Today we begin a new year, the time when many reflect on the past, and purpose to do some things differently in the future. These changes are often referred to as “New Year’s resolutions.” One of the reasons we make resolutions is that in our nation, we have the freedom to make changes. Think of the many ways in which Americans have the option to change. We can change jobs, or churches, houses, or cars. Many Americans change their life’s mate by divorce and remarriage. Upward mobility gives those who are hard-working (and fortunate) the chance to change their social and economic status. Some people even choose to change sex!
Change is a vital part of American life. Why do millions of Texans (and those in other states as well) choose to buy lottery tickets? They hope to spend a very little amount of money and make a great deal of money by winning the lottery. The underlying reason people try to win the lottery is that becoming rich will enable them to change their way of life (which is not always for the better, as history has shown).
Much of politics is about change. It may not be accurate to make these distinctions between the two dominant parties—Republican and Democratic—but rather between political conservatives and political liberals. Liberals like to think of themselves as progressives, and therefore tend to be much more inclined to seek change. Conservatives think of themselves as those who “conserve” what is best, rather than moving from one experiment to another. Conservatives do not want change, but stability. If they want change, it is to return to values, policies, and structures which have been set aside by the liberals.
The current theological debate among evangelicals is over what is called the “lordship salvation issue.” Believe it or not, the debate is really over change. One side of the debate seeks to defend their understanding of grace (as opposed to “law” or “works”) by insisting that one can be truly saved, and yet not manifest outward changes of conversion. The other side, seeking to distinguish “living faith” (a faith that produces works) from “dead faith” (a faith without works—see James 2:14-26), insists that there must be some change in a person’s life if we are to be confident that genuine conversion has occurred.
Our text is about change—but not just any change. Paul is not resisting just any kind of change here. He is speaking of a preoccupation with changing one’s status. Paul cannot be opposed to all change, for conversion is a radical change.
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).
For you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).
And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Colossians 2:13).
Salvation is a radical change, from darkness to light, from death to life, from being under condemnation to being justified. What starts at salvation continues through the process of sanctification:
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Colossians 3:5-10; see also Ephesians 4:17-24).
In this sense, the Christian should never be content with his or her spiritual status, but should always be pressing on to greater maturity:
10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Philippians 3:10-16; see also 2 Peter 1:2-11).
The change Paul speaks about is social in nature, rather than spiritual. At the beginning of this Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul calls the Corinthians’ attention to their humble state at the time of their calling:87
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
In spite of their humble beginnings, the Corinthians have become puffed up and arrogant. There are cliques and factions, and the Corinthians take pride in their leaders and in their superior wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 3:3; 4:6-7). The Corinthians have even come to look down upon Paul. They look upon themselves as having arrived, and they disdain Paul because, to the world, he appears to be weak, foolish, and dishonored (4:8-13). They are no longer content to be “weak” or “foolish,” even though this was their condition when called. They are no longer willing to hold to apostolic doctrine alone as the truth, but are impressed with that which the world regards as wisdom. Is it any wonder that Paul finds it necessary to instruct these status-seekers to be content with their worldly status because change is irrelevant?
In the immediate context of chapter 7, Paul has been writing to the Corinthians concerning sex, marriage, and divorce. The ascetics in the church at Corinth seem to take pride in the fact that they disdain and avoid sex altogether. Their banner seems to be, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (verse 1). They apply this principle to those who are married. From this extreme, it is only a short distance to disdaining marriage altogether, so that some Christian couples are seriously considering divorce. And those involved in mixed marriages feel even more justified in abandoning their marriages. In verses 8-16, Paul instructs Christian couples to avoid divorce or separation, and he urges the Christian partner in a mixed marriage to do everything possible to preserve the marriage. The believing partner is not defiled in so doing, but is a blessing to the unbelieving mate and the children.
Paul’s words regarding change, recorded in verses 17-24, follow immediately. When Paul completes this paragraph, he immediately returns to the subject of marriage throughout the remainder of the chapter (verses 25-40). While it may initially appear that Paul’s teaching on change in verses 17-24 is some kind of digression, nothing could be further from the truth. The first word of verse 17, “only” connects the paragraph to something earlier, but in a way that contrasts with it.88 Paul is thus linking this paragraph with his previous instruction. Furthermore, it is not difficult to see how Paul’s teaching on change relates to what he has taught earlier in the chapter. Some of the Corinthians suppose that changing their relationships will make them more spiritual. Wouldn’t a Christian couple who abstains from sex altogether be more spiritual than a couple who enjoys a sexual relationship? Wouldn’t one who forsook marriage for the higher calling of serving God be more spiritual than one who remains fettered by marriage? Paul’s answer is an emphatic “No!” The spiritual Christian is the one who maintains the marital commitments in which he or she was found at the time of their salvation.
