Over the past few years, part of my morning ritual has gone something like this.
At 6.45am, wake daughter (who shall remain nameless) as requested. At 7.00am, return to wake said daughter again. This time, she speaks, and I leave. At 7.14am, the process is repeated, and this time, At 7.29, I go back, wake her again, gently, and lovingly remove the covers and escort her to the bathroom. At 7.48, I suggest that she leaves the bathroom, and remind her that she needs to eat something before she goes, and that she needs to hurry up or she’ll miss the bus. Five more minutes, and I repeat. Then finally at 7.57, I lovingly yell ‘THE BUS IS COMING, LEAVE RIGHT NOW’, as she runs up the stairs, shoes in one hand, piece of toast in the other, still fixing her hair, as she limps in the direction of the bus stop.
In this letter so far, Paul has wooed and persuaded and cajoled and appealed and commanded them to stick with him and the gospel. The Corinthians have defied, prevaricated, dragged their heels and come up with all kinds of excuses. By 2nd
Corinthians 6, Paul is yelling (in a godly way) YOU ARE GOING TO MISS THE BUS! Chapter 6 is not subtle, and it’s written with the CAPS LOCK on, as Paul tells them bluntly to do 5 things. You’ll see the first in 6:1-2:
ACT NOW! (6:1-2)
Paul’s opening salvo in this section runs like this:
2 Cor 6:1 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
I hope you can feel the weight of what Paul is saying here, for these are strong words. The fact that Paul can say he is working together with God
instantly invests his words with real authority, as he urges
them not to receive the grace of God in vain
The Corinthians had known Paul for years. He had lived in Corinth, teaching them week by week. After Paul left, he kept up a running correspondence with them, writing them the longest letter in the NT, and now this letter (which is not short). They had privileged access to a man who was surely the greatest theologian-teacher there has ever been. And Paul’s fear is that it will come to nothing. That they will receive the grace of God in vain.
Being part of a church like ours here at MPC comes with a heavy responsibility. Over the years, we’ve had rich teaching. We are surrounded by brothers and sisters who encourage us in the gospel. Add in books, and podcasts and websites, and we have easier access to more teaching than anyone in history. But the problem is that it is still possible for us to have all this and it make no real and lasting difference. To receive the grace of God in vain
, and end up nowhere, with the gospel having made no lasting impact on our lives. It’s a chilling prospect, isn’t it? The words Paul uses conjures up an unoccupied house, or an empty jug. He warns us that we may have done this in the past, or may be doing it right now, or we could do it in the future. It’s possible to receive the grace of God in vain at any point. So how do we avoid this? What’s the alternative? It’s actually quite simple, and it’s spelled out in verse 2:
For he says “”In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, nowis the time of God’s favour, nowis the day of salvation.
God tells us to ACT NOW!
He’s quoting Isaiah 49:8. In Isaiah, God is speaking to his servant, whom we know to be Jesus. The prophet gets to glimpse the day in which the Father would help Jesus the Son complete his rescue mission on what he calls ‘the day of salvation’, when Jesus died and rose again. But Paul knows that now that Jesus has shown up, every day is the day of salvation. God has spoken, now TODAY is the time to act. That was true as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and it’s for us this morning as we open up the Bible. We face a straight choice: listen and respond, or receive the grace of God in vain. As the writer to the Hebrews says ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts… ‘
It is frighteningly easy to say ‘ I know you are speaking to me Lord – I have taken a note of it and will respond in due course.’ But when God addresses us, it has to take priority over everything! lest we receive the grace of God in vain.
Act now. And secondly…
EMBRACE REALITY! (6:3-10)
There are several places where Paul gives us a snapshot of life as apostle to the gentiles, and it isn’t entirely what we might have expected! But before we dive into the beatings and slander we need to make sure we’ve understood why
Paul takes them – and us – through all this… he desperately wants to Corinthians to get the fact that this is what real life with Jesus looks like
. In their success-mad, reputation-driven, ultra-ambitious hearts and culture, Paul longs for them to realise that looking slick means nothing, that having a great CV isn’t worth the parchment it’s written on, and sounding impressive without substance will get you nowhere. He longs for them to accept and embrace the reality of an authentically gospel shaped life – which is where he takes us in verses 3-10.
All that he writes is governed by the principle that
3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…
For Paul, ‘commending ourselves’ is all about being the real deal. Making sure that our words and lives match. It’s about authenticity and integrity.
