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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
2 Corinthians 6

 

 

Verses 1-18

Chapter 6

AMBASSADOR FOR CHRIST (2 Corinthians 5:20-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2)

6:1-2 So then we are acting as ambassadors on Christ's behalf, for God is sending you his invitation through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made him who had no acquaintance with sin to be sin for us, that through him we might become the righteousness of God. Because we are trying to help him to win men, we urge you not to have received the offer of the grace of God all to no purpose. (For scripture says, "At an accepted time I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." Lo! Now is the accepted time. Lo! Now is the day of salvation).

The office that Paul claims as his one glory and his one task is that of ambassador for Christ. The Greek he uses (presbeutes, compare Greek #4246) is a great word. It had two uses corresponding with the Latin word of which it is a translation (legatus).

(i) Roman provinces were divided into two types. One was under the direct control of the senate, the other under the direct control of the Emperor. The distinction was made on this basis--provinces which were peaceful and had no troops in them were senatorial provinces; provinces which were turbulent and had troops stationed in them were imperial provinces. In the imperial provinces, the man who administered the province on behalf of the Emperor, was the legatus presbeutai. So then, the word in the first place paints a picture of a man who has a direct commission from the Emperor; and Paul regarded himself as commissioned by Jesus Christ for the work of the Church.

(ii) But presbeutes (compare Greek #4246) and legatus have an even more interesting meaning. When the Roman senate decided that a country should become a province they sent to it ten legati or presbeutai, that is, envoys, of their own number, who, along with the victorious general, arranged the terms of peace with the vanquished people, determined the boundaries of the new province, drew up a constitution for its new administration, and then returned to submit what they had done for ratification by the senate. They were the men responsible for bringing others into the family of the Roman Empire. So Paul thinks of himself as the man who brings to others the terms of God, whereby they can become citizens of his empire and members of his family.

There is no more responsible position than that of ambassador.

(i) An ambassador of Britain is a Briton in a foreign land. His life is spent among people who usually speak a different language, who have a different tradition and who follow a different way of life. The Christian is always like that. He lives in the world; he takes part in all the life and work of the world; but he is a citizen of heaven. To that extent he is a stranger. The man who is not willing to be different cannot be a Christian at all.

(ii) An ambassador speaks for his own country. When a British ambassador speaks, his voice is the voice of Britain. There are times when the Christian has to speak for Christ. In the decisions and the counsels of the world his must be the voice which brings the message of Christ to the human situation.

(iii) The honour of a country is in its ambassador's hands. His country is judged by him. His words are listened to, his deeds are watched and people say, "That is the way such-and-such a country speaks and acts." Lightfoot, the great Bishop of Durham, said in an ordination address, "The ambassador, while acting, acts not only as an agent, but as a representative of his sovereign.... The ambassador's duty is not only to deliver a definite message, to carry out a definite policy; but he is obliged to watch opportunities, to study characters, to cast about for expedients, so that he may place it before his hearers in its most attractive form." It is the great responsibility of the ambassador to commend his country to the men amongst whom he is set.

Here is the Christian's proud privilege and almost terrifying responsibility. The honour of Christ and of the Church are in his hands. By his every word and action he can make men think more-or-less of his Church and of his Master.

We have to note Paul's message. "Be reconciled to God." The New Testament never speaks of God being reconciled to men, but always of men being reconciled to God. There is no question of pacifying an angry God. The whole process of salvation takes its beginning from him. It was because God so loved the world that he sent his son. It is not that God is estranged from man but that man is estranged from him. God's message, the message which Paul brought, is an appeal from a loving Father to wandering and estranged children to come home where love is waiting for them.

Paul beseeches them not to accept the offer of the grace of God all to no purpose. There is such a thing--and it is eternity's tragedy--as the frustration of grace. Let us think of the matter in human terms. Suppose that a father sacrifices and toils to give his son every chance, surrounds him with love, plans for his future with care, and does everything humanly possible to equip him for life. And suppose the son feels no debt of gratitude, never feels the obligation to repay by being worthy of all this; and suppose he fails, not because he has not the ability, but because he will not try, because he forgets the love that gave him so much. That is what breaks a father's heart. When God gives men all his grace and they take their own foolish way and frustrate that grace which might have recreated them, once again Christ is crucified and the heart of God is broken.

