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In the World but Not of it

By From Nigel No Comments
[14] Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? [15] What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? [16] What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “ I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people”.

2 Corinthians 6:14-16.

As a young Christian in a Baptist Church my pastor would warn me quite frequently about my love of football, Tamla Motown music and clothes, saying that I was in the world but not of it. This for me always raised more questions than answers. How was I to relate to those who only used Christ as a swear word. To what extent was I to engage with or ignore the culture of my day.

Whilst I was a Pastor leading a Church in Sussex, a shop appeared in our high street selling crystals. Some members wanted to protest, others to write to their member of parliament and so on. So what about other things such as gender issues, immorality, abortion, the things that the Bible speaks so clearly about, should we make placards, chain ourselves to gates etc?

These are tough questions for which quick answers are unwise, and usually wrong. It’s very complex is it not?

Yes the culture has changed and the circumstances have changed but the approach advocated by Paul in the first century, I believe, still has relevance and is really helpful to us today

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (verse 14). Now there’s a verse much quoted to me in my teens and probably as famous as “ For God so loved the world”. It struck fear into my very being, yet I believe it it is much miss quoted. What does Paul have in mind here? What is the background to his words , and how does it apply to us in 2021.

The subject was not a new one for Paul, having addressed it earlier in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and in chapters 8 to 11.

Some Christians in Corinth were visiting temple cults of any number of the pagan religions in the city, perhaps even engaging in the sexual activities (temple prostitutes) associated with their type of “worship”.

This problem was most likely the reason for Paul’s emergency second visit to Corinth and the follow-up “affliction and anguish letter” (2 Corinthians 2:1-4).

The “ unbelievers” that he describes in this passage were unsaved Gentiles who were involved in worship at the Greek Roman mystery, mystic cults of Corinth. His command is for Christian men and women to withdraw from such unholy and immoral practices and associations. But does that principle extend to other issues that we face today? Yes, I believe it does but we must proceed cautiously, and sensibly in our application.

Although Paul is not thinking about marriage in this text, certainly the principle would apply to marriage. A Christian entering into such a covenant with someone not a Christian (1 Corinthians 7:12-15).

Using the language of the marriage ceremony, just as we are commanded not to put asunder what God has joined together, we must be diligent not to join together what God has put asunder!

Sadly though, some (my church when I was a child for instance) have applied this passage in ways that Paul never intended which would, in effect, make it difficult to live, much less work, in a secular society. (Avoidance was preached from the pulpit by some).

There is no indication that Paul here is forbidding or condemning contact and association with non-Christians, something he declares impractical, if not impossible, in I Corinthians 5:9-13. In fact he anticipates the presence of unbelievers in the worship services at Corinth and instructs the believers not to do anything that might drive them away (1 Corinthians 14:22-24).

Neither is he forbidding or condemning business relations with non-Christians. In fact I believe Paul seems in other places to say it’s Ok to do business with a non-Christian, but that it will require discernment and caution.

Paul is neither forbidding or condemning friendships with non-Christians. If anything, I believe he would encourage them and promote them but again by using wisdom and discernment.

There is certainly nothing here that would forbid or condemn association and cooperation with other Christians who may disagree with you on secondary issues (again which on occasions as a young Christian I heard from the pulpit “ be careful of the…….. down the road”).

And contrary to what some have suggested, if two unbelievers marry and then one is saved, he is not instructing the latter to terminate the relationship (1 Corinthians 7).

As far as an application is concerned, the separation Paul has in mind between Christians and non-Christians is spiritual and moral, not spatial. The principle is this: enter into no relationship or bond or partnership or endeavor that will compromise your Christian integrity or weaken your walk with God or cause you to compromise your faith (James 4:4-5).

All this does cause us to ask further questions and “what if’s” Like…

“When I am with non-believers, what do I do if I find myself in situations where I am exposed to temptations that may get the better of me?”

“When I am with non-Christians, I find it easier than at other times to compromise on ethical matters. I find myself judging as ‘grey’ what I would call ‘black’ if I were with Christians.”

“When I am with non-Christians I tend to be less vocal about my faith and less visible in my stand for Christ.”

