In previous articles on the antithesis we have looked at its meaning, its manifestation, its source, and its basis. In this article we will look at its spiritual character. We will do so in the light of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18, and especially verse 17, where the the word of sound doctrine exhorts us to “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”
In verse 17 Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11: “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.” The context in Isaiah is the contrast between the heathen nations, called unclean, and elect Israel, called to be a separate people, clean in the service of Jehovah. The call to Israel is to come out from among the wicked, and to be pilgrims and strangers in the earth.
The call to separation must not be understood in a local sense. Many have erroneously held to this idea, notably the monks in the Middle Ages. They thought that by retreating to a life of isolation and separation from the world in monasteries that they would be more holy and would be able to serve God with a higher level of devotion because they would not be distracted and corrupted by the wicked world. After the Reformation the Anabaptists, such as the Amish, thought along the same lines. Even today the Amish attempt to separate themselves as much as possible from the outside world. But it is impossible to achieve holiness through local separation. The reason is that we always have our sinful natures with us, and we carry them no matter where we go. If we attempt to escape sin by physical separation, then, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:10, “must ye needs go out of the world.”
Rather, the call to some out from among them refers to spiritual separation. We must be separate and different from the world because we a redeemed by Christ and therefore strangers in this world, whose essential spiritual character is as different from that of the world as white is different from black. Our coming out from the world is the result of being separated by God; because he calls and empowers us to separation, we come out.
The command not to touch the unclean thing defines further the idea of separation. Along with Paul’s readers, we are all familiar with the laws of the Old Testament, which distinguished between clean and unclean things. Paul does not identify exactly what he has in mind here, but the idea is that we are not to touch anything unclean. This means that we are not to have contact with anything that is contrary to the principle of the thesis—anything that is opposed to our righteousness in Christ, anything that contradicts the truth of sound doctrine, anything that does not fit with being a pilgrim in the world, anything that is motivated and characterized by the antithesis, anything that is not of the light and therefore is darkness. With anything unclean we are not to have contact. The idea is not merely that we are not to embrace or have close contact with the unclean, but that we are not even to touch anything unclean.
We must be clear concerning the relationship between being separate and not touching anything unclean. First is separation, which speaks to what we are. In defining the antithesis we said that it concerns first and most importantly what we are to be, and secondarily what we are to do. What we are determines what we do in the sense that our actions arise out of the spiritual principle of separation.
Paul further explains the principle of spiritual separation when he writes in verse 14, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” The apostle again uses an analogy from the Old Testament to make his point. An unequal yoke refers to putting a clean and an unclean animal, such as an ox and an ass, together with the same yoke. Such a yoke of two completely different animals was an unequal yoke, and was strictly forbidden. This idea of inequality he applies to us spiritually, for he is speaking to believers. The word of doctrine describes a completely wrong and impossible situation. The believer, who stands for the thesis, cannot take upon himself the yoke of the unbeliever, who stands for the antithesis. The believer may not and cannot live and work together with the unbeliever. It is impossible for them to work as a team in harness, pulling as equals toward the same goal, because their goals are opposite. We are believers who have taken upon ourselves Christ’s yoke. How then can we even conceive of being united with those who have taken on themselves the yoke of Satan?
Each of us, young people, must take this personally. As believers we have a spiritual value system governed by the teachings of Scripture. Unbelievers have a secular value system controlled by worldly-mindedness. The two have nothing in common; they cannot be mixed and matched in an unequal yoke. Paul’s point is that the antithesis must be lived. The antithesis governs (or ought to govern) every aspect of our lives: where we go to church, who our friends are, what we do and where we go in our free time, who our friends are, whom we date and marry, and every other aspect of our lives. There is no room for compromise. There can be no synthesis—the combining of thesis and antithesis; either we say yes to the word of doctrine and no to sin, or vice versa. When we apply this absolute spiritual distinction to our lives, there is no place for any little bit of unbelief, any repudiation or compromise of Christ’s word, any little yoke that is not consistent with faith.
Why this admonition to be separated from the world?
The positive reason, according to verse 16, is that we are the temple of the living God. Once again Paul uses a figure taken from the Old Testament that is familiar to his readers. We know that the temple was the center of Israel’s life, for in it God lived and dwelt with his people in covenant fellowship. The temple was God’s presence with his people. What the Old Testament temple foreshadowed is fulfilled in us. God dwells in us by the Spirit of Christ, which is why Scripture calls the church the body, the temple, and the house of God. This means that God always lives with us and in us, so that we are one with him. This is the reason for our spiritual separation. We stand for the thesis; as God’s people, saved by grace, we represent the cause of God’s truth in the world. This means that we stand positively for spiritual separation and holiness unto the Lord, and that we serve him totally. Therefore we are separated from and unyoked from all else.
