Don’t mess things up!

In the last few chapters of 2 Corinthians we have discovered the remarkable benefits we receive as we put our faith and trust in Jesus. We benefit from the New Covenant that changes us from the inside out, which gives us the opportunity to reflect God’s glory.

We are anointed with the Holy Spirit. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that God will finish the work he has begun in us. This future work will bring us from our temporary and failing physical bodies to new bodies fit for heaven. This gives us confidence – confidence that our future is secure and confidence to become effective representatives of God in this world. We do not (or should not) however become overconfident because there is a judgement day coming – a day when what we do in these mortal bodies will be rewarded or otherwise. In chapter 6 Paul warns the Corinthians not to mess things up!

1.            Don’t receive God’s grace in vain

Sometimes when our legislators bring in a new law that is radically different from the previous situation they offer a ‘grace period’. This usually means that even if you are in breach of the law they will let you off to enable you to become accustomed to the new law and to allow you to make provisions to comply. God is a God of grace. Grace has been defined as ‘unmerited favour’. It’s when someone does good to you even when you don’t deserve it. I recall the wonderful prayer of Daniel (you can read it in Daniel chapter 9) – God’s people were in a terrible mess of their own making. Daniel confessed the wrongs of the nation and as he closed his prayer he said, ‘we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.’ This is the God we come to: a God of mercy and a God of grace.

Sadly it’s entirely possible to throw God’s grace back in his face. Paul saw elements of this in the church in Corinth and he urged the Corinthians not to receive God’s grace in vain. What exactly does he mean by this? The sad truth is that in spite of all of the benefits we receive as Christians we are prone to forget and to live our lives without a thought for all that God has done for us.

In our Thursday bible studies over the past 10 years or so we have traced God’s work largely amongst his people Israel (we started in Genesis and have reached Nehemiah). The story has been one of God’s great provision for his people, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and many others. But, and it’s a big but, the story is infused with utter failure. The history of Israel is largely one of decline and failure. This story is both an example and a warning to us of how not to do things. Incidentally, in spite of Israel’s utter failure, God has time and time again shown his mercy. In this 6th chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul quotes a passage from Isaiah, here’s the quote: ‘In a time of favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you, I tell you, now is the  time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation’. What could this mean? It seems that as Israel constantly disobeyed God there came a time for God’s judgement on them. They had persistently failed and eventually God acted in judgement (as he had said he would in his agreement with the people as they left the wilderness behind – see Deuteronomy 28). But equally, there came times of opportunity to repent and seek God, times and opportunities to benefit from God’s grace. Maybe we could call these ‘grace periods’. It seems that part of Isaiah’s ministry was to offer the people the chance to turn around and benefit from God’s favour before it became too late. Paul seems to have particularly selected this part of Isaiah’s prophecy to indicate that the very period in which he wrote was a period of God’s grace. I can see no reason to think that think that things have changed since Paul penned these words – we remain in a period of God’s grace. This is the message of the gospel. The Good News is that God has made a way; we as sinful human beings can come to him for forgiveness and to receive the benefits of the New Covenant. This is not a day of judgement, it’s a day of grace! This day will not last forever, there will come a day of judgement for this world, but for now the doors are open to God’s favour.

In view of all of this, what a tragedy that in the midst of this day of grace some in Corinth were throwing God’s grace back in God’s face. Don’t receive God’s grace in vain says Paul. Can we be tempted to do this too? Are we living for this world, are we feeding our sinful nature, are we neglecting the body of Christ and leaving our gifts unused, are we destroying rather than building, are we throwing God’s grace back in his face?

2.            Don’t discredit genuine Christian leaders

Paul get’s a bit personal in this next section. It seems that he conducted his work entirely within the spirit of the ‘day of grace’. He wanted the Corinthians to benefit from the gospel and he did not worry about the personal cost to himself. He could easily have brought the gospel to the Corinthians with a sort of ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, but he did not. He went out of his way to remove all possible road blocks that may have prevented on inhibited the message. This did not come without personal sacrifice. There seem to be three categories to the sacrifices he made. Firstly, he describes trials of a general nature: troubles, hardships and distress. The Greek word translated ‘distress’ has the idea of someone trapped in a confined space. Second Paul speaks of difficulties as a victim of perpetrators of persecution: beatings, imprisonments and riots. Thirdly ne speaks of personal difficulties: hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. He did this so that the gospel would be heard without anything getting in the way. What an example! I fear that what we often want is a comfortable faith, where we seldom have to ‘put ourselves out’ let alone experience hard work, sleepless nights and hunger! Paul could have undergone these difficulties with a moan and a groan (I certainly would!), but the amazing thing is that when the Spirit of God is at work these difficulties become an opportunity to demonstrate God’s power within. Surely this is an example of ‘reflecting God’s glory’ that we saw in chapter 3. Here’s the list that describes his attitude to bringing to the gospel to the awkward squad in Corinth: in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love.

