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Don’t Be Unequally Yoked!

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Shortly before the Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, he prayed for his church. He said, Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth (John 17:17). As he was on his way to the cross, the sanctification, holiness and distinctness of his people lay heavily on his heart.

Do you know what? These should be our chief concerns, too. The idea behind them is relatively simple, but we just don’t always give it due consideration. The idea that I’m talking about is a complete and radical separation from sin and consecration to the Lord’s service. Jesus himself insisted on this when he said, If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched (Mark 9:43). As the people of God, you must be willing to take the most extreme measures to root sin out of your lives. Literally cutting off your hand will not accomplish this, but a radical cutting yourself off from sin will. But we don’t. Why? Because we don’t want to. We would rather hold on to just a little bit of the sin that we cherish.

Today’s text addresses the matter, although in a different way, and it is just as severe. Here we learn that our distinctness as the people of God has powerful implications for every areas of our lives. The most common application of our text relates it to marriage, but Paul did not even mention marriage. He chose, rather, to speak more broadly so that you, as God’s people, might devote yourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord Jesus Christ. This passage tells you one of the most basic things that you need to know in order to make good use of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace.

Paul’s Love for the Corinthians

II Corinthians itself has one distinguishing characteristic. It has been recognized down through the years as Paul’s most personal epistle because in it he shared so much of himself. We see some of this in verses 11–13, where the apostle repeatedly poured out his love and concern for the church.

Paul began by calling the church by name. In all of his writings, there are only two other times when he did this and each time it was express the strength of his love for the church. When he heard, for example, that the church at Galatia had drifted from his teaching at the peril of their own souls, he addressed them as O foolish Galatians (Gal. 3:1). He referred to the Philippian church by name when he wanted to express his immense gratitude for its super-abounding thoughtfulness and generosity in supporting his ministry (Phil. 4:15). Paul seems to have been especially fond of this congregation.

The next thing he said sounds really strange to our modern ears, but there’s no doubt about what he meant. Our mouth is open to you (v. 11) means that he had spoken the Word of God openly and honestly to them. He had not concealed anything. There were no hidden secrets. Even when the things he had to say were difficult, as was true about almost everything in his first epistle, he never failed to tell them whatever they needed to know. This is the way that friends deal with friends. Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov. 27:6).

And not only was Paul’s mouth opened to the Corinthians, his heart was also enlarged toward them (v. 11). This means that he had an immense compassion toward them. From its beginning, this church had been plagued with all kinds of problems. Without a doubt, it was the most problem filled church in the entire New Testament. Paul had written I Corinthians to address its problems, and by the grace of God most of its problems had been dealt with. Only a few still remained. Paul sympathized with the church in its continued struggle. He watched over it with all the love and concern that a father has toward his children.

One of his fatherly admonitions is stated in verse 12: Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. In other words, there was no lack of compassion for the Corinthians on Paul’s part. His heart had plenty of room for them. He had admonished them with the Word of God. He had prayed that the Spirit of God would send his sanctifying grace to them through his preaching. He had done everything humanly possible to help them. So, any failure in their growth and maturity was not Paul’s fault. Yet, their growth was impeded. It was impeded, Paul wrote, because they had no room in their hearts for him or for the call to holiness that he urged upon them. They had not yet come to the place yet where they could delight in walking with the Lord. They had restricted the open places in their hearts to the things they liked. Paul urged them to reconsider this. As long as they continue to do this, they would be held back from making progress in their sanctification.

So, what’s the answer? Paul instructed them in verse13 to return the favor that he had shown them and be enlarged toward him. They needed to open their hearts to the apostle and his ministry of the gospel, just as he had opened his heart toward them. Paul wanted them to be zealous for that holiness without which no man may see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). If they would only enlarge their desire to walk with Christ in faithfulness and truth, most of their problems would be resolved.

In all of this, Paul pled with the Corinthians as a father might plead with a wayward child. He did not chide them, but he encouraged them. He sought nothing from them but God’s glory and their own good.

The Lord’s People Must be Distinct in Conduct

What was it that had kept the Corinthians from giving themselves wholly to the service of Christ? What made them withhold their affections from Paul? We find the answer to this in verse14.

As I mentioned earlier, the most common application of this passage is to marriage. A professing Christian, we are told, should not be unequally yoked in the marital covenant to an unbeliever. While this is certainly true and a valid application of this passage, it really says nothing directly about marriage. Rather, it prohibits mixing any holy thing with an unholy thing in an improper relationship.

The principle here is soundly rooted in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:19 says, Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee. Deuteronomy 22:10 adds, Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together. God gave these commandments to cultivate a sense of purity among the people of God. They were to be so pure that they, unlike the surrounding nations, would keep even their cattle, their seed and their fabrics separate. This was to teach them that there should be no mixture in their service of God.

