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Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:1,
1 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
The promises of God are the basis of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 1:20; Gal. 4:28). Paul was speaking of God’s promises in general, but more specifically, those mentioned in the previous verses.
In 2 Cor. 6:16 Paul reminds them of the promise in Lev. 26:12. In 2 Cor. 6:18 Paul reminds them of the promise to David in 2 Sam. 7:14. Sandwiched in the middle of these promises is the admonition to “be separate” and to refrain from touching that which is unclean (2 Cor. 6:17).
Some things ought not to be touched, for they will defile both flesh and spirit. Paul was not applying the laws of cleansing in an Old Covenant manner, for he wrote against such applications in Col. 2:20-22, saying,
20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?
Paul understood that the manner of cleansing had changed from the Old Covenant to the New. Whereas men used to be cleansed by water or the blood of animals, those who believed in the Mediator of the New Covenant are cleansed by the word (John 15:3) and by His blood (1 John 2:2).
For this reason, we understand that when Paul used Scriptures telling us to refrain from touching that which is unclean, he was speaking not of gnats and flies but wrong attitudes and motives that defile the heart. Jews would pour water over their hands before each meal to cleanse their hands from touching unclean things (Mark 7:2, 3, 4), but Christians were to separate from an unclean way of life and anything that does not conform to the word (or nature) of God.
Paul says that both “flesh and spirit” may be defiled. He was not using the term spirit to mean one’s spiritual man which has been begotten by the Holy Spirit. Instead, he was speaking of one’s spirit in general as a part of man’s being (as in spirit, soul, and body). Even as the tabernacle of Moses might be defiled in all three parts, including the Most Holy Place, so also might we be defiled in our spirit.
Paul indicates that refraining from such defilement results in “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” He uses the term epiteleo, here translated “perfecting.” The word means “to fulfill further or completely, to execute and finish.” In other words, holiness is not just a one-time experience that we receive from God. It is an on-going process within our spiritual life.
Recall the fire of God which consumed the sacrifice in Lev. 9:24. The priests were supposed to maintain that original fire from heaven. Hence, when Nadab and Abihu allowed the fire to die out, they offered strange fire—that is, man-made fire—which brought about their deaths (Lev. 10:1, 2). The lesson to be learned from that experience is expressed in the next verse (Lev. 10:3), which says,
3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored’.” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.
In other words, Nadab and Abibu did not treat God “as holy” or as honorable. They had defiled the sacrifice. Holiness was the issue at that time, even as in 2 Cor. 7:1.
It is often difficult to discern the difference between the fire of God (i.e., the Holy Spirit) and man-made fire that has the appearance of holy fire. This was Paul’s dilemma in admonishing the Corinthian church. Some in the church had condemned Paul unjustly, having hearts of rebellion without realizing it. So Paul says in 2 Cor. 7:2,
2 Make room for us in your hearts; we wronged no one, we corrupted no one, we took advantage of no one.
In other words, Paul says, separate yourselves from unclean motives, opinions, and attitudes of the heart, and in practice this means “make room for us in your hearts.” Open your hearts to me and my companions. Do not accuse us or hold something against us. We have not wronged anyone, nor have we corrupted anyone’s doctrines or beliefs. No one has lawful cause to accuse us before God or men.
Though Paul defended himself, he did it softly without accusing in return. 2 Cor. 7:3 says,
3 I do not speak to condemn you; for I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together.
Even his accusers had a place in Paul’s heart. In other words, he loved them and valued their friendship. His desire was to be in unity with them. Unfortunately, it takes two to be in unity. One person cannot maintain unity. Paul was suggesting to his accusers that they should not touch unclean attitudes and actions so that they might complete their journey on the highway of holiness.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 7:4,
4 Great is my confidence in you, great is my boasting on your behalf; I am filled with comfort. I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.
Paul does not wallow in self-pity over this disagreement with some in the church. He remains confident, and so he is able to boast about the church when visiting other churches. In other words, Paul continues to speak highly of the Corinthian church, for this was the crown jewel of Paul’s ministry. He is “filled with comfort” (paraklesis), which has a double meaning. Paul was certainly comforted, rather than being stressed by the disagreement, but also the source of that comfort was the great Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Paul continues in 2 Cor. 7:5-7,
5 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side; conflicts without, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; 7 and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.
Paul’s troubles in Ephesus and Troas had followed him into Macedonia, giving him “no rest” and certainly no security. But the arrival of Titus, who reported good news from Corinth, comforted and strengthened Paul and perhaps took away any depression he may have experienced. Titus reported that the Corinthian church still longed to see Paul, mourned for him in his persecution, and remained zealous for his welfare, causing Paul to rejoice.
Paul was most concerned that his earlier letter (which we know as First Corinthians) may have caused hard feelings when he brought correction. Paul even suggests that he had second thoughts and wished that he had not written that letter. 2 Cor. 7:8 says,
8 For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while—
How many times have we regretted things that we have said or written! The problem with writing is that words on a page lack the tone of voice and the facial expressions that help the reader to interpret motives and subtle nuances.
Today we have tools to assist us in expressing our thoughts which they did not have in the first century. We can emphasize words with all capital letters, and we use punctuation. In Paul’s day all the letters were capital letters. Lower case letters had not yet been invented. The words all ran together without spaces between them. Each person was responsible to correctly divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV).
Below is a sample Greek text of 2 Cor. 7:8 from The Concordant Greek Text:
As you can see, the words all ran together in Paul’s time.
Paul was worried that he might have been too harsh or that the church would misinterpret his intent. But Titus must have assured him that he had no reason to worry, that his letter had been taken seriously, that the elders of the church had met to adjudicate the moral issue and to discuss the issue of factions and divisions—all with positive and satisfactory conclusions. So Paul continues in 2 Cor. 7:9,
9 I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.
Titus reported that the church’s reaction to Paul’s letter was one of godly sorrow, not anger at Paul. It greatly comforted him to know that the church had repented (changed its course) and had dealt with the problems. Some, of course, continued to disagree with the decision of the elders (who had acted as judges). The flesh always disagrees when the will of man runs contrary to the will of God. But this was a secondary problem confined to certain individuals. The church itself had received correction and had remained in unity with Paul.