2 Corinthians 6:11-7:4 – Open Your Hearts

Paul has pursued a renewed relationship with the Corinthians through this letter. He wanted to increase their understanding of his own ministry and the nature of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 1:13), and he appeals for reconciliation on multiple occasions (e.g., 2 Corinthians 6:1).

He began the process of working out this reconciliation at the beginning of the letter with a travelogue: why he did not visit but sent a letter and how he left Troas to look for Titus in Macedonia (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:13). Instead of completing the travelogue, which he will resume momentarily (2 Corinthians 7:5-16), he dove into an extended discussion of the ministry of reconciliation of which his ministry to the Corinthians was a part. This lengthy “digression” (if that is what it is) served to provide the Corinthians with a deeper understanding of gospel ministry, the ministry of the new covenant and to help them appreciate how gospel ministry entails suffering rather than triumphal processions—Paul’s ministry resume, as we saw previously (2 Corinthians 6:1-10).

2 Corinthians 6:11-7:4 is the final section of this “digression.” It is the climax of his appeal for reconciliation, which is explicit and repetitive in these verses. The structure emphazies this point.

A. Open Your Hearts (6:11-13)

B. Moral Exhortation (6:14-7:1)

A. Make Room in Your Hearts (7:2-4)

This final appeal functions in an A-B-A pattern.  Paul appeals for open affection and reconciliation in 6:11-13 and 7:2-4. It is, essentially, repetitive, but the second part extends the affection of the second part. Sandwiched in the middle is a moral exhortation. Some suggest this appears rather abrupt, and some have suggested it is an interpolation or Paul (or an editor) has injected a selection from one of Paul’s earlier letters (perhaps his first, the harsh letter, or even an unknown letter). I think these conjectures are unnecessary as I think there is a good reason for this moral exhortation to appear at this moment in the letter. But more on that in a moment; first, the appeal for reconciliation.

The Appeal (2 Corinthians 6:11; 7:2-4)

Paul has laid his heart before them. He has been affectionate, transparent, and parental towards the Corinthians. He has not limited his affections (any more than a parent would), but they have restricted their affections (like stubborn children). He appeals to the Corinthians to open their hearts to him just as he has opened his heart to them. Paul seeks mutual affection like should exist between parents and their children. Paul, remember, thinks of himself as a father to the Corinthian congregation since he planted the church (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

In 6:13 Paul asks the Corinthians to enlarge their hearts and continues the metaphor in 7:2 with the idea of making room for Paul in their hearts. Though the word “heart” is not in the Greek text of 7:2, it is drawn from 6:13. Paul is resuming his appeal in 7:2 that was begun in 6:11-13. It appears as a natural flow, but it may also be resumptive following the moral exhortation of 6:14-7:1. It repeats the idea of enlargement or making space in their hearts for Paul as a means of reconciliation.

The appeal for reconciliation is shaped by how Paul ministered among them: he did not treat anyone unfairly, he did not corrupt anyone’s morals, and he did not take financial advantage of them. They are well aware of his ministry, and the Corinthians are aware of accusations against Paul. He did not come into Corinth like an imperial ambassador with power, pomp, and plenty but came among them as a sufferer, without rhetorical skills, and impoverished. He did not look like the ambassador of anyone important. Paul reminds them that he did not take advantage of his circumstance or press his ambassadorship for his own power and position. Rather, he ministered the grace of God among them.

This ministry meant that Paul intended “to die together and to live together” with them. Given Paul’s rehearsal of the meaning of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 3-5, this dying and living together is dying and living in Christ. Believers in Christ do not live for themselves, but they die with Christ and live through Christ. This is Paul’s desire, and it is his boast—the Corinthians and Paul are dying and living together.

This is the consolation for which Paul prays. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul began his letter reminding the Corinthians that it is God who consoles or comforts. And Paul experienced this in Ephesus when he faced a deadly situation but God delivered him and consoled him. In the same way, now God is comforting Paul through reconciliation with the Corinthians. “I am filled with consolation”!

Moreover, “I am overjoyed in all our affliction.” The affliction was real; it is not dismissed as unimportant. Their relationship was troubled, and many factors contributed to that struggle—both externally and internally. Nevertheless, Paul finds joy in the midst or aftermath of this struggle, which is far from over as we will see in 2 Corinthians 10-13.

Joy is a profound emotion but not a transient one in the gospel. We may think of happiness as something that comes and goes, but deep joy settles in the heart through the gospel. Though we walk through afflictions and troubles, though we endure suffering for the sake of the gospel, our joy is rooted in reconciliation—how God has reconciled the world to God’s own self in Jesus through the ministry of the new covenant. This is the ground of profound joy, even when we are surrounded by anxious moments and troublesome times.

Moral Exhortation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

The exhortation is: “do not be mismatched with unbelievers” (6:14a). This exhortation is embellished with another exhortation: “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit” (7:1b). Lying between the exhortations is Paul’s ground or basis, which is rooted in (1) a theological contrast and (2) texts from the Hebrew Bible.