Based on these precepts, Paul instructed the Corinthians not to be (μὴ γίνεσθε; lit. “do not continue to become”) unequally yoked together with unbelievers. The context suggests that he had something very specific in mind, viz., a believer pursuing a binding covenant of fellowship with an unbeliever. Note the unmistakable references to the covenant throughout this passage, but especially in verses 16–18. In other words, this passage does not prohibit you from having a casual friendship with your unbelieving neighbors (in most cases, you’ll never win them to Christ unless you do so), nor does it bar you from hiring an unbeliever to clean your carpets or repair your microwave. These relationships are either not binding or they are not covenants of fellowship. But this passage does forbid you to establish a binding relationship with an unbeliever in which both of you pledge mutual responsible to each other and for each other. Two situations that come to mind right away are business partnerships and marriage, although it appears that in our text Paul was specifically concerned about religious covenants. In his first epistle he expressed concern about the idolatry of the Corinthians (I Cor. 10:14), and later in this epistle he warned them of the dangers of fellowshipping with false apostles (II Cor. 11:1–4). He wanted them to stop forming such relationships so that they could devote themselves wholly to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Word of God instructs you not to become unequally yoked together with unbelievers. You should not conclude from this that there is such a thing as an equal yoke in a mixed relationship. The Greek word (ἑτεροζυγοῦντες) used here doesn’t have anything to do with inequality. It literally forbids putting two different kinds of animals in the same yoke. In other words, it repeats the commandment given in Deuteronomy 22:10, which we looked at earlier. The law of God forbad plowing with an ox and an ass yoked together because that inevitably involved an unequal relationship. The ox not only did all the work, but also had to drag the ass around, which only made his work that much harder. But Paul’s reason for repeating this commandment has nothing to do with animals. It’s about human relationships. When a believer is yoked together with an unbeliever in a binding covenant of fellowship, this is itself an unequal relationship that prevents the believer from serving serving the Lord to his fullest potential. He always has to combat the evil inclinations and influences of the unbeliever.

Paul brings this to our attention by asking a series of rhetorical questions that were designed to show the vast gulf between the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of Satan. In fact, they are at war with one another. Christ’s kingdom is characterized by righteousness, light (truth), Christ as king, belief of the truth, and the worship and service of the true God. Satan’s kingdom is the opposite of these in every way. It’s distinguished by unrighteousness, darkness (falsehood), Belial (which literally signifies a worthless person, the devil himself being the most worthless, in contrast to the glory of Christ), infidelity and devotion to powerless idols.

As the people of God, it is not within your prerogative to yoke yourselves together in such a relationship.

God Dwells in His People

Beginning in the middle of verse 16, Paul explains why you should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. The short answer is that you are the temple of God.

A temple is preeminently God’s dwelling place. Psalm 11:4 says that God dwells in his temple; here his temple is heaven itself. The tabernacle/temple complex of the Old Testament gave the believer a small glimpse into heaven, where he learned more of the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament, the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Christ bodily (Col. 1:19; 2:9), and for this reason he could speak of himself as a tabernacle (John 1:14) or temple (John 2:19–22). Because of the presence of the Spirit in the church, the church as a whole is a temple (I Cor. 3:16), as is also each individual believer (I Cor. 6:19). Again, the idea is that God dwells among his people.

Paul cited the Old Testament in support of this at the end of verse 16. Although it’s not a direct quotation, the main passage that he referred to is Leviticus 26:11–12. Moses wrote, And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people. The progression is the same both here and in our text. Both begin with God dwelling among his people. The word dwell in (ἐνοικήσω) literally means to be in a house. Then God says that he will walk among his people. That is, he will not just share a living space with us but he will engage us in intimate fellowship. And then finally we have the great promise of the covenant: citing the promise given many years ago to Abraham, God announces that he will be our God, and we will be his people. This goes far beyond intimate fellowship. Here God claims us as his very one possession — a possession that he prizes above everything else except his own glory and truth. In verse 18 he even says that he, as our heavenly Father, adopts us as his very own children.

All of this places a very important obligation upon us. Verse 17 says, Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing. Because God dwells in us, walks with us and claims us as his very own, we need to be distinct in our behavior. We cannot live like the world lives. We cannot mix righteousness with unrighteousness, light with darkness or Christ with Belial. No, we have to separate ourselves from sin and from everything that’s unclean. And when we do so, the Lord promises, And I will receive you.

Unequally Yoked in Marriage

One area where all of this is specifically applicable is marriage. Just as the Old Testament prohibited mixing together various animals, seeds and fabrics, so it also proscribed intermarriage with unbelievers. Deuteronomy 7:3 says, Neither shalt thou make marriages with them [i.e., the nations that occupied the promised land]; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son (cf. Exod. 34:15–16). And this principle is also affirmed in the New Testament where the apostle Paul instructs believers to marry only in the Lord (I Cor. 7:39).

