“The Main Thing”
1 Corinthians 7:17-40
August 18, 2002
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In chapter 7 Paul is responding to questions raised by the Corinthian Christians regarding marriage and divorce. He has so far considered the situation of those who are already married, those believers who have been divorced improperly, and those believers who are married to unbelievers. Now, in the remainder of the chapter he considers the situations of those who are unmarried, either never been married or who have lost a spouse to death. But, first, in vv. 17-24 he lays down the fundamental principle by which to evaluate any believer’s situation.
v.17 Here is the general point. Everyone so far considered in the chapter, in one way or another, wanted something different than what they had. Those who were married wanted to live as if they were not; those who were married to non-Christians wanted a divorce. Now it sounds as if Paul is saying that no one should ever change his or her situation, and he will make it clear that this is not what he means. But, what he wants to say, and chooses to say in this typically emphatic and unqualified way, is that their becoming Christians is a condition that far transcends in importance these other questions and their relationship to Christ, being so defining and profoundly fundamental, means that they are under no necessity to change their other relationships. The Corinthians were tempted to think of these matters as very urgent. Paul is going to tell them that they are not, not in the great scheme of things.
Now he is going to illustrate this point from two other social settings that have nothing to do with marriage: circumcision (or the Jew/Gentile relationship) and slavery. Both of these matters, of course, would have been intensely interesting to the Corinthian congregation, as it contained both Jews and Gentiles and slaves.
v.18 In other words, you can live out your Christian calling in whatever situation you were in when God called you to himself. The social setting of your life is not crucial, only your faithfulness to God in whatever life-setting you find yourself in. If you were a Gentile when called, you don’t need to become a Jew and vice-versa.
v.19 A good verse to keep in mind when talking to American evangelicals who have been taught that the gospel did away with the law or that the Christian life has nothing to do with obedience to commandments.
v.23 The last phrase is metaphorical. If you are a free man in Christ don’t think and don’t worry and don’t live as if your slavery defined your existence. A slave may well obtain his freedom. Wonderful. But that change in social status should not have changed at all his sense of his own freedom as a man before God. He had that just as much in the one condition as in the other.
v.25 There are many questions about the interpretation, even the translation at several points through this next section. These are too complicated to set out and are not that necessary anyway, as Paul is obviously dealing with another situation that falls under the same general injunction he has given in vv. 17-25. But, we’ll take the view that Paul is talking about betrothed people who are now wondering – under the influence of ascetic ideals abroad in the Corinthian church – about whether to proceed with the marriage. These people seem to know that Paul prefers celibacy for Christian people – although with a very balanced and reasonable acceptance of the fact that it will not be God’s calling for most Christians – but they are citing Paul out of context and giving the wrong reason for preferring an unmarried life. Paul was no ascetic. He did not base his view of the godliness of a single life on Greek ideas of the inferiority of the physical dimension to the spiritual dimension in human existence.
Now, then, what was to be said to young people who were betrothed but were now hearing Paul say that they should remain in the situation in which they find themselves?
v.26 The question is whether by “present distress” he means the same thing as “the time is short” in v. 29 or whether he is referring to particular difficulties that first century Christians were facing, persecution and the like. Perhaps the latter is more likely. We sometimes blithely say that it would be good for the church to be persecuted again. It would purify her of her worldliness. But that is easy to say if you have never suffered persecution and, in particular, never faced the sorrows and terrors that are the peculiar burden of married people in times of persecution. Perpetua went to her death in the arena, but the exquisite agony of her sacrifice was that she had to leave her nursing infant behind. The French Huguenots resisted mightily the severe persecution they suffered, but many found it more than they could bear to be threatened with the loss of their children who would be taken from them and given to Catholic orphanages to raise, never to see their parents again. Others through the ages have been wrested from a husband or wife or been made to watch as the spouse was executed. Marriage and a family really do make people hostages to fortune! And Jesus admitted as much. “Pray that such days will not come upon you when you are pregnant or nursing an infant” he said of the coming persecution his people would suffer.
v.27 For your information, the question of interpretation here is the word the NIV translates “seek a divorce.” Literally it reads “be loosed” which could mean divorce – though no instance of the word meaning divorce has been found – or it could mean be loosed from a contract or obligation, meaning here, from a betrothal.
