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The Yoke of a Believer

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) Spoken on: September 20, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Today's passage is a familiar one. It is often used in Christian relationship talks to stress the importance of dating and marrying fellow Christians. The reason for this common usage is simple. The starting verse says “do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” To be yoked together means to be put together, and that can refer to a marriage where two persons are put together. Unbelievers here may refer to non Christians. Therefore, the phrase “do not be yoked together with unbelievers” can imply a direct command not to enter into a relationship with a non Christian. This is the common interpretation of this passage. There are also some commentaries that support this view. However, I will state clearly today that I disagree. I do not think that this is not the best reading of today's passage. Allow me to explain.

Firstly, this interpretation is in contradiction to the other Corinthian passage that directly talks about mixed marriages with non-Christians. 1 Corinthians 7:12: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 16How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”

There are a few contradictions when we compare both the Corinthian passages. One, Paul discourages separation or divorce in 1 Corinthians as long as the non-believer is willing to remain together. However, today’s passage is insistent on the separation. “Therefore come out of them and be separate.” Paul is totally uncompromising in today’s passage. Two, we see that sanctification can be transferred in the marital relationship in 1 Corinthians. Holiness is an outward influencing virtue that reaches even the children. However, in today’s passage, holiness is only perfected by purification. This means that contamination must be removed to achieve holiness. Holiness neither transfers nor influences the other party in today’s passage. This is the second contradiction. Three, the 1 Corinthian passage expresses hope in salvation in the unbeliever. Why is there hope? Because there is something in common in this relationship: the love between the husband and the wife. But today’s passage is absolutely certain that there is nothing we have in common with the unbeliever. There is not even harmony or fellowship, not to mention love. How can there be nothing in common in a marriage relationship? Since, we know for sure that the 1 Corinthian passage definitely addresses the issue of mixed marriages, these 3 blatant contradictions should make us wary of putting today’s passage in the same context. Because, if today’s passage is also about mixed marriages, then why did Paul arrive at such contradictory conclusions? The need for separation is different. The effect of holiness is different. The hope for salvation is different. Perhaps today’s passage refers to a different context other than mixed marriages.

Secondly, there is little evidence that the phrase “yoked together” can be applied in a marriage context. There is little doubt that language wise, it is possible. To be yoked together literally means putting two animals under the same yoke. Therefore, it carries the metaphorical meaning of combining and working together. In a sense, marriage is coming together to work together. Why else do you think I am willing do housework? That is my punishment for being married. (joking) However, such a metaphorical use of the phrase to refer to marriage is not found anywhere else in the bible or even in other Greek literature. The only time the phrase “yoked together” is used metaphorically is in the sense of an alliance. Two parties are said to be “yoked together” when they are allies for a common cause. Therefore, understanding “yoked together” as allying oneself with another party is a much greater linguistic possibility than marriage.

The confusion to link “yoked together” with marriage may have arisen from Deuteronomy 22:10 “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” This is the only other instance the words “yoked together” are found in the bible. This law speaks against mismatching. If two different animals are yoked together, you get chafing. There will be friction and sores arising from the animals not working well and moving together. You can see why this is good advice in a marriage context. However, this word in Deuteronomy is different from the 2 Corinthian word. If Paul was referring to the law in Deuteronomy, why didn’t he use the same Greek word for “yoked together” (as used in the LXX Deuteronomy)? This tells us there is no link between the Deuteronomy reference and today’s passage. Furthermore, the Deuteronomy passage also doesn’t talk literally about mixed marriages. You can mate a horse and a donkey to get a mule. But you cannot mate an ox and a donkey. (Well, you can try. But all you’ll get is a really horny ass. Sorry for the bad pun.)

Thirdly, and I think the most important one, putting this passage in the marriage context does not make sense in the thematic flow of Paul’s letter. Whether it is before or after this passage, “there has not been the slightest inkling of concern for (the Corinthian’s) behavior” [1] . This sudden side topic about mixed marriage would be a major disruption to Paul’s message about his ministry. In fact, some would say this is a careless insertion from a later editor, or random fragments pieced together in this passage. It is either this explanation or Paul has a short attention span like the talking dog in the movie UP. He's talking passionately about his ministry and defending himself when he suddenly sees a squirrel and went totally off-tangent. We would be forced to accept either of these explanations unless we can make sense of this passage in the current context.