The separation implied in the antithesis must never be understood in a legalistic sense. Surely it is a matter of what we do or do not do. But in no way is it only a list of dos and don’ts, a sort of Protestant Reformed check list: I did this and this and this, and I refrained from doing that and that and that—you can make your own list. Legalism is an easy way to live the antithesis, which is why it is so appealing to us: All you have to do is follow the rules, and you are good with God, your parents, and the church. But one of the many problems with legalism is that it is impossible to make a rule to fit every situation and circumstance, so that the apparently easy-to-live antithesis quickly becomes a nightmare of an exponentially expanding list of rules and regulations.
Rather, we must see the antithesis as a life principle, a truth that governs first our being and then our actions in a very concrete way. If we are in doubt about the application of this truth, about living the antithesis and how to do it, then we must not ask, What’s wrong with a specific teaching or activity? If you ask the wrong question, you will get the wrong answer. And this is certainly the wrong question, because it betrays a wrong spiritual attitude, a predisposition towards blurring the sharp lines of the antithesis. Instead, we must always ask, What’s right with a specific teaching or activity? How am I fulfilling my calling to spiritual separation of life? then we must apply this test: If someone looked at my life, would the antithesis be visible? If not, then I walk in error. If it is, then I must continue to walk in faithfulness in all of my life.
The negative reason for being separated from the world is that synthesis between the church and the world is impossible. There is no common ground between the thesis and the antithesis. Paul drives home this point by means of five rhetorical questions, each of which looks at this truth from a different viewpoint.
First, what fellowship does righteousness have with unrighteousness? Righteousness means the power of Christ’s justification as believers possess it by faith; we are righteous before God. Unrighteousness is literally lawlessness, which refers to opposition to and hatred of God’s law, and thus is the opposite of righteousness. What partnership do the two have? None!
Second, what communion does light have with darkness? We all understand that light and darkness are opposites. The meaning here is that believers are light; the source of their light is God, the light; they are light in Christ, who is the light of the world. They are characterized by truth and ethical good. Unbelievers are darkness, the source of which is Satan. They are characterized by the lie, by death, by separation from the light in the spiritual sense. What communion can there be between those who are motivated by these two opposing principles? None!
Third, what concord does Christ have with Belial? This question focuses on the personal rulers of believers and unbelievers. Christ is the Son of God as the power of salvation, and the source of light and life. Belial is Satan. The name carries in it the idea of worthlessness, confusion, and destruction. Can we even comprehend the idea of Christ and Belial agreeing on anything? What concord do they have? None!
Fourth, what part does he who believes have with an infidel? Believers are those who have the certain knowledge and hearty confidence of faith, and who live out of the principle of faith in Christ. Infidels or unbelievers are those who reject Christ, his word, his light, and his righteousness, and live from the principle of denial of the truth and unbelief. What portion can the one possibly have with the other? None!
Fifth, what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? Believers are the temple of God. They have the true religion, covenant union with God, and true righteousness and holiness. Idols are false gods that stand over against and instead of the true God, whatever their form and manifestation. What agreement can there be between these opposites? None!
To those who live the antithesis God gives a promise (vv. 17b–18). This may seem to be impossible, because if we believe and live the antithesis, we can expect to face reproach, stigma, and persecution. We are called different, old fashioned and narrow minded. We are called “PR,” and that is not meant as a compliment. Sometimes even our friends and associates do not stand strongly for the antithesis, and may even try to lead us away from it. All of this is often difficult to take. Is it really worth being so strict? When all of this happens, as it surely does and will (for persecution is the measure of faithfulness), then we must not be concerned about what people think of us or do to us, or be ashamed of who and what we are by God’s grace. Rather, we must expect and accept disparagement for the sake of the truth, while defending and living it. Then the promise of God is that he will receive us. Everyone else may reject us, but he receives us, and that is most wonderful. What else could we want? That he receives us means that he will be our father, and we will be his sons and daughters. He is our father and we are his children now already, but Paul’s perspective here is the future perfection of our heavenly reward. In the world we will have trouble, but our eternal reward awaits us. That reward is sure, for the Lord is the Almighty, who can and will certainly bring it to pass. Believing and hoping in this promise, we draw our strength from Christ, and in his power and by his grace we walk the sharp line of the antithesis.