v.28 Here is Paul’s wise qualification. God said that it was not good for the man to the alone. Clearly many Christians will marry and it is God’s will for them to do so. He has already, earlier in the chapter, admitted that many Christians should marry.
v.29 What Paul means by “the time is short” he explains at the end of v. 31: “this world in its present form is passing away.”
v.35 This is Paul’s reason for his preference for a single life and modern Christians must hear this. American Protestants have paid little attention to this argument perhaps for fear that it gives comfort to the Roman Catholics with their celibate priests and nuns. But the result is the worst of both worlds. There is no argument for a celibate ministry in the Bible. It has always seemed to me the height of irony that Peter, whom Catholics claim to have been the first pope, we know by the explicit testimony of the Bible, was a married man. But there is definitely a place for single men and women living in undivided devotion to the Lord. Perhaps there is a reason after all why the Protestant church has not produced Mother Theresas in the number produced by Roman Catholics.
Now I have often made Paul’s point in a different way in my homilies at weddings. Paul is not saying that a man who marries ought not to divide his attentions between the Lord and his wife but he will anyway. He is saying that a husband must give some of that attention he would have given to the Lord now to his wife. It is God’s will that a husband do that. God generously allows, even requires, attention that would have been given to him, now to be given to a spouse. That is what a godly marriage requires. So let’s not kid ourselves. A single man or woman surely can squander the great opportunity for a life of undivided devotion to the Lord. But, that there is such an opportunity no one should deny. Christian people who are getting married have sometimes sought to deny this reality. The great illustration of this is that of George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the Great Awakening. Whitefield had fallen in love with a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Delamotte. But his principles did not allow him to admit that what was really happening was that he had fallen deeply in love with a young woman and wanted to marry her; or to admit that marriage would alter his life in important ways. So he cast his proposal in terms of the need for a wife in his ministry, as if Paul had never written vv. 32-35. He wrote a letter to Elizabeth’s parents, requesting her hand, and then one like it to Elizabeth herself. In part the letter to the parents reads this way:
“It hath been impressed…much upon my heart that I should marry, in order to have a help meet for me in the work whereunto our dear Lord Jesus hath called me. This comes…to know whether you think your daughter, Miss Elizabeth, is a proper person to engage in such an undertaking? … You need not be afraid of sending me a refusal. For, I bless God, if I know anything of my own heart, I am free from that foolish passion which the world calls Love.” Being a great evangelist does not necessarily mean that the man isn’t an idiot!
But, of course, he wasn’t free from that passion at all. He was disconsolate for months when the inevitable refusal came. And he had a perfect right to that passion the world calls love. Paul says he did. Whitefield missed the point in virtually the same way the Roman Catholics missed it. Marriage is always proper between two Christians, ministers or not. And marriage is always to be a matter of love and passion. And celibacy is only proper if one has the calling and so the ability to live a single life in purity and holiness of life. But, in any case, one is forbidden to mix marriage with some otherworldly principle of asceticism that fails to acknowledge that God intended and requires that marriage be an affair of love, of passion, of sexual desire and pleasure, and the total sharing of life.
v.36 The question here is whether the translation should suggest that it is the betrothed man himself who is being addressed, as in the NIV, or the father of the betrothed young lady.
v.38 This is obviously an unusual passage in the Bible, almost unique. One thing can be done or another, though Paul thinks the one is a better choice than the other, all things being equal. Christians can do as they please. Of course, as he has admitted on several occasions in this chapter, all things are often not equal, perhaps usually not equal.
v.39 The main point in the Bible’s instruction regarding the choice of a mate. He or she must belong to the Lord.
What Paul is saying is clear enough. The real issue is not your station in life. Important as that may be in some respects, it cannot be what is uppermost in your mind. It does not define the meaning of your life. The real issue, the great concern must not be whether or not you marry, or anything like that, but whether you live your life in this world with an eye fixed upon the world to come! That is his point.
