As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 Corinthians 6:1
Paul sees himself as a co-worker with God, and he also sees his helpers as co-workers. The Greek word is sunergountes and it means to partner with God (1 Cor. 3:9).1 We will see from the rest of this chapter that God’s work was a very difficult work, not only for Paul, but for his helpers. The apostle is here challenging the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God in vain. We see from a number of Scriptures that such a thing is possible (Gal. 5:4; Heb. 2:3; 3:14; 6:4-6; 10: 35-36; 12:25). The New Jerusalem Bible reads here, “As his fellow-workers, we urge you not to let your acceptance of his grace come to nothing.” In 2 Corinthians 13:5, he will challenge them to examine themselves to see if they have failed the test. In 13:6, he will assure them that he and his helpers have not failed.
“For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (6:2). Here Paul is quoting Isaiah 49:8, from the Septuagint Greek version. The Old Testament spoke of a day of salvation, and now Paul declares that that day has come. Interestingly, the Hebrew of Isaiah 49:8 speaks of yom yeshua (day of salvation).2 Of course, the word yeshua later became the very name of the Messiah Jesus (Yeshua). His name means “salvation.”
Clearly, the day of salvation has now arrived. Early Christians were greatly excited about this opportunity of salvation and they knew that the offer would not last— that it was urgent for people take advantage of it. In our day, we have almost forgotten this wonderful offer. We have spurned it and even tampered with it. William Booth once said: “The chief danger of the twentieth century will be: Religion without the Holy Ghost,
Christianity without Christ, Forgiveness without repentance, Salvation without regeneration, Heaven without hell.” Francis Schaeffer adds, “Man always tries to sneak a humanistic element into salvation.” 3
We must take advantage of salvation while the day of salvation still lasts. The time will come when the offer or gift will no longer be extended. Comfort tells of a little girl in a comic strip who said: “Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is future. All we have is today. Today is a gift. That is why it is called ‘the present.’” 4 The Scripture warns us: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6). Barnes says, “The day of mercy will be closed; the period of trial will be ended; and people will be removed to a world where no mercy is shown, and where compassion is unknown.” 5 The Scripture further warns us, “So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness…’” (Heb. 3:7-8). Hebrews also says, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
PAUL’S RESUMÉ OF HARDSHIPS
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.
2 Corinthians 6:3
The word for stumbling block is proskopē in the Greek. It is a word not used anywhere else in the New Testament and it means simply to strike against or to stumble.6 Paul often speaks of the glorious building or temple that God is constructing with his people (v.16). In that structure, we can either be building stones or stumbling stones. The apostle was determined not to be a stumbling stone to the Corinthians. Meyer looks at it in another way and says that we should be stepping stones rather than stumbling stones— that we should become “ascending stairways for other souls.” 7
Satan dearly loves to find some weakness, some fault or crack in the armor of God’s ministers. He will then display that fault far and wide in order to bring disgrace to the church. The Scottish author, Walter Scott once made this great claim, “I have unsettled no man’s faith, I have corrupted no man’s principles.” 8 Paul was able to make a similar claim or boast.
“Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;” (6:4). Here the apostle could easily have begun a list of his great achievements and successes in the ministry. Instead of doing so, he rather submits a list of his difficult situations and the things he had endured for the Lord.9 We might call it Paul’s résumé of hardships.
We want to take a look at the words Paul uses to describe his great suffering. The first is “endurance” (hupomone). Barclay sees this as an almost untranslatable word that has to do with spiritual staying power. He says, “It is the spirit which can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope.” 10 This characteristic needs to be seen in Christians. Much to our shame, this quality often shows up in the people of this world rather than in God’s beloved. For instance, Lucille Ball was kicked out of drama school. They told her she was wasting her time. Michael Jordan wept after he was cut from his basketball team. Walt Disney got fired from his newspaper job because he just didn’t exhibit “imagination.” Well, these people “kept on keeping on” until they all arrived at great fame and recognition. 11
In the world around us there are many such stories of perseverance. A teacher once told a little seven-year-old boy that he wasn’t creative and that he should drop out of school. The boy’s name was Thomas Edison. After listening to one of his compositions, the Emperor told the composer that it had too many notes and was too noisy. The composer was Mozart. Someone remarked that a painter’s work would never be remembered. The painter was Rembrandt. A Munich schoolmaster once told a ten-year-old boy that he would never amount to much. The boy’s name was Albert Einstein.12
As Christians, we should keep on keeping on with the Lord’s help. We too will one day arrive at stardom, but it will be stardom in the heavenly realms.
