For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.—2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1
Last week I mentioned that I would aim to give you an update about having a second congregational meeting. I called for this second meeting in order to clear up any confusion that resulted from our May 18 special meeting. We have scheduled a second meeting for Sunday night, June 8, at 7pm. The Concerned Group has declined the invitation to participate in the meeting. I want to thank them for sending me a written statement that outlines their reasons for not participating, which I will read at the meeting on June 8. We care deeply about the future of our Family Discipleship vision at Bethlehem and we believe that this is an opportunity to clarify that vision and answer any questions that have been raised concerning it.
Clarity of vision and help for moving forward are themes that I continue to see God give to us through our study of 2 Corinthians. One perennial area of discussion here at Bethlehem has been how to engage a fallen world without compromising or becoming worldly. How do we reach out without selling out?
As part of this discussion, the word “separation” is a word that people love to hate or love to emphasize. People are either eager to embrace a narrow definition or they reject it completely. I want to redeem the word “separation” by seeing it in all of its biblical beauty. I want to draw out how the Bible answers this question, “How can we win the world if we are called to remain separate from the world?”
It should come as no surprise that I see two ditches here. Some people have an impulse to say, “The best way to win the world is to become like the world.” Their logic here has three parts. First, we need to be like the world so that, secondly, we can be liked by the world in order to, thirdly, win the world. Be like them so that we can be liked by them in order to win them. This strategy totally shuns any sense of separation. Did you catch the stinger in the tail of this situation? In order to be liked by the world, the church has to first be like the world. We will not win the world, but rather we will be won by the world. Reaching out to the world in this scenario actually means selling out and surrendering to the world. It is a loss not a win. If we win popularity points by denying our distinctive identity as the bride of Christ, then we have been unfaithful to Christ and our own book, the Bible, has terrible things to say about what will happen to us in that case.
Some dislike that view so much that they actually go to the opposite extreme. They are so scared of compromising, and they love to feel safe, so they really emphasize defense—I mean really, really emphasize defense. They embrace a narrow version of separation that turns into a “circling of the wagons” kind of separatism. The impulse here is to retreat and switch to a defensive posture. They stop short of joining a monastery, but they do form a safe Christian sub-culture that keeps all interaction with the world to an absolute minimum. The world gets a mixed message here: “We love you and want you to be reconciled to God, as long as you don’t get too close to us.” This is also a losing strategy.
Perhaps it is easier to see the flaw with both views through an analogy. Imagine that you are watching a basketball game. It is the church versus the world. The coach for the church does not like conflict and tries to minimize the idea of “opposing teams” at all. He wants everyone to just get along. His goal is to keep the peace. He encourages his team to just keep it loose and avoid any tension. His confused team is a little shocked by the aggressive full court press that the other team uses against them. Therefore, when things get too tense, they relieve the tension by just giving the other team the ball. They basically give up on trying to score. They assume that if they stop trying to score, then the other team will stop trying to score on them. They are more than a little surprised that the other team starts scoring even more. Finally, they realize that the other side does not like it when they play offense or defense, and they discover that a great way to keep the peace is just to join the other team. “Let’s make it seem like there are no ‘sides’ at all.” That approach is a good way to keep the peace, but a terrible way to win a basketball game.
Let’s say that the church now decides to replace the first coach with another coach. This coach lives by a tried and true strategy of the other ditch, “Defense wins basketball games” (that is a proven motto). He takes it a little too far, however, because he decides that the best way to play defense is to guard their basket all the time. (Did I mention this view really emphasizes defense?) He encourages his team to shoot the ball only as long as they do not cross the half-court line. That way, they can defend their basket all the time.
I hope you can see that this is a lousy strategy as well. “Defense wins basketball games” is a true statement, but it is never emphasized at the expense or exclusion of offense. No coach would counsel players to resist crossing the half-court line. Sure you keep the other team from scoring quite as much, but by definition you cannot win if you never score.
With awareness of these two ditches, the Bethlehem pastors have begun to work through a vision of outreach that says Christians are not called to be culture-compromising or culture-despising, but culture-engaging. As I have said before, we don’t want to be seeker-driven or seeker-insensitive, but rather, seeker-loving.
