we do not see.

That is, to the Christian living by faith, the unseen is more real and important that what can be seen. Thus, the Christian conducts his/her life according to the unseen by faith, rather than as worldly materialists do, by what can be seen.

Ellicott sums it up this way:

The fact is taken for granted; and it comes as the proof that as we are, we are absent from the Lord. Now we believe in Him without seeing Him; hereafter we shall see Him face to face. Our life and conduct and our “walk” in this world rest on our belief in the Unseen.

The Pulpit commentary is similar:

Verse 7. - For we walk by faith (2 Corinthians 4:18; Hebrews 11:1; Romans 8:25). Not by sight; rather, not by appearance; not by anything actually seen. We do not yet see "face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12), but are guided by things which "eye hath not seen." 2 Corinthians 5:7

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Paul is using a semitism here, because the Hebrew word "road" - derekh - can also refer the one's path in life. Thus how someone "walks" on that road refers to their daily conduct, or approach to living. It is not about moving your legs.

An Elizabethan counterpart would be "conversation". One's conversation would be one's manner of conduct.

Let's read the full context to confirm:

2 Corinthians 5:4–10 (KJV 1900)

4 For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.

5 Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.

6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:

7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:)

8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.

9 Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him.

10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

So Paul here is saying that by faith, we know that

  1. God has given us a deposit of the spirit as a promise of resurrection
  2. In that resurrection, God will judge us for what we do in the body while we are alive

Therefore we are confident, even as our body deteriorates, that we have a permanent home with God, and so we continue to labor to do God's work, so that we may receive a reward.

This combination of confidence (the ESV has courage, but either reading is fine) in the face of physical decay of our bodies, and constant struggle to do God's work is the manner in which we conduct our lives. It is how we "walk", and we do this because of faith, not because our mind/eyes tell us that things are getting better in our lives. The mind tells us things are getting worse as the body decays, but faith tells us that we are drawing closer to God and closer to receiving our reward of eternal life.

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Stable under duress

In the previous chapter Paul poses what at first glance appears to be a contradiction, and then resolves it:

8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

His reaction to severe trial is the opposite of what we would naturally expect. Why?

17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

Paul sees the big picture.

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Paul was not a failure

Surely it must have been easy for a Christian living during the reign of Nero or Domitian--seeing their faith persecuted as an overwhelmingly outnumbered minority religion--seeing Christians, including apostles like Peter & Paul, brutally martyred for their faith--surely it must have been easy for someone there to think that the apostles gave it a good, solid try, but they failed, they were killed.

But the apostles did not fail. A handful of papyrus scrolls, that would later become the New Testament, must have looked mighty feeble up against the might and glory of Rome...but Rome fell, and the words of the apostles are still here. Paul saw beyond his years and recognized the value--in this world and the next--of what he was doing, even if it was something to which the world did not pay positive attention.

If Paul were focused on what the world pays attention to his conduct was irrational--he would have stayed with a cushy position of authority in a safe, religio licita (Pharisaic Judaism), and avoided a great deal of suffering & vituperation.

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What the world pays attention to

Paul contrasts the actions of the faithful with:

them which glory in appearance, and not in heart (2 Cor. 5:12b)

Note the echoes of 1 Samuel 16:7b:

for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.

If Paul had paid attention to the things the world values: money, fame, power, popularity, etc., he would not have accomplished what God put him on this earth to do. Paul's power would be as dead and broken today as Caesar's.

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What the godly "see"

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling (Ephesians 1:18a)

The devil would love to convince people that they are so broken, so flawed, so frail, that God could never make anything worthwhile out of them. That we shouldn't put stock in God's plan because it's a pipe dream and we could never make it. The believer in Christ recognizes that is a lie, and trusts that God really is so powerful that He can redeem and sanctify and make people more than they are:

And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together (Romans 8:17).

The hope Paul speaks of comes from trust, not wishful thinking. Christians are called upon to trust that God really will fulfil His promises. As with Moses delivering Israel from Egypt, God often announces what He is going do to, without explaining in full, pixelated detail how He's going to do it. He gives people reason to trust Him, and then asks them to trust Him--He sees what is ahead, He sees that it is worth it, and He sees how to get there, even if we (at times) see none of the above.

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The Earnest of the Spirit

This point is made by Paul just prior to the verse quoted in the OP:

Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit (2 Cor. 5:5)

I discuss in greater detail here what is meant by the "earnest of the Spirit". A quick summary of the Biblical application of the word "earnest":

A pledge or security. The word thus translated is a commercial term denoting the deposit paid by a buyer on entering into an agreement for the purchase of anything. As used by Paul… it means that the Lord gives us His Holy Spirit in this life as a foretaste of the joy of eternal life. The Spirit is also the Lord’s surety that He will fulfill His promise to give eternal life to the faithful. (source)

God gives us a guarantee–a portion of His fullness–as a pledge for what is to come. God gives a glimpse of what He can do, and He asks people to put more stock in that than in whatever the world clearly dangles in front of our eyes.

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Conclusion

Compare:

for we walk by faith, not by sight

with

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2)

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

By design, we (like Paul) cannot currently see the full picture. But we know someone who can, and we trust Him, so we walk in His direction & at His direction.

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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator good addition Mar 14, 2022 at 4:33

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