MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 7, 2004 FROM FIRST CORINTHIANS 7:25-40
This week we return to chapter seven of First Corinthians as we continue to study Paul’s treatment of issues related to marriage. As we have said, the church at Corinth did not have the mind of God on this topic in many ways. They believed it to be morally and spiritually superior for those who were married to remain celibate in marriage. They openly wondered if those who had become Christians should divorce their still unbelieving spouses. There was much confusion in and around this topic of marriage. Paul had discovered these strange ideas in a letter he had received from Corinth and in chapter seven he addresses these issues one by one. The final major emphasis of Paul in this chapter relates to yet another class of people who were confused about marriage. These people were those who were betrothed to be married. They were not yet married, did not live together and were virgins, but they were betrothed or pledged to be married to one another. What was God’s will for them, especially in light of the fact that many in Corinth believed celibacy to be spiritually superior? Should they remain betrothed but never marry? Should they marry or should they break off their engagement?
It is to those kinds of questions Paul turns in verses 25-40. In these verses Paul reiterates what is his general counsel throughout this section and that is—if it is possible for you to do so, “remain as you are.” In this text he applies those words to those who are betrothed to be married in Corinth and along the way provides some important truths for both those who want to be married and those who are married and want their marriage to more fully glorify God. Let’s begin reading with verse 25. The apostle says, “Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 26I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or be trothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
36If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his be trothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 39A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”
There is so much here—if we were to answer every difficult and controversial exegetical question, we would be here for weeks. Because this text is a very difficult one to apply thoughtfully, let me make a few preliminary, general observations that will help us. These truths will not take away the considerable impact this text should have on us, but they will, I pray help us not to take what Paul is say further than is warranted. First, notice again as we saw in verses one through five, throughout this section Paul reverts to a very uncharacteristic, non-dogmatic tone. In the 16 verses here there are only four explicit commands—a very low ratio for Paul especially in this letter. Also, Paul qualifies or gives possible exceptions for virtually everything he says. This is clearly an area of scripture that must be applied with great care in light of the very light touch Paul applies here. One of the reasons this section is often misunderstood is because many have wrongly taken Paul’s pastoral advice here as apostolic commands and most of them are not. In verse 27 Paul says he is giving his “judgment” on these matters. The word for “judgment” is probably better translated “advice.” That is not to say this is not God-inspired, apostolic, godly wisdom-laden advice. It is. But we run into trouble in our application if we confuse inspired advice with inspired commands.
Second, in verse 26 Paul says at least part of his rationale for giving this counsel is “in view of the present distress.” Most scholars agree this is not simply a general reference but that something specific was happening in Corinth to make life more complicated for the church. It is almost certainly not anything cataclysmic or Paul would have made more frequent mention of it than this one place, but it was something that in some way influenced his opinion. Though speculation abounds about what it was, we simply do not know. There is no solid evidence in the letter as to what this “present distress” might be.
Third, by way of a qualifier, we must read this non-dogmatic section of Scripture in the light of more dogmatic sections like Paul’s exalted treatment of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33. There Paul beautifully conveys God’s high view of marriage. It would be wrong to read in a vacuum this text on the real difficulties marriage brings to believers. This text in chapter seven provides a needed reality check for those who are engaged to be married but have not considered the very real difficulties and tensions marriage uniquely brings into a believer’s life. It also provides a healthy corrective to those married believers who, despite their claims to the contrary, live as if their marriage relationship—not their walk with God--is the most important relationship in their life. This text brings correction to that idolatrous, this-world-oriented attitude. This passage in chapter seven provides a counter-balance to the exalted view of marriage in Ephesians chapter five, but it does not contradict it.