A. Exhortation: Do not be mismatched with unbelievers (6:14a).

B. Ground (Theological): A Contrast between Christ and Beliar (6:14b-16a)

B. Ground (Textual): We are the Temple of the Living God (6:16b-18)

A. Exhortation: Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit (7:1b)

What does it mean to be “mismatched” (or, unequally yoked) with unbelievers? This exhortation has been used to exclude people from social clubs, dinners, and—more typically—marriages with unbelievers. The wide range of application is sometimes astonishing. But what is Paul’s point?  I think his ground—both theological and biblical—offers an answer.

The theological ground is pictured in the below chart. I call it “theological” because, though grounded in the biblical story, it accentuates a theological idea in order provide a basis for the moral exhortation. That idea is something like: there is no common ground between worshipping the living God and serving idols.

VerseRelationPositive ContrastNegative Contrast
15aJoint Decision/AccordChristBeliar
15bShared PortionBelieverUnbeliever
16aMutual ArrangementTemple of GodIdols

Each of the contrasts reflect polar opposites. There is no lawlessness in righteousness. There is no darkness in light. “Beliar” is a common name for the leader of the forces of evil in the intertestamental period (e.g., Qumran sect but only used here in the New Testament) derived from a Hebrew word which means “wicked” but is never personified in the Hebrew Bible. The contrast, then, is between Christ and the Devil (or, Satan). They have no common ground, just as there is none between those committed to Christ through faith and those committed to Beliar through unbelief. And, lastly and perhaps climactically, there is no common ground between the temple of God and idols (including their temples).

It seems to me that the final line illuminates the context for this series of contrasts and explains the content of the moral exhortation. Paul, following a major theme of the Hebrew Bible and a major topic of 1 Corinthians 5, 8-10, forbids associations with idolatrous temples, banquet tables, and immorality (lawlessness). Believers in Christ may only worship in one temple; they cannot participate in the idolatry of temple banquets and rituals.

This was, apparently, a sore point among the Corinthians who came to faith out their previous religious commitments. The temples of Greco-Roman religion were not only religious but social, political, and economic. To divorce oneself rom the city temples was to potentially cut oneself off from social, political, and economic institutions associated with the temples. Indeed, Greco-Roman Associations (similar to labor unions or chambers of commerce) were thoroughly idolatrous.

Paul does not oppose business relationships with unbelievers, eating with unbelievers (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11) or even marriages with unbelievers (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Rather, it is a prohibition about associations with idolatry, particularly engaging in temple rituals and banquets (which he opposed, for example, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

In this way, this moral exhortation fits the context of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians. He seeks reconciliation, but this does not mean Paul has waved his insistence on separation from idolatry and immorality. The exhortation, then, reinforces the necessity of Corinth’s moral commitment to the gospel and the way of Jesus. Rather than out of place, this section brings the larger picture into view that reconciliation is only possible if the Corinthians separate themselves from idolatry (and some had not, cf. 2 Corinthians 12:21).

Paul then locates this theological idea in the biblical text itself with a profound affirmation (which he also made in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19): We are the temple of the living God.  Notice the important addition of “living” in contrast to the previous sentence.  The “living” God stands in contrast to the “idols.” Christians serve the living God rather than mute and deaf idols, dead pieces of wood, stone, or gold (and that is a common theme in the prophets). This is grounded in Scripture as a place where God speaks (“God says”–this is how Paul thinks about Scripture).

Remarkably, Paul assembles a collection of texts in order to tell this story of temple, separation from idols, and God’s gracious welcome to us as children of God. The texts are:

  • Leviticus 26:11-12 – I will live and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
  • Isaiah 52:11b – [Therefore] come out from them, and be separate from them.
  • Isaiah 52:11a – [And] touch nothing unclean
  • Ezekiel 20:34 – [then] I will welcome you
  • 2 Samuel 7:14 – I will be your father, and you will be
  • Isaiah 43:6 – my sons and daughters

The quotations begin with God’s promise to Israel in the wilderness that God would dwell among them in the Tabernacle (and later Temple) in a covenant relationship between God and the people of God. Then the citation of Isaiah (even reversing the Hebrew for rhetorical effect) calls for separation from idolatry and a refusal to be involved in anything idolatrous. This separation from idolatry means God will welcome them from that exile and gather them as a people. This will then constitute a relationship where God will be a parent to the sons and daughters.

In other words, Paul draws from various resources in the Hebrew Bible to tell the story of the Hebrew Bible itself: covenantal promise, separation from sin (exile), gathering the people in a return to God, and the establishment of a parent-child relationship. Paul tells that story fully aware of the contexts of each of these texts and how those contexts shape the identify of believers in the Messiah, including Gentile believers.

The Corinthians have been called out of idolatry to enter into covenant relationship with the God of Israel. The Hebrew Bible speaks to these Corinthians as much as it speaks to ethnic Israel. God invites both to come out of exile, enter into covenant, and become the people of God, the children of God.

Paul calls this biblical story a set of “promises” (7:1), and because we have these promises made in the Hebrew Bible, therefore believers are called to remove all defilements from their person (both body and spirit) and seek a holiness perfected in the fear of God.

This is the journey of sanctification and transformation. Believers, standing on the promises of God, seek to conform to the will of God and to more fully become the image of God as part of the family of God. That is the essence of the moral exhortation.

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