“When I am with non-Christians, my conversation focus easily on things of the World, and I don’t take opportunities to discuss Christ.”

“When I am with non-Christians, they have no idea I am a Christian!”

There are probably more, but I think they help us to examine the dynamic, strength and robustness of our faith.

Going back to the passage, there then follows five points, rhetorical, questions, each of which the answer is: “None whatsoever!”

For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?”

These are designed to explain why it’s important for believers to be, discerning, cautious, and wise with their relationship with non-believers. Those committed to righteousness have no partnership with people given to lawlessness. Those who live in the light of God’s revelation are not to be yoked with those who walk in spiritual and moral darkness. Obviously Christ and the devil agree on nothing and have no harmony with one another. This is the only place in the NT where the word “Belial” occurs. The Hebrew word occurs in the OT with the meaning “worthlessness” while here it is used to describe a personal opponent of God. We have to remember there is no spiritual common ground for the believer and unbeliever. In fact it can be quite stark as the unbeliever’s life is centred on self and the believer’s on Christ; the treasure of the one is here on earth, of the other in heaven; the values of the one are those of this World, of the other those of the World to come; the believer seeks the glory of God, the unbeliever the glory of self and men.

However, Paul is not denying that we are all created in God’s image or suggesting that there is literally nothing that we share. As Calvin wisely reminds us, “when Paul says that the Christian has no portion with the unbeliever he is not referring to food, clothing, estates, the sun, and the air, . . . but to those things which are peculiar to unbelievers, from which the Lord has separated us.”

Finally, we move on to “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” We read in the OT that the introduction of idols into the temple of God was prohibited, how much more horrendous is idolatry in the life of the believer (v. 16a)! Are we not ourselves the only temple in which God shall ever dwell? (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19, Ephesians 2:20-22, I Peter 2:5). We are carriers of the presence of God, we take God with us into every and any situation. We invade the differing places we find ourselves in with the presence of God. Once the temple was fixed and in a particular place, now it moves into families, work spaces, neighbourhoods and nations.

What is most important to remember then, is that this is not a call to create a Christian ghetto, but Paul does want us to see the responsibility and the blessing we carry.




Can I be Happy and Sad?

By From Nigel No Comments

as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

2 Corinthians 6:10

Can we be both happy and sad? Or even can I be happy whilst I am sad? This is confusing stuff!

If you search the internet for a definition of “schizophrenia” one site defines it as, “a situation or condition that results from the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities, or activities.” Another says “a state characterised by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.”

Given these definitions, there is a sense in which Christianity gives every appearance of being schizophrenic! There are in the Christian life, and in that of the apostle Paul in particular, situations or conditions or states of mind (I think that’s the best way to say it), that seem to those outside the church (and a few on the inside of the church as well) as being disparate or antagonistic or contradictory or incompatible.

So, if we meditate for a few moments on Paul’s description here in verse 10 there it is; “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

Can we have it both ways? Sorrow and joy are incompatible, there is a huge gulf between poor and rich. What accounts for Paul’s odd perspective on life? Is he emotionally unstable, a man who’s lost touch with reality, or someone who has a deep and profound grasp on what is of ultimate value? I am convinced it is the latter.

Let’s say one thing first. If there is no life beyond the grave then Paul is mad! If this World is all there is, or ever will be, it is senseless to speak of joy in the midst of suffering or to regard oneself as wealthy in the face of poverty. The value system that accounts for Paul’s point of view is one shaped by a belief in the reality of eternity, a life everlasting in which never-ending good triumphs over evil, an existence in which the beauty and splendour of Jesus Christ provide ceaseless and ever-increasing satisfaction that goes beyond anything this life can offer.

Having said that Paul’s “sorrow” was very real. His anticipation of eternal joy did not excuse him from the hardships of life, but it did make them bearable. We misunderstand the apostle, and Christianity as a whole, if we believe the Bible is telling us to ignore pain or pretend that it is less than it is. Sorrow hurts and can hurt for a lifetime. If I may indulge myself and you for a moment. My brother died a few years back and it still hurts, I miss him so much.