The programme of gospel preaching and church building that Paul had embarked upon required tools: he says in verse 7 that he used ‘truthful speech, the power of God and weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left’. This suggests a battle that involves opponents and a struggle. I can’t help but note that the battle is waged with God’s power but the weapons are in our hands!

It’s one thing to be in a battle and incur personal loss and discomfort, but it seems that the cruelest cut of all is to question one’s integrity, but this is just what happened. Paul says the following:”through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors”. The tragedy is that it was the Corinthians themselves who questioned Paul’s motives and integrity. Paul had opened his heart to them, and had shown great affection for them, but it was not reciprocated. How sad. Let’s learn from this mistake and not unfairly discredit genuine Christian leaders.

3.            Don’t mix yourself up in this world’s affairs

We’ve seen how the Corinthians could mess things up by throwing God’s grace back in his face and by discrediting the very servant who at great personal cost had brought them the gospel, Paul now describes a 3rd way the Corinthians were messing things up. He says ‘do not be yoked together with unbelievers’. I have over the years heard many people say that this is about forming legal partnerships with unbelievers: don’t marry an unbeliever, don’t enter a business partnership with an unbeliever. This might be a reasonable extension of what Paul was saying, but I don’t think it’s quite what he was getting at. After all it would be very difficult to go through life without dealing with unbelievers in formal and contractual ways, and in any event Paul encouraged believers married to unbelievers not to divorce. Paul expands on his statement prohibiting being yoked to another believer: For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?  What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? It becomes quite clear that Paul addressing the dangers of mixing truth with lies and mixing the work of God with the work of the evil one – Belial is another name for the Devil. Perhaps the specific thing he wanted to say here related to idols: what agreement is there between the temple of God and idols. What agreement indeed! Idol worship seems to have been a significant issue in Corinth. You may remember from our studies in the first letter to Corinth that there was a difficulty in the church over eating food that had been offered to idols. There was nothing wrong with the food (in fact it was probably the better quality meat) but the very thought of eating such food went against the conscience of some in the church. Paul advised that there was nothing wrong with the food, but the church should firstly not cause offence unnecessarily, if your eating of such food offends, then don’t do it, secondly Paul warned against drifting into eating such food as part of idol worship – this would be crossing a line.

Why is this so important? Because we are the temple of God! This statement somewhat washes over us without having much impact but it ought to! In Old Testament times God lived amongst his people, his home was the temple. But not anyone could walk into the temple to see God! There was an elaborate process of purification, preparation and representation that was needed – access to the temple was highly restricted and closely regulated. But you will remember that at the moment of Jesus’ death the thick curtain that marked off the ‘restricted access’ was torn from the top to the bottom – God was making himself accessible to all. That Temple was destroyed, but what Temple does God inhabit now? Us! This is at the same time remarkable as it is sobering. If we were setting up a place for God to live in West Street Church we’d furnish it with best materials that money could buy and we’d keep it spotlessly clean – what sort of home do we make for God? Mixing ourselves up in the affairs of false religion would certainly not do, neither would living sinful and ungodly lives.

There is a temptation for us to shrug off Paul’s concern about idol worship and tying ourselves up with false religion as an irrelevance to our lives in the 21st century, but I wonder if we could apply this to ourselves by asking just how much we are drawn to church tradition as a substitute for what is real on one side and on the other an unhelpful commitment to things of this world. For some Christians the style of the service, or the hymn/song book (or hymns) or other human devices and inventions figure so highly that they get in the way. This can reach absurd proportions where believers divide over secondary issues. Let’s not mix up the truth with empty traditions. Conversely, some believers are so immersed in the things of this world that their Christian faith hardly figures at all in their thinking. We should consider how we can avoid mixing true faith with human inventions and worldly thinking and practices.

Paul ends this chapter by quoting some Old Testament passages which call for God’s people Israel to avoid  like the plague influences that would draw them away from God – we should heed this advice too.