The next word Paul uses in this verse is the Greek thlipsis (troubles), meaning the afflictions, pressures or anxieties of life.13 I think too many times we do not recognize that these things are often sent by God to toughen us up and teach us endurance. We can easily become discouraged and depressed when all kinds of troubles and hardships come our way. “There are things which weigh down a man’s spirit like the sorrows which are a burden on his heart and the disappointments which are like to crush the life out of him …The inescapable pains of life.” 14 Luke reports in Acts 14:22, that “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God…” (ESV).
The other two words Paul uses are anagke (hardships), which refers to the necessities of daily life, and stenochōria (distresses), which has to do with inescapable anxieties. This latter word is a picture of an army or others being caught in a rocky defile where it is impossible to maneuver or escape.15 An example of a Christian who overcame great obstacles and still served the Lord in a marvelous way, was Fanny Crosby, who wrote many of our hymns. Fanny was blind all her life, but she maintained a cheerful spirit that was reflected in her hymns. When she was 8 years old she wrote this little poem:
Oh, what a happy child I am
Although I cannot see,
I am determined that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot and I won’t.
On her gravestone the words of one of her great hymns were written: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.” 16
Paul continues: “in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;” (6:5). It seems almost unthinkable that the man who brought the greatest blessing the western world has ever received, was repeatedly beaten for it. He had received forty lashes minus one, on five occasions from the Jews (11:24); he was beaten three times with rods. This was the official Roman scourging, from which some did not survive. We have no way of knowing how many other “unofficial” beatings Paul may have endured.
The apostle was also imprisoned for bringing good news. Being imprisoned in the ancient world was no small matter. If a person did not have family and friends to bring food, one could starve in prison. Others could grow discouraged and despondent. We see in Scripture that Paul and Silas rejoiced in prison (Acts 16:25). While a prisoner in Rome, Paul managed to have great influence upon the palace guard (Phil.1:13). From his confinement he wrote the wonderful prison epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon and Philippians. The latter is often called the epistle of joy. We do not have all the times recorded that Paul was in prison. Clement of Rome, who may have been a contemporary, tells us that Paul was imprisoned a total of seven times.17
The list of atrocities continues as Paul mentions riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. Someone has said that everywhere he went Paul would either bring a revival or a riot. The word “hunger” here is the word nesteia, and it should be translated as fasting or a fast.18 It is possible that some of these fasts were forced upon him due to scarcity of food. When we think of all these things combined, we can realize that the apostle worked under extreme pressure. Chrysostom comments: “Any one of these things is intolerable, but taken together, think what kind of soul is needed to endure them!” 19
Paul continues his list: “in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love;” (6:6). Here we surely have some character traits of effective ministers.20 Let us look more closely at some of these. Commentators see many shades of meaning in the word purity. It has to do with chastity and holiness of life. This was no small order in a depraved city like Corinth. But it also has to do with things like integrity, uprightness, singleness of purpose. The word “understanding” is involved with knowledge. In Malachi 2:7 we read: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.”
The minister of God should be a person of patience and kindness. The word for patience is makrothumia. It is a long word and it means patience with people. I like to call it loooong suffering. It is mentioned together with kindness for the two are very much alike. One commentator describes it as “the sympathetic kindliness or sweetness of temper which puts others at their ease and shrinks from giving pain.” 21 A successful pastor really needs both long suffering and kindness.
The minister of God needs to live and walk in the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:16 advises us, “…walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” God’s person should be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-19) and be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). The Spirit of God is the spirit of love and God’s worker needs to overflow with the love of the Lord. Barnes says, “… The prominent characteristic in the life of the Redeemer was love – love to all…No man is useful without it; and ministers, in general, are useful just in proportion as they have it.” 22 The word for genuine or sincere love is anupokritōi. We can probably recognize “un-hypocritical” in this Greek word. The word had its roots in the Greek theatre where some actors wore masks to pretend that they were someone they were not.23
The list goes on and on as Paul says, “in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;” (6:7). Today, a handful of influential postmodern philosophers have greatly cheapened truth. Truth has become a relative thing, where one person’s truth is just as true as another person’s. There is no longer a universal standard of truth. One writer has gone so far as to say that truth is now dead. As Christians we know better. We know that these philosophers have exchanged the truth for a lie (Rom. 1:25). We know that truth is a person, Jesus Christ, and that the truth of the Lord will endure forever (Psa. 117:2). The person of God must bind truth around his or her waist. This is the very first part of God’s armor that we are to put on (Eph. 6:14). If it is not on, our sword of the Spirit will surely fall off.
We see here that the man of God or minister of God should stand strong in the power of God with weapons ready. These should be in our right and left hands. No doubt, we have a reference to the sword of the Spirit in the right hand (the word of God) and the shield of faith in the left.24 We would thus be prepared for both offensive and defensive warfare.