Finally, in a section that speaks in stark terms of the practical difficulties and tensions marriage will inevitably bring to the believer, Paul is careful not to place marriage in a spiritually bad light. In verse 28 he affirms to the husband and wife that marriage is “not sin.” He repeats that statement in verse 36. He says in verse 37 those who marry do “well.” It is a good thing to marry and Paul is careful not to obscure that truth and that was doubtless especially important in this Corinthian church where many wrongly saw a sexually healthy marriage as a spiritual albatross hanging around a believer’s neck. His intention in this is not to slam marriage or obscure God’s will for believers who are engaged. He says in verse 35, “I say this for your benefit not to lay any restrain upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” That is Paul’s very pastoral concern and we must not either minimize or overestimate the weight of those words.
With those biblically balanced lenses on, we could encapsulate Paul’s position in this text in these words: The marriage relationship belongs only to this world and will bring both personal and spiritual tension to those who are married. Therefore, those contemplating marriage must first take a hard look at both the temporal and spiritual realities it brings. I see Paul treating two major tensions marriage brings to a believer only one of which we will cover this morning. The first tension he treats in the second half of 28 through 31 and is manifest in living with eternal priorities in the context of a temporal, this world only relationship. Do you hear in that the inherent tension between the temporal and eternal? Paul says marriage brings out that tension. He says, “…Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
These verses get to the heart of Paul’s main concern. He says those who marry will have “worldly troubles” or more literally “afflictions in the flesh.” By “flesh” he is not speaking of the sinful, rebellious part of us but rather the temporal, fleshly existence we know here on earth. Paul endured a thorn in his “flesh” and by that he meant that temporal, material part of him that was passing away. That’s the idea and Paul wants to spare these people that kind of trouble this world brings to the married. In verse 29 he goes on to explain what it is that causes these worldly troubles and he says, “the appointed time has grown very short” or more literally, “the time has been shortened.” Behind Paul’s counsel about marriage here is the truth that there are end-time realities at work that influence the way followers of Christ live in this world.
This end time or eschatological factor runs underneath all of Paul’s theology and he states it here explicitly. Paul says the reason marriage brings worldly trouble is because of end time or eschatological realities. When we say end time or eschatology many today in the church think of the “final world events described in the Left Behind” series of books. We must understand eschatology or end time thinking in the New Testament is MUCH broader than the subject matter of the “rapture” and second coming of Christ. The New Testament teaches that the end times began with the death and resurrection of Christ. At that time the kingdom of God was inaugurated. One evidence of that is an ETERNAL quality of life was brought to earth and is present NOW in this world TODAY in the life of every believer. The kingdom of God has violently invaded this world and continues to spread as the gospel is believed by individuals here and to the nations. In that sense, we have been in the end times for 2000 years. The kingdom has been inaugurated but it has not yet been consummated. That will occur on the day of the Lord when Jesus returns. This epic eschatological shift has already occurred and that reality permeates all of Pauls thinking about this world and it should ours’ as well. Let’s talk about the phrase “the time has been shortened” for just a moment. There are those who would look at this reference to a short time and say to Paul today, “Well, if in Paul’s day the time before the end of the world had grown very short, I would like to know what “short” means since Paul lived 2000 yearsago.”
When Paul says the time has been shortened, he is not saying that God has for some unexplained reason changed his end time calendar—moving up the date of the return of Christ. He is talking about a kingdom reality. Since the kingdom of God has burst into this world through Christ and His church, the way we perceive the end of this world should be radically different. Think of it this way. With the dawn of email and supersonic jets, we can say, “The world has sure gotten smaller.” That’s not true in a literal sense. Planet earth has not changed its size or dimensions. But the world is smaller in the sense that the dawn of supersonic transportation causes us to view it very differently. Great Britain is not three months away by sailing ship, its four hours away by what used to be “Air France.” The new realities of aviation have “shrunken” the world. It’s in that figurative sense Paul is speaking of the time being shortened. Gordon Fee says it this way, “the event of Christ has now compressed the time in such a way that the future has been brought forward so as to be clearly visible.” [Fee, p. 339]
This world is on a carefully planned schedule ordained and executed by God. Before Christ, God’s people had very little specific notion about what that schedule would look like. But when Christ came and won the decisive spiritual victory at Calvary, he tore down the veil of secrecy and in effect set us up on a heavenly mountain top, allowing us to see the end of the world. In THAT sense God has “shortened” the time. For a culture with jet engines, the world gets “smaller” and for a people who follow a victorious and returning King, the time gets “shorter.” David Garland sums up Paul’s meaning here. He says, “Paul does not argue, “The end might come tomorrow with its terrible afflictions; therefore do not get married.” He argues instead, “The end has broken into the present, and it requires a reevaluation of all that we do in a world already on its last legs.”
