14. Undistracted Devotion (1 Cor. 7:25-40)
25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned.
Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;
for the form of this world is passing away.
One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided.
35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
Distractions can be devastating. A mother who is driving her children to school turns her attention for just a moment to arbitrate a squabble between her children or to fasten a child’s seat belt, and fails to heed a stop sign. A businessman driving to the airport takes his eyes off the road for just a moment to dial a number on his mobile phone or to change the tape in his stereo, and fails to observe a stalled car directly in his path. Following alcohol and drugs, I would guess that distractions are one of the major contributors to automobile accidents.
Some of us are more susceptible to distraction than others, but all of us are easily diverted from our mental focus. For example, you and I would both be distressed to know how many times in this sermon your attention will drift from our text and what I am saying to something else, like the football game which starts half way through this sermon, or the dinner warming in the oven, or the guests coming this afternoon, or the ministry group meeting tonight. We are constantly forced to refocus our minds, which drift so easily.
In our text, Paul seeks to help his readers minimize the distractions which so easily focus our hearts and minds on earthly things, rather than on things eternal. Specifically, Paul wants each of his readers to view their marital status and ambitions in the light of eternity. In the context of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has been responding to the Corinthians’ questions about marriage and spirituality. It seems apparent that there are some ascetics in the church who teach that sex is dirty and should be abstained from, even in marriage. The inference, whether stated (as in 1 Timothy 4:3) or implied, is that marriage is a less than spiritual institution. Consequently, Paul advises those who are single to stay that way, if they have the self-control to do so (verses 8-0). To those already married who might be thinking about terminating their union, Paul says, in effect: “Don’t even think about it.” Those marriages in which both partners are believers are not to give marriage or separation a thought. If someone has already separated or divorced their believing mate, they are to either remain single or to be reconciled and reunited with their spouse (verses 10-11). To those married to an unbeliever, they should not initiate a separation or divorce, because their presence in that marriage is a benefit to both their mate and any children born of that union (verses 12-14). If the unbelieving mate opts to end the marriage, the believer should not seek to force the unbeliever to change his or her mind, since salvation does not come about by force, but in peace (verses 15-16).
Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
In verses 25-40, Paul gives his advice and the practical applications of the principle he has set down three times in verses 17-24. But before he does so, he clearly identifies his words in verses 25-40 as his counsel, and not as his command. We tend to think of Paul as an aggressive, “take charge” kind of man. We might think that his every word is a “thus saith the Lord,” which we dare not disobey. Paul does give commands, which he expects us to obey, but when he does so, he makes it clear that this is the case (1 Corinthians 7:10). When his words are an expression of his personal convictions and preferences, he indicates this as well (7:6-7, 25). Paul gives this counsel in verses 25-40 in response to the questions posed to him by the Corinthians (7:1). His “advice” has therefore been solicited.
While Paul indicates that he is giving his advice, he also encourages his readers to take that advice seriously. While setting aside Paul’s advice is not a sin (verses 26-28), one will do well to take Paul’s counsel seriously. Paul indicates that while his advice may not be applied the same way by all, it should be regarded as reliable counsel. He tells us that his counsel is “trustworthy” (verse 25).93 His counsel is not Paul’s personal opinion, given independently of divine enablement, but is the fruit of divine mercy which was given to him. This man, who may never have been married, can give wise counsel on the subject because of God’s mercy shown to him. Let no one therefore take his words lightly.
Sometimes, I must confess that I (along with other preachers and teachers of the Bible) am guilty of passing off my convictions and preferences as though they were co-signed by God. When one reads or expounds the Scriptures, one speaks with Scriptural authority. When one speaks his opinion, that is another matter. Here, Paul is being straightforward about the fact that he is giving advice and not laying down a command. If the Corinthians choose to do other than what Paul recommends, they are not sinning (7:28). If Paul is clear to tell us when he is not giving us a command, surely we dare not attempt to pass off our ideas, preferences, or prejudices as though they are a word from God.
26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
One of the difficulties in dealing with this passage is determining what Paul means by certain terms and expressions. For example, what does Paul mean by the expression, “the present distress,” in verse 26? In verse 29, what does he mean by the statement, “the time has been shortened”? I have chosen to understand the introductory statement of each paragraph as being parallel to his concluding statement in the same paragraph. I have attempted to convey this understanding by the arrangement of the passage at the beginning of this message.
By taking the approach of seeing Paul’s introductory statement as meaning virtually the same thing as his concluding statement, I find I am able to understand what Paul means. The “present distress” of verse 26 is further explained and defined by the expression, “trouble in this life,” in verse 28. The statement, “the time has been shortened,” in verse 29 is explained by the later expression, “the form of this world is passing away” (verse 31). And finally, “to be free from concern” (verse 32) is to “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (verse 35).
