This focus of this exegetical assignment will be 2 Corinthians 6: 14-18. Much like its predecessor, 2 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul, formerly known as Saul, to the city of Corinth. But a number of scholars have theorized that while this verse was indeed written by Paul, it was not originally featured in the letter, mainly due to it being inconsistent with the writing style and tone of the letter as a whole. As the title of the letter indicates, the Corinthians would have been the main audience and first readers of this passage.
The precise date of its writing has never been proven conclusively. The most logical response, as posited by Linda L. Belleville in her IVP Commentary, is that it would be written in AD 55, one year after his writing 1 Corinthians. However, scholarly knowledge about Paul shows that it would not logically fit into the timeline, for a few reasons. For one thing, Paul went on a lengthy journey shortly writing after writing the first of the two Corinthian letters, giving him little to no time to compose such a lengthy letter. For another, he made three recorded visits to the city, and it is on record that the final one was in “the winter of 56” (Belleville 20). By this time, she explains, “he had proclaimed the gospel from Jerusalem ‘all the way around to Illyricum’” (20). With the busy, fast-paced life Paul led, it seems much more generous to most scholars to place the book’s date of writing as AD 56, after his journey to Macedonia. The latter is supported by several in-text references to the location, such as where he mentions “the brothers from Macedonia” (2 Cor. 11:9). While Clarence Zahniser from the Wesleyan Bible Commentary supports this theory, Raymond E. Brown, author of An Introduction to the New Testament, argued in his own work that the first of the letters would have been published in either “ Late 56 or very early 57” (512), but he lacks concrete proof to support his position. Due to the surplus of evidence presented, this paper will presume the letter’s date of publication to be AD 56.
Corinth was a prosperous city, but one that was frequently troubled by sin. At the time of Paul’s letter, spiritual as well as sexual immorality within the community had undergone a major influx. Paul’s second letter is believed to have been spurred by another apostle, Timothy, who visited the city and, according to Brown, “found the situation bad…many assume that this was the result of the arrival of the false apostles described” (541). Thus, he alerted Paul, who was spurred into action and returned for a second visit. His public presence was not well received by Corinth’s citizens, so he turned to the written word to get his point across.
And what was that point, or points to be exact? Paul speaks on a multitude of issues, but they all have an underlying theme: conquering sin and the Devil, and moving towards more virtuous attitudes. To accomplish this goal, Paul sermonizes that the Corinthians must first face the opposition head-on, especially the aforementioned false apostles. Their identity is ambiguous at best, but his referring to them as “Hebrews” and “Israelites” suggests that they were primarily Jewish (Belleville 34). However, their faith was not the main issue; the issue was the idealized vision they projected to the Corinthians. Many scholars suggest Paul’s unhappiness stemmed from how they made God a “wonderworker” (Belleville 35) effectively relieving His followers of thinking they had to put any effort into their faith. But the focus isn’t entirely on the authority of God; Paul is also exerting his own authority as well (Belleville 17, Zahniser 254). In the years that preceded 2 Corinthians’ publication, Paul had been fighting against skeptics who dismissed his faith and “turned from questions of practical import to attacks on his person” (Zahniser 255). After the disaster of his second visit to Corinth, as well as being notified about the false apostles presence in the city, Paul took offense on a personal level and moved to defend himself via verses where he establishes himself up front as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” (2 Cor. 1). In a sense, the letter was as much for their spiritual benefit as it was his, and his emotion is evident, to the point that Jan Lambrecht calls it “his most personal letter” (1).