Because of the presence of the kingdom of God in the midst of God’s people that has invaded the kingdom of this world, there is conflict—there are—to use Paul’s word “afflictions in the flesh.” These are not simply the trials and tribulations every human must encounter in a fallen world. These are those specific afflictions all genuine believers experience by virtue of the fact that they are IN the kingdom of this world but are not OF the kingdom of this world. Paul reflects the reality of this conflict in places like 2 Tim 3:12 where he says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” The implication for Paul is that this affliction-laden experience in this world is magnified if you are married. Because of this reality, it calls us (using Garland’s words,) “to reevaluate…all that we do in a world already on its last legs.” The fact that the kingdom has come through Jesus with this compression of time and the effects of that compression—these increased fleshly afflictions, we must not enter into life changing, conflict-inducing relationships like marriage willy-nilly. The kingdom realities brought on by Jesus Christ should impact how we live our life and that especially includes huge questions like, “Should I go through with my marriage?”
This is an absolutely foreign concept to most people in the church in North America. Almost no one thinks like this today. How often do the end time realities brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection impact your major decisions? One reason this sounds so foreign to us is because we are not suffering persecution in the same way other parts of the church are. Think about how intensely relevant Paul’s words would be to a believing young man and woman in the Sudan who are contemplating marriage. They live in a horribly dangerous, persecution-filled world and marriage will tend to more and more anchor them to this world. On a purely practical level, being displaced from your home and village and staying free from persecuting marauders is much more difficult if you have a wife and little babies. If a pastor were doing Christian pre-marital counseling in places like the Sudan looking across his hut at a young man and woman betrothed to be married, it would be absolutely immoral for him not to bring up this kingdom reality of the “shortened time” and its implications to two people with stars in their eyes.
It’s interesting however that Paul mentions this kingdom reality to the church at Corinth. Notwithstanding that we don’t know what is meant by their “present distress” in verse 26 we can say with certainty, Corinth was not the Sudan. There was no wide-scale persecution going on in Corinth yet Paul puts some significant speed bumps on the road to marriage in light of the end-time realities impacting Corinth. How should this new eschatological reality impact us? Paul tells us in the second half of verse 29, using five illustrations from life in this world, “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
What is Paul saying here? First, by choosing such disparate illustrations from the domestic realm—marriage, the emotional realm--mourning and rejoicing, the commercial and material realm—buying and dealing—Paul is saying that the fact that the kingdom of God has come and is coming should be brought to bear on every area of life and every significant decision you make. Paul is saying the fact that these end-time realities have been established should comprehensively touch every part of your existence. The fact that we through Christ’s victory know what lies ahead for the world greatly magnifies the temporary nature of this place and knowing the end of the story should powerfully impact the way we live. Does it? Though there is obviously a huge difference between marriage and the things we buy or feel or use in this world—in one very important sense they are similar. None of them will be part of our eternal realities in heaven. Because of that we should be scrupulous to avoid allowing any of them to interfere with the eternal realities of Christ’s kingdom. All these elements of this life Paul lists including marriage are from the perspective of eternity (to quote one scholar,) “lame ducks.” Marriage, from an end-times view is a “lame duck.”