Let’s be clear on what we must hold onto rather than give up in the name of a liberal definition of love. If we seek to win people by losing the holiness of our lives and the purity of our doctrine, then we lose. This is why separation is part of the true (biblical) definition of love: If we lose our holiness and the purity of our doctrine, then not only do we lose, but the world loses too. Why? If the church becomes worldly, we lose the ability to give the world the alternative they need. They don’t need more worldliness, more of what they already have. They need something distinctly better! We are Christian hedonists after all. We believe that we have something much better to offer in Christ. Fullness of joy, in fact! Pleasures forevermore. We want to win them to Christ as the center and climax of all joy. In order to win them to Christ, we have to resolve to be a place and a people who are Christ-centered and Christ-exalting. We want to be a place where Christ is lifted up because if he is lifted up, then he will draw us and others into enjoyment of himself by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So how can we emphasize the right kind of separation? The apostle Paul portrays the biblical beauty of separation in three ways. First, he writes about the command for separation (2 Corinthians 6:14, 17 and 7:1). Second, he unpacks the logic of separation, and what I like to call “the yuck factor” (vv. 14–16a). Lastly, he speaks to the loveliness of separation or “the sweet factor” (vv. 16–18).
The Command of Separation
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.—2 Corinthians 6:14, 6:17; 7:1
The common explanation for the word “yoked” points to Deuteronomy 22:10, where the yoking together of unequally matched animals (i.e. an ox and a donkey) was prohibited. Animals that are not a matching pair will be ill-fitted to be a team together and end up getting rubbed raw. However, in our passage, the language Paul uses is actually closer to Leviticus 19:19, in which God forbids the cross-breeding of animals. In this case, when you breed two animals that are not a matching pair, you get something different altogether. I believe that idea is Paul’s intention and burden. When true Christianity and false Christianity are combined together, you get something that is muddied and is no longer true Christianity.
Note here what “yoked” does not mean. It does not mean believers and unbelievers should cut off all social ties. In these verses, Paul is not contradicting what he said in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
The church is to be the place where we focus our passion for purity and holiness. Why would you go around pronouncing the judgment of “outsider” to those who already define themselves as outsiders? Paul does not call the church to be the moral police of the world. What church prison would we lock them in? Rather, Paul is talking about keeping the church pure first and foremost, not the world. If the church is pure, we will serve better as salt and light in and to the world.
We want unbelievers to taste something otherworldly in the church by the power of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 14:24, Paul references unbelievers who were entering the Christian community and being convicted. If Paul is not calling Christians to retreat to a Christian sub-culture and minimize all contact with non-believers, what does he mean in this verse?
He means, “Do not join with unbelievers as allies.” The two sides cannot be mixed in actuality. Don’t try to combine mutually incompatible beliefs and lifestyles. When the church is combined with the world and the spirit of the age, you get something different than true Christianity every time. We are in a war. God has defined the battle lines. We don’t get to say, “Well, let’s pick our battles.” God has already picked our battles and drawn the lines—not just in the sand, but in stone, and even better, upon our hearts. We don’t get to erase the battle lines and draw them anywhere we like them.
You have probably all seen the Looney Tunes cartoons in which Bugs Bunny has no intention of fighting Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam pulls out both guns and Bugs says, “I dare you to cross this line.” Yosemite Sam says, “Ok, varmint.” After he crosses the line, Bugs draws another line and says the same thing, “Don’t cross this line.” Yosemite Sam crosses it. Bugs draws another line and another—don’t cross this one, this one, this one, and Yosemite Sam keeps crossing the lines until Bugs draws one near a cliff and Yosemite Sam falls off as he crosses it.
Sometimes it is a similar story with us, but that is not the way it ends for us. The church is so desperate to not offend anyone that we keep making lines and then backing up until we really don’t stand for anything distinctively Christian. When that happens, Christians are the ones who fall off the cliff and make shipwreck of our faith.
Don’t miss the connection between last week and this week. In the context of our passage, Paul is talking about being reconciled to God and himself as God’s apostle. Being reconciled to the true apostle means leaving the false apostles and those who follow them. This is remarkably strong language; Paul passionately calls it as it is. They are false. They are not believers.
