If you've watched a box set on TV you'll be quite used to the three minute recap at the start of a new episode. Sometimes we find that quite frustrating because we just want to get on with the story. Sometimes we find it quite helpful because it reminds us what's happened previously. It's been a year or so since we first looked at 2 Corinthians together, so it's worthwhile recapping what's happened previously so we can get on with the story.
Paul planted the church in Corinth, a city we find in modern day Greece. It was a challenging place to follow Jesus. Corinth was stuffed full of temples of counterfeit gods. The goddess Aphrodite was worshipped as a prostitute. Paul later moved on to Ephesus, but while there, he likely received a letter from the Corinthians asking for some advice. That letter became the book of 1 Corinthians. Now at some point Paul made an emergency visit back to Corinth. And it seems likely that following that visit, Paul wrote a strong letter calling on the Corinthians to repent. Paul's friend Titus carried that letter. When Paul found out the Corinthians had accepted his message and repented, he wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians to express his thanksgiving for their renewed obedience.
The first section that we covered last year concerned Paul's apostolic ministry. God had appointed Paul to a ministry of reconciliation. Paul says to the Corinthians:
"We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." [2 Cor 5:20]
This call is supported by Paul's sacrificial ministry. Paul says to the Corinthians:
"As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in great troubles; hardships and distresses." [2 Corinthians 6:4]
Paul's love for the Corinthians is plain to see by the extents he goes to bring the gospel message. So he calls on them to be reconciled to God, and himself the bringer of God's message. Just look how personal Paul's tone is in 6:1-13:
"We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12 We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13 As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also."
What is the response Paul is looking for? What does it mean for them to open their hearts? We'll see from our passage today that Paul is calling the Corinthians to separate from the worship of counterfeit gods. For the Children of God are not to worship Counterfeit Gods.
You might think well this is going to be a very nice history lesson this morning, but not very relevant to me. You won't find any temples of Aphrodite here in Gateshead after all. But the reality is there are plenty of things in our lives that seek to God's place in our hearts. Does anything compete for God's place in your heart? If so, what Paul has to say is relevant to you too.
Paul gives his readers three truths they need to remember if they are turn from worshipping counterfeit gods. The first is this: Remember your identity (14-16a). Look with me at verse 14:
"Do not be yoked with unbelievers."
Believers are not to be yoked, or closely partnered, with unbelievers. Paul is using a image from Deuteronomy where it was prohibited for an ox and donkey to be yoked. It was unequal partnering. One animal smaller than the other, the other was quicker than the other. It's just a bit of a disaster when it comes to ploughing your field! So what does Paul mean when he says do not be yoked with unbelievers.
Firstly, it can't mean followers of Jesus are not to spend time with unbelievers. Jesus was known for hanging out with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Paul says 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 that it's impossible for followers of Jesus to withdraw from non-believers. Secondly, it can't mean non-believers are not to come to church meetings because it 1 Corinthians 14:24, Paul says he expects non-believers to come to church meetings. Thirdly, it can't mean believers who are married to non-believers are to divorce. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14:
"And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him…Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him."
On that note, if that is you today, you must trust God has assigned you the role of praying for and gently speaking of Jesus to your non believing husband or wife. Conversely, if you are following Jesus already, Paul's instruction not to yoke with unbelievers is relevant. It's right only to pursue marriage with other followers of Jesus. Similarly, believers should not "go out" with non-believers on the same principal.
Back to verse 14. What does Paul mean? The clue is in the five pairs of opposites Paul lists. Each pair reminds the Corinthians of their true identity. Look with at verse 14 again:
"For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God."
Believers are to obey God; unbelievers do not. Believers have given the light of the knowledge of God; unbelievers remain blinded to the light of the gospel by Satan. Believers are transferred to Christ's kingdom; unbelievers remain in the kingdom of darkness. Paul's argument climaxes in the final pair. Believers are the temple of God; unbelievers worship counterfeit gods.
This is the big clue to what Paul means when he says do not be yoked. In the Old Covenant, God's dwelling place was in the Jerusalem temple amongst his people. When Jesus came, he was the true dwelling place of God. Now God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in his people. Jesus is found now on earth where his people gather.
God's people are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul says don't forget it. Because that corporate identity changes everything. It was unthinkable to worship counterfeit gods made of metal in the temple. In the same way, it is unthinkable that the people of God, the temple, worship counterfeit gods!
But that's exactly what was going on in Corinth. And some of the believers were yoking with unbelievers to worship counterfeit gods. And it was so easy: There was the temple of Aphrodite; the temple of Apollo; around twenty statues to those Gods in public spaces; six other temples to Greek gods; and 5 precincts for religious cults.
In the temple complexes there were dining rooms where people would hold banquets and prayers would be made to the gods. So Paul says to them children of God are not to worship counterfeit gods.
What does that mean for me and you today? It might mean if you come from an East Asian background that you need to rethink taking part in ancestor worship. It might mean finding a new way to show honour your family, but not worship counterfeit gods. One member of the church told me that her children's school tarot evenings were popular with the parents. It would mean not getting involved in that.