This text serves as a good counter balance to the exalted treatment of marriage Paul gives in Ephesians chapter five where he compares marriage to Christ’s relationship to his bride the church. The marriage relationship DOES in some way point to that eternal relationship but it is infinitely less important in part because it is temporal. The wonder and sacredness of Christian marriage is not in the institution itself but in what it points to. For the husband, it shows us the love Christ has for us. For the wife, it displays the kind of love Christ intends from his church. Marriage as a picture of something larger than itself is essentially Christ-centered relationship in that it points to the eternal Christ. Marriage as a human institution however belongs only to the here and now and we must never give it a place of importance in our lives equal to Christ. Jesus brings this out in Luke 14:26 says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Our love for our Christ should never be eclipsed by anything of this temporary world like marriage.
Jesus places marriage on a temporary level when he says in Matthew 22:30, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It’s important for us to remember that of all the countless billions and billions of “years” of eternity, even the most long lived of us will spend a paltry, statistically insignificant 50plus years of our existence being married to someone. There’s also no biblical evidence to suggest that in heaven we will have any more intimate connection to the person who was our earthly spouse than we will have with any other brother or sister in Christ. Those truths are not intended to downgrade marriage but simply to place it into an eternal perspective. Those truths should not cause us to regard marriage lightly but they should cause us to see how insignificant our marriage relationship is when compared to our relationship with Christ.
Ephesians five should help us to see that marriage is a sacred relationship. First Corinthians seven should cause us to see that this sacred relationship is also passing away and we must work hard to keep our marriages from anchoring us idolatrously to this world. The reality is that given our idolatrous flesh, we can turn anything native to this world into an idol--things we buy, emotions and perhaps most easily, relationships. When Paul says that “those who have wives should live as though had none,” he is not calling us to callously neglect our spouses. What he IS calling us to do is to refuse to allow our marriages to become a hindrance to our spiritual walk and as he says later in the text, they can very easily do just that. Our marriages are passing away and it is foolish to treat them as if they were eternal like our relationship to Christ.
We see an example of how we are NOT to allow our marriages to interfere with eternal things earlier in Luke 14 in the parable of the great banquet. Jesus is speaking of the kind of people who would be present at the resurrection and tells a story we’ll pick up in verse 16. “…A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.' 19And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.' 20And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.'”
Don’t miss the connection between the reasons these people did not come to the banquet and the elements of life Paul lists in First Corinthians. The point is that these people are more concerned with the temporal things of this world like marriage and as a result they are shut out of the banquet for their idolatry. The person who has married seems to expect that is an automatic, excused absence from attendance at the banquet. “I’m sorry Jesus—I can’t follow you there— because…well…I am married and that just wont work for us.” They allowed the temporal—their marriage, to blind them to the eternal. Though there are many in the church who need to be spending more time and energy on their marriages for them to honor Christ, Paul here reminds us of the tendency—a tendency so strong he advises against marriage—that we can allow marriage relationships to interfere with our preeminent relationship to Christ. Being married causes fleshly affliction that can and does hinder our walk with God according to Paul.
If we are not married and we love the Lord, these important truths should play into our thinking as we approach that huge decision—we would be foolish to ignore this. One symptom of how blind the church often is to this dynamic is the fact that sometimes people in church are guilty of playing the role of giddy matchmaker without any regard to the eternally significant truths Paul raises here. If anything Paul is not only NOT a match maker, he’s a potential match “spoiler.”
For those who are married, this teaching should cause us to spend significant time reflecting on where we may have allowed our marriages to hinder our walk with God. According to Paul’s words here about the inescapable negative impact our marriages can have on our relationship to Christ at times, we would be naïve to think it has not and is not perhaps even now occurring. Our marriages may and should in many ways encourage us in our walk with Christ but its interesting Paul does not mention that. Instead, he points to the negatives and in light of them, urges people to strongly consider not marrying. This is an important text and one which is almost never heard from today in a church that is often far more excited about throwing bridal showers than working out how to live in these “shortened” end times. Next week by God’s grace we’ll look at the other tension Paul treats here and finish this important section on marriage. May God give us all the grace to be more conformed to the truth and less conformed to this world which, like our marriages, is passing away.
Page last modified on 11/14/2004
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