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“Staying Distinct” --- II Corinthians 6:14-7:1


In the context in which this passage is found, Paul had written that the believers at Corinth were “restricted by your own affections” (6:12). What Paul meant was that a relational distance existed between those believers and him, and between them and their God as well. The problem as Paul expressed here were their “affections”. The Corinthians had become attached to ideas and perspectives that had dampened their appreciation of the Apostle Paul, and their genuine devotion to God. The following passage was written

to admonish these believers about a change they needed to make that would result in renewed fellowship with Paul, and more importantly a r

enewed intimacy with God.

I. The Exhortation: (vs.14a)

Paul starts off by instructing these believers not to be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers”. This imagery comes from the Old Testament where in the Law, the Israelites were instructed not to yoke together animals of different species. This prohibition was part of a group of laws that restricted the children of Israel from mixing together things that were different from one another. The idea God wanted to reinforce for them was that they were different than the Gentile nations that surrounded them, and thus, they were not try to enter into partnerships with the Gentiles because their beliefs, values, and practices were so different from what God was requiring from His people. Paul uses this word picture here to convey that the believers at Corinth were to abstain from joining with the surrounding culture, and actively resist assimilating the false beliefs and values of that culture.

But just how far are we to take this instruction? Some have suggested that believers are to disassociate themselves from any organization or practice that includes unbelievers. Others have suggested that we are only to disassociate from professing Christians who have embraced a lifestyle of sin.

In other portions of the NT we are given input that helps us at least define the boundaries regarding how broadly we can interpret this principle:

  • “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”
  • I Corinthians 5:9-10

    In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that he was not teaching believers to physically remove themselves from having interactions with and living among unbelievers (even immoral ones), because to do so would require one to leave the planet. Instead, the true Christian is only to separate himself/herself from professing Christians who live immoral lifestyles.

  • “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
  • Matthew 28:19-20

    Christ’s mission for believers in this age is to make disciples, and thus Christians must engage unbelievers in a substantial way if they are going to succeed in the responsibility to share the Gospel with those who do not believe. And therefore, whatever separation Paul is speaking about in II Corinthians 6:14ff must not restrict meaningful interaction with unbelievers (at least in general).

  • “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
  • John 17:15-16

    Jesus teaches the Christian an important principle here about the relationships we are intended to have with unbelievers. The “world” is a term that refers to humanity at large and the cultures that flow from the hearts of fallen men. Jesus states that we are “in” this world, but are not “of” this world. The distinction that Jesus makes with these prepositions is that we live within the sphere of fallen humanity (Jn.17:11), but we are not like them because through the new birth we have become new Creatures that no longer share the same nature as the rest of humanity (II Cor.5:17).

    In light of this then, what is it that Paul is exhorting believers not to do, when he writes that we are not to allow ourselves to become unequally yoked to unbelievers? It means that we are to recognize that a Christian and an unbeliever are significantly different in terms of their orientation to life. Because of that the Christian is must fall for the lie that there can be any harmonization between the religious, or ethical principles of Christianity and those of the world. The call is to remain distinct in one’s devotion to Christ and the teachings of God’s Word. In the modern world we have lost sight of the reality that just about everything in life has religious and ethical implications. Therefore, the ideas and values of the world can influence the believer into believing in theological or ethical falsehoods. Though it is of course true that one application of this principle is that a believer is not to marry an unbeliever. A married couple are to join their lives together and that involves developing a common view of what is true and good. If a Christian marries an unbeliever it will result in either constant conflict, or radical compromise. The same principle is also applicable to a lesser degree regarding entering into business partnerships with unbelievers. However, these are just two of the specific situations where this principle applies. The more difficult applications to bear in mind are those that relate to the renewal of our minds. Every culture is permeated with ideas, values, and perceptions of truth. These things can influence our thinking and cause us to form an amalgamation of pagan and Christian ideas. This will result in an individual or a group of Christians seeing reality from a quasi-Christian, quasi-pagan perspective. A frightening truth is that often this can happen without the individual even realizing it has taken place.

    The tense of the verb Paul uses in this verse indicates that he was admonishing the Corinthians to stop this unequal yoking. Therefore, they were already guilty of allowing the false religious and ethical ideas from the surrounding culture to impact their thinking. This continued paganized thought had resulted in their having lost their intimate relationship with God, and with God’s spokesman Paul. So, Paul is encouraging these saints (and us by extension) to purge these false ideas of paganism from one’s mind; recognizing that they are not neutral, but antagonistic to the truth

    of God.

    II. The Rhetorical Questions: (vs.14b-16a)

    Paul next asks five rhetorical questions that demonstrate the radical distinction that exists between the things of God and the things of the world. Rhetorical questions are used in order to stimulate a person to think about something. In this case rather than simply saying the distinction exists, Paul asks his readers to think about just how radical this distinction is. In each of the questions Paul uses a relational word:

  • “fellowship”
  • “communion”
  • “accord”
  • “part”
  • “agreement”
  • Though each word has a different nuance of meaning; they are all used here to convey exactly the same thought; the harmony or compatibility between the two things that Paul contrasts. Each of these questions is asked in such a way that the reader automatically knows that the question anticipates the negative response; specifically, that there is absolutely nothing that these things have in common with one another. The point in these five questions is to make clearer and clearer why a Christian must choose to distance himself/herself from the ideas and values of this world.