The ascetics in the Corinthian church, still too much slaves to the intellectual fashions of their culture, thought that the real need of the hour was to rid themselves of such physical and worldly obligations as the sexual relationship in marriage or marriage itself. They thought these issues were decisive. But, Enoch walked with God for 300 years and had many sons and daughters; Abraham is called the friend of God and he was a husband and father. David was the man after God’s own heart and he too was married and more than once. Peter was married, so too were at least most of the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers as Paul will remind these folk in 9:5. And we can add to that number a great company of men and women who have loved God and served him magnificently, all of whom were married and many of whom suffered through crises just like the crisis Paul warned his readers about. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, Bunyan and the list goes on to the present time, All five of the Auca martyrs were married men. Many other great Christians have remained single and served God with great success: Chrysostom, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux on up to the present time. My pastor in Aberdeen, Scotland was a bachelor and many have thought that his extraordinarily fruitful ministry was not unrelated to the fact that he had no obligations to wife or children.
No, says Paul. The issue is not marriage versus the single life. The issue is living in this world as a stranger, the issue is the consecration of our lives to the cause of Christ and living daily under the looming prospect of the judgment and the world to come. The time is short! That is the issue and these questions about marriage and life are meaningful only in respect to that far larger issue. “I’m happy to see a man or woman marry, if he or she lives for eternity,” Paul says, “and I don’t give a fig for a man or woman who stays single but lives for this world.”
When the Apostle says that those who have wives should live as if they had none or that those who are happy should live as if they were not, he is, in characteristically biblical fashion, using hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, to make his point in a way that staggers us, that forces us to face facts. It is language like our Savior used when he said that no one who doesn’t hate his father, mother, wife, or husband can be his disciple. Whatever else such stupendous language means, in a book that has so much to say about the love a man owes to his wife or parents to their children, it certainly means that the believer’s relationship to Jesus Christ easily takes precedence over every other relationship of life, even the most sacred of life’s other relationships. Those relationships exist for the sake of our relationship to God and Christ and not the other way round.
All of this is what Paul means when he says “The time is short.” But, how are we to read this today? After all, it has been nearly 2,000 years since Paul wrote that the time was short and that therefore Christians should live in the active expectation of the world to come and judge their relationships and evaluate the meaning of their lives in terms of that coming world.
Well, the Bible often speaks this way, as a matter of fact. In Romans 13:11-12, Paul writes,
“The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber,
because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us
put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
And it is not only Paul who says such things. Virtually the last words of Christ to us in the Bible are these at the very end of the last book of the Bible: “Behold I am coming soon,” and, again, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
It may be many years and in some ways it seems to us a very long time – these two thousand years that have intervened – but it is not; not in the real sense; not when considered from the vantage point of eternal years. When we look back upon it from the next world, it will seem as if the whole of that history passed by in a moment. Some of our own days seem to us as if they would never end; but, as we look back upon our days, months, and years, we find that they have flown by. In the same way, the next world is hurtling toward us and, by any real measurement, the time is short.
But, there is another way in which the time is short according to the Bible. Our life, our own individual existence in this world, this too is but a brief moment. We are so shortly to leave this world! How often are we reminded of that in Holy Scripture!
“The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty if we have
the strength; … but they quickly pass and we fly away.”
“All flesh is as grass…”
“For what is your life? It is a vapor, which appears for a little
while and then vanishes away.”
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.”
“My days are swifter than a runner; they fly away… They skim
past like boats of papyrus, like eagles swooping down on their
And you know that it is so! Those of you who are older than I know it better than I do; and I know it better than those of you who are younger, though, if you are honest with yourself, you know it too. You know, when you look in the mirror, that your body is growing old, even wearing out; yet your soul seems to be as young as ever. You cannot believe that you have aged so quickly and that your years are flying by so fast that it seems as if it were yesterday when you were young.
I remember in reading The Diary of Kenneth MacRae, a Scottish pastor who died in 1964 in his eightieth year, that he would frequently confess to himself how difficult it was for him to accept his growing old because his life seemed so short to him and his soul seemed so little changed from years ago.
“Thursday, 5 November, 1954: Yesterday I attained my 70th birthday. My feelings are strange. For one thing I utterly fail to realize it. The ego of my inner being is just the same as ever – not one whit older than it used to be…but it is evident that I am drawing near to the end of this life’s tale, and that is the part which is difficult to take in.”