Remember that this was not an absolute prohibition against marrying people of other nations. The Lord’s concern was not that the Jews would marry outside the bloodline of Abraham, but that they would marry outside the faith of Abraham. Thus, the prohibition in Deuteronomy continues, For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly (v. 4). Unfortunately, this often happened. It happened, for example, when Balak sent out an army of Moabite prostitutes to disarm the Israelite men (Num. 25). Solomon also, in spite of his great wisdom, fell to it. I Kings 11 says that he loved many strange woman, i.e., foreign women of the nations with whom the Jews were not to intermarry. It goes on to say that he clave unto these in love. In other words, he had given himself heart and soul to his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. And when he gave them his heart, they turned his heart to go after their gods.

On the other hand, there are examples in Scripture of very godly marriages between Jews and non-Jews. But they had to first adopt the faith of Abraham as their own. One example that particularly stands out here is Ruth, the Moabite wife of Mahlon, who after husband’s death chose to stay with her mother-in-law and to abide by her mother-in-law’s faith. She said, Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God (Ruth 1:16). This alone reveals her faith and godliness. And not only so, but Boaz, a very godly and righteous man, fulfilled the part of the kinsman-redeemer after Ruth and Naomi returned to their own land. He married Ruth, and the Lord blessed their union with a son named Obed, an ancestor of David and also an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. This relationship pleased the Lord and stands today as a wonderful example of a man and a woman who conducted themselves honorably in the courtship process.

Beloved, you must be just as concerned with your purity before God. The command not to become unequally yoked together with unbelievers applies to you, just as much as it does to anyone else.

Young people especially are tempted not keep this commandment. When you meet someone to whom you are attracted, you might to yourself, “I know so-and-so is not a Christian, but he’ll never become a Christian if I don’t date him.” But think about this for a minute. There are several problems with it. First of all, what you’re really saying is that it’s alright to break one of God’s commandments in order to keep another. The problem, of course, is that God’s laws never conflict with each other. Righteousness in one area is never a justification for sin in another. Second, this reasoning itself is untrue. There is nothing in the Bible that you have to date a person in order to evangelize him. It just doesn’t follow. Third, you don’t know for a fact that your dating-evangelism will be effective. The individual to whom you are attracted may never believe.  But meanwhile, you’ve given him your heart and soul, and you’ve placed yourself in a situation where it would be very easy to agree to an unequally yoked marriage.

The Word of God tells you not to go there. Don’t even consider it. Jesus prayed for your sanctification. Your holiness should be one of your chief concerns, too.

But sometimes the temptation is a little more subtle. Let’s say the person you meet is a member of a church. Perhaps he’s a Roman Catholic, a Methodist or a Presbyterian. But he’s not particularly interested in going to church, studying the Bible or praying. He has no real desire to walk with Christ. Keeping God’s commandments isn’t a high priority for him. Yet, he calls himself a Christian. Does the Word of God allow you to pursue an interest in such a person?

Here the answer is a little more problematic. Our text instructs us not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. But this guy professes to be a believer and is a member of a church. The Holy Spirit may have planted a seed of faith in him that hasn’t grown too much yet. Unfortunately, you cannot be sure either way. In this case, it’s probably wiser not to make any kind of commitment. If the Holy Spirit is working in him, it probably won’t be too long until you’ll be able to discern some fruit. And if you see no evidence of genuine faith over a reasonable period of time, then you should let this one go.

How can you really have fellowship with each other if you can’t fellowship in the things of the Lord? Is it really possible to have a marriage that glorifies Jesus Christ, if he is not present in every conversation? Can light fellowship with darkness, or righteousness with unrighteousness?

I understand what happens as teenagers mature into young adulthood, and sometimes older adults fall into this as well. You want to be married. Maybe you even grow anxious about it. After all, you’ve graduated from high school. Maybe you’ve done some college work or have been in the workforce for a few years. It just doesn’t seem right that you’re twenty-five, thirty or forty and you don’t have a family of your own. There is a lonely void in your life that nothing seems to fill. And do you know what? God understands this, too. Even before man sinned, the Lord said that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). God took note of Adam’s loneliness and provided him a wife, one of the greatest gifts of creation.

But, beloved, don’t be too much in a hurry. Marriage is for life. If you rush into an unequally yoked marriage, you may soon regret it. And you’ll find that you’re just as lonely as you were before because you can’t really fellowship with your spouse in the things that are most important to you. Take your time and find a spouse who truly loves the Lord, whose hearts yearns after righteousness, and who can walk with you down the corridors of life.

Yet, as true as this is, the primary reason why you should not consider such a marriage is that it would displease the Lord. His command to you is, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. Your sanctification demands your obedience. God’s glory expects it. Amen.

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