A BLIZZARD OF TROUBLES (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)

6:3-10 We do our work, trying to put an obstacle in no man's way, for we do not wish the ministry to become a laughing stock for critics. But in everything we try to keep on commending ourselves as ministers of God must do--in much endurance, amidst the things which press sore upon us, in the inescapable pains of life, in anxieties, amidst stripes, in prisons, in tumults, in toils, in sleepless nights, in fastings, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned, in the declaration of the truth, in the power of God, with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left, in honour and in dishonour, in ill report and in good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and lo! we live; as chastened, but not killed; as grieved, but always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things.

In all the chances and changes of life Paul had only one concern--to show himself a sincere and profitable minister of Jesus Christ. Even as he made that claim, his mind's eye went back across what Chrysostom called "the blizzard of troubles" through which he had come and through which he was still struggling. Every word in this tremendous catalogue, which someone has called "the hymn of the herald of salvation," has its background in Paul's adventurous life.

He begins with one triumphant word of the Christian life--endurance (hupomone, Greek #5281). It is untranslatable. It does not describe the frame of mind which can sit down with folded hands and bowed head and let a torrent of troubles sweep over it in passive resignation. It describes the ability to bear things in such a triumphant way that it transfigures them. Chrysostom has a great panegyric on this hupomone (Greek #5281). He calls it "the root of all goods, the mother of piety, the fruit that never withers, a fortress that is never taken, a harbour that knows no storms" and "the queen of virtues, the foundation of right actions, peace in war, calm in tempest, security in plots." It is the courageous and triumphant ability to pass the breaking-point and not to break and always to greet the unseen with a cheer. It is the alchemy which transmutes tribulation into strength and glory.

Paul goes on to speak of three groups, each of three things, in which this victorious endurance is practised.

(i) There are the internal conflicts of the Christian life.

(a) The things which press sore upon us. The word he uses is thlipsis (Greek #2347) which originally expressed sheer, physical pressure on a man. There are things which weigh down a man's spirit like the sorrows which are a burden on his heart and the disappointments which are like to crush the life out of him. The triumphant endurance can cope with them all.

(b) The inescapable pains of life. The Greek word (anagke, Greek #318) literally means the necessities of life. Certain burdens a man may escape, but others are inescapable. There are certain things which a man must bear. The greatest of these are sorrow, for only the life which has never known love will never know that, and death which is the lot of every man. The triumphant endurance enables a man to face all that is involved in being a man.

(c) Anxieties. The word Paul uses (stenochoria, Greek #4730) literally means a too narrow place. It might be used of an army caught in a narrow, rocky defile with space neither to manoeuvre nor to escape. It might be used of a ship caught in a storm with no room either to ride it or to run before it. There are moments when a man seems to be in a situation in which the walls of life are closing round him. Even then the triumphant endurance makes him able to breathe the spaciousness of heaven.

(ii) There are the external tribulations of life.

(a) Stripes. For Paul the Christian life meant not only spiritual suffering, but also physical suffering. It is the simple fact that if there had not been those who were ready and able to bear the torture of the fire and the wild beasts we would not be Christian today. There are still some for whom it is physical agony to be a Christian; and it is always true that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

(b) Prisons. Clement of Rome tells us that Paul was in prison no fewer than seven times. From Acts we know that before he wrote to the Corinthians he was in prison in Philippi, and afterwards in Jerusalem, in Caesarea and in Rome. The pageant of Christians who were imprisoned stretches from the first to the twentieth century. There have always been those who would abandon their liberty sooner than abandon their faith.

(c) Tumults. Over and over again we have the picture of the Christian facing, not the sternness of the law, but the violence of the mob. John Wesley tells us of what happened to him in Wednesbury when the mob came "pouring down like a flood." "To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. So they dragged me along till we came to the town; when, seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the crowd. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other." George Foxe tells us of what happened to him at Tickhill. "I found the priest and most of the chief of the parish together in the chancel. So I went up to them and began to speak, but immediately they fell upon me; the clerk took up the Bible as I was speaking, and struck me on the face with it, so that it gushed out with blood, and I bled exceedingly in the steeple-house. Then the people cried, 'Let us have him out of the Church'; and when they had got me out they beat me exceedingly, and threw me down, and over a hedge; and afterwards they dragged me through a house into the street, stoning an beating me as they drew me along, so that I was besmeared all over with blood and dirt.... Yet when I was got upon my legs again I declared to them the word of life and shewed them the fruits of their teachers, how they dishonoured Christianity." The mob has often been the enemy of Christianity; but nowadays it is not the violence but the mockery or the amused contempt of the crowd against which the Christian must stand fast.

(iii) There is the effort of the Christian life.