I read years ago the amazing and heart-rending story of a young married couple who had been climbing in the Swiss alps. The husband had fallen to his death into one of the huge crevasses of the glacier they had been walking across. 40 years later, with the very same guide who had been with her on that fateful trip, the wife stood at the foot of that same glacier, its progress down the mountainside having been measured to the month and the likely day, waiting for it to give up its precious cargo. She waited patiently in the hotel not far away until at last her wait was rewarded. Her husband’s body was released from the ice and she was able to see again the man she loved, who had vanished from her sight in a moment, 40 years before. Much of the pathos of the story lay in the fact that she was then an old woman, but the recovered body of her husband was just as it had been 40 years before, perfectly preserved in the ice – the body of a young and virile man. The fact of her own life’s passing away, of it being nearly over, struck her with full force as she looked upon what she and he had been: how young, how full of life, what seemed just a few moments ago.
Oh, yes, the time is short. Shorter than any of us knows. And it will be gone before we know it. I cannot believe that I am a man of 52 years. To me the sound of that number evokes an age, a time of life, far beyond my own. But, of course, it is my age. I cannot believe that I am far beyond the half-way point. But, of course, I am.
Now do you see Paul’s point and the Holy Spirit’s point? The issue is not marriage, it is not even slavery. The issue is that our present life is shaped by, it derives its meaning from the future. In a very short time we will no longer be husbands and wives, or slaves or masters. You will have to give your children back to God who gave them to you as a stewardship. Are you living in the active expectation of that? Is your life being lived in faithfulness to that truth? Whether you are single or married, are you living for eternity and serving Jesus Christ for the sake of his eternal purpose in your life? Or, are you living like those who have no understanding of the fact that this world in its present form is passing away?
How do you know if you are living this way? How do you know if you have taken this truth to heart and are working it out in your life? Well, Paul tells you.
First, you are living as a Christian should if you sit looser than men and women do to the best and dearest things of this world. “Those who have wives,” Paul says, “should live as if they had none… those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep…” In other places Paul and other biblical writers tell us how wonderful and important marriage is and that God has given us all good things to enjoy. He is not asking us to despise God’s gifts. But he is reminding us in powerful language that it isn’t by marriage or by childbirth or by the accumulation of things that one enters heaven. That we must always remember how temporary even these wonderful things are and how much we must submit these parts of our lives to those eternal obligations we owe to God and to Christ. All your happiness, your marriage, your husband, wife, children, home, your cars, your hobbies, your money, your job, your reputation – all of this will be only so much guilt and regret if you do not “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The Lord was not kidding when he said, “Love not the world, or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Or, when he promised that everyone who had left houses or brothers or sisters or fathers or mothers or children or fields for his sake would receive 100x as much in this world and would inherit eternal life.
Much as you love your husband, or your wife, or your children, you who are married, can you find in your life the evidence that you also live as if you did not have a wife, or a husband, or children? Can you honestly tell the Lord that those precious things are in their proper place in the priority of your life?
Second, we know that we are living as faithful Christians if we also sit looser than men and women do to the griefs and the frustrations of this world. “Those who mourn,” says Paul, “should live as if they did not;” “those who are slaves, as if they were not; those who are unmarried as if they were; those who are widowed as if they had their husband at their side.”
These are not the true issue of your life, the meaning of your existence of the foundation of your happiness. They have their importance, to be sure, and Paul acknowledges that, but you cannot allow yourself to think that your life is defined by these things.
Your everlasting salvation, your soon entrance into the world of joy, the glory you can give to God in this world, the reward you can lay up for yourself in heaven – none of this is dependent at all on whether you are married, whether you are married to a believer, what kind of work you do, or any such thing. Very soon everyone of us will step out of this world into the next. We will leave the circumstances of our lives here, short as they will have been, behind us forever. That is Paul’s point! Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then let these secondary matters sort themselves out as God wills and permits.
In a moment, a brief moment, it will all be over and you and I will be in another world. In all of your questioning, in all of your concern and worry, and, for that matter, in all of your happiness and fulfillment, do not forget this. In a moment a new life will begin, a wholly different life in a world that lasts forever. We the bride, he the bridegroom, the true and eternal marriage.
Now, think and act accordingly!