    In the first question, Paul asks, “what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” (vs.14b). Scripturally, “righteousness” is defined as that which is consistent with the Law of God. The Greek word “anomia” is well translated as “lawlessness”, because the idea of the word is a negation of the Law of God; living as though it did not exist. These two things then are by definition exact opposites. There is no way to both live in obedience to the Law and at the same time ignore it as something irrelevant.

    In the second question, Paul asks, “what communion has light with darkness?” (vs.14c). Darkness is defined as the relative absence of light and thus it is defined as the opposite of light. Where ever there is light, there is no darkness; and where darkness prevails it is because there is no light. In Scripture “light” is used as a metaphor of what is true and good; whereas “darkness” is used as a metaphor of what is false and evil. Clearly, once again there is no commonality between these two things.

    In the third question, Paul asks, “what accord has Christ with Belial?” (vs.15a). The word “Belial” is clearly a title or name of a person (in light of the word being used as a contrast to a person – Christ). This title is not used anywhere else in the Bible. It literally means, “the worthless one”, and was a title applied to the devil in Jewish rabbinical writings. There is no question that there is no neutrality or common ground between Christ and the devil. Christ is the agent of God’s redemption and the King of God’s righteous Kingdom, and the Devil is the adversary of God and leads a kingdom of darkness in rebellion to Him. The imagery is clarifying through each question that the issue at hand relates to a profound distinction between the things of God and the things of the world.

    In the fourth question, Paul asks, “what part has a believer with an unbeliever?” (vs.15b). The same difference that exists between righteousness and lawlessness, between light and darkness, and between Christ and the devil exist between believers and unbelievers. This is because the believer is of Christ, is righteous, and belongs to the light; but an unbeliever is of the devil (Jn.8:44), is unrighteous (II Thess.2:12), and belongs to the darkness (Rom.2:19).

    In the fifth and final rhetorical question, Paul asks, “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (vs.16a). The Jewish temple was the only temple without idols; all the gentile temples had them because the other gods were represented by images. However, one of the most fundamental Law for the Israelites was that they were not to worship their God through images (Ex.20:4-5). This is because the true God is radically distinct from all He has made and whatever physical image one would use to represent Him would fall insultingly short of His true glory. So, a Christian would know (as well as a God-fearing Jew) that an idol would be completely out of place in God’s temple and therefore should never be joined to it.

    Paul follows these questions with an important reminder to his readers; “you are the temple of the living God?” (vs.16b). God no longer dwells in a building but inside believers. Therefore, if idols and all the things associated with pagan religion have no place in a building that is a sanctuary for God; then certainly they have no place in the life of one who is a sanctuary for the presence of God. God is referred to as “living”, because unlike all other supposed gods, He is the only one who actually exists.

    These questions, and Paul’s point taken from them, clarify the radical distinction that exists between believers and unbelievers and therefore explains why believers must not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever. The difference is that the unbeliever is still under the curse of the Fall; while the believer has been delivered from it. Therefore, the separation that Paul had in mind is not from persons; but from the evil that unbelievers embrace (in their minds, hearts, philosophies, and religions).

    III. The Scriptural Citations: (vs.16c-18)

    The reason that Paul cites the OT was to establish that what he taught was God’s revealed will, and not human speculations. This was and is important because there are always false teachers that attempt to teach believers things that are not rooted in God but find their origin in the imaginations and preferences of men and women. Therefore Paul, in order to distance his teaching from that of the heretics who were also influencing the Corinthians, quoted Scripture in support of his teachings to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.

    Paul begins his quotation of OT Scripture by writing; “As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (vs.16c). This first quotation is taken from Leviticus 26:11-12, which literally reads:

  • “I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
  • From the original passage one sees that God spoke of setting His tent among the Israelite people and walking in their midst. The quotation asserts the promise of God that He would live in an intimate relationship with His people, to be accessible to them, and to bind Himself to them. This relationship which God had intended to have with Israel (if they had fulfilled the covenant requirements in the Law) found its fulfillment in the Church. So, Paul cites passage to show it was always God’s purpose that there would be an intimate connection between God and His people.

    In light of this relationship, since God is holy (I Pet.1:15-16) it was necessary for the people of God to be holy as well. So, Paul in his second quotation writes, “Therefore, ‘come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean’” (vs.17a). This is a quotation of Isaiah 52:11.

    Isaiah’s exact words in his prophecy were:

  • “Depart! Depart! Go out from there, touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her, be clean, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.”
  • In context God was speaking through the prophet about the future day when the people of Judah would be released from Babylonian captivity. As if speaking from Jerusalem, God was calling His people to return to the Promised Land. However, in calling them home, God instructed His people to leave behind everything that had anything to do with the idolatry and false worship that characterized life in Babylon. Paul saw this prophecy as applicable to the believers at Corinth because like the Jews of the exile, these Christians he was writing to needed to abandon the vestiges of their former worship, and all the ideas and values that flowed from them. Everyone who comes to Christ has picked up some false ideas about God and life from their pre-conversion life. This verse reinforces the idea that we must consciously wean ourselves away from them.