It also means that none of us is worship neutral. If we're not worshipping Jesus, we're worshipping something or somebody else. If we're not trusting in Jesus, we're trusting in something else. Let me give you some examples. It might be another religion. It might be a way of thinking. I read an article in the Guardian last year by a man whose parents were members of the British Communist Party. He wrote, "How did my communist family get it so wrong? Because politics was their religion. Marxism gave my parents faith to last a lifetime and helped them deny reality."
For his parents communism was something they trusted to put the world right. It might be something like a job, or your possessions or your hobby. I watched a documentary about guys who are obsessed with going to the gym. One guy said, "The gym is my solace…some people turn to drink [I turn to the gym]." He totally understood that they gym was his life. It's something he turned to put the world right. Another man said, "I wouldn't be happy [if I didn't have this body]" Do you see what counterfeit gods do, they enslave us? We need them, if we can't have them we become unhappy.
This means what was Paul is saying is completely relevant to us all. Because apart from God's intervention, these counterfeit Gods enslave us. Even followers of Jesus are so often divided and distracted by counterfeit gods like the Corinthians were. But God's promises re-orientate our worship and trust. So after reminding the Corinthians of their identity, Paul next reminds them of God's promises. That's my second point: Remember God's Promises (16b-18).
Come with me to 16b:
"As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." Therefore, "Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."
Paul takes the words of Leviticus 26:11-12 and shows the Corinthians how God has kept it. Since the Corinthians have trusted in Jesus, they have received the Holy Spirit. So God does dwell in them. He has made them his people. They truly are the temple of the living God! From this wonderful truth flows a command. The command is from Isaiah 52:11 where the prophet calls the exiles to leave the worship of counterfeit gods in Babylon behind. The Corinthians are to come out from worshipping counterfeit gods and touch no unclean thing. And the command is accompanied by a promise: God will receive his people as they turn from counterfeit gods. And it's followed by an even more remarkable promise in verse 18:
"And, "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
Paul takes God's promise concerning David's son. Hebrews applies this promise to Christ. Paul takes this promise and applies it to Christ's people. Since the Corinthians trusted in Jesus, God has placed in them his Spirit and adopted them. Followers of Jesus can say, "God is my Father." The gospel changes our identity. God's promises remind us of what he's done!
I have a friend in America, and he has his wife have just adopted a little boy. I text him last week to find out how the adoption process has been going, and he sent me back a family photo of the little boy with his new family. His life is changed forever. New parents. A new brother and sister. A new home. When you trust in Jesus you have a new Father, family and home too. And with that new identity comes a new way of living. Apparently the Queen Mum used to say to her grandchildren, "Royal children, royal manners!" And that applies likewise to God's children. It's totally out of place to call God father yet continue to look to counterfeit gods. To look to anyone else for your life, your solace, your purpose is to deny his fatherhood and his goodness. Children of God are not to worship Counterfeit Gods.
So how do God's promises help us separate ourselves from the counterfeit gods we're so easily get distracted by? God's promises to be our Father re-orientate our worship. The gospel is our resource to turn from counterfeit gods.
Let's take for example someone whose work is their counterfeit god. Let's say they are driven by winning the approval of their boss. When they receive some negative feed back they have no solace. How does the gospel help undermine this counterfeit god? When we trust in Jesus we are adopted by God. He calls us his children. We have his royal approval and that means we don't have to enslaved to what people think of us. That means we're free to work hard to serve God and others, but not ourselves anymore.
Let's take the example of someone who finds solace in being control all the time. The more anxious you get, the more busy you become to take control of your situation. How does the gospel help undermine the counterfeit god? If God is your Father, then you have someone to take care of you. In fact, you know he went to the lengths of sending his son to die for you to provide for your sin. We still work and pray in difficulty, but it also means we can trust God to be in control.
So Paul has reminded the Corinthians of their new identity as temple people. He's reminded them of God's promise to be their Father. This not only gives us reason to separate from counterfeit gods but also the resource to leave them behind. Lastly Paul reminds his readers of their purpose. That's my final point: Remember your Purpose (7:1).
Look with me at 7:1 and we'll see the purpose that flows out of God's promises:
"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."
Followers of Jesus are to purify themselves which results in holiness. To be holy is to be set apart for God. Here Paul says it means separating yourself from the worship of counterfeit gods. We're moved by the gracious promises of God, but also out of a reverent awe for him too.
So what might it mean for us to practically purify ourselves? For the Corinthians it would mean quitting temple banquets. For many of us, that may not be our danger. Our danger comes not from metal counterfeit gods, but the mental counterfeit gods we've discussed.
Again there's nothing wrong with earning money, doing well at work and having fun but the problem arises when they become not just good things but God things in our lives. Our challenges will vary person by person according to our struggles and situations. It might mean if you've struggled with alcohol in the past avoiding pubs and clubs because the temptation will be far too great. One friend of mine who found work taking over her life decided early on in her career she would not work on a Sunday. Another person I know who has a demanding job has resolved to go to home group and prayer meeting regardless and work around it.
Let's sum up. Paul says to us God's children are not to worship counterfeit gods. How are we to separate ourselves from the counterfeit gods that distract and divide our hearts? We are to remember our identity. We are "temple people" whom God lives in by his Spirit. We are to remember God's promises. He has made us his royal children. This gives us a reason and resource to obey. We are to remember our purpose. To purify ourselves in reverent awe of God.