Paul takes up the phrase, “it is good,” employing it twice in verse 26 to introduce the matter at hand. You will recall that this chapter begins with the statement, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The ascetics in the church at Corinth think they have an endorsement from Paul concerning their distorted view of spirituality. Paul starts with a statement which seems to agree with them. There is some common ground, but not that much. As Paul’s argument in chapter 7 unfolds, he repeats the expression, “it is good,” to show that his understanding of goodness differs greatly from the ascetics. The two-fold “it is good” of verse 26 puts the reader on notice that Paul is further clarifying his initial statement in verse 1, and thus he is correcting the teaching of the ascetics. To them, it is good for married partners to abstain from sex in marriage, and even to forsake their marriages. Paul will say in verse 27 that “it is good” for married couples to stay that way. Paul does not defend the ascetics in our text, but demonstrates their error.
Paul’s advice in verses 26-28 is predicated on the fact that there is some kind of present distress. The nature of this “distress” is understood differently by Bible students. I am inclined not to take the expression in a narrow fashion (that is, some particular situation in Corinth as Paul writes, which passes), but rather in a more general sense. I take it that Paul is referring to “trouble in this life” as he states in verse 28.
While we have no indication of a particular problem in Corinth at the time of this epistle, we do have a great deal of revelation on the matter of a general distress which all Christians should expect to experience by virtue of their identification with Christ:
18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
21 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12; see also Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 4:11; Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 4:12-14).
I understand Paul to be saying that while unbelievers have always resisted and rejected the prophets, the coming of Christ has intensified men’s opposition toward God, and specifically toward those who love and serve Him. This distress or trouble is life-long. One who is a follower of Christ should expect and endure it. But when one marries and has children, the distress is even greater because now it is not just we who suffer, but our family as well. Paul wishes us to limit our exposure to those pressures which might tempt us to back off from a bold profession of the gospel. Thus, one who is single should seriously consider staying that way.
Can you imagine Paul being married with children and seeking to carry on the ministry we see described in the Book of Acts? Those who can expect opposition and persecution should consider staying single. I cannot imagine a single Christian seeking marriage and a family if the description of Paul’s circumstances is what he or she might expect as well:
11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).
Verses 27 and 28 speak not only to the single saint, encouraging him or her to remain single, but Paul also addresses the married believer, advising that one not seek to be loosed. Once one is married (with or without children), it is too late to reduce one’s exposure by seeking to terminate the marriage or to abandon one’s family. Paul does not here emphasize his words to those already married; he is emphasizing his counsel to those who are single and eligible to marry. This is because Paul has spoken with greater authority in prohibiting the Christian from pursuing divorce or separation (verses 10-16).
Christians can be assured of facing trouble in this life. Marriage and a family only multiplies the troubles one may expect; thus those who are single should consider the option of remaining just as they are. If they choose to marry, they have not sinned, but they have increased their troubles in this life. Mark Twain once said something like this: “It’s easier to stay out than to get out.” Paul does not even give us a way out of marriage, but he does say that while “getting out” is not an option, “staying out” is. Paul’s opponents, the ascetics, forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3); Paul simply encourages the saints to seriously consider the single life as a lifestyle, for the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel.
29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; 30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
The Super Bowl will soon be upon us, and I know many will be watching the playoffs when they get home. Football fanatics know all too well what the “two-minute offense” is. It is the offensive strategy employed when time is short. When a football team is behind in the final two minutes of the game, this is no time for running the ball. This is a time for sideline passes and for running out of bounds to stop the clock. In this paragraph, Paul urges his readers to live out their lives like they were in a “two-minute offense.” The time is short, and every decision we make should be made in the light of the shortness of time and the urgency of our task.
The basis for Paul’s exhortations here is the “shortness of the time.” The NASB translates it, “the time has been shortened” (verse 29), and then further clarifies in verse 31, “the form of this world is passing away.” How has “the time… been shortened”? It is possible that Paul simply means to say, “the time is short,” which is the way the NIV translates the expression. It is also possible, however, that Paul means to say that the first coming of our Lord has somehow brought matters to a head, to a conclusion, so that we now are assured that the end is near. If not, then we are at least informed once again that the end is near:
11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:11-12).
11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26).
17 And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever. 18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour (1 John 2:17-18).
3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near (Revelation 1:3).
One of the great dangers which confronts the Christian is losing sight of the shortness of the time:
“But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk” (Luke 12:45).
3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).
We must live in the light of the nearness of the return of our Lord, of the inauguration of His kingdom, and thus of the end of this present age.
In verses 29b-31a, Paul spells out several specific areas in which to apply our belief in the shortness of the time.