Also, the source of his sorrow was multi-faceted. He felt “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Romans 9:2) regarding the state of the Jewish people. His often rocky relationship with the Corinthians was the source of “much affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:4). Then there was “the daily pressure” of his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28), not to mention the sadness he felt upon seeing Christ scorned and mocked, as well as his own sufferings from persecution. He had much to cause him sorrow.

Yet, we are told, he was “always rejoicing”! “Come on Paul, really!

There can only be two things to explain this. Firstly, he must have believed that even the worst of circumstances and the most oppressive of trials were subject to an overriding and gracious grace. Were it not for his belief that “all things work together for good” for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) he could not have rejoiced whilst living with sustained sorrow. It was not wishful thinking or mind over matter. The love he knew and felt from God overwhelmed him.

Secondly, there must have been a deep and abiding well of spiritual refreshment from which he regularly drew that provided his heart with incomparable and life-sustaining satisfaction, something so fascinating, enthralling, and captivating where no root of bitterness could thrive or disillusionment could raise their ugly heads. As we’ve just seen, it was the goodness and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ himself (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). He kept drawing upon this.

Paul laboured to make sure his heart was in the right place, he would delight in God but also he knew that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

This is huge for everyone, in that true joy is not dependent on pleasant circumstances. It is possible to rejoice in a way that is genuine and real and sincere whilst still enduring trials that in themselves have the potential to bring only misery and despair. It’s there for each believer, what an amazing resource. I’ve gone on a bit long on that first bit, may have to whiz through the rest.

Paul describes himself “as poor, yet making many rich.” What does he mean by this? Obviously both can’t be literal for Paul would never have thought of himself as increasing the financial wealth of the churches where he ministered. That would simply have never been a factor in his apostleship.

Paul probably meant that he was “poor”. In 1 Corinthians he wrote: “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands” (vs 11-12) an important reminder for all aspiring modern day apostles! Paul’s work as a tentmaker only provided him with a basic living at times, but his main aim was that he did not want people to think he was in ministry for the money (2 Corinthians 11:7-12).

Yet he has a view on riches and what makes one rich, and how one enriches another. This verb is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:5 where he describes the believers in that church as “in every way” “enriched in him [i.e., in Christ] in all speech and all knowledge” (see 2 Corinthians 9:11). Although Paul himself lacked earthly riches he delighted in imparting to others “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8)

and the “surpassing worth of knowing” Christ Jesus as Lord (Philippians 3:8). He worked hard among the Colossians to make known “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Nothing could be more obvious than this: if Christ is not himself a treasure of incomparable worth, a person of incalculable value, a source of endless satisfaction, material hardship will only serve to embitter and harden your heart.

Finally, though I have nothing, said Paul, I possess everything!

We know Paul did not have much “stuff” and would never have used his apostleship to gain more “stuff.”

This is, as the commentators tell me, a rhetorical hyperbole, designed to highlight the infinitely superior blessings of Christ and the age to come. Although he owned little in terms of worldly goods, Paul considered himself wealthy when it came to things eternal and of infinite spiritual value.

[21] So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, [22] whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, [23] and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

1 Corinthians 3:21-23

If we are able to take on board a thoroughly biblical World view, a perspective in which the values of eternity break into the present, we will always appear a bit schizophrenic to those who do not know Christ. Without him, sorrow trumps joy, and material gain becomes our only goal. With him, joy flourishes in the midst of all, even financial lack or physical pain.


Honour and Dishonour

By From Nigel

[8] through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; [9] as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed;

2 Corinthians 6:8-9

On June 22, 1750, Jonathan Edwards lost his job. After twenty-four years of ministry at the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, twenty-one of which as senior pastor, America’s greatest pastor and theologian was dismissed by an overwhelming vote of the membership. I still can’t believe this, he had led the church in one of the greatest revivals in history and they as a church had seen extraordinary manifestations of God.

And Edwards’ response? After enduring years of theological arguments, bitter opposition, horrible slander, and malicious gossip, one might have expected him either to have wallowed in self-pity or to have lashed out in angry recriminations. Not so Edwards. One observer described his reaction in these memorable words:

“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission” (dismissal)

Jonathan Edwards. A New Biography by Iain Murray.