(a) Toils. The word Paul uses (kopos, Greek #2873) is in the New Testament almost a technical term for the Christian life. It describes toil to the point of sheer exhaustion, the kind of toil which takes everything of body, mind and spirit that a man has to give. The Christian is the workman of God.

(b) Sleepless nights. Some would be spent in prayer, some in a situation of peril or discomfort where sleep was impossible. At all times Paul was ready to be the unsleeping sentinel of Christ.

(c) Fastings. No doubt what Paul means here is not deliberately chosen fastings, but times when he went hungry for the work's sake. We may well contrast with his spirit the spirit of the man who would not miss a meal to attend the worship of the house of God.

Now Paul turns away from the trials and the tribulations, which endurance enabled him to conquer, to his own God-given equipment for the Christian life. Once again he retains the same arrangement of three groups of three items.

(i) There are the God-given qualities of mind. (a) Purity. The word Paul uses (hagnotes, Greek #54) was defined by the Greeks as "the careful avoidance of all sins which are against the gods; the service of the honour of God as nature demands", as "prudence at its highest tension" and as "freedom from every stain of flesh and spirit." It is in fact the quality which enables a man to enter into the very presence of God.

(b) Knowledge. This kind of knowledge has been defined as "knowledge of the things that must be done." It was the knowledge which issued not in the theologian's fine-spun subtleties but in the actions of the Christian man.

(c) Patience. Usually in the New Testament this word (makrothumia, Greek #3115) denotes patience with people, the ability to bear with them even when they are wrong, even when they are cruel and insulting. It is a great word. In First Maccabees it is said (1 Maccabees 8:4) that the Romans conquered the world by "their policy and their patience" and there the word expresses that Roman unconquerableness which would never make peace under defeat. Patience is the quality of a man who may lose a battle but who will never admit defeat in a campaign.

(ii) There are the God-given qualities of heart. (a) Kindness. Kindness (chrestotes, Greek #5544) is one of the great New Testament words. It is the very opposite of severity. One great commentator describes it as "the sympathetic kindliness or sweetness of temper which puts others at their ease and shrinks from giving pain." The great example is in Genesis 26:17-22 which tells how Isaac would not fight or strive. It is the quality which thinks far more of others than of itself.

(b) The Holy Spirit. Paul knew well that no useful word could be spoken nor any good deed done without the help of the Holy Spirit. But the phrase may well mean not the Holy Spirit, but a spirit of holiness. It may mean that Paul's dominating motive was one which was holy, one which was directed solely towards the honour and service of God.

(c) Unfeigned love. The word Paul uses is agape Greek #26), which is a characteristic New Testament word. It means unconquerable benevolence. It means that spirit which, no matter what anyone else does to it, will never seek anything but the other person's highest good, will never dream of revenge, but will meet all injuries and rebuffs with undefeatable good will.

(iii) There is the God-given equipment for the work of preaching the gospel.

(a) The declaration of the truth. Paul knew that Jesus had not only given him a gospel to proclaim but the strength and the ability to proclaim it. To God he owed both the word and the door of utterance that had been opened for it.

(b) The power of God. To Paul this was everything. It was the only power he had. It was said of Henry the Fifth after the battle of Agincourt, "Neither would he suffer any ditties to be made and sung by the minstrels of his glorious victory, for that he would wholly have the praise and thanks altogether given to God." Paul would never have said in pride, "I did this," but always in humility, "God enabled me to do it."

(c) The weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left. This means the weapons for defence and for attack. The sword or the spear was carried in the right hand and the shield on the left arm; and Paul is saying that God has given him the power to attack his task and to defend himself from his temptations.

Paul completes this lyrical passage with a series of contrasts. He begins with in honour and in dishonour. The word he uses for dishonour is normally used in Greek for loss of rights as a citizen (atimia, Greek #819). Paul says, "I may have lost all the rights and privileges which the world can confer but I am still a citizen of the Kingdom of God." In ill-repute and in good-repute. There are those who criticize his every action and who hate his very name, but his fame with God is sure. Deceivers and yet true. The Greek word (planos, Greek #4108) literally means a wandering quack and impostor. That is what others call him but he knows that his message is God's truth. Unknown yet well known. The Jews who slandered him said he was a no-account nobody whom no one had ever heard of, yet to those to whom he had brought Christ he was known with gratitude. Dying, and lo! we live. Danger was his companion and the prospect of death his comrade, and yet by the grace of God he was triumphantly alive with a life that death could never kill. Chastened, but not killed. Things happened to him that might have chastened any man's spirit but they could not kill the spirit of Paul. Grieved, but always rejoicing. Things happened that might have broken any man's heart but they could not destroy Paul's joy. Poor, yet making many rich. He might seem to be penniless but he brought with him that which would enrich the souls of men. Having nothing, yet possessing all things. He might seem to have nothing, but, having Christ, he had everything that mattered in this world and the next.