- so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none ; (family)
- and those who weep, as though they did not weep ; (pain/suffering)
- and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice ; (pleasure)
- and those who buy, as though they did not possess ; (possessions)
- and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it ; (power)
The first area of application is that of marriage: “so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.” This is not an instruction for men to neglect their wives! Paul is not speaking so much about what husbands are to give to their wives as about what they are to expect from them. We must understand and apply Paul’s words here in relation to what he has written in Ephesians 5. Husbands are to care for their wives as Christ cares for His church. We are thus to nourish and cherish them, not neglect them. This is why Paul advises those who are single to stay that way, because if each fulfills their role, they will sacrificially care for the other. The demands of this sacrificial care are set aside only by staying out of marriage, not by neglecting the wife in marriage, or by ending the marriage.
Yet another dimension to Paul’s teaching seems primary in this text which places so much emphasis on this present age which is so brief as opposed to the coming age. We are to value all things in terms of how long they last and on how much benefit they provide. We should be willing to forego temporal things of limited benefit, if by doing so we gain eternal things of infinite value. Marriage is temporal, not eternal:
29 But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God. 30 “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30).
Nothing earthly should take precedence over that which is eternal. Human relationship, while important, should never take priority over our devotion to God:
26 “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” (Luke 14:26).
Here is a truth which is not very popular and which is hardly ever mentioned in evangelical churches, because “family” has been elevated to a place where it conflicts with our devotion to God. Let us take the words of our Lord and of the Apostle Paul most seriously. Family must not be “first” in the life of the Christian, even if it is first in many churches. Paul wants us to walk the narrow line of keeping marriage and family in its proper place. We must not look down upon it, forbidding or forsaking marriage as the ascetics do. Neither should we elevate marriage and family above its proper place, as a gift of God for this life only.
The second area of application is to sorrow and suffering: “and those who weep, as though they did not weep.” Our hedonistic age places too much value on pleasure, and therefore does everything possible to avoid pain. The psychological talk shows have more than their share of tear-filled voices, telling of their woes, and of warm, compassionate therapists telling the sufferer that they can “feel their pain.” The problem with pain is that some masochists love it and seek to bring it upon themselves, as though it were a virtue to suffer needlessly. Then there are the hedonists, who will do anything to “stop the pain,” including suicide. Eternity gives us a very different view of earthly pain.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Earthly sorrows will be put aside in heaven; thus when God calls upon us to suffer for the sake of His name, we should rejoice in it, knowing that it is insignificant in comparison to the heavenly glory which is to be ours:
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).
The third area of application Paul cites is that of pleasure: “and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice.” The ascetics seem to disdain all pleasure as sinful; the hedonists of Corinth see no sin in perverse pleasures. Once again, Paul seeks to strike a happy medium. He does not instruct the Corinthians to avoid everything which causes one to rejoice or to take pleasure in it. He simply warns them that earthly pleasures fall far short of eternal rejoicing. The pleasures of the wicked are short-lived, and they lead them headlong to destruction (see Psalm 73:1-20; Proverbs 6:6-27; Luke 6:25). The legitimate pleasures of this life should be enjoyed and received gratefully from the hand of a loving and gracious God, and they should be employed to the glory of God (1 Timothy 4:4-5; 6:17-19). As John Piper recently emphasized in his writings, finding pleasure in this life is not wrong; what is wrong is finding pleasure apart from God. All earthly pleasures, other than those focused toward God, are but the “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). We are to recognize earthly pleasures as short-lived and not find them the essence of this life or the next. When we do rejoice, let it be in those things which are worthy of our rejoicing:
“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Fourth, Paul applies the shortness of the time to materialism: “and those who buy, as though they did not possess.” The truth of the matter is that we do not really possess anything in the first place. When God brought the nation Israel into the land of Canaan, He made it clear that this was His land, not their land. He informed them that the Canaanites had been evicted from the land because of their sin and warned that they too would be evicted if they did not live according to His commandments (Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 4:23-31; 9:4-6). Especially in the New Testament, Christians are taught that they are stewards of the possessions God has placed in their care. Jesus challenges His disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). He tells the story of the rich fool, who sought to save all of his possessions (Luke 12:16-21). He teaches His disciples to lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth (Matthew 6:19-20). Paul tells Timothy to remind the rich that their abundance comes from God, and that they are to be “rich in good deeds,” being “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Jesus warns about greed when He says,
“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The things we now possess will either be used up, worn out, or stolen here (Matthew 6:19), or they will be burned up at the end of the age (2 Peter 3:10-12). We had better not think of anything we purchase as our permanent possession. The “time is short” (verse 29), and the “form of this world is passing away” (verse 31), so we had better not put too much stock in “things. “
Finally, in verse 31 Paul seems to sum up the whole matter of our attitude toward this world and our relationship to it.
And those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
Paul’s use of the term “use” seems to imply two things. First, it implies that the things of this world are not ours, but God’s, and that we are only stewards, entrusted with them:
11 “If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you? 12 “And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:11-12).