As a Hellenistic letter, 2 Corinthians is structurally sound. It contains the general tripartite schema discussed by Raymond F. Collins of Introduction to the New Testament: it identifies the sender, then takes the body of the letter to discuss thanksgiving, and concludes with final wishes and greetings to the recipient (217). However, in some ways it also takes the form of a eulogy, particularly in the opening of “Praise be to God” (Belleville 21). He then spends an unusual amount of time focusing on is upcoming visit, and ends with not one, but two closing portions. It has been suggested that Paul’s purpose in this excess detail was to warn the Corinthians that when he arrived, he would not be gentle with the sinners he mentions in the letter (21). Upon first reading, 6: 14-18 looks like a poor fit for the overall structure and themes of 2 Corinthians. Its preceding and succeeding chapters deal with renewing one’s commitment to the true message of God, being “ambassadors of God,” and Paul
urging the Corinthians to open their hearts, proclaiming “I am exceedingly joyful.” (2 Cor). In between those few verses, there is this passage, which lacks any of the inherent sensitivity of the other works. With its harsh dualities of righteousness and unlawfulness, light and darkness, and Christ and Belial (Satan), the one aspect it is not evidently lacking in is the emotional angle that populated Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The out-of-nowhere appearance is not unjustified, as many scholars conclude that the passage was actually interpolated, or added at a later, unspecified date.
The major indicator of this theory is the presence of certain words that would never occur in any other Pauline writing; “Belial” in particular. For this reason, as well as the overall incongruous tone, there has been serious discussion among scholars like Ralph P. Martin and Belleville as to whether or not the writing can truly be accepted as one of Paul’s. One author, David deSilva, makes several arguments for Paul’s identity as the passage’s true author. First of all, deSilva argues, “The promise of adoption as the ‘sons and daughters’ of God finds expression in Rom. 8.14, Gal. 3.26, 4.6-7 and Phil. 2.15. For Paul, these are the promises which have received their ‘Yes’ in Christ for all people” (63). Not only does the passage have thematic connections, it is also not the only use of dualism in 2 Cor. In 4:8, he brings up the “seen and unseen” paradox, and follows it up with his comparison between an “earthly tent” and “God’s dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:1) as proof of the permanence of heaven. Whether on purpose or by coincidence, the theme of God’s love as shown here would be reiterated time and time again.
Perhaps it is for the best that this passage was interpolated, because it also serves as the finale for a concept known as “apostolic exhortation” (Lambrecht 116), following the apostolic appeal. As stated prior, Paul struggled to maintain the trust of the Corinthians, but when he learned of their dire situation, he felt he had no other option but to get involved, as exhibited in the preceding verses of 2 Cor., which read “Our mouth stands open to you, Corinthians; our heart is made wide. You are not cramped in us, but you are cramped in your affections” (2 Cor. 6:11-12). This is a two-part approach by Paul; first comes the appeal, where he displays his care for the Corinthians with the reference to his heart and their affections, which he desires to have intertwined. Then he moves forward with an abrupt command—as abrupt as the transition he is asking of them (Lambrecht 117).
The passage in question begins with a simple proclamation: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” (2 Cor. 6:14) While “yoked” is the generally accepted phrase, some translations use a different verb. The NRSV uses mismatched, while the NASB uses “bound together.” The underlying theme of these phrases is that there is a strong, unyielding connection where there should decidedly not be. Paul’s impassioned plea continues to fuel speculation about who these unbelievers were and what they wanted with the Corinthians. The easy answer is that it was solely a problem of religious differences, as Jerome O’Connor of New Testament Studies discusses. O’Connor relates “the suggestion found in the commentaries of Plummer, Allo and Barrett, that the coldness of the Corinthians towards Paul had its roots in the attachment to paganism” (272). But with current knowledge about the situation in Corinth at the time, particularly their increasing population of false apostles, this seems much less likely. To go even further into detail, the synonyms of the original translation further denote just what Paul meant by an “unbeliever.” According to Belleville, “Symphonesis signifies to be in arrangement with or of one accord. Meris denotes a shared lot or portion. Synkatathesis is commonly used of a decision arrived at by a group” (178). Paul was not condemning casual acquaintanceships or the occasional interaction between believers and non-believers. He mainly discouraged close, intimate relationships: a topic he had already spoke on in 1 Cor. He specifically condemned cultic meals, prostitution, and incest as some of the most immoral acts that a Christian could ever commit. The fact that this topic had come up again, even though Paul had already dictated his thoughts in the previous book, is a major indication that the Corinthians had allowed their morals to slip, especially with the presence of these new, false apostles.
