The Word of God is replete with exhortations to believers to be unified and to be of one mind. Much of the modern church has trumpeted this message of love and unity. The problem with their approach, however, is that it gives only half the message. The other—and essential half—is that of separation. The marriage bond is a pledge of love, unity, and devotion between a man and a woman—that’s half the message. The other half is a pledge of “forsaking all others,” i.e., separating from any relationship that might threaten that love and unity. So it is with the church. Just as believers are to be united together in Christ on the basis of sound doctrine, they are required to separate from anyone or anything that would harm that unity. True unity always requires actual separation as well. Paul gives a discourse on separation to the church at Corinth, which is far too lengthy to discuss in these paragraphs (please see II Cor. 6:11-18). But we will glance at his culminating statement: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.”
“The unclean thing.” How strangely the phrase rings in modern ears—“the unclean thing.” We have become so inured to sin that almost anything goes, even in many Christian circles. Love and tolerance have become the watchwords of the day. Sin, if mentioned at all, is downplayed. But in God’s view some things are still downright “unclean.” The Word is used most frequently in the New Testament in association with demonic spirits. But here things in this world are in view. The verses preceding our text provide no less than six synonyms for this phrase so that we may understand assuredly that God identifies “unbelievers” (v. 14), “unrighteousness” (v. 14), spiritual “darkness” (v. 14), “Belial” (“worthlessness” and a name describing Satan, v. 15), “infidel” (v. 15), and “idols” (v. 16) as “unclean.” In other words, whatever has not been cleansed through the blood of Jesus Christ (the population and activities of the world) is yet unclean.
“Come out from among them.” The verb is translated elsewhere as “depart,” “escape,” and “get out” so that the meaning is clear. “Do not fellowship with the world.” “Separate from them.” That does not mean that we must live as hermits in the wilderness because the Scripture acknowledges that believers are inescapably in the world and would have to leave it in order to avoid contact with unbelievers. Furthermore, we are called to evangelize the lost. But we are not to live “among them.” Our lives are not to be engaged with the activities, goals, and ambitions of the lost. We engage in necessary commerce with the world, demonstrate Christian charity, shine as lights, but do not live in fellowship with them.
“Be ye separate.” “Did you misunderstand the first command?” Paul asks in effect. “I mean that you must separate from their lifestyle.” The verb he uses may mean to “exclude” or to “set off.” The lesson of Babel is that humanism unites disparate people in religious endeavors that are contrary to God’s will, but a holy God separates people for His purposes. No church and no saint can faithfully serve the Lord without exercising biblical separation from the world.
“And touch not the unclean thing.” In case, we missed the first two injunctions, Paul reiterates them. “Don’t toy with the world.” Old Testament saints became unclean if they even touched a carcass or anything else considered unclean. Their experience prefigured the separation God demands today of minds, wills, and desires, and actions dissociated from the world. Separation is not getting as close as possible to the attitude and actions of the world but treating them like the plague.
The Spirit of God ever knew how much the heart of man would be drawn to the corrupt things of this world, so He iterates, reiterates, and emphasizes what God desires if we are to please Him. Then He ends with this encouraging promise if we obey His call to separate: “I will receive [“welcome”] you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (vv. 17b, 18).
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