"Teaching #4: Paul and holiness"
Our fourth and final ministry theme from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians concerns Paul’s ministry in relation to the subject of holiness.
It is imperative that before we focus our attention on right living, we first make sure that we think right thoughts rooted in God’s Word. God has revealed Himself and His will and plan for our lives through the pages of Scripture. When we allow God’s Word to become firmly rooted in our minds (Psalm 119:130), these hidden “roots” of divine truth will produce the “fruits” of godly character and behaviour in our daily lives.
Some questions to ponder briefly:
- Who are we “Christians”? What does the Bible reveal concerning our true identity?
- Do we see ourselves as many people around us see and think about us? Or do we see ourselves as God sees us, at the most unique, beautiful people on the face of the earth (despite our many weaknesses)?
- How does God want us to think of ourselves and also our tasks as His “holy people”?
Scripture reading: 2 Cor.6:14-7:1
In this section of his letter, Paul makes some very powerful declarations contrasting God’s true people (believers) with everyone who has not bowed their knee to Jesus (unbelievers). These declarations have profound implications in everyday life, for these first century Corinthian believers and also for us twenty-first followers of Jesus.
Daily life for first century Corinthian believers:
The members of the Corinthian church were relatively young in the faith, having only relatively recently thrown off their past life of idolatry with all its daily practices, rituals and ways in order to become followers of Jesus – cf. 1 Thess.1:9 “… how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.”
Yet every day in every corner of life in the city of Corinth, they were continually reminded of their past life in idolatry. No doubt some suffered tensions with family members who were very angry that they had joined the Christian “sect”.
Some issues they would have frequently confronted:
- How were they to relate to and associate with those whose way of thinking and living were still totally controlled by their idol-worship – family members, fellow-workers in some trade guild or casual acquaintances? Were they now to separate themselves and live in separate Christian communities? If not, then how should they relate to their family, neighbours and compatriots now that they had become followers of Jesus?
- How should they approach their daily outings to the local market? Was it right for them to buy meat that had already been sacrificed to idols? What if they didn’t know if it had or not? Was such food “off-limits” for them as Christians?
- How should they now do business? Was it okay for them to enter into formal business partnerships with unbelievers / idol-worshippers? What about marrying an idol-worshipper? What did God and His servants have to say about such issues? (Read United in Marriage by One Lord: God’s Wisdom on Intermarriage in a Multifaith World for further guidance on this particular issue.)
These were just a few of the daily realities and questions that these young Christians would have faced as they lived out their faith among their pagan neighbours and friends.
- Consider the similarities with your situation. Is there any idolatry where you live? What “idols” do the people around you worship? What pagan beliefs, values and life goals are clearly visible in your community and nation?
- What are the implications for you as a true believer daily surrounded by the various forms of modern idolatry?
Paul’s pastoral counsel
In 2 Cor.6:14-7:1, Paul focuses our attention on who we are in contrast to who the people around us are – and what this means for relationships and partnerships with unbelievers.
Paul’s two questions:
Question #1: “What fellowship (partnership) does righteousness have with lawlessness; light with darkness; Christ with Belial/Satan; believers with unbelievers?” (Vs. 14-15)
Paul’s answer to Question #1 (implied in the Greek verb form): None!
- Key word: FELLOWSHIP (“Koinonia” – from “koinos” = common; profane – opposite of “holy”): to share something in common
- Paul’s questions begin with the Greek interrogative μή construction; in this way he draws a clear line of distinction between “believers” and “unbelievers”:
- Between Christians as “righteousness,” and those without faith in Christ “lawlessness” – 2 Co.5:21; Eph.5:6ff.
- Between “children of the light,” and those in “darkness” as captives of the prince of this world – 1 John 1:5-7; Col.1:13; John 8:44.
- Between “Christ” and those who love Him, and “Belial” (a name for Satan, from Hebrew origin, meaning “worthless or wicked”) and those whose wills are subjected to his will.
- Through His servant, Paul, God was teaching these early believers, and us, that they and we must train our minds to think of themselves in keeping with the truth, even if they and we may wrestle with our inconsistencies and human frailties. We are God’s people “in process” – Rom.12:2.
Question #2: V. 16a: “What agreement (joint agreement, joint arrangement, mutual agreement) does the temple of God have with idols?”
Paul’s answer to Question #2 (again implied by the Greek verb construction): None!
- Key word: AGREEMENT
31.18 συντίθεμαι; συγκατατίθεμαι; συγκατάθεσις, εως f
: to work out a joint arrangement—‘to agree on, to arrange together, joint agreement, joint arrangement, mutual agreement.’
συγκατατίθεμαι: συγκατάθεσις: τίς δὲ συγκατάθεσις ναῷ θεοῦ μετὰ εἰδώλων; ‘how can God’s temple come to a mutual agreement with pagan idols?’ 2 Cor 6.16.