Paul strengthens his argument with a series of dualistic comparisons: “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6. 14-15) The point here is fairly obvious: there simply cannot exist any sort of unity between two extremes, particularly when one is positive and one is negative. Furthermore, each of the dualities presented reflects a common Biblical theme. The first duality refers to one’s beliefs, and when it comes to Christainity and atheism, “There are no shared values because the one follows God’s will and the other does not. So there can be no real partnership between them” (Belleville 179). Light and dark is commonplace to most Christians, with the former being a symbol of God, particularly “You are the Light of the World” (Matt. 5:14) and the latter symbolizing the wicked influence that threatens it. The third contrast, which many use as evidence of the passage’s interpolation, compares Christ and Belial. Despite being a lesser-known name for Satan, Marvin Vincent notes “The Septuagint renders it variously by transgressor, impious, foolish, pest” (325). With that definition in mind, Paul makes a comparison not only between their spiritualities, but also their wisdom. Satan is unwise, and by extension the false apostles doing his work must be as well. As for the believer and unbeliever, their comparison combines the previous three into one, having proved conclusively that there exist too many contradictions between the two for them to coincide. This is the heart of the issue for Paul—having battled the unbelievers for too long, he has taken pains to point out every incongruity between the two groups until he has persuaded the Corinthians to follow him.
Next, Paul moves into another highly personal issue: the one of false idols that disrupt God’s message. In his own words, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and the idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6.16). Besides the sins of sexual impurity and following false teachings, idolatry was one of the most widespread issues in biblical Corinth. Belleville describes how Corinth’s temples “were a focal point of social activity” (180) to its citizens. Clearly, giving as much attention to deities like Aphrodite was not seen as a major issue for the Corinthians. Even the most devoted Christians were involved in the practice, which “leads others to think that there may be something to this after all” (Belleville 181). For the passage as a whole, this would be the first espousal of the “forsaking all for the sake of Christ” ideal. If the Corinthians wanted to be part of God’s temple, that included giving up their false idols. Referring to them as “temple” was Paul’s way of reminding them of this, as is the next line: “As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (2 Cor. 6.16). This merely offers them incentive for offering their hearts to God by quoting Him directly, and establishes a mutual agreement between two willing parties. Belleville compares it to the relationship between a king and his vassal, where “the king agreed to protect the vassal, and the vassal promised sole allegiance and obedience” (183). It is similar to the dualisms put forth previously, as one does not exist without the other. However, it is distinguished because interaction between the two is encouraged rather than forbade.
Now, Paul puts forth one of his harsher proclamations: “’Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you’” (2 Cor. 6:17). The portion on cleanliness is what stands out the most regarding this line, mainly due to its seeming impracticality and the fact that there is no attempt to distinguish between clean and unclean. However, records of the past have shown that purging themselves of uncleanliness was a major issue in Paul’s day. Cleanliness was not just a polite suggestion for His people. It was not only dictated by Pentateuchal law, but “Transgression of these laws would make impossible in the midst of his people…and would result in the pollution of the land (Num 35:33, Deut 21:23) and the expulsion of its people (Lev 18:24-30, 20:22)” (Green and McKnight 125). This goes back to the very first line of the passage, and the unbelievers who have been dragging down Corinth. Engaging in prostitution and incest as they were accused of in 1 Cor. is now shown to be not just foolish, but dangerous to themselves and their life with God. Paul does not mention this, but the Bible did prescribe of “rites for purification (Green and McKnight 126), so that lessens the severity somewhat and proves that mercy was omnipresent. At last, Paul concludes with one final appeal: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2. Cor 6:18). This serves the finale of Paul’s apostolic appeal, where he unveils their great reward “on the condition that the Christians will do what is required of them” (Lambrecht 119).