Edwards was a pastor, a pioneer, theologian, evangelist, revivalist, and a man after God’s own heart. He had much in common with the apostle Paul. Something was at work in both men that elevated their happiness beyond the grasp of even the most vicious of their enemies. Their treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life.

Nowhere does Paul say it with greater clarity than here in 2 Corinthians 6, as he describes a ministry and a life characterised by great endurance in the midst of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger (verses 4-5). He responded to such trials with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, and truth, all in the power of God through the Holy Spirit (verses 6-7).

The paradox of Paul’s experience is nothing short of amazing and profound:

through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; [9] as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed;

2 Corinthians 6:8-9

Let’s look together at these paradoxical pairs.

We love it when others hold us in high regard or honour. A good reputation is easy to live with but dishonour is something else. When people hold opinions of us shaped by misinformation and unjustified criticism, we either respond in kind or take up a defensive posture. All too often our emotions fluctuate with our public opinion poll. We’re high when the numbers giving praise are high. When the polls go down so do we.

Paul was neither puffed up by praise nor thrown by slander. He could enjoy public affirmation without becoming dependent upon it and not thrown off track by lack of affirmation. This is stunning when we consider the consistent and intense defamation he endured at Corinth. He was often criticised, denounced, accused of being fickle and self serving, arrogant, having worldly ambition and lacking ability and eloquence (See 2 Corinthians for more evidence).

He was treated as an imposter and yet was true. Paul is in good company here, as Jesus himself was regarded as a deceiver by his enemies (John 7:12; Matthew 27:63). Yet his calling was true (Galatians 1:1 and 15-16) his message authentic (2 Corinthians 4:2 and 6:7) and he repeatedly spoke the truth (2 Corinthians 11:31, Romans 9:1, Galatians 1:20, I Timothy 2:7).

What does Paul mean in saying he was unknown, and yet well known?

Some say this refers to views of Paul held outside the church (he’s an unknown quantity, insignificant, uncelebrated, easily ignored) versus inside the church (respected and acknowledged).

He might have meant, you, the Corinthian church think this of me, but God thinks like this about me. It maybe that some recognised his apostolic gift and others did not.

My view is, yes, he was largely unknown to the World, a nobody if you like. Yet God knew him, loved him, and cherished him as a good and faithful son. “ The Lord knows those who are his” Paul wrote to a young Timothy. (2 Timothy 2:19). Others may forget who I am, says Paul, but the Lord Jesus has written down my name in the Lamb’s book of life (Philippians 4:3)!

Paul was constantly exposed to life-threatening circumstances, so writes “as dying and yet we live” (Acts 14:19-20). He and his co-workers were punished but not killed, knowing that “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” ( Hebrews 12:11).

What has to happen to us to make such a life possible? How does one attain to this perspective? Is there a formula? A magical trick? A prayer to pray? A book to read? A conference to attend? What accounts for the presence of joy rather than bitterness in Paul’s heart? How was he able to keep to being content in every and any situation?

Let’s go back to the quote from the biography of Jonathan Edwards. His “treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life.” Something was of such immeasurable value that Edwards happily let go of all things that gave him security on Earth. There was something he prized above the praise of men. The root of his dependency on the accolades of others was broken by his delight in a far surpassing pleasure.

Edwards (like Paul) was captivated by a treasure so radiant that he was blinded to the light of the Worlds treasure. Its glorious light rendered him deaf to the slander of his enemies. He had experienced a joy so satisfying and a pleasure so all-consuming that “all imaginable ills of life” dwindled in their capacity to embitter or enslave. The treasure, quite simply, was and is Christ.

Help me Lord to be like this!


Is This Our Lot?

By From Nigel

[4] but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, [5] beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger;

2 Corinthians 6:4-5

I am keenly aware of my own shortcomings and when I am not aware of them God seems to arrange numerous people to list them for me!

If the phone rings just when we are about to serve dinner I get grumpy, when I can’t understand the IT stuff on my computer I get very irritable, I am not very good at being ill or being cared for and so on.

Being honest, I act as though I have a right to everything going smoothly and never to go wrong whether that’s an inanimate object, people, food, drivers of vehicles or shopping. I have a very low threshold, well at least when compared to Paul.