The structure and emphasis of our text are very clear, as evident in the arrangement below:
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches.
18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.
20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.
21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
Three times Paul repeats the principle that Christians are to remain in the condition in which they were found at the time of their salvation, with only slight variations. Interspersed are two specific illustrations of the principle. The first is that of circumcision; the second is that of slavery. Let us consider this principle and its implications for twentieth century Christians.
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. 18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.
Paul’s words are a command, one he says is universal and taught by him in every church. Christians are to remain in that condition in which they were called. This most certainly does not mean that a converted bank robber continues in a life of crime, nor that a converted prostitute persists in her trade. You may remember that our Lord told the adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But Paul is saying to those who have become status conscious not to fix their attention or their energies on an upward change of status.
Paul emphatically states that God has sovereignly assigned each believer with a station in life, and it is from this station that they are to serve Him. Our “place” in this world is not a matter of chance, or simply the result of racial or economic or social bias (though these may well be factors). Our place in this world has been assigned to us by none other than our Lord. We know that place because it is the station in life we held at the time of our calling to faith. And this “calling” is to service, as well as to salvation.89 This calling is to serve God where we are. When our Lord delivered the demoniac from his bondage, this man pled with Him to accompany Him when He departed. Our Lord denied this request, instructing him to, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).
As a general rule, we have been called at a certain point in time, within a particular culture, and with a particular social station in life. It is in this setting that we are to begin to live out our faith and to fulfill our calling. That is precisely what Paul did. Throughout his life (as described in the Book of Acts), Paul continued to bear testimony to Christ and to his own conversion, not only to Gentiles, but to Jews, in particular to radical Jews who opposed the gospel, Jews just like Paul himself once was.
How amazing and assuring it is to realize that God has prepared us before our conversion to be, and to do, what He has purposed for us after our conversion. All of the events and factors which shaped us as unbelievers are a part of the divine plan, a part of our calling. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson was for many years the chairman of the New Testament (Greek) Department of Dallas Theological Seminary. He chose to major in Greek when he was an unbeliever in college. He did so because this subject best freed up his schedule to pursue golfing. God orchestrates the shaping events and elements in our lives before we are saved, to equip us to minister when we are saved. Knowing this, we ought not attempt to bury all that we were at the time of our conversion, but rather to build on it.
Paul illustrates his point by turning to the issue of circumcision. Circumcision is a status symbol for the Jews. One is highly regarded or disdained (by Jews) simply on the basis of whether one has been circumcised. On the other hand, there have always been Gentiles who are biased against those who are Jews. Circumcision is no status symbol (nor was the Star of David) in Germany when Hitler ruled. Consequently, while there may be a pro-Jewish faction in Corinth,90 there is likely an anti-Jewish faction as well. Those who seek the approval of this group will not want circumcision. But if they are already circumcised, they might be tempted to try to remove the evidences of circumcision. In fact, some actually underwent a surgical procedure to attempt to mask their earlier circumcision.91
Paul counters the inclination to change one’s status by undergoing or concealing circumcision. It simply does not matter. Some of the Corinthians have come to measure spirituality in terms of circumcision, whether by its presence or its absence. Paul teaches us that spirituality has nothing to do with circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, instituted during the life of Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14), and it was also required by the Law of Moses (Exodus 4:26; Leviticus 12:3). It was required of those Gentiles who wanted to enter into the religion of Israel (Exodus 12:44, 48). Circumcision was a symbol of what should and must take place in the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16). God promised to circumcise the hearts of His people, so that they would love His Law and obey it from the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6). The New Testament makes it clear that circumcision as a rite has been superseded by the reality which it symbolized:
9 For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. 16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God (Colossians 2:9-19).
