Paul’s Appeal to Active Participation (preaching resource for Pentecost 5: 6/23/24)

This post exegetes 2 Corinthians chapters 6 & 7, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 6/23/24 (Pentecost 5). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("The Bible Exposition Commentary") and Colin Kruse ("The New Bible Commentary"). 

"Worth of a Soul" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)

Introduction  

In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul rejoices in the reconciliation that all humanity has with God through the representative, substitutionary (vicarious) life of Jesus our Creator, Sustainer, Savior and Lord. Now in chapters 6 and 7 he appeals to the church to participate actively and faithfully in Jesus’ life: “As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain” (2Cor 6:1). Paul’s appeal has three parts.

1. Capitalize on the opportunity 

2Cor 6:1–10

Paul first appeals to the Corinthians to join with him in capitalizing on the opportunity that is now present because of what Jesus has done for all humanity. 

a. Remember what time it is (vv. 1–2) 

1 As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. 2 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.

A key word here is “now.” Paul calls for a sense of urgency that is born of the opportunity that is set before the church. Paul is quoting Isaiah 49:8 concerning the grace of God which is now available to all. How can we, as God’s “workers,” fail to proclaim to all the Gospel of the reconciliation in Christ of all people to God? To fail in this calling would be to receive God’s grace “in vain.”  

b. Follow Paul’s example (vv. 3–10) 

3 We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 11 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.

Paul invites the Corinthians (and by extension all believers) to follow his example of devotion and integrity in serving and worshipping Jesus. Contrary to accusations against him, Paul's motives were pure. Rather than seeking to enrich himself, he was willing to endure great hardship, disciplining both his mind and body to be faithful and above reproach. The Corinthians themselves were facing various trials in following Jesus—due, in large part, to the false ministry of the Judaizers. They must not give in, but remain faithful. Part of that faithfulness will be to open their hearts wide to Paul (as he had to them)—to receive his example and to follow it.

2. Exercise discernment 

2Cor 6:11–7:1

Active, faithful ministry necessitates discernment. It means identifying and then separating from the world’s evil (darkness and idolatry) in order to embrace and thus consecrate ourselves to Jesus and to his light-bringing ministry. Paul addresses the need for this discernment—particularly with regard to avoiding idolatry. He raises three related issues: 

a. The nature of the believer (vv. 14–16) 

14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 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."

Nature dictates association. Pigs associate with other pigs in mud holes. Sheep graze with other sheep in pastures. Believers (those actively sharing in the divine nature; see 2 Peter 1:3–4) should associate with what harmonizes with the divine nature, and not be “yoked together” with unbelievers who are living and worshipping according to another nature. This idea of unequal yoking is from Deut 22:10 (KJV), “Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.”  These two work animals have different natures and thus do not work well together. It would be cruel to yoke them together. In the same way, it’s wrong for a believer to yoke themselves together in an equal pairing (including worship) with an unbeliever. Note the nouns Paul uses here: fellowship, harmony, agreement. Each speaks to actively sharing life. Harmony occurs when different parts contribute to one melody. However when we try to harmonize the world’s darkness with God’s light, the result is discord, not harmony.   

In chapter 5, Paul understands that all people (believers and unbelievers alike) have been reconciled to God through the inclusion of all humanity in Christ. Yet Paul sees a distinction between believers and non-believers. Thus his contrasts: righteousness—wickedness; light—darkness; Christ—Belial (Satan); belief—unbelief; God’s temple—idols. Believers can’t live harmoniously on both sides. Because they know that they participate in the divine nature, they must be true to that nature. In 2Cor 6:16 Paul says “we are the temple of the living God.” “We” is plural—the temple being the local assembly of believers. A local church must not compromise its testimony as God’s temple by embracing and promoting darkness (including pagan worship)—it is called to be a clear testimony to God’s light. 

b. The command of Scripture (v. 17) 

17 "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."

