I’m sure you’ve all heard that the three most important factors in determining the desirability of a house are location, location and location. If a house is in the right location, you’ll put up with some of its shortcomings; but if it’s in the wrong location, you’ll never want to live there. Well, the three most important factors when it comes to interpreting a passage of the Bible are context, context and context. In order to understand a particular passage, you need to pay attention to what’s around it. And that’s why on Sundays and Wednesdays we go through books of the Bible, passage by passage, because by going through books of the Bible, passage by passage, we’re able to follow the flow of the argument and see how one passage relates to the previous passage. And therefore you see each passage in context.
And the reason I mention this today is because the passage before us today is frequently taken out of context. People disregard what Paul has been saying up to now and they assume that when Paul says ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers’, he’s referring to marriage or to going into business. They assume Paul is saying that believers must not marry unbelievers or believers should not go into business with unbelievers.
Now, believers shouldn’t marry unbelievers. It’s important that I say that clearly. Believers shouldn’t marry unbelievers. Paul sets that down as a principle in 1 Corinthians 7, where he writes about marriage and where he refers to marrying in the Lord. Believers should only marry in the Lord, which means believers should only marry other believers. And in that case, Christian young people should not go out with unbelievers, because going out with someone often leads to marriage. So, the Bible teaches that believers should not marry unbelievers. But Paul is not writing about that in today’s passage.
And I don’t think the Bible anywhere forbids believers from entering into business relations with unbelievers. In fact, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5 that when he instructed believers not to associate with immoral people, he wasn’t referring to unbelievers who are immoral, but to believers who are immoral. And he explains that if he meant don’t associate with unbelievers who are immoral, then we’d have to leave the world. And we can’t do that. We can’t cut ourselves off from the world, because unbelievers are all around us and it’s impossible for us to avoid them. In fact, if we’re to fulfil our calling to be salt and light in the world, we need to be among unbelievers. So, Paul made clear in 1 Corinthians that believers can’t cut themselves off from unbelievers entirely. We have to live and work side by side with them.
Having said that, the real point I’m making is that when Paul says in today’s passage that we must not be yoked together with unbelievers, he’s not referring to marriage and he’s not referring to business relationships. And the reason I say that is because of context. What is the context of today’s passage? What has Paul been writing about up to now in his letter? What’s his theme? What’s his subject? What does he have in mind as he writes these things?
Well, as you know, he’s been defending himself and his ministry. He had to defend himself, because people were saying he wasn’t reliable. He wasn’t a man of his word. He can’t be trusted. He said he would visit the Corinthians, and he hasn’t. Therefore he can’t be trusted. And so, Paul wrote to explain to them why he had to change his travel plans.
And he had to defend his ministry, because people were saying that he wasn’t as impressive as the new preachers who had come to Corinth, those ‘super-apostles’ who were able to impress the people by the things they said and did. When people looked at Paul, they weren’t impressed by his appearance or by his style of ministry. He was like a jar of clay, because he was weak and ordinary; and he’d suffered so much; and not many people believed his message. And so, how can he really be from God, when he had suffered so much and when his ministry was often unfruitful? If God were really with him, surely God would protect him from suffering and surely God would bless his ministry and make it more fruitful? He can’t be from God.
And so, Paul has been defending his ministry, making clear that he has received it by the mercy of God, and it’s a glorious ministry, far more glorious than Moses’s ministry, because through Paul’s gospel ministry the glory of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and sinners are transformed by it. And though some do not believe his message, it’s not because his ministry is faulty, but it’s because the Devil is blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing God’s glory in the gospel. And though Paul and his companions often had to suffer and they were frequently hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down, nevertheless God was working through them to bring life to those who believe. Death is at work in us, he said, but life is at work in you.