We are to stand and fight, “through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors;” (6:8). We cannot help but notice all the paradoxes in Paul’s ministry. We must add that sincere servants of God may begin to notice some of these paradoxes in their own ministries. Pett says, “The life of the godly man is a life of contrasts. On the one hand glory, glory in God’s working, glory in his goodness, glory in his truth, and on the other dishonor, the mockery and contempt of the world, the being treated as dirt for his sake (1 Cor. 4:13).” 25
In the western world at least, God’s workers are not beaten, stoned or imprisoned. Rather, their treatment is often more of an emotional or mental thing. Barclay says, “Nowadays it is not the violence but the mockery or the amused contempt of the crowd against which the Christian must stand fast.” 26
Paul says he was “known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:9-10). Paul was obviously poorly treated by the Corinthians. They simply did not recognize who he was and what he had done for them. Today, some two thousand years later, we know Paul the Apostle as probably the most famous and influential Christian who ever lived. We acknowledge him as the one person who almost singlehandedly brought the gospel to the whole western world.
The apostle died daily for the Lord’s cause (1 Cor. 15:31), yet he somehow lived on. How true the words of Psalm 118:18 were in his life: “The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” What astounding paradoxes in his life— “beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” George Washington, warrior and father of the American nation, is said to have had four bullet holes in his jacket, and bullet fragments in his hair. He also had two horses shot out from under him. Yet, he survived and carried on his great task. No one can really kill a servant of God until his work for the Lord is accomplished on earth.
Paul had nothing, yet he was filled with the joy of the Lord. He didn’t own a fancy home back in Jerusalem. He had no money, except the meager amount he earned as a tentmaker or what the churches gave him in offerings. Yet, he was able to give receptive souls the gospel of Jesus, which was of more worth than fine gold (Psa. 19:10). From a worldly point of view he had nothing, but from a heavenly point of view he had everything. How well he followed after his Master. Once he said: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (8:9).
WITH OPEN HEARTS
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you.
2 Corinthians 6:11
Paul has been brutally honest about himself and now he desires the same response from the Corinthians. He had held nothing back from them, now he wants them to hold nothing back from him. His heart was wide open to them and he wanted their hearts to be open also.
Comfort asks: “Who would submit a list of failures to one’s critics…What preacher would admit he was perplexed and troubled?” 27 Paul was speaking the truth to them in love (Eph. 4:15). It is interesting that Paul did not usually address his readers by name. He only did so when he was deeply stirred (Gal. 3:1).28
“We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us” (6:12). One of the deepest needs of humans is to be loved and appreciated. In his classic Principles of Psychology, William James admitted that he had made an omission in his book. He spoke of that omission as the need for appreciation.29 Paul no doubt had such a need and the Corinthians could have easily met that need. We all have such a need and we must never shirk the opportunity to love and appreciate others around us.
In the ancient world, when people opened their hearts or affections the word they often used was splagchnon. Barclay tells us that it had the meaning of the upper viscera, or the heart, liver and lungs. Emotions were thought to lie in these organs. Today, we place the seat of emotions in the heart alone. Sometimes the translations read “bowels,” but the upper viscera is more appropriate than the lower viscera.30 However, we do at times get that feeling in the “pit of our stomachs” regarding some urgent matter.
“As a fair exchange— I speak as to my children— open wide your hearts also.” (6:13). Barnes says, “…One ground of the claim which he had to their affection was, that he sustained toward them the relation of a father, and that he had a right to require and to expect such a return of love.” 31 Obviously, the Jewish false apostles had not introduced them to Christ. Paul had done so, and thus had become their spiritual father, whether or not they realized this fact. The commandment to honor fathers would seem also to apply to those who were spiritual fathers (Exo. 20:12).
BEING UNEQUALLY YOKED
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 2 Corinthians 6:14
To be unequally yoked with unbelievers is the word heterozugountes. This concept is drawn from Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:10. In the latter verse we read, “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” 32 The ox and the donkey obviously had different strengths and would require different yokes. It was an unequal and unfair relationship. This was a biblical principle that would apply in many areas of everyday life.
No doubt, some of the Corinthians had maintained unholy relationships with unbelievers. Some probably had guilty consciences from attending banquets at idol temples. Barclay gives us some of the implications of this principle upon the Corinthian Christians:
Often it meant that a man had to give up his trade. Suppose he was a stone mason. What was to happen if his firm received a contract to build a heathen shrine? Suppose he was a tailor. What was to happen if he was instructed to cut and sew garments for priests of the heathen gods? Suppose he was a soldier. At the gate of every camp burned the light upon the altar sacred to the godhead of Caesar. What was to happen if he had to fling his pinch of incense on that altar in token of his worship?…It is told that a man came to Tertullian. He related his problem and then he said, “But after all I must live.” “Must you?” said Tertullian.33
The principle of separation has always characterized God’s people. God told Abraham to leave his city, his country and his people (Gen. 12:1). Abraham crossed over the great Euphrates river and traveled to the land of Canaan. As he crossed over (eber in Hebrew) he inadvertently gave the name to his people, the “Hebrews” (those who cross over). The Hebrews also crossed over the wilderness and crossed over the Jordan into the land of promise. Today, Christians continue to be the people who cross over and separate themselves from the pagans of this world.