THE ACCENT OF LOVE (2 Corinthians 6:11-13; 2 Corinthians 7:2-4)

6:11-13 My dear Corinthians, we have spoken to you without keeping anything back. Our heart lies wide open to you. If there is any constraint between us, it lies, not in us, but in your hearts. Give me fair exchange. I speak as to children. Do you, too, open wide your hearts to us.... Make room for us in your hearts.

Paul is speaking with the accents of purest love. The breaches are healed. The quarrels are all made up and love reigns supreme. The phrase that we have translated "Our heart lies wide open to you," literally means, "Our heart is enlarged." Chrysostom has a fine comment. He says that heat makes all things expand and the warmth of love will always expand a man's heart.

In the King James Version in 2 Corinthians 6:12 we note a translation which is very common in the New Testament and not very fortunate, "Ye are straitened in your own bowels." The word translated bowels is the Greek word splagchna (Greek #4698). It literally means the upper viscera, the heart, the liver and the lungs. In these organs the seat of the emotions was supposed to lie. The form of expression sounds awkward but it is not really any more curious than our own English form. We speak of a man being melancholy which literally means that he has a black liver. We put the seat of love in the heart, which, after all, is a physical organ. But in English idiom it is more natural to use the word heart than bowels.

Paul here makes a great series of claims. He has wronged no one, he has corrupted no one, he has taken advantage of no one. Towards the end of his life Sir Walter Scott made the great claim, "I have unsettled no man's faith, I have corrupted no man's principles." Thackeray, also towards the end of his life, wrote a prayer in which he prayed that he "might never write a word inconsistent with the love of God, or the love of man, might never propagate has own prejudices or pander to those of others, might always speak the truth with his pen, and might never be actuated by a love of greed."

Only one thing is worse than sinning oneself, and that is teaching another to sin. It is one of the grim truths of life that another must always present a person with his first temptation, must give him the first push into sin, and it is a terrible thing to introduce a younger or a weaker brother to the wrong thing.

Someone tells of an old man who on his death-bed seemed distressed by something. When asked what was the matter he said that, when he was a boy, he and some companions had been playing at a cross-roads in the middle of a common. There was a signpost there and it was loose in its socket. They turned it round so that its arms were facing in the wrong directions. And the old man said, "I cannot stop wondering how many people were sent on the wrong road by the thing we did that day."

There can be no regret like the regret of having sent another on the wrong way. It was Paul's proud claim that his guidance and his influence had always been towards the best.

He finishes this passage by telling the Corinthians how complete his comfort is and how overflowing his joy even although at the moment troubles are all around him. Surely there never was a clearer proof that human relationships are the most important thing in life. If a man is happy at home, he can face up to anything outside. If a man is in fellowship with his friends, he can withstand the slings and arrows of fortune with a smile. As the writer of the Proverbs has it, "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it." (Proverbs 15:17).

GET YOU OUT (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1)

6:14-18 Do not allow yourselves to become joined in an alien yoke with unbelievers. What partnership can there be between righteousness and lawlessness? What fellowship can darkness have with light? What concord can there be with Christ and Belial? What share can the believer have with the unbeliever? What agreement can the temple of God have with idols? For you are the temple of the living God, even as God said, "I will dwell in them and I will walk in them, and I will be their God and they will be my people." Therefore, "Come out from among them and separate yourselves," the Lord says, "and, have no contact with impurity, and I will receive you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to me," says the Lord, the ruler of all. So then, since we possess these promises, let us purify ourselves from every pollution of flesh and spirit, and let us thus make holiness complete in the fear of God.

We come now to the passage which we omitted previously. There is no doubt that it comes in very awkwardly where it is. Its sternness is at odds with the glad and joyous love of the verses on either side of it.

In the introduction we saw that Paul wrote a letter prior to First Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 he says, "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men." That letter may be altogether lost. Or it may be that this is a section of it. It could easily happen that, when Paul's letters were being collected, one sheet could get misplaced. It was not until A.D. 90 or thereby that the collection was made, and by that time there may well have been none who knew the proper order. Certainly, in substance, this well suits the letter referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9.