Those who rely on appearances, and not character, and on externals, and not internal realities, on what is seen, rather than on what is unseen, would look at Paul and his ministry and they’d say it can’t be the real thing, because it looks unimpressive and weak and ordinary. And they’d be taken in by the new preachers who looked impressive and who sounded impressive. However, Paul’s ministry was the real thing, whereas the new preachers were only false teachers; they were only masquerading as apostles; and they preached a false gospel.
Paul has been defending himself and his ministry and he appealed to his readers not to be taken in by the new preachers who were leading them away from the true gospel and from the Lord himself. Paul therefore appealed to his readers to be reconciled to God. You need to be reconciled to God all over again because you’ve wandered away from the truth, because of these new preachers.
So, that’s the context for today’s passage. Paul has been defending himself and his ministry and he’s appealing to the believers in Corinth not to be taken in by these new preachers. And therefore, when he says in verse 14 of chapter 6 not to be yoked together with unbelievers, he’s referring to the new preachers. Don’t be yoked together with them. Paul regards them as unbelievers, because they’re false apostles, who are preaching a false gospel, and who are leading the people away from the true gospel. And you believers in Corinth should have nothing to do with them.
The command in verse 14 is restated in different words in verse 1 of chapter 7. So, don’t be yoked together with those unbelieving preachers; and therefore purify yourself from their defiling influence. And between verse 14 of chapter 6 and verse 1 of chapter 7 are a series of quotations from the Old Testament that make the same point: because of God’s promises to you, separate yourself from those unbelieving preachers. Have nothing to do with them, because they’re unbelievers who will only lead you astray.
And in case there’s any doubt that Paul is still addressing the problem of the false preachers in today’s passage, we should note that after today’s passage Paul once again appeals to his readers to make room for him in their hearts. It’s similar to the appeal he made in verse 13 of chapter 6 to open wide their hearts also and let their affection for him run freely. Make room in your hearts for me and my companions, because our ministry is the real thing.
The image of a yoke is from the farm, of course, where animals were yoked together in order to pull a plough. And by using this image, Paul is saying to his readers that they’re not to be matched or partnered with those unbelieving preachers. Or as one of the commentators puts it: Stop being in incompatible relationships with such people. Up to now, you’ve been going along with them. Well, now is the time to stop it and break away from them.
And Paul follows up that single command with a series of rhetorical questions. What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Nothing. What fellowship can light have with darkness? None. What harmony is there between Christ and Belial (another name for Satan)? None. What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? Nothing. What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? None.
So, you’ve been declared right with God through faith in Christ and he’s filled you with his Spirit to enable you to do what’s right. In that case, you should have nothing to do with those wicked preachers. And God caused his light to shine into your dark heart to enable you to see his glory in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In that case, you should have nothing to do with those preachers whose hearts are still dark. And you have been united with Christ through faith. In that case, you should have nothing to do with those preachers who still belong to Satan and who are doing his will. And you are now believers: you believe in the Saviour. In that case, you should have nothing to do with those unbelieving preachers.
And you are the temple of God. Believers are the temple of God in two ways. We are temples of God individually, because the Spirit of God now lives in us. When we first believed, we received the Holy Spirit who now dwells in us and who is at work in us to sanctify us and to make us more and more willing and able to do God’s will. And we are the temple of God corporately, because whenever the church gathers together for worship, God is with us by his Spirit. Think of the Garden of Eden in the beginning. It was a kind of temple, because God met with Adam and Eve in the garden. Think of the tabernacle and the temple in the Old Testament. When the tabernacle and temple were set up, the glory-cloud of the Lord came down and entered it to signify that this was now God’s dwelling place. Well, God no longer dwells in a garden or in a tabernacle or temple. He dwells in his people by his Holy Spirit and he dwells in the church when we gather for worship. God is here today, by his Spirit, to minister to us through the reading and preaching of his word. And so, Paul says in verse 16, you are the temple of the living God. In that case, you should have nothing to do with idolatry. And that’s what will happen if they listen to the new preachers, because the new preachers will only lead them away from the living God to serve false gods and idols.