- Why would Paul / God adopt such an strong, intolerant attitude towards what may appear to many as harmless objects (i.e. idols)? What is an “idol”? Isn’t it just some silver or wood or some other physical material that gives religious people a sense of being connected with the unseen deity and powers?
- Idols are NOT harmless objects – Deut.32:17.
- God mocks those who practise idolatry – Isaiah 44:9-20.
- God will not share His glory with anyone, how much more so with idols – Isaiah 48:11.
- Conclusion: It is unthinkable for the Almighty God ever to sit down and hold conference with idols / demons in order to work out together a “joint / mutual agreement”, in the same way God’s people need to realise that it is also unthinkable for them to enter into joint or mutual agreement with those whose minds and hearts are held captive by demons and their idolatrous lies.
Who then are we God’s holy people?
Paul’s answer: “For we are the temple of the living God/Christ” V. 16b – notice this is a definite, dogmatic declaration not conditional on their first attaining some level of perfection.
Paul uses this same picture/image several times in both Corinthian letters. This underscores the fact that for Paul personally, this was a most fundamental truth for these Corinthian believers to grasp.
2 Cor.6:16b-d “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.”
1 Cor.3:16-17 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Cor.6:19-20 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Eph.2:19-22 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Notice two recurring words in the above-mentioned Scriptures: “holy” and “temple”. These are foundational to Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian believers concerning their true identity as the people of God:
- Believers are “saints” – 1 Cor.1:2 “holy ones”.
- Jesus is our “Sanctification” or “Holiness” – 1 Cor.1:30.
- Believers have been sanctified or “made holy” – 1 Cor.6:11.
How then does God want us to view ourselves as His “HOLY temple”?
Remember Paul’s Jewish background and his training in the Hebrew OT. All his understanding concerning truth had been formed through those earlier formative years of reading, studying meditating upon the Jewish Holy Scriptures.
Paul’s understanding of “holy”:
- The root meaning of “holy in Hebrew (“qadosh”) means “to separate” – “to cut off”. (R.C. Sproul in his book, The Holiness of God, uses an everyday idiom to explain the meaning of this word, viz. “a cut above”, like a naval officer in relation to ordinary seamen. It is difficult for a person raised in a democratic and egalitarian western society (where the individual’s rights, freedoms and equality are most highly esteemed) to have a true feel for the meaning of “holiness” with its focus on “separation” and “otherness”.
- The root meaning of “holy” therefore means: “separate”, “separated (from/to)”, “unique”, “totally other”, “distinctive”, and “exclusive”.
- By contrast, “holy” means: “not for everyday, ordinary use – out of bounds – to be used ONLY as God has decreed and commanded”.
- Comparison: the cockpit of a plane could be called a “holy” place because no “ordinary” passenger may enter without permission; it is the domain or sphere for the crew members only.
- Example #1: all the utensils dedicated for use in God’s Temple rituals and sacrifices were “holy” – meaning, these utensils could only be used by those designated for service in the Tabernacle or Temple. An ordinary Jewish family was not permitted to borrow them so these utensils could be used in the preparation and cooking of a family meal.Example #2: when God speaks of the 7th or Sabbath day as “holy”, He is communicating to His people that as HIS holy people, they were to regard this day as a “totally distinctive and separate” day from the six other days which were designed for work. God’s people were commanded, therefore, not to do their normal, ordinary (“koinos” = common) work on the Sabbath day but to keep this day as “holy” and set apart for God’s holy purposes.
- Conclusion: God’s “holy people” are to recognise themselves as separated spiritually from those who do not know and worship Jesus Christ – not because they are superior or spiritually “above” their unsaved friends and neighbours (we are not!), but because God has chosen us for Himself to be “holy”, made holy through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son in our place (see Eph1:3-4).
How are we to practise holiness as God’s holy people?
As God’s “holy people” and followers of Jesus, we are to “set ourselves apart for God” so that He might live lives that are distinctive and different from the sinful and rebellious ways of the people around us. This life of holiness includes the “positive” dimension (i.e. separated to God for His exclusive and holy purposes) as well as the “negative” dimension (i.e. separating ourselves from the sinful and evil patterns and deeds of the people of the world).
Firstly, holiness in daily living.
See 2 Cor.6:17-7:1
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
7:1Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
Three biblical instructions/injunctions for God’s “holy people”:
- “Separate yourselves” (6:17a)
- Paul was not advocating that these Corinthian believers separate or cut themselves off from all contact with their pagan neighbours and family members.
- What he was teaching them was this: as those who had already entered by faith into a new and holy partnership/covenant with Jesus, they could NOT enter into formal partnerships or agreements with people whose minds and hearts were permeated by and under the control of spiritual powers opposed to the will of their Master, Jesus.
- “Touch no unclean thing” (6:17b)
- Some Christians ask: what’s wrong with entering into a formal, binding work or life relationship with a good friend who just happens not to be a Christian?
- Paul instructs God’s holy people: Don’t even touch (i.e. play around with, approach as if he/she is strong enough to resist any temptation) that which is spiritually defiling and “unclean” – why? because the spiritual impurity will leave its defiling influence on our spiritual hands, just like a person who thinks he can cuddle a skunk or touch poison ivy will certainly “wear” the mark of that encounter for some time.