I am not suggesting that anyone should actively seek the list that Paul describes. I am also not advocating masochism or martyrdom as a trophy. There’s nothing inherently good in pain. In fact, it is part of our calling as Christians to help alleviate the suffering and hardship of others but in doing so, it may well require that we ourselves willingly embrace danger, the loss of freedom and property, as well as the disruption of our cherished routines and schedules that define us.

No one knew this better than Paul, a man who personally suffered almost indescribable agony for the sake of Christ and the welfare of the people he cared for. It’s hard for us to read that list and not to think that our trials do not reach any of the depth of his and that my little annoyances are really something I should not get so worked up about.

Today, sadly, we are often told that you can expect (or can pay for) health and wealth. After all you are a child of the King and you deserve it! This was similar to the argument of Paul’s opponents in Corinth, who insisted that a true “apostle” of Christ would never endure the things he did.

Paul was asked on numerous occasions to substantiate his claim to apostolic gifting. Although he struggled to speak about himself, the situation at Corinth required that he identify his qualifications. He does so on several occasions (see 11:16-33), one of the more explicit being in 6:4-10. Please take time out to ponder these 6 verses.

So to verses 4 and 5 in which we find three sets of three words that describe Paul’s outward circumstances, all of which are plural which means they were not one offs but regular and multiple instances or occasions on which he suffered.

In the first set of three he mentions “afflictions, hardships, calamities”. “Afflictions” is a general term appearing numerous times in 2 Corinthians, the most severe of which was the life-threatening experience described in 1:8-9. “Hardships” carries the thought of being under pressure, perhaps to the constant stress to which he was subjected. The word translated “calamities” literally means “in constraints” or in a confined and narrow place from which there can be no escape. It points to Paul’s feeling of being trapped by circumstances seemingly beyond his control. Wow!

The second set of three words point more to the direct and extremely physical persecution to which he was subjected. He often endured “beatings” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25), whether by rods, lashes, or fists. We know specifically of only one “imprisonment” (2 Corinthians 11:23)

before 2 Corinthians was written, which occurred in Philippi (Acts 16).

The “riots” or uprisings against Paul in the cities where he preached are quite a few and if we were him we they would probably have deterred us from preaching: at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), Iconium (Acts 14:5), Lystra (Acts 14:19, Philippi (Acts 16:22), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-7), Berea (Acts 17:13), Corinth (Acts 18:12-23), Ephesus (Acts 19:23 to 20:1). To be honest I need to put my troubles in perspective.

Lastly, he endured “labours, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” Unlike the first six words that describe what was done to him by others, these all refer to self-imposed hardships Paul embraced in the fulfilment of his ministry.

The word “labours” is either a reference to his work as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3) or could also refer to his extended and demanding seasons of work as an apostle.

By “sleeplessness” he doesn’t mean that he suffered from insomnia, but that he went without sleep to serve and minister to others (Paul often refers to working “night and day”(1 Thessalonians 2:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:8). However he lost sleep it was a choice he joyfully embraced for the sake of another’s progress in God.

Finally, he often suffered from “hunger.” It may have been because he was fasting or it may have been due to lack of money we can not be sure. What we are sure of is that he tells us he was frequently without food.

No one in the Christian West anticipates such treatment. If we ever encountered anything remotely similar to what Paul faced, we’d never go back to them ever again. Surely servants of God (vs 4) who are dedicated to the gospel and to the people they serve ought to expect the best of everything. How dare anyone deprive us of our comforts!

So what would motivate a man to willingly pursue a life characterised by the sort of hardships Paul endured? What could possibly sustain a man through such sufferings?

Have a look at Hebrews 10:32:34. There we read of Christians who “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (vs 32-33). Beyond this, they “joyfully accepted the plundering” of their “property” (vs 34)! Here’s why. Here’s how. They “knew” they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (vs 34).

The degree to which we find suffering intolerable is the degree to which we lack confidence in our position in Christ. To the extent that we are angered by even a little discomfort, this reveals our lack of satisfaction in Him.

Paul was in the grip of the glory to come, which far outweighed that driver who just cut you up on the motorway.

[16] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18] as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18