Promises, promises

Sometimes, we need positive motivation to do hard things.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul has been challenging the Corinthians to holiness. The smooth-talking false teachers in Corinth are weakening the people’s hold on the gospel. Paul calls them “unbelievers” and argues that the faithful should unfriend them on Facebook. One motivation for doing so is to take hold of the truth of who they are in Christ under the new covenant: they are the temple of the living God.

But another motivation comes from understanding and meditating on the promises of God as given by the ancient prophets:

Just as God said, “I live with them, and I will move among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “come out from among them and be separated, says the Lord. Don’t touch what is unclean. Then I will welcome you. I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:16-18, CEB)

Here, Paul isn’t citing a single text, but an assortment of prophecies chosen and rephrased for his pastoral purpose. In the middle, again, is a command to be holy, a paraphrase of God’s word through Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon (Isa 52:11). Paul’s citation of it here reinforces the previous command to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, and anticipates the subsequent command to cleanse themselves from every form of contamination (2 Cor 7:1).

But bracketing that command are promises of an intimate relationship with God. Having reminded the Corinthians that they are God’s temple, he reflects back on the covenant promises of Lev 26:11-12 — “I will place my dwelling among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk around among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people” (CEB).

Paul also recalls the promise given through Ezekiel, in which God promises to gather his scattered people and welcome them home (Ezek 20:34).

And there is the word given to David, who wanted to build a temple for God’s permanent residence. Through the prophet Nathan, God promised David a long dynasty, but said that his son would be the one to build the temple instead, additionally promising to be a faithful and loving father to him (2 Sam 7:12-16).

Paul updates Nathan’s prophecy to include all of God’s sons and daughters. But Paul isn’t playing fast and loose with texts just to make a point. He’s expressing a theological conviction: the ancient promises have come to pass in Jesus and his church. That’s the essence of the new covenant.

The Corinthians are part of something new and marvelous. Do they see it? Will they throw it away for the sake of their culturally conditioned biases and doubts? Or will they take hold of the ancient promises, grateful for their fulfilment in Christ and the gift of his Spirit?

We might ask ourselves similar questions, for the demands of the Christian life can be especially burdensome without the wonder of promises made and kept.