- “Cleanse yourself of every defilement of body and spirit” (7:1)
- Paul knew the temptations and spiritual hardships experienced by all believers as they rubbed shoulders everyday with unbelievers who had no conscience about engaging in immoral and sinful ways – people who were “slaves” to their evil passions and desires.
- Living with such influences infecting their minds and leaving its mark on their habits, Paul taught the Corinthian believers that they must keep cleansing themselves from the ungodly, pagan influences (in the mind / spirit as well as in the body) around them – if they didn’t, these evil, pagan influences would slowly, even unconsciously, drag them back into their old way of life – example: if they hung around pagan places of worship, or centres of prostitution and immorality such as the Roman baths.
Secondly, holiness in ministry.
Let’s take an even deeper look at this biblical picture of God’s people as God’s “holy ones”, as His “holy temple” especially as it relates to PAUL’S MINISTRY as an apostle and servant of Christ – and our ministries as His servants.
From Paul’s past, he understood God’s “holy temple” (i.e. in the OT era) was inseparably connected with WORSHIP (offering up to God the offerings and sacrifices that He required of them) and SERVICE (carrying out God’s instructions in regard to their service of people with special needs in their community, e.g. the widow, orphan and foreigner/alien):
- God’s “temple” in the NT era is no longer a physical building located in particular location (cf. Jerusalem). Rather it is all the people of God made up of both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, educated and illiterate – Gal.3:28.
- God’s people today worship God by functioning in the new “temple” as a spiritual “priesthood” (cf. “priests” in the OT or in other religions as a separate or distinctive group of people). Their duty is to offer up to God sacrifices and offerings pleasing in His sight – Rom.12:1; Phil.2:17; 4:18; Heb.13:15; 1 Peter 2:4-5. See also Rev.5:8 relating to the prayers of the saints as sweet-smelling “incense” before God.
- Now as God’s holy people, we may enter behind the “curtain” because God Himself has opened the way into the Holy of holies through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross. Now as “spiritual priests” we may enter in to behold God’s glory, and to receive His mercy and grace, His cleansing and forgiveness for all our sins – Titus 3:4-8a; Heb.4:14-16.
- As God’s servants like Paul, we have an obligation to lead and teach God’s holy people to love and worship God as His worshippers – John 4:24. Those who love and adore God find their greatest delight in God, even above His gifts and blessings.
- Sometimes we tend to interpret our calling and role as God’s “holy temple” and “a spiritual priesthood” in relation to things we do in church services, e.g. singing praise and worship songs. Our natural tendency as self-centred human beings is to focus our attention on the enjoyment of life in the community of God’s people, and the many privileges and blessings God showers upon us as His chosen, holy people.
- Whereas in God’s heart, the primary purpose of our being God’s “royal priesthood” is service to the world: DECLARING GOD’S PRAISES according to 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
- Consider how this truth can also be linked with Jesus’ words concerning God’s temple as “a house of prayer for all nations” – Mark 11:17. In God’s plan, God has set His holy people apart for HIS purpose of proclaiming His Good News to the nations.
- Paul himself understood his apostolic ministries as carrying out “priestly duties” among his own people (Jews), and also the Gentiles (nations) – Rom.15:16 “… to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit . See also 2 Cor.2:14-16 (N.B. see how his references to “fragrance” and “aroma” are linked with OT expressions regarding the sacrifices and offerings made by God’s people – Lev.1:9, 13, 17.
- As it was with the OT priests whose duty it was to perform their priestly duties on behalf of the whole nation of Israel as they brought their offerings and sacrifices to the temple, so as God’s NT “holy people” and “priesthood”, we are called to give ourselves wholeheartedly to our priestly duties on behalf of the nations:
- Interceding for the nations, that God’s desire to have a people for Himself from all nations might be fulfilled – see Rev.7:9-10.
- Proclaiming God’s Good News to the nations – both to our neighbours as well as to the peoples in faraway countries – working hard so that the nations will hear and know God’s message of forgiveness and hope – Luke 24:46-48; Acts 1:8.
What an honour that we are called God’s HOLY PEOPLE, His HOLY TEMPLE, His PRIESTHOOD. Allow these truths to take root in our minds and hearts, as they will fill us with exceeding joy and also motivate us to wholeheartedly love, worship and serve our holy God.
For this reason, let us keep digging in God’s “gold mine” (His Word / holy Scriptures) so that we might understand more and more how God desires us to live and also to serve Him, so that we truly please and delight His heart.
Pastor Graham Roberts
Equip & Encourage International
Ministry at the Evangelical Institute, Greenville, South Carolina, USA
Louw, Johannes P. ; Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York : United Bible societies, 1996, c1989, S. 1:367
[Ex. 4:22; 2 Sam. 7:8, 14; Isai. 43:6; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 1:10; Rev. 21:7]