The believers in Corinth were once wicked. They were once in the dark. They once belonged to Satan. They once did not believe. They once served idols and false gods. But then they heard the good news of the gospel and God shone his light into their dark hearts and he enabled them to repent and to believe the good news. He delivered them from their old life of sin and unbelief and he came and made his home in their hearts. And when they gathered for worship, God came among them by his Spirit. And so, why would they now let this wicked, dark, satanic, unbelieving and idolatrous teaching into their church? They must get rid of these false preachers and their false teaching.
And Paul follows that up with a series of quotations from the Old Testament that make the same point: because of God’s promises to you, separate yourself from those unbelieving preachers.
So, firstly, from Leviticus 26:11+12 and Ezekiel 37:27:
I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.
In the book of Leviticus, God was preparing the Israelites for entering the Promised Land. And so, he gave them the laws they were to keep as his people; and he graciously and freely promised to reward their obedience; and he warned that he would punish them if they rebelled and turned to idols. And he promised that he would dwell among them as their God and they would be his people. And then, in the book of Ezekiel, he promised his people who had gone into exile that he would bring them back to the Promised Land and he would once again dwell among them as their God and they would be his people. So, in both texts, God promised to dwell with his people as their God. When God first spoke those words, he addressed them to the Israelites. But what he said to the Israelites now applies to the believers in Corinth and to believers in every generation. God promises to dwell with his people.
Secondly, from Isaiah 52:11 and Ezekiel 20:34:
Therefore come out from them.
And be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing.
Then I will welcome you.
Isaiah was anticipating a time when God’s people would be in exile. But the Lord would have mercy on his people and would bring them back to the Promised Land. And when that day comes, the priests were to come out from their Babylonian captivity and separate themselves from the pagan nations by returning to the Promised Land. And they were to leave behind the unclean idols of the Babylonians. And God would welcome them back to the Promised Land. Again, when God first spoke those words, he was addressing the Israelites. But Paul now applies them to the believers in Corinth and to believers in every generation. He says to us: since God has promised to dwell with you, separate yourself from every false preacher. Have nothing to do with them or with their idolatrous and sinful teaching. And if you do that, then God will welcome you, because though you may have sinned by turning away from God and from the true gospel, God is ready to forgive you and to receive you again.
Thirdly, from 2 Samuel 7:14:
And I will be a father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters.
This was God’s promise to David. Remember? God promised to give David a house, a dynasty, so that a long line of kings would come from him. And in verse 14 he said that he would regard David’s son as his own son. So, there would be this special relationship between the Lord and all the kings who were descended from David. But Paul changes what God said to David — he’s able to change it, because Paul was an apostle, who was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — and he applied God’s promise to David’s son to believers. God promises to be our Father and he regards us as his sons and daughters for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And Paul connects that with what he said previously about coming out from them and being separate and touching no unclean thing. So, Paul is saying to his readers that they need to separate themselves from these false teachers. They must break off their relationship with them. Stop listening to them. Be reconciled to God. And God will once again receive you and he will regard you as his children and will be a Father to you. These false teachers and their false teaching have come between you and God. Your relationship with the Lord has been spoiled. So, get rid of the false teachers and you will once again be reconciled to God.
So, don’t be yoked to those false preachers, because you have nothing in common with them, since you’re believers and they are not. So, come out from them. Separate yourself from them. And God will welcome you; and your relationship with him will be restored. That’s what Paul is saying to the Corinthians in verses 14 to 18. And then, in verse 1 of chapter 7, he adds that since we have these promises, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit. In the context of the passage, Paul is referring to the false teachers and to the defiling, contaminating influence of their false teaching. So, have nothing to do with them. Instead they should perfect their holiness. That is, they should bring their holiness to completion out of reverence for God. So, remembering that God is holy, his people should strive to be holy. And being holy means being separate. So, Paul is stressing yet again how the believers in Corinth must separate themselves from the false teachers and from the defiling influence of their false teaching.