Barclay tells the story of F.W. Charrington of his country. His family had made a fortune in the brewing business. However, as he was passing a tavern he noticed a woman waiting at the door. She was waiting for her husband who soon appeared. The woman tried her best to keep her husband from going back in to the tavern. Yet, with one blow of his fist the man knocked her down. Charrington then looked up to see that the name on the tavern was his own. Charrington said, “With that one blow that man did not only knock his wife out, he also knocked me clean out of that business forever.” With that, he gave up his business and his fortune. He would no longer earn his money in such a manner.34
The problem of being unequally yoked, as we mentioned, could apply in many areas. Husbands and wives can be unequally yoked, if one is a believer and the other is not. In 1 Corinthians Paul makes plain that a believer’s mate must be another believer (1 Cor. 7:39).
Also the principle would apply to business relationships. Many are the Christians who have suffered severely because they have become partners in business with unbelievers. Coffman jokingly gives this illustration: “Two men went in business together; one had the money, and the other had the experience. After about a year, the one who had the experience had the money, and the one who had had the money had the experience!” 35
We must come out and be separate from them. Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) said: “Since there is a distinct and irreconcilable contradiction between light and darkness, the person partaking of both has a share in neither…” 36
“What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (6:15). This is the only mention of the name Belial in the New Testament. However, it was a name commonly used for Satan in the First Century. It has the meaning of “worthlessness” or “lawlessness.” 37
Paul asks “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” The word for “harmony” in Greek is sumphōnēsis. As we can guess, this word refers to the harmony when musical instruments are brought together.38 There cannot be unity, unison, or harmony when believers and unbelievers are bound together in a union. We have to break off such unholy relationships and come out from among unbelievers. It was Judy Lyons who said, “Salvation is free but it is expensive to maintain.”
“What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. 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’” (6:16). Clearly, Paul has in mind the great danger of idol temples and idol worship. For the Corinthians, their whole way of life was once involved with idolatry.39 The best meals in town were those at the idol temples. Idolatry was also saturated with sexual promiscuity. No doubt these things exerted a constant pull on the new Christians at Corinth.
Paul is making plain that Christians cannot be involved with such things. They cannot go to the idol temple, for they themselves now make up a holy temple to God. We should note that Christians (plural) make up God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22). We cannot be God’s temple alone. God had said similar things as these to Israel long before (Exo. 25:8; Lev. 26:11; Ezek. 37:27).
It is said here that God will live with them. Pett says, “The verb translated live with (enoikeo) means to ‘inhabit’ or ‘be at home,’ and the idea is active rather than passive. It is a stronger word than to ‘tabernacle’ among them. So God is dwelling among them permanently and is at home with them as their Lord.” 40
“Therefore, ‘Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.’ And, ‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty’” (6:17-18). Here Paul makes a very loose translation of Isaiah 52:11. He also blends together other texts like Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 31:9; Ezekiel 20:34, 41. Keener says, “Paul blends the language of several texts (probably including 2 Sam 7:14), as Jewish writers sometimes did; here he may also add his own prophetic word (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37-38).” 41
Today we may think we are far removed from the time of pagan temples and their lure over us. However, we have only to remember that there is a powerful resurgence of what we might call neo-paganism in our world today. This is especially prevalent in our western world. Coffman says:
All of the old essentials of paganism are still operative. The deification of humanity, the gross emphasis upon the secular, the material, the sensual and devilish are still struggling to dominate the minds of mankind. The so-called sex liberation, the abandonment of ancient moral values, and the encroaching dishonesty, selfishness and libertinism even in the highest echelons of government – all of these and many other things proclaim in tones of thunder that paganism is still around.42
When we defile ourselves with these things we are probably not much better off than the poor Corinthians who were invited for a free meal at the idol temple, and who took up the offer. We may be worse off, for now we have two thousand years of Christian history and understanding that should guard us against such folly.
Perhaps a word about touching “unclean things” is in order as we close out this chapter. Many unclean things show up in the sexual realm today. We think immediately of pornography, which makes up about a fourth of all web searches, and we know that a high percentage of Christians are involved with it. We think of lust, which is presented everywhere in our media world. Some have said that we can look if we don’t touch. However, Jesus says that if we look lustfully we have already touched (Matt. 5:28). There are many other things, some of which counsellors heartily approve, things like masturbation, and yet the Bible implies that this also is uncleanness (cf. Deut. 23:10). We are not to touch these unclean things, and then we will be received of God as his holy priesthood.