There are certain Old Testament pictures behind this. Paul begins by urging the Corinthians not to be joined to unbelievers in an alien yoke. Undoubtedly that goes back to the old commandment in Deuteronomy 22:10, "You shall not plough with an ox and an ass together." (compare Leviticus 19:19). The idea is that there are certain things which are fundamentally incompatible and were never meant to be brought together. It is impossible for the purity of the Christian and the pollution of the pagan to run in double harness.

In the demand, "What has the temple of God to do with idols?" Paul's thought is going back to such incidents as Manasseh bringing a graven image into the temple of God (2 Kings 21:1-9), and, in the later days, Josiah utterly destroying such things (2 Kings 23:3 ff.). Or he is thinking of such abominations as are described in Ezekiel 8:3-18. Men had sometimes tried to associate the temple of God with idol worship, and the consequences had been terrible.

The whole passage is a rousing summons not to hold any fellowship with unbelievers. It is a challenge to the Corinthians to keep themselves unspotted from the world. It has been well remarked that the very essence of the history of Israel is in the words, "Get thee out!" That was the word of God that came to Abraham as the King James Version has it. "Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father's house" (Genesis 12:1). That was the warning that came to Lot before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 19:12-14). There are things in the world with which the Christian cannot and dare not associate himself.

It is difficult to realize just how many separations Christianity meant for the people who first accepted it.

(i) Often it meant that a man had to give up his trade. Suppose he was a stone mason. What was to happen if his firm received a contract to build a heathen shrine? Suppose he was a tailor. What was to happen if he was instructed to cut and sew garments for priests of the heathen gods? Suppose he was a soldier. At the gate of every camp burned the light upon the altar sacred to the godhead of Caesar. What was to happen if he had to fling his pinch of incense on that altar in token of his worship? Time and time again in the early Church the choice came to a man between the security of his job and his loyalty to Jesus Christ. It is told that a man came to Tertullian. He told him his problem and then he said, "But after all I must live." "Must you?" said Tertullian.

In the early Church a man's Christianity often meant that he had to get out from his job. One of the most famous modern examples of this same thing was F. W. Charrington. He was the heir to a fortune made by brewing. He was passing a tavern one night. There was a woman waiting at the door. A man, obviously her husband, came out, and she was trying to keep him from going back in. With one blow of his fist the man felled her. Charrington started forward and then he looked up. The name above the tavern was his own, and Charrington said, "With that one blow that man did not only knock his wife out, he also knocked me clean out of that business forever." And he gave up the fortune he might have had, rather than touch money earned in such a way.

No man is keeper of another man's conscience. Every man must decide for himself if he can take his trade to Christ and Christ with him to his daily work.

(ii) Often it meant that a man had to give up social life. In the ancient world, as we saw when studying the section on meat offered to idols, many a heathen feast was held in the temple of a god. The invitation would run, "I invite you to dine with me at the table of our Lord Serapis." Even if that were not so, a heathen feast would begin and end with the pouring of a libation, a cup of wine, to the gods. Could a Christian share in that? Or must he get out and say good-bye to the social fellowship which used to mean so much to him?

(iii) Often it meant that a man had to give up family ties. The pain of Christianity in the early years was the way it split families. A wife became a Christian and her husband might drive her from his house. A husband became a Christian and his wife might leave him. Sons and daughters became Christians and might find the door of the home shut and barred in their faces. It was literally true that Christ came not to send peace but a dividing sword upon earth and that men and women had to be prepared to love him more than their nearest and dearest. They had to be prepared to get out even from their homes,

However hard it may be, it will always remain true that there are certain things a man cannot do and be a Christian. There are certain things from which every Christian must get out.

Before we leave this passage, there is one point we may note. In it Paul quotes scripture and his quotation is a mixture of a variety of passages, none quoted accurately, from Leviticus 26:11-12, Isaiah 52:11, Ezekiel 20:34, Ezekiel 37:27 and 2 Samuel 7:14. It is a fact that Paul seldom quotes accurately. Why? We must remember that in his time books were written on papyrus rolls. A book the size of Acts would require a roll about thirty-five feet long, a very unwieldy thing. There were no chapter divisions; they were inserted by Stephen Langton in the thirteenth century. There were no verse divisions; they were inserted by Stephanus, the Paris printer, in the sixteenth century. Finally, there was no such thing as a concordance until the sixteenth century. The result was that Paul did the only sensible thing--he quoted from memory, and so long as he got the substance right he did not worry about the actual wording. It was not the letter of scripture but the message of scripture which mattered to him.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/2-corinthians-6.html. 1956-1959.

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