Paul starts off with a list of struggles in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;
then he switches to a list of eight resources or graces – in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;.
He then moves on to the ups and downs of this ministry 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report;
Before finally laying out the ways in which God reverses the disadvantages he faces for the good of the gospel: genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything…
It’s some list, isn’t? But this is faithfulness, This is what God is calling us to. So have you embraced this? We could spend ages working through this list, highlighting the nuance of every term that Paul uses, but I think it’s more useful to ask four questions which flow out of the four movements of the list:
Are you ready for the rest of your life to be hard?
It really will be. The particular shape of difficulty we may face is unpredictable – but the fact that life will be hard is. Let me break it to you gently – you will not be well paid. You will not be a much sought-after dinner guest. You will be excluded, sidelined and whispered about. You may be sued. It is going to be hard. Better to get used to that idea now.
Are you committed to using only gospel-shaped means and methods in ministry?
No doubt some of those philosopher-types who had so damaged the work in Corinth were terribly impressive. The fact that they were, in all likelihood, Sophists, who were the origin of sophistication, is a clue to that. But Paul had a markedly different approach. His priorities were purity
(a rare word, which probably means something like straightforwardness, sincerity or guilelessness), understanding
(referring here to the knowledge of God through Christ)patience
(rather than the kind of entitled behaviour so typical of those making a living on the philosophy circuit), an emphasis on the fact that he could achieve nothing without the Holy Spirit.
Paul also prioritized the genuine love
as we saw last week for the people he is speaking to, as he brings them the word of truth
(rather than the NIV’s by truthful speech
), and the power of God with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.
That may be a reference to Ephesians 6, or, I think more likely, an expression of dependence on God working through his word. Paul’s proclaims Christ from God’s word in the power of the Spirit backed up by his own authenticity – love for people, patience with them, refusing to bignote himself, look down on others or use manipulation. Is that how we do things as the church? Which takes us to a third question arising out of verses 3-10…
Are you prepared for the fact that you will be praised and damned in equal measure?
As I was writing this talk, I started to type ‘Having had plenty of both, I can honestly say that for me, praise is much harder to cope with.” Then I thought for a moment, and changed it to ‘being slandered is harder… ‘ but you know what? They are both really tough to take. To be a follower of Jesus is to be confronted with the temptation of growing big-headed on the one hand and being crushed by shame and despair on the other. They are actually equal and opposite forms of the same thing – one is pride on a good day, the other pride on a bad one. Both boasting and self-pity have the same root – acting as if the way we feel about ourselves is what matters! Calvin commented on this verse ‘we should keep the same even course unperturbed in either glory or dishonour’.
And how do we do that? That takes us to the final question.
Are you convinced that you can only find security and satisfaction in Christ?
In the series of ‘matching pairs’ with which Paul brings this section to a close, the crucial thing is what turns the negative into the positive. Listen to the list again… genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything..
What makes the difference – it’s the security that we have in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul knows he is not an imposter, but one who speaks the truth in Christ, who is known by Christ, who has tasted new life in Christ, whose destiny is untouchable because he is safe in Christ. All of us with Paul can rejoice in Christ, can hold out life to others in Christ, have all things in Christ. It is in Christ
that we have the resources, the strength, the energy we need to serve him.
I think the single most important conversation I have ever had about ministry was with Bruce Winter, who, coincidentally, was my predecessor here at QTC. In a brief conversation in England in 1991 just before I started my PhD, Bruce sat with me and a couple of others and reminded us very simply that whatever we or others may think, our security and satisfaction and significance came only from the fact that we had been united to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. I have no idea whether Bruce said that to every student, or it was a one-off moment of inspiration, but it had the same life-shaping effect on me that Paul wanted this section of his letter to have on the Corinthians, as he says this is the real thing – this is authenticity – this is the reality of the gospel-shaped life, so let’s so embrace it.
OPEN YOUR HEARTS! (6:11-13)
Now let’s pause there and take a breath – remember this passage is built on five imperatives – and we’ve seen the first two – act now, and embrace reality. The third comes in 6:11-13, where Paul tells them to Open their hearts!
Paul uses exactly that language from verses 11-13 –
2 Cor 6:11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.
The relational issue between the apostle and the church plant is not Paul’s overbearing or dominating attitude – it is whether the Corinthians are willing to open their hearts to Paul.