Circumcision is of no value because that which it foreshadows has come through Christ. It may have some value for those of Jewish descent, who minister to Jews (Acts 16:1-3), but it is prohibited for any who seek to be circumcised by this “work” to their faith, or to place themselves under the Law of Moses, or to avoid persecution from the Jews (Galatians 2:1-3; 5:1-12; 6:11-16). Thus Paul can say of circumcision, “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). To seek to change one’s status by means of circumcision or uncircumcision is simply a waste of time and effort. Stay the way you were when you were saved!
The Jews understand circumcision to be a sign of one’s commitment to the Law of Moses. This is why the Jews are so adamant about circumcising the Gentiles (see Acts 15:1-2). Once again, Paul shows that the symbol of physical circumcision is of no real significance; but what is significant is the reality to which it points: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (verse 19, emphasis mine). This is entirely consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. In Romans, for example, Paul stresses that it is not circumcision per se which matters, but obedience to God’s commandments:92
25 For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh (Romans 2:25-28; see also Galatians 6:12-13).
The danger is that we may find ourselves more committed to the outward symbol than to the inner reality. This kind of externalism leads to an undue concern with outward appearances, and to a false set of standards regarding spirituality. Our Lord attacked this kind of externalism: “And He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:15; see also Matthew 6:1-18). The symbol of circumcision is of no great matter; the substance of circumcision is. Therefore, the one who was circumcised when saved should stay circumcised, and the one uncircumcised when saved should stay uncircumcised. Both the circumcised and the uncircumcised believer should value that which circumcision symbolizes.
20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:20-24).
The principle which underlies verses 17-24 is repeated by Paul in verse 20, in its simplest form: “Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.” Paul then seeks to illustrate this in relationship to the institution of slavery. Circumcision has to do with spiritual or religious status (or, in the minds of some, ethnic or racial status); slavery has to do with social status. In no earthly society of which I am aware are slavery or servanthood places of status. Our Lord overturned the relationship of status and service. He became a servant to save us, and because of this, God elevated Him to a position of even higher status (Philippians 2:5-11). Our Lord did not view menial service too demeaning for Him to perform (John 13). In fact, our Lord spoke of Himself as the One who would serve His followers in the kingdom of God (Luke 12:37).
Like the previously mentioned circumcision, slavery is an outward, earthly condition which is irrelevant to one’s spiritual standing before God. If one was called while a slave, this should not be a matter of great concern, consuming one’s mental and physical energies. On the other hand, it is possible for some to obtain their freedom. If this is the case, then one should take advantage of this opportunity. Freedom from slavery affords additional opportunities for ministry.
I am reminded of Joseph, who due to circumstances largely beyond his control, became a slave in the land of Egypt. During his years as a slave, we find Joseph effectively serving his masters and His God. So far as the biblical record is concerned, the only time Joseph made any effort to bring about his freedom was when he spoke to the butler, asking him to remember him in his incarceration (Genesis 40:14-15). We also know that this attempt did not produce Joseph’s freedom, either from jail or from slavery. Indeed, Joseph remained a slave of Pharaoh to the day of his death. Had winning his freedom been Joseph’s preoccupation, he would have had little time or energy to minister to others as he did.
If the secular world and falsely spiritual saints view slavery only from an external perspective, Paul gives a completely different perspective in verses 22 and 23. The first thing Paul wants the Corinthians to understand is that slavery or freedom have nothing to do with one’s status before God. The one who is called by Christ while a slave is, in reality, the Lord’s freedman. The ultimate slavery is our slavery to Satan, sin, and death. Salvation sets us free (Luke 4:18; John 8:31-36; Romans 6:20-23). In Christ, both the freedman and the slave have been freed from sin and death, and thus they are equal. This is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Many people distort Paul’s teaching in this verse. He is not saying that all earthly distinctions have been eliminated in Christ. There are still distinctions between slaves and free men, between male and female, even between Jew and Greek. But, in Christ, all these different categories of men and women are one in terms of their standing before God. All men are one in their sin and condemnation; all who have trusted in Christ are one in their standing before God, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Paul can tell slaves and free men that they are equal in the sight of God, and that changing their status regarding slavery will not change their spiritual standing before God.
