1 Corinthians 7:17-40

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Week 7Live as You are Called

1 Corinthians 7:17-40  

By Rand Nelson

Introduction

            I was in my senior year of college when I started dating Carolyn, who is now my wife. Dating is weird because it’s kind of an undefined, indefinite relationship with nothing really to look forward to except the next date. Once we got engaged, everything changed because we were constantly looking to the future when we would one day be married. “When we’re married, we’ll be on the same insurance and share a bank account. When we’re married, we won’t have to say goodbye at bedtime. When we’re married…”

            After we got married, I still had a semester left in my undergrad degree. I took the most boring literature class I had ever been in: Romantic Poetry. I used to sit in the back of that class and beg time to move quicker. I just wanted to be done with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley. I just wanted to graduate. I’d sit in the back of that class and think, “When I graduate, I won’t have to study anymore. When I graduate, I’ll have more free time on my hands (what a joke). When I graduate, life will be easier.”

            This thought has repeated in my life over and over again. “When I get my driver’s license… When I graduate seminary… When the baby finally gets here… When I finally pay down this debt… When the pandemic is over…”  All of these have been preoccupying thoughts that have caused me great anxiety and kept me from potential progress in other areas. “When ______ happens, then I’ll be able to ______” is a personal formula that focuses our attention on the wrong thing. As Christians, the light and hope we have already been given in Christ should illuminate and bring joy to even the darkest circumstances. This doesn’t mean that we can’t seek to improve our circumstances; it just means that our circumstances need not put off our ability to glorify God wherever we are. So, get that degree, pay off that debt when you’re able to, get married and have tons of babies—but don’t fall into the trap of believing that your life needs to hurdle the next milestone to have significance.

Read 1 Corinthians 7:17-40 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. What is the current “When ______ happens, then” that you’re holding on to?
  2. Why do we struggle so much being content with our circumstances? What are things this passage teaches us about how to remain content, regardless of where life takes us?
  3. In what ways can we seek to remain singularly devoted to the Lord, regardless of our status in society as married/single, free/bound, etc.?

Commentary

7:17-24 – Paul continues and summarizes his view on marriage (covered in last week’s discussion guide) by expanding on the topic to include other areas. Here he gives a general principle: Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him. Believers can be encouraged that God is not up in heaven having lost track of his children, wondering how you got yourself into your current mess. No, your circumstances are not random or solely based on the sum of your previous decisions; they have been assigned to you by a sovereign God who has called you to glorify Him in them.

            Paul will give two areas of society and culture that need not change just because one has come to know the Lord. The first is circumcision. Once a very important sign of the old covenant, circumcision is no longer required for believers nor is it a sign of a more mature believer. His charge is for the believers to remain as they are—circumcised or uncircumcised. This does not mean that circumcision is sinful, but that it will not avail you any spiritual advantage to become circumcised if you aren’t or to “remove the marks of circumcision” if you have already been circumcised. The believer is free to remain as they are. The same is true with the status of one’s freedom. If a believer was a bondservant, they should remain such. If the believer was free, they should not sell themselves into servitude.

            The principle for both cases is simple and well framed by verse 24, “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” You don’t need to dissolve your marriage (v.1-16), pursue religious/physical changes to your body or improve your position in the social hierarchy to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Wherever you are and however you have come to God (socially, culturally, economically), God is Lord of your circumstances. Remain there with him.

In addition to writing Amazing Grace, John Newton also wrote a hymn called How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours. The third verse captures this thought well:

Content with beholding His face, my all to His pleasure resigned,
No changes of seasons or place would make any change in my mind.
While blest with a sense of His love, a palace a toy would appear;
And prisons would palaces prove, If Jesus would dwell with me there.

            This is a difficult teaching in our culture, which champions upward mobility in all things. Being content in your circumstances almost seems to be an expression of laziness to people with higher aspirations. This can cause us to feel as though our lives lack importance, that our testimony lacks power, that the mundane bits of our life lack significance—but the good news of this passage is that the bondservant can glorify God with his life as much as the freedman can. Maybe you feel like you’re just a stay-at-home mom, you’re just a lower-level employee, or you’re just a church member. Your creator hasn’t made you just anything. He’s intentionally knit you together and called you to a specific set of circumstances over which he has ultimate control. Paul’s point is not that you are forbidden to seek a change in your circumstances, but don’t obsess over changing your circumstances; remain with him where you are and glorify him there.