Fortunately, there is another interpretation that fits the current context much better. So far, Paul has been defending himself, the messenger, and his message - the ministry of reconciliation. This is the main issue and it will continue on for another few chapters. He ended the previous passage with an appeal for the Corinthians to open their hearts to him. Given the situation, “opening up to him will necessary entail closing themselves off from those who oppose him, whom the apostle now labels the ‘unbelievers’” [2] Therefore, the unbelievers here do not refer to the non-Christians outside the church, but rather it refers to the opponents of Paul who did not believe in his message and rejected the messenger. This makes perfect sense in our proper metaphorical use of the phrase “yoked together”, which means an alliance. Therefore, “do not be yoked together with unbelievers” means “do not form any alliances with these opponents of my message”. Paul’s command was simple. Those who doubt his ministry are totally incompatible with those who believe in him.

So we can see clearly now the context is not mixed marriages. The context is to distance ourselves from opponents of the gospel. The unbelievers here are people within the church, but they do not believe in Paul’s message. Can we conclude that this passage can be interpreted in such a manner? Is this consistent with what Paul’s usual stand on such matters? Yes.

1 Corinthians 5:9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

We see from the 1 Corinthians passage that Paul has always taken a hard stand against fake Christians. Along the same line, he is less strict about association with actual non-Christians. He acknowledges that that kind of separation would be impossible. It is none of his business. But separation from Christians who do not truly believe the gospel is totally his business. We have to exercise judgment to distance ourselves from these pretenders. The conclusions of both these passages are the same.

Using the right context in today’s passage also helps us understand the 2 supporting arguments from Paul. Paul listed two reasons why we should not be yoked together with these opponents of Paul. The first reason is that we have nothing in common with them. Here we see why unbelievers do not refer to non-Christians. There is much we have in common with non-Christians. We can work towards religious harmony. We can contribute to society, to the conservation environment or to the progress of humanity. Yet, these opponents of Paul are not the same. They are fighting against Paul’s ministry. They are destroying his church and dividing the community. They oppose the work of God. This is why Paul called them Belial, which is another name for Satan. You may recall Jesus calling Peter ‘Satan’ when he tried to stop Jesus from doing his ministry. These people may call themselves Christians, but they worship only themselves. They are actually idol-worshippers. This is why Paul is very clear that we have nothing in common with them. We are for God. They are against God.

The second reason is that we are the temple of God. What this means is that God wants to be present in our community. He wants to live amongst us. He wants the father-child relationship. He wants to be in our lives. And for this very reason, we have to be fully reconciled to him. This is basically a restoration of God’s kingdom, with Christ as our king. We have to be holy because God who is holy wants to be with us. But we recall that the opponents of Paul do not believe in this. They want prosperity. They want honor. They want achievements. They have attacked God’s very own ambassador, Paul the apostle. The truth is that they are stumbling blocks to this full reconciliation with God. So the people of God cannot ally themselves with these people. Paul wants them to purify themselves from these people. This is to ensure that their understanding of "who they are" will be crystal clear.

Brothers and sisters, understanding who you are is very important. You are a new creation. You are the children of God. You have a mission to live out Christ-likeness in this world. The church is the community that will collectively bear out this witness. The world must be able to look at the church, and say “Ah, I see this is what it means to be a child of God. This community is what it is like to be the children of God.” This is the yoke of a believer. So do not be yoked together with unbelievers. There are those who preach self-righteousness, they do not believe in grace. There are those who spew bigotry and hatred, they do not believe in love. There are those who are concerned only with profits and self-satisfaction, they do not believe in justice. These are the real unbelievers. As the children of God, we have a calling to witness God’s truth. We cannot be in alliance with them. We cannot be yoked together with them.

This passage is not about mixed marriages with non-Christians. It is about separation from the enemies of God. But it doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say about mixed marriages. I would like to talk a little about this issue before I end. The bottom-line of this passage is about purity. This purity is important because God wants to be a part of our life. This is what the new covenant mean. As such, the will of God should be a primary consideration in all that you say and all that you do. This is the yoke of a believer. In finding a life-partner, choose one that understands that this is your mission in life. Choose one that is supportive. Choose one that can be an good ally with you in this mission. In the end, ‘Christian’ as a label means very little. It is what you believe and the outworking of your faith that determines who you are. I believe the ones that progress the work of God on earth are the true believers. The peace-makers, the humble and meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, find these as your life partners. Be yoked together with a true believer.

[1] NIB Commentary p.104
[2] NIV Application Commentary, p 280