Listen to what he says later in 2 Corinthians about the gravity of this situation. It is a matter of salvation. Their souls are at stake and the gospel is being called into question.
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.—2 Corinthians 10:2–4
Listen to verse 17 again, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing …” (emphasis added).
Go out from among them, and separate from them, and touch no unclean thing. The sense that Paul gives of separation is a purity issue. 2 Corinthians 7:1 emphasizes the same point: Separation relates to uncleanness. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (emphasis added).
You are supposed to feel the dirtiness and filthiness of the bride of Christ joining the ranks of those who reject Christ. It should give you a spiritual gag reflex. That is exactly the way Paul defends this command to separate as he unpacks it in verses 14–16.
The Logic of Separation [The Yuck Factor]
For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?—2 Corinthians 6:14–15
The logic here hinges on the first word, “For.” Believers should be separate from unbelievers and the reasons are clear and compelling. The amazing thing to note here is how Paul argues his reasons for why some things do not go together: He does not argue why directly. He simply brings together a running list of rhetorical questions. By doing this, he shows that the truth is self-evident.
Paul is doing something that is logical, but it is more than logical—it is a visceral response. A logical sense of separation would be how you respond to the thought of a scuba diver wearing snow boots. Picturing this is comical because it is so unfitting. Snow boots are for snow, not snorkeling. Paul is talking about more. The thought is not illogical and therefore comical; rather, it is visceral because you can feel the repulsion. You should feel the rightness of separation and be repulsed by joining them together. Mustard goes great on a hot dog, but not on your ice cream. Peanut butter and jelly go well together, so well in fact that you can actually buy them together—already mixed in the same jar. But you will never see a jar of peanut butter and jellyfish. Imagine a smelly jellyfish already mixed in your peanut butter jar. Crunchy peanut butter and squishy jellyfish. Yuck! I hope there is a visceral sense of revulsion. There ought to be a similar feeling, a spiritual gag reflex, felt even more strongly when one joins together these polar opposites: Righteousness/lawlessness, light/darkness, Christ/the devil, believers/unbelievers, and temple of God/idols.
But Paul wants to do more than repel you with the yuck factor; he wants to compel you with the sweet factor. He wants to repulse you with the bad bond, but he also wants to draw you in with the beauty of a better bond. Paul has stated the negative strongly and now he profoundly sweetens his point with the positive. God has separated some things in order to join some things together in a beautiful way.
The Loveliness of Separation [The Sweet Factor]
One of the ways to know that you are reading something rightly is to read the verses that follow to see if the author gives a summary of what he just said. After 2 Corinthians 6:16–18, Paul gives a summary for us in 7:1 saying, “Since we have these promises, beloved….” We should not read these as mean-spirited threats, but as luxuriously lovely promises. These promises remind us of all that we are and all that we have.
“For we are the temple of the living God; as God said….” This first promise comes from Leviticus 26:11–12, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The commands to “separate” and “touch no unclean thing” come from Isaiah 52:11, “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing ….”
Next comes a combination citation of Ezekiel 20:34 and 2 Samuel 7:14, “Then I will welcome you,” and “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
The one change that Paul brings is the inclusion of not just sons, but daughters. Why did Paul change this? He is including Isaiah 43:6–7:
I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
All of these Old Testament promises are begging to be unpacked further and I don’t have time to do so fully. I am going to return to address these texts in greater measure next week. This week let me emphasize one aspect of these texts: The family imagery. God is a Father; we are the sons and daughters. What a sweet, tender image! The church is the place of God’s presence, his dwelling place. He chooses to dwell here with his people.
Do you see the sweetness of the image of separation here? God walks among us and we are his people. That is why we want to separate ourselves further from the world because the sight of his arms open wide is more compelling than the beckoning call of the world to other things. God says, “I will welcome you.” In other words, look at what we would miss! Most of us would jump at the chance if you got a personal invitation from a celebrity to come to their house. God is infinitely greater than any celebrity and anyone else, and you have a personal invitation to dwell with him.