7:25-31 – The principle Paul has already laid out extends to those who are “betrothed,” or those who are engaged and not yet married. When Paul says that he is giving something that is not a command from the Lord but is trustworthy, he is giving advice. He is giving the Corinthians a general principle for wise practice in their context that is not sinful to ignore. He again champions the ideas of remaining the way you are. If you’re married, don’t seek to be free; if you’re single, don’t seek a wife—and either way you choose to go with it, you haven’t sinned.

            The reasons for this advice stem from what Paul refers to as “the present distress” and his desire to spare them from “worldly troubles.” The Bible is not clear as to what exactly Paul is referring to. It could very well be that he’s referring to the coming Christian persecution that would happen a relatively short time later. We don’t know for certain, but the principle can still be applied—perhaps in times of intense warfare, plague, persecution or famine, it is wise to put off marrying. Speculation here may not be profitable. However, even in these circumstances it is not sinful to marry. Paul is simply sharing a pastoral concern for the welfare of his church. This is why it can be categorized as advice, rather than a command.

            When Paul calls the believers to live as if their reality was not their reality, he’s not telling married people to divorce, mourning/rejoicing people to ignore their emotions, and merchants to sell their businesses. He’s trying to remind them that life is short and that these things do not define us. These things are not to get in the way of honoring God or in any way reduce our affection for Him. We should guard ourselves from being swept up into things that lack eternal value, because this world is passing away.

7:32-35 – Many texts in the Bible call the husband to faithfully love and serve his wife (Ephesians 5, for example). So, Paul is not saying that the husband being concerned with how to please his wife is an evil thing.  I don’t think I fully grasped the meaning of these verses until I got married, and I was interested in an overseas mission trip that would have put me far from my wife for a fairly lengthy extent of time in an area that was hostile to the gospel. As a single man, I think I would have gone, but as a married man, I felt myself pulled in two different (and good) directions. My interests were divided. In speaking this way of both husbands and wives and their divided interests, Paul is encouraging the believers in Corinth to consider remaining unmarried so that they can guarantee their interests remain solely fixed on God. His ultimate point is not that married people are a lost cause to the kingdom of God, but that devotion to the Lord is a more challenging thing to secure if you are married. Whether believers get married or remain single, devotion to the Lord is to be their aim.

7:36-40 – Paul knows that hearing this may change the minds of some of the Corinthians. Perhaps there were some who were currently engaged to be married, and the bride/bridegroom was struggling with Paul’s argument for single life. He addresses these people and tells them that it is not sinful for them to follow their passions for one another and get married. The man or woman who decides in their freedom to remain single and celibate will also do well. In fact, Paul claims on the basis of what he’s already said (“the present distress” (v. 26) and securing an undivided devotion to the Lord (v.35)) that the unmarried man will do even better.

            His last word here is to married women, and it seems to repeat some of what he has already stated. Married women are bound to their husbands as long as they live. Should their husband die, they are free to remarry, but he believes—for the reasons stated in this text (and last week’s text)—that she will be happier to remain unmarried.

            Throughout much of this discussion, Paul has owned that not everything he is saying is a command—some of his statements are to be taken as advice and generally wise principles. Here as a parting thought to this conversation, Paul reminds them that he too has the Spirit of God within him, teaching him and giving him wisdom. While many of these thoughts are his preference or his opinion, his opinion should not be neglected as one who has no expertise. There is much wisdom here.

The Main Point

Regardless of the circumstances believers find themselves in, they are able to honor God and please him with their lives. Rather than being overly preoccupied with changing their circumstances, Christians should take comfort in God’s plan for their life and seek to please him where they are.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Ephesians 5 – Paul forbids sexual immorality and gives instruction for Christian marriages
  • Galatians 3:23-29 – Because the gospel transcends social and cultural distinctions, Christians can remain where they are without feeling the need to improve their standing in order to come to Christ.
  • Galatians 6:15 – Circumcision counts for nothing, but only a new creation. 
  •  2 Corinthians 6:2-10, Philippians 4:10-13 – Believers can rejoice and endure any circumstances because of their relationship with Christ. 
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