I mentioned last week that, based on what Paul said in the previous passage, there are three questions we should ask ourselves about every preacher. Do you remember? What’s his message? What’s his character? Does he just want an easy life? And today’s passage underlines once again the importance of that first question. What’s his message? Is he preaching God’s word or a water-down version of God’s word? Is he preaching the true gospel or a false gospel? Is he preaching Christ crucified and risen? Or is he preaching a human-centred message which is all about us and the things we’re to do and which has very little to do with God and what he has done for sinners? The new preachers who had come to Corinth looked and sounded impressive, but because they weren’t preaching the true gospel, Paul made clear to his readers that the Corinthians should have nothing to do with them, because these false teachers would only contaminate and defile the people of God with their false teaching.
And so, the lesson once again is that we mustn’t be taken in by appearances and we mustn’t be led astray by externals. We mustn’t be deceived by what looks impressive and by what seems powerful and appealing and popular. None of these external things matter in the church of God. What matters most of all is the message. A preacher may be weak and ordinary and unimpressive. But is he preaching the word of God? Is he preaching the truth? That’s what counts, because that’s a message which will not contaminate or defile the people of God, but it’s a message which will build the people up in their faith and in their love; and it’s a message which will exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and bring glory to him.
But this passage also reminds us of the importance of the church. The church is the temple of God. That is, we, the people, are the temple of God. And we’re the temple of God, because God has chosen to dwell among us by his Spirit; and when we meet together for worship, God is here. And he is here to minister to us.
We often think about church as something we do. We sing psalms and hymns. We pray. We listen to the sermon. We are baptised. We take communion. It’s something we do. But church is primarily about what God does in us. He comes and dwells in our midst by his Spirit and he works among us when we gather for worship to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ and to build up believers in holiness and comfort.
That’s why we talk about the means of grace. The ordinary means of grace are the preaching of God’s word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and prayer. And we call these things the means of grace because these are the means God uses to work graciously among us. So, he uses the preaching of his word to convict us of our sins and to create faith in our hearts and to strengthen our faith. He uses the sacraments to reassure us of his love and his willingness to cleanse us from our guilt and to give us eternal life. He answers the prayers of his people to convert sinners and to build up believers. Church is not about what we do, it’s about what he does in us, because when we gather together on Sundays, he’s present with us by his Spirit and he comes to bless us.
And since we meet with God in church, we should prepare our hearts before we come, asking God to help us to worship him today and to receive his word with faith and humility. And since we meet with God in church, then we should come with a sense of expectation, expecting to meet with God and to hear his voice speaking to us through his word. And since we meet with God in church, then we should come to church and we should not stay away unnecessarily. Perhaps there are times when people cannot come, because of illness or infirmity or because of the risk of illness. We all know about that now, because of Covid. But no one should stay away unnecessarily, because God has promised to meet with his people when we gather for worship on Sundays.
And finally, we should remember to give thanks to God for his love and mercy towards us, because didn’t he send his one and only Son into the world to deliver us from wickedness and from darkness and from Satan’s tyranny and from unbelief and from idolatry? He sent his Son into the world to give himself for our sins and to rescue us from our sin and misery and to give us new life and a new hope. And through faith in Christ, we have been declared right with God and have received his Spirit to help us do what’s right. And we have been brought out of the darkness and into the light. We have been delivered from Satan’s tyranny and brought into Christ’s kingdom of grace. He’s rescued us from unbelief and from idolatry. Though we did not deserve any of this, he has welcomed us into his family and declared us to be his children. And he has taught us to call him Father and to look to him for all that we need. We did not deserve any of this, and we did not earn or merit it. And so we should give thanks to God for his grace and mercy and for the greatness of his love for us in Christ Jesus and for the promise that one day we will come into God’s presence in glory where he will dwell with us forever and forever.