But Paul does not stop here, having shown that believing slaves and believing free men are all equal in God’s sight, freed from sin and its consequences. He goes on, speaking to slaves and free men, showing that in reality both are “slaves.” If both are free in Christ, they are also both slaves to Christ. As the Israelites whom God freed from their Egyptian slavery became God’s slaves, so both slaves and free men, saved by the blood of Christ, and freed from the power of sin and death, are slaves of Jesus Christ. This is nothing to be ashamed of; it is something of which to boast. No wonder the apostles often spoke of themselves and others as bondslaves of Christ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Colossians 1:7; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:1).
When all is said and done, and all the externals are stripped away, there are no class distinctions in Christ. Because of this, a Christian slave need not be obsessed with gaining his or her freedom. There is no corresponding command for free men, instructing them not to agonize over being free, or informing them that they can become slaves without sinning. Who would want to become a slave? But a command is given that those who have been emancipated in Christ should not return to enslavement to men. Paul does not speak of becoming a slave in the literal sense here. He is speaking about becoming men’s slaves in a different way. His words are explained in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians:
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. 10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:6-10).
As I understand the situation in both the region of Galatia and in the city of Corinth, the Galatians are further down the path toward heresy and apostasy than the Corinthians. Both the Galatians and the Corinthians are accused of listening to false teachers who seek to proclaim another gospel (Galatians 1:6-10; 2 Corinthians 11:4, 12-15). Both groups seem to have a problem with division and strife (Galatians 5:13-21; 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:4; 4:6-13). Both groups seem to be very sensitive to the approval or disapproval of men (Galatians 1:10; 6:12; 1 Corinthians 1-3).
Jesus taught us that “no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Paul is saying essentially the same thing. Those concerned with winning men’s approval are those who will seek to improve their worldly status, by circumcision or uncircumcision (depending on the group whose favor they seek), or by striving to extricate themselves from the stigma of slavery. But in seeking man’s approval, they must abandon seeking to please God, for the two are incompatible. By seeking to win man’s approval, the Corinthians are enslaving themselves to the values of an unbelieving world (or a carnal church).
The Corinthians, like all saints, are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, they were bought at the price of the precious blood of the Savior (see 1 Peter 1:17-21). They were redeemed from slavery, so how can they return to bondage? If the approval of God is our goal, and not the esteem of men, then matters like circumcision and slavery will not consume us. We will simply seek to serve God wherever He has placed us.
Yet one more thing should be said about this statement in verse 23, found earlier in chapter 6, verse 20. The word “price” only partially conveys the idea inherent in the original text. This same term is employed by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” The term “honor” in 1 Timothy 5 is also inadequate in and of itself. “Honor” refers not just to respect, but to money, as most commentators point out. Honor is shown to the elder who rules well by paying him well. In our text, the price paid is indicative not only of the value (and thus honor) which is due or Lord, but which comes to those who have trusted in Him for salvation. I believe that in a subtle way, Paul is saying something like: “Why would you possibly seek the honor and esteem of men, by conforming to their values, when God has bestowed the greatest honor on us by saving us with His precious blood?”
Faith in Christ brings many changes. Some are immediate, and others are progressive. But there are also changes which should not be sought; in particular, Christians should not seek to change things which do not matter, just to win the approval of men. We must recognize that God has ordained the condition we were in at the time we were called to faith. It is in this setting that we should seek to serve Him, and to bear witness to His grace.
But what if God’s will is for us to change our circumstances? First, we should look upon this as the exception, and not as the rule. Secondly, rather than spending much fruitless energy agonizing about such changes, we should simply trust God to bring about those changes, or make it obvious that such change (on our part) is His will. I am reminded of the teaching of our Lord on this subject of “upward mobility”:
7 And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table; saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both shall come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. 10 “But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. 11 “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:7-11).
If God chooses to elevate us, He most certainly can and will bring it to pass. We do not need to seek our own advancement. We should leave this to God. And we should understand that in the divine economy, “moving up” (in the world’s terms) is not necessarily advancing. The way “up” in God’s economy is “down.”
What Paul is seeking to teach us in our text may be summed up in one word, which is not found in our text, but which permeates its teaching—contentment:
And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am (Philippians 4:11).
3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment. 7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (1 Timothy 6:5-10).
Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Contentment is the confidence and quiet peace which enables the Christian to accept our lot in life and to serve God in our circumstances, knowing He is the One who appointed them—for His glory and for our good.