    The quotations that Paul cites run together, in the sense that he does not always make it clear in this context when he moves from one to another. Paul next wrote, “and I will receive you” (vs.17b). This is a quotation from the Greek version of the Old Testament and was taken from Ezekiel 20:34; and this verse is used to complement the quote from Isaiah 52:11. Paul adds through this quote that God, not only calls His people home, but He will be there to welcome them back when they arrive. The application to the Corinthian believers is that God will welcome them back to a closer walk with Him if they will also leave behind the beliefs and practices of paganism.

    Paul complete his quotations by writing, “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty’”. This is an amalgam of two verses; II Samuel 7:14, and Isaiah 43:6. The first of these verses is a portion of the covenant that God made with David through Nathan the prophet. In the original context God was speaking primarily to David about making Solomon His son, and establishing Solomon’s throne forever. In time it became clear that Solomon, because of his sin, would not fulfill this prophecy. The one that would fulfill the prophecy was a later son of David; Jesus the Christ. It was Jesus who was the Son of God according to this prophecy (and thus the messianic king). Paul applies this promise to believers because in Christ they become the children of God. This again reinforces the idea of the incredible blessing that belongs to the believer because of the relationship they enjoy with God. The latter part of the quote is from Isaiah 43 and like the quote from the fifty second chapter, the idea is the salvation of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. This verse joins the ideas of salvation with being children of God, thus conveying the change in life that is at the root of one becoming a Christian.

    Paul closes the quotations by observing that these things were said by the “Lord Almighty”. This title does not speak about raw power or energy, but conveys the idea of having the power to control all things; and thus, refers to God’s role as the sovereign of history. Paul uses this title for God because it reminds the reader that God has the His ability to fulfill these wonderful promises He has made. Therefore, the follower of Christ should invest himself or herself in doing what they must do to be certain to inherit these promises.

    IV. The Exhortation Repeated: (7:1)

    Having demonstrated the distinction between believers and unbelievers through his rhetorical questions, and having shown that the Old Testament also taught that the people of God are to separate themselves from the evil things that surround them, Paul reiterates his admonition, writing, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” “These promises” of course refers to Scriptural citations of the previous verses. Therefore, holiness of mind and heart is motivated by recognizing that it enhances our relationship with God. Paul writes that the believer is to cleanse himself/herself from all “filthiness”. The word Paul uses refers to ceremonial uncleanness that would defile something so it could not be used in worship, or would defile the worshipper so that he or she could not approach God. The filthiness that Paul has in mind (in light of the context of both Corinthian letters) are the false ideas, values, and practices of paganism & idolatry. Paul was exhorting these believers to remove these things from their lives so that their worship of God would not be hindered. In the modern world, most Christians do not come out of a life of idolatry; but everyone comes out of a culture of false beliefs and values. We must remove these things from our hearts and minds as we would scrub away literal filth off of our bodies. Clearly, since we are told to do this (rather than saying it is a truism about us which we must believe), we are responsible to make the choice and the effort for this to be realized in our lives.

    Paul says that we are to get rid of the filthiness that is related to our “flesh and spirit”. These words are used to speak about the entire self; everything about us must be cleansed of the evil influences that have made their marks upon our souls.

    This cleansing involves “perfecting holiness”. The word “perfecting” means to bring something to its intended conclusion, to finish. The believer therefore is to focus his/her life on pursuing the goal of perfect holiness. We will not fully finish this pursuit; but the goal is to get ever closer to that ideal throughout our lives.

    The believer engages in the pursuit of holiness “in the fear of God”. The fear of God relates primarily to judgment; and thus, the believer is motivated to pursue holiness from conversion onward in order to avoid judgment. As always, the idea is not that one might lose their salvation if they do not try hard enough; rather that the failure to pursue holiness suggests that one was never saved. It should be kept in mind that the reprobate is defined as those who have no fear of God (Ps.36:1; Rom.3:18).


    The author of the epistle to the Hebrews noted that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14); in other words, no one is saved who is not holy. God requires His people to possess holiness as a condition for having a relationship with Him; because it is holiness that will make us compatible with Him. The fact that we are saved by grace does not change that God requires holiness in those who are saved; it merely explains how that holiness is achieved. In one sense it is accomplished at conversion where we are credited with the righteousness/holiness of Christ (II Cor.5:21). But it is also produced in our lives by His grace as an expression of our transformed hearts (Phil.1:6). A Christian pursues holiness because it is a family trait (I John 3:9-10).

    Paul stresses in this passage that pursuing holiness is not simply transforming our behavior, it is a matter of transforming our hearts by the renewing of our minds (Prov.4:23; Lk.6:45; Rom.12:1-2). We will only grow in holiness if our hearts and minds are holy. Therefore an active pursuit of holiness in mind and heart is a key element of a Christian’s life and walk.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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