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When our children ride with me, they are the passengers, and I’m the driver. Somewhat logical, isn’t it? They go where I go. I lead, and they follow along happily. They are at the mercy of me because I’m the one in control of the car, which gives me total influence over them.
This analogy is what Paul was talking about when he said, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14)? You know the analogy, don’t you? Seemingly, every preacher who has ever preached this text mentions something about two animals in a yoke—one pulling in a different direction from the other.
The reason they say this is because that is what Paul was referring to by his analogy. Think of two oxen pulling a wagon while both of them are in a harness. When in the yoke, they are one. Paul was bringing to his audience what Moses brought to his sphere back in the day when he said, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).
The unequal yoke in this passage is a picture of someone influencing someone else. Paul is warning the Corinthian Christians that if they do not stop and turn around from their evil unchristian relationships, the influence of those ungodly relationships will take them where they do not want to go.
The entire letter to the Corinthians is Paul’s attempt to persuade that group of believers to break from evil influences. He knew the susceptible power that those influences could have over them. This reality for us is where the yoke analogy becomes beneficial. Think again about our children in the car with me.
If I turn right, they will go right too. If I go into a ditch, our children will go into a ditch. The same is true in the yoke analogy. Imagine an ox and a donkey in a yoke. The ox is trying to move forward while the donkey is stubbornly insisting on his way. Whether it is our children or the oxen, they are under the influence of what another one is doing.
Two people cannot walk together if they are not in agreement (Amos 3:3). Paul is giving a stern warning to his Christian brothers about the foolishness of their choices. As he moves through the rest of this letter, he becomes even more explicit in his concern for the Corinthian Christians. He sees them being gullible as they are submitting to those who are pulling away at their faith. Notice how he says it later on:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough (2 Corinthians 11:3-4).
Paul wants them to know that these people will exert influence over them if they allow them. His language could not be any stronger; he considers these people to be false apostles. This issue is a severe matter. They were promoting another gospel, and nothing stirred Paul’s soul more vehemently than when someone was tinkering with the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
We must guard our hearts against taking Paul’s passage to places where he did not intend. What I mean is that some well-meaning Christians have interpreted this passage to say that you are to separate from the culture. This interpretation of the passage is problematic. Paul is not saying that.
If he were, then we all would be in a mess. It is physically, spiritually, and mentally impossible to separate from the evil that is in our world. The biggest reason is that evil lurks in our hearts. Notice how and where John described sin in his letter.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:14-15).
John tells us not to love the things in this world, and then he goes on to describe what he means. He says that the things of this world are such things as ungodly desires and pride. John’s definition of worldliness is sinful desires and ego, and his location of worldliness is in our hearts.
James says something similar as he teaches the Christians the dangers of being drawn away by our ungodly desires. Though we are dead to sin, James is well aware that we can choose to sin, and he is warning his friends about the repercussions of allowing sin to influence them.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14-15).
As you consider these passages from John and James, you can see the impossibility of fully separating from worldliness, especially since it lurks in our hearts. We’re all susceptible. The issue is not about trying to do the impossible: completely separate from ungodliness. The real problem is not to let ungodliness have influence or control over our lives. Paul, John, and James were very concerned about how we can be influenced and controlled by evil.
Some people who hold to the doctrine of separation believe that if you don’t stick to their beliefs, you can do anything you want to do (Romans 6:1). This perspective is jumping from one ditch to the other. Christians are not supposed to live in either: you cannot separate from the world, and you cannot give in to the sinful temptations of the world. The gospel is the middle of the road that we should choose to walk.
We live in the world—yes, but we do not give ourselves over to the harmful influences of the world. Whether those bad influences are in our hearts or the immoral influences of others, the gospel-centered person resists both allurements (Romans 12:2). If you allow the doctrine of separation to define how you live your life, you may have odd and mostly untenable rules. If you permit “the doctrine of licentiousness” to determine how you live, you will fall to the temptation of giving yourself over to anything that comes down the pike.
Only the gospel can set the right biblical boundaries for holiness. Only the gospel can give you moral living standards. The gospel enables you to live in the world but does not allow you to live any way you want to live. As you humble yourself to the power of the gospel, God’s grace will enable you to choose to walk in the light. You will be able to resist the dark influences of this life.
This truth is why Paul was calling the Corinthians back to–gospel-centered living. As he finished up his light versus dark analogies in chapter six, he closed his train of thought by making a gospel appeal. He appealed to the Corinthians to choose to live holy lives because they had received the promise of the Father.
Since 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 (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Paul is essentially saying, “Because you have the gospel, I appeal to you to cleanse yourself from every sinful thing that influences you and choose to walk in holiness.” This imperative is what we all can do. Though we cannot separate from the world, we can choose not to let the world influence us. Paul’s challenge brings you to the most vital assessment.
It is easy to test yourself on this matter of what influences you. Here is a simple test question: Is there something going on in your life that you do not want others to know? How you answer that question will tell you quickly as to whether you have ungodly influences in your life. And don’t move too fast here. Think about it.
Let me repeat it: Is there something going on in your life that you do not want others to know? Stop. Think. How did you answer that question? Another way you can test yourself is by assessing the people and the things that you allow to influence you. Here are some sample questions that can help you examine what tugs at your heart the most.
Because none of us are objective, perhaps it would serve you well to share your thoughts with a trusted and courageous friend. It would also make for an excellent small group conversation. And it would be a beneficial leadership opportunity for you to examine if you are a leader or not. Biblical leaders are teachable and always want to learn, change, and grow. How did you do with those questions? Here are a few examples of how you can think about your answers.
Don’t think you’re impervious to the world. If you do, its influence is already too strong in your life. The temptation for today’s Christian is not to deny God outright, like what Paul was reacting to the New Testament. Today’s Christian is different. We adhere to more of a hybrid “sanctified covetousness.” In the art world, they call it 18% gray, the place that is somewhere between black and white.
We want Jesus, but we also desire social acceptance and social affluence. We want Jesus, and we want to live in the right house, drive the right car, hang with the right people, and wear the right clothes. These are the things that influence too many Christians today. You cannot be yoked to Jesus and something else if you expect a rest for your soul.
Who is in your yoke with you? Is it Jesus or some donkey from the world? You can’t have both. There are only two spots in the yoke, and one of those spots belongs to you. It is your choice as to who you want in your yoke. If you are a Christian, my appeal to you is similar to Paul’s. Let Christ be in the yoke with you. I pray that He will be my yoke-fellow, rather than being my co-pilot.
Because you have these promises, I appeal to you to make a clean break from anything that is not Christlike and cling to Christ alone. If you make a clean break from the things that are defiling you, then you will be able to bring holiness to completion (2 Corinthians 7:1). You have to decide as to whether you want to come out of the nonsense, secrecy, addiction, darkness, and bad influences of your life.