The Fear of God and Our Future Hope
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.—2 Corinthians 7:1
One commentator said that only Christians can truly fear God, because only Christians know how much they have to lose. Everyone else knows at an academic level if you explain it to them; Christians know at a deeper, experiential level. We have tasted the sweetness of communion with God. We have been brought into the family. Others do not truly know the joy of being part of the family. But we know, and therefore we understand what it would be like to have to leave the family!
This fear pushes us towards family purity. Here is why I call it family purity. Purity comes from a common tie. For us, our family is bound together by Christ and therefore our family tie is Christlikeness. Paul describes this in Romans 8:28–30.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Knowing that we are sons and daughters in God’s family should change the feel of our lives and our life together in corporate worship. Our corporate worship gatherings should reflect the fact that we are the temple of the living God, his dwelling place. Worship services should have more than the cultural standards of niceness and friendliness; they should have a sense of holiness and transcendence, repulsion at the bad news of sin, and love of the greatest news of Christ’s death and Resurrection.
Let’s apply this to one example of corporate worship: Communion. We are called to celebrate communion in a worthy manner. If our family tie of Christlikeness is impacting our lives, Christ-centeredness will mark the church and makes her separate from the world. We worship Christ, and the Father is working out his plan to make us more like Christ. That is our family tie. This bond shows strongly in the Lord’s Table. If that tie is impacting our lives, we could not bear to celebrate communion in a manner unworthy of the body and blood of Christ. We do not want to be unfaithful to Christ by partaking of communion while cherishing sin in our hearts. Communion is to be pure worship. Keep your hearts from idolatry. That is what self-examination is all about. Listen to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:14–22:
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
What should you do when you find sin and impurity as you take communion? Remember what Christ has done for you. Communion calls us to remember the ugliness of the cross before we ever see its beauty. The joining of sin and the sinless Christ should shock our senses. It is a picture of infinite beauty meeting the infinite offense of sin. The Giver of life tasted death for us. The hands that healed were being pierced for us. As an old hymn by Samuel Crossman says,
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight.
—My Song is Love Unknown, 1664
It doesn’t seem to fit; but it is not supposed to fit. Jesus suffered for our sins: the just for the unjust; the clean for the dirty; the pure for the impure; the righteous for the unrighteous.
Remember what participation in the blood of Christ means. In the OT, people who were pure became impure when they touched something unclean. The unclean thing had power over the clean thing. However, a different picture emerges in the Gospels. One touch from Jesus’ perfect purity cleanses the dirty. Jesus is so pure that his purity is stronger than the impure things. Touching impure things doesn’t pollute him. Touching Jesus purifies the polluted!
In the same way, have you seen the beautiful cleansing power of the blood? It is too pure to be defiled. I don’t know if you have ever seen what a bathtub looks like when very dirty people take a bath. The water is gross and dirty. The blood of Christ is not like that. When sinners are plunged beneath that flood, they lose all their guilty stains. Jesus’ blood never loses its purifying power.
You see, the sweetest thing about the word “separation” is its use to describe how strong God’s love is for us. He is so elevated and so separate from us at one level, but at another level he has chosen to come to us and not be separate from us. That is why the promise of Romans 8 is so astounding: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Talk about the beauty of separation! We can stay separate from the world because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Closing Song: "There Is a Fountain"
- Have you ever found yourself becoming like the world in an attempt to win the world for Christ? How might this strategy run contrary to the Scriptures?
- Have you ever found yourself separating yourself from the world, and thus eliminating any opportunity to engage the world for Christ? How might this strategy run contrary to the Scriptures?
- What is the best way for the Church to engage and win the world? Why?
- Why can only Christians truly, fully fear God? What impact might this have on our relationships with believers and unbelievers?
- Worship services should contain more than the cultural standards of niceness and friendliness. They should hold a sense of holiness and transcendence. Does this reflect your view of the family of Christ gathering on the weekends to worship God together? Why or why not?
- Christians are not called to be culture-compromising or culture-rejecting, but culture-engaging. What are some ways that you can engage the culture this week be a light in the darkness? (John 1:5)
- How does the Cross and future glory impact your view of personal holiness in the present? Do you sense God calling you to conform more and more into his image in any particular area of your life?
- Have the Scriptures sweetened the word “separation” for you so that you see it in its biblical balance and beauty?