What do Christians ultimately gain from a passage like this? Mainly, it serves as a wake-up call for anyone attempting to justify living in sin. But when faced with the unyielding contrasts Paul draws between the two extremes, it is near impossible to ignore that sin and sainthood cannot co-exist; they must be kept apart as much as possible. Only by turning away from sin as much as possible and ridding themselves of all negative influences could they do such a thing. Like the rest of 2 Corinthians, it examines the authority of God—specifically, what to do in order to spend eternity living under it. Paul’s own authority is also at play here, even if many see it as harsh and unwarranted. But it only stems from the affection and emotion he has built for the Corinthians, who he wants to see turned into true believers. His love for them here is never in question; it just happens to be “tough love.”
Without a doubt, the message of 2 Cor. 6:14-18 is still relevant to current culture, especially in the idolatry sense. Everywhere, there are false religions such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being established, and celebrities being treated with the same levels of worship and adoration that should be going towards Him. While these practices may seem harmless enough, they still present a problem similar to the one experienced by the Corinthians in AD 55. Despite the jovial tone that accompanies them, their followers will not be sustained for long. It is time for them to get serious, and turn to the only one who can offer them true and eternal satisfaction: Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, there are also believers who would likely go in the opposite direction with a passage such as this. Despite the overall forgiving nature of the passage, many cleanse themselves of all activities they believe God views as impure. They not only stay away from crude entertainment and take conservative opinions on issues like abortion, gun control, and most of all, homosexuality. While the commentaries speak very little about it, homosexuality was undoubtedly involved in the sexual sins that the Corinthians had been engaged in. Today, the issue has gone from something that was kept almost exclusively under wraps to one of the biggest issues of the 21st-century, and almost every Christian has their own opinion. Some choose the path of tolerance; others choose the path of condemnation. The more conservative of the bunch insist that gays and lesbians must be “purified,” while others state we should stay away from them entirely—or as the passage states, “Touch no unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17). But doing that misses the entire point of what Christ desired for his people—all of his people.
The real message Christians ought to take from the passage is this: There are always going to be people in their life who will try to sway them to the wrong side. But they do not need to be afraid of them. Instead, they should have the courage to step away from the situation and adhere to their faith, despite whatever immoral messages surround them each and every day. Only by doing that will they be accepted into God’s house, and loved for having the courage to do what is right.
It’s true that on the surface, the passage’s message is rather harsh. Its morality is entirely black and white, leaving no gray areas between concepts like good and evil. Aren’t God and his apostles essentially telling the Corinthians that they have no choice between the two? Well, yes and no; when looked at more closely, the passage is really rather basic, with its dualistic and simplified comparisons at the front and center. The Corinthians, as well as God’s current followers, have known all this information for years. This passage merely serves as a small push in the right direction, going back to the basics of the Christian faith and reminding believers of the great reward that will come to them if they take the message to heart. God wants all Christians to join Him in heaven, and knows that they are capable of achieving greatness. After all, idols will eventually lose their power, but God never loses His.
Belleville, Linda L. 2 Corinthians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, edited by Grant R. Osborne. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday & Co., 1997.
Collins, Raymond F. Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday & Co., 1983.
deSilva, David. “Studying Penultimate Against Ultimate Reality: An Investigation of the Integrity and Argumentation of 2 Corinthians.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 16, no. 52, Oct. 1993, pp. 41-70.
Green, Joel B., Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Lambrecht, Jan. 2 Corinthians. Sacra Pagina, edited by Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.
Martin, Ralph P. 2 Corinthians. Word Biblical Commentary, edited by Peter H. Davids. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
O’Connor, Jerome. “Relating 2 Corinthians 6.14-7.1 to Its Context.” New Testament Studies, vol. 33, no.2, April 1987, pp. 272-275.
Vincent, Martin R. “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” In The Epistles of Paul. Vol. 3 of Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, edited by Henry Drisler, 290-362. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.
Zahniser, Clarence H. “2 Corinthians,” In Wesleyan Bible Commentary: Romans-Philemon. Vol. 5 of Wesleyan Bible Commentary, edited by Charles W. Carter. New York City: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1966.