I think most of us, if we’re honest, tend instinctively to veer to one of two poles. Some of us are naturally cynical and suspicious, and some of us are more naturally gullible. For some of us, relating to others is reduced to a matter of pure truth. For others, truth goes out the window, and it’s all about love. So how do we negotiate this relational minefield? Copy Paul – let’s speak freely – be completely upfront and unapologetic about the truth, and open our hearts to anyone who is willing to stand with us, which flows into the 4th
thing Paul says…
STICK WITH US! (6:14-18)
For the record, may I say upfront that I think it is a terrible idea for Christians to marry non-Christians, and that the Bible makes that very clear in hundreds of places. I also think that smoking and excessive use of alcohol is bad for you, and should generally be avoided by all sensible people everywhere.
However, I also am convinced that being unequally yoked is not primarily about marriage, and that Paul introduces the fact that we are the ‘temple of the Lord’ to do something more than persuading us all to switch to cholesterol lowering spread, cut back our consumption of regular Coke. These verses are the climax of the argument that Paul has been developing since chapter 2, as he calls the Corinthians to stick with him. Here’s what he says:
2 Cor 6:14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
In the first place, Paul is calling the Corinthians to stick with him – and by extension to stick with Christ and the gospel, rather than opting to run with those who were offering an alternative view of the world. This isn’t about entering business partnerships, or only using Christian electricians. This is about sticking with the gospel, which becomes even clearer in verse 15
What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
This is strong stuff – Paul is characterising his opponents (for the very first time) as unbelievers. Their teaching, their theology, their philosophy of ministry is so far from that of Christ that he is left with no option but to ‘out them’ as unbelievers
. He goes as far as saying that those who oppose him are actually on the side of Satan (Belial). Verse 16
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God…
We, the church, are the new covenant temple – it is in us, among us, that God has taken up residence by his Spirit. That’s why we should stick together and slam the gate closed in the face of anyone who would drive us apart, because they are doing the work of the Evil One.
Paul backs up this pretty harsh conclusions with a string of OT quotations – first, from Leviticus and Ezekiel: I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people..
Then Isaiah 52:11 – “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you then I will welcome you,
followed by 2 Samuel 7:14, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me says the Lord Almighty.”
– this was actually talking about Jesus, but Paul grabs it and applies it to us, because in Christ, we get to share in his relationship with his father! How good is that?
So get this – Paul piles up these OT quotations to show us that in Jesus Christ we get to enjoy life with God, in his presence. The Temple symbolised that, but right here, right now it’s become real! God is with us. This is what God has given us here at MPC! How could we throw that away? Whether for some second rate fusion of Sophist philosophy and Corinthian culture – or because we have different perspectives on difficult events? So act now, embrace reality, open your hearts, stick together, and summing it all up…
What are we to do with all this?
2 Cor 7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
The promises are those extravagant OT gospel promises we’ve just seen – that God would come to us and make his home with us, to be our God and to make us his people. So Paul says because of that, we need to run away from spiritual adultery, and commit ourselves to a gospel-shaped, gospel-empowered faithfulness. He says let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
What does he mean? Reflecting on what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ, pre-eminently in his death and resurrection, should ultimately lead us to throw ourselves into living for in a way which fits with the fact that we belong to the one and only God (that is we should live holy lives). And we should do this for the rest of our lives (until God has finished the process of making us more like the Lord Jesus). And we should do it in the awareness that we are living with and before and for the God of all power and holiness, to whom we will all give an account for the way in which we lived.
Isn’t it sobering that the fear of the Lord
is what motivates Paul? Of course, he is moved and shaped by the gospel of grace, but the fact remains that the God who reaches down to us in the Lord Jesus Christ is the God of the universe, the maker and judge of all things, the one before whom everyone will one day now. Paul calls the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
Now he he tells the Corinthians to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.
This is not a game. God himself is speaking to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who died and rose again for us. But this is the word of God to us today: Bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.
As God’s people, we are imperfect people living together imperfectly in an imperfect world. We have mucked things up, we are mucking them up and no doubt we will muck things up. But God has broken into our lives through the gospel. He has made us his. He has drawn us into the warm embrace of his family. He has given us his grace. Let’s not receive it in vain. Let’s act now; let’s embrace the mess of reality; let’s open our heartsm and stick together. Let’s commit ourselves to him and to each other afresh in repentance and faith, and let’s do that as we come to his table together. Amen.