It is here that the “good life gospeleers” lead many saints astray. They do not teach or encourage men to accept their circumstances and to joyfully serve God in them. They assure men that God does not want any of His children to experience pain or sorrow or the lack of anything we desire. They tell us that if we but have sufficient faith and employ the right techniques, God is obliged to give us what we want, and to remove us from difficulty and adversity. They are wrong, dead wrong. The things which they promise here and now are most often things God has promised us then and there, in His kingdom. In the light of the weight of the glory which is to be revealed, the trials and tribulations of this life seem inconsequential:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Some of us are trying to change things in our lives which God does not want changed. The changes God desires in our lives are not so much in our circumstances, but in our character. If we are “walking in the light” as we should be, then we will continually be in His Word, and we will see sins that need repenting of and commands that require our obedience. Let us not seek to change what God has arranged. Let us change that which God has condemned (sin), putting off the deeds of the old nature, and putting on the deeds of the new.
For those of us who are waiting for things to change before we serve God, Paul’s words instruct us to get going now. Are you waiting for a less demanding job, a schedule that is more open, a bigger house or paycheck? Recognize that God has called you where you are, and He has also purposed for you to serve Him where you are. Let us not wait for things to change before we are obedient to our calling.
Some of us devote a great deal of energy seeking to change others. I simply challenge you to consider whether we are trying to change things which God has called us to change. As I understand the Scriptures, there are a whole lot more sins in this world that we are to expose by godly living than we are to change by political action or other external pressure. Let us be very careful to consider what we are to change.
I am once again impressed that Paul’s teaching is always rooted in the truths of the gospel. The gospel is not a truth used to enter the faith, and then set aside. The gospel is the standard for our conduct. The gospel is the basis and the means for all that we do (see Colossians 2:6). How can Paul tell an uncircumcised Christian that circumcision isn’t important, nor is uncircumcision? It is because salvation is the process by which spiritual circumcision occurs. Salvation is the substance of which circumcision was merely the shadow (see Colossians 2:8-11). Paul can likewise tell the slave that while the outward social status of being a slave may not be changed, it is not that important since both slave and master are equal in Christ. Both are free from the bondage of sin and death; both are slaves of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel which equalizes believers, so that none is better than any other in their spiritual standing with God. All men are equal in falling short of the glory of God and in falling under the sentence of death and divine condemnation. All Christians are equal in that their standing with God is the righteousness of Christ. A failure to grasp or to appropriate the gospel leads to the problems before us. The gospel is the answer to each and every problem Paul addresses in our text.
If you are reading this message, and you have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and for the gift of eternal life, then the gospel is the solution to your problem. Repenting of your sins and turning to faith in Jesus Christ is the most important change you will ever make. It is the one change which every human being on the face of the earth must make in order to dwell in God’s heaven. God often brings trials and adversity into men’s lives to bring them to the place where they are willing to change, to the point where they are willing to forsake their sinful life, and to embrace God’s only means of salvation. Is your life one of chaos and confusion? Are you weary of the burden of your sins? Do you fear death and facing a righteous God? Then the gospel is the good news of a change which will determine your eternal destiny. The gospel is the good news that our sins are forgiven by Jesus Christ, who died in the sinner’s place and who offers His righteousness and eternal life. All you need to do is to acknowledge your sin, and your need of forgiveness, and to trust in what Jesus Christ has done in your place, and you will be saved. Here is the one change you most desperately need to make. I urge you to do so today.
88 “This sentence is tied to what precedes by the excepting conjunction ‘nevertheless,’ which itself refers back to the exception in v. 15ab.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p. 309.
91 “The Jews, of course, insisted upon circumcision, and during the Maccabean struggle the performance of the rite had assumed a paramount place. The uncircumcised were, for them, outside the covenant of God. They were cut off from the blessings God had for His people. In a sense circumcision could be said to be everything. For many of the Gentiles, on the other hand, circumcision was something to be looked down on. It was the mark of the religion of a despised people. For them it was a sign of emancipation when, as sometimes happened, a Jewish youth, by undergoing a surgical operation (e.g. I Macc. i. 15), tried to efface the marks of his circumcision in order to take his place in the wider world of Hellenistic culture.” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1966), pp. 112-113.
92 There is a world of difference between the commitment to obey God’s commandments (some of which are in the Law of Moses), and placing oneself under the Law of Moses as a means for obtaining righteousness and salvation. Paul applauds the former and condemns the latter. Some dispensationalists obscure the difference.