Here Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11 where captive Jews were leaving Babylon and returning to the Holy Land. Note the phrases:

  • "Come out from them and be separate” is not a call to repudiate people, but to leave behind the world’s enslaving evil—and the immediate concern here is pagan worship practices. This is a call to separation unto consecration. We are to avoid the world’s evil/idolatry, even while we go into the world sharing God’s love. 
  • “Touch no unclean thing” is a warning against defilement. In the Old Testament, defilement came by touching unclean objects such as a dead body or a festering sore. Under the New Covenant the issue is spiritual defilement—believers are not to “touch” (associate with, as in worship) that which compromises the testimony of God’s temple (the Church). But this call to separation must not be taken too far—Jesus rejected the self-serving separatism of the Pharisees, while sending his disciples into the world with the Gospel message. However he warned his disciples as they went to separate themselves from the leaven (false doctrine) of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the defilement of the world. Paul and other apostles continued Jesus’ approach, emphasizing separation in belief (doctrine) and behavior. However, in a desire for doctrinal and personal purity, we must not become so self-absorbed that we ignore the needy world around us. Our Lord is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26), and yet he also is a “friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners’" (Luke 7:34). Again, discernment is called for, lest we isolate ourselves from the people who need our ministry most. 
  • “And I will receive you” is not an invitation to think that salvation is the result of good behavior. Again, the context is participation with Jesus in his ministry. As we consecrate ourselves to that calling, our effectiveness and thus enjoyment of reconciliation is enhanced. We see this point more in the next section.

c. A promise of deeper fellowship (v. 18–7:1) 

18 "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty." 1 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 thought is not of earning through works our sonship with God. Rather through consecrating ourselves to God’s service, we more deeply experience and thus enjoy the fellowship we have with God through grace. This participation and enjoyment is in and through Jesus, God’s only Son. And the opportunity of deeper fellowship with God in Jesus is powerful motivation to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” 

To “purify ourselves” is again a call to consecration which involves personal decision. Of course, we are not capable of making ourselves pure. Jesus does that for us and in us. But we are called to active participation in Jesus’ Sonship. This participation leads to the “perfecting” of  “holiness”—a deepening of the relationship we have with God through Jesus. Holiness is thus fundamentally relational —involving our sharing in the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit.  

So far, Paul has appealed for capitalizing on the opportunity we have and for exercising discernment as we go. Now he makes a final appeal. 

3. Do the hard work 

2Cor 7:2–16

In this section Paul recounts some of his personal experience to urge them to continue doing the hard work of living out the reconciliation that is theirs with God in Christ. 

2 Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. 3 I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. 4 I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.

Paul knows that his relationship with the church in Corinth is on shaky ground. And so he appeals to them to remove the obstacles that stand between them. He defends himself (“we have wronged no one…”) and also compliments them on the progress they have made already (“I have great confidence in you…”). Paul’s concern needs to be seen in light of the false accusations leveled against him by the Judaizers—they claimed he was taking up the missionary offering to enrich himself. Paul could have turned his back on the church in Corinth, but he did not—he did the hard work necessary to seek reconciliation. In fact, he was willing to die for the Corinthians if necessary, for they were truly in his heart (see 2Cor 3:1ff; 6:11–13) and he appeals to them to open their hearts to him. 

5 For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever. 8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

Paul struggled mightily to help the church in Corinth.  He had taken great risks—and here refers to a letter of severe correction that he had sent. In those days communication was slow and for a long time Paul agonized, worrying about how the church in Corinth would respond to the letter. He even regretted sending it. But eventually he got a positive report from Titus who visited Corinth. Paul’s corrective letter had produced  good fruit—the Corinthians received his correction and repented. This repentance was not merely short-term, superficial regret—it was a true and godly changing of their mind that included godly sorrow. Through this repentance the Corinthians experienced more fully the reconciliation that was theirs in Christ. Paul’s efforts had born fruit.

11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. 12 So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. 13 By all this we are encouraged. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. 14 I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. 15 And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. 16 I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.

The efforts of the Corinthians were admirable because it led to a deeper experience of the reconciliation they had with God and through God with all people. This greatly encouraged Paul and emboldened him to appeal to them to continue forward with the difficult work of ministry that still lay before them. They must not capitulate to the voices leading them to take the easy way—the way of darkness, not light. 

Conclusion

Reconciliation (with God and between people) is a God’s gift to humanity in Jesus. It’s a present reality—one we are called to embrace and to participate in actively. As believers we are called to be ministers ambassadors) of that reconciliation.  This ministry is often very challenging and sometimes quite distressing. But it is vital. So let’s “keep on keeping on”—capitalizing on the opportunity, exercising discernment, and doing the hard work. It’s all worth it because it is our participation in Jesus’ ongoing ministry to our world!