Second, the term “use” here seems to have the sense of “take advantage of,” or use to one’s own personal advantage. Third, the term “use” requires a choice to be made, either to “use” the thing in question, or not to use it. Fourth, the term “use” here implies a temporary use, a use that has a limited life. A battery may be used for a time, and then its usefulness ends. Paul wants us to think of “using” the things of this world as a temporary use, a use that will end. The way we “use” what the world offers to us determines what we will have “laid up in heaven.”
From time to time, someone will call and say something like: “Bob, we have two tickets to the Dallas Cowboys football game this afternoon; do you think you could use them?” The use of these tickets is offered to me. They were not mine, but I can make use of them if I choose to do so. Making use of them may not make a better man of me, or further the gospel, but doing so could be a lot of fun. The Christian lives in this life, knowing that he or she is simply preparing for the next. While were are here in this world, we seek to “lay up treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-21). We know that God “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). We also know that while some things the world offers to us are lawful, all of these are not profitable (1 Corinthians 6:12). Some may hinder the gospel or the spiritual walk of a fellow-believer. Some may be detrimental to our walk. This means that we should not make use of everything which the world offers to let us use. We should use this world thoughtfully and selectively.
The unbeliever’s outlook is vastly different. It is summed up by the beer commercial: “You only go around once, so grab all the gusto you can get.” Christians know they “go around” in this life only for a short time, and that we “go around” the next life for all eternity. Because everything this world offers to us does not contribute to the kingdom of God, we choose not to grab all the gusto we can get. We choose not to fully use all the world offers. This is the reason Paul later informs the Corinthians of those rights and liberties he has chosen not to use:
12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:12).
15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one (1 Corinthians 9:15).
18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:18, emphasis mine).
Peter agrees, when he writes:
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (1 Peter 2:16).
We should not seek to go through our life in this world “grabbing all the gusto” we can lay our hands on. We are free to make use of those things which are lawful, but our higher calling challenges us to set aside temporary pleasures and to strive for those things which last. We should therefore not seek to “use” everything this life offers to us, but to “use” those things which promote the gospel and the growth of the saints, including ourselves.
The writer to the Hebrews said of Moses,
24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; 25 choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; 26 considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26).
Not all of the pleasures we are to pass up are sinful pleasures. Paul calls on us to give up some of the legitimate, lawful pleasures of this life for the sake of the kingdom of God. His final words underscore the fact that these liberties are “passing pleasures;” they are a part of the “form of this world which is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Our Lord underscored that the things of this life often “pass away” in this life:
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Peter goes even further, reminding us that those things which may endure through this life will suddenly come to their end at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13).
God’s Word does not pass away (Matthew 24:35), and neither do people (see Luke 16:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:19). We should gladly give up the use of those things which are temporal and which do not benefit us in eternity, so that we may carry out our task and calling in this world.
And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17).
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
In the previous verses, Paul called upon the Corinthian Christians to consider marriage in light of the shortness of the time and in view of the fact that the “form of this world is passing away.” Marriage, after all, is not an eternal institution, but one divinely provided for men and women in this age, rather than in the age to come (see Matthew 22:30). Marriage is a right, a liberty, which can be either exercised or set aside. Paul has just challenged the Corinthians to consider the possibility of remaining single, not because this makes one more spiritual than others, but because it may enhance their service in these shortened days.
Now in verses 32-35, Paul continues to advocate staying single, but from the standpoint of one’s devotion to God. In verse 33, Paul introduces this segment with an expression of his desire to help the Corinthians be “free from concern” (verse 32a). In verse 35, Paul ends the segment by indicating that his intention has been to help them “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Staying single is one way that some Christians can reduce distractions from their devotion to the Lord.
Jesus put the matter this way, speaking of distracting concerns about material things: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Paul is saying the same thing, using marriage as the distraction. The one who is unmarried, Paul tells us, is concerned about the things of the Lord, about how he can please the Lord. The one who is married has a kind of “conflict of interest.” The man who is married is obligated to please his wife. This is not wrong, for the Christian husband pictures the love and care of Christ for His church as he cares for his wife (see Ephesians 5:22-33). The Christian woman who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, about being holy in body and in spirit, while the woman who marries now has the obligation to please her husband.
Remaining single provides an opportunity for the Christian to serve the Lord unreservedly, without the conflicting obligation of attending to the needs of one’s spouse. But staying single does not automatically produce this result, as the ascetics may teach or imply. I see a lot of Christian singles in the church today, and very, very few of them are devoting themselves to serving God and others. I fear that most of those who remain single are not in this condition out of commitment to comply with Paul’s advice in our text. Those who are single by choice may well be in that condition for the wrong reasons. It may be that a person is single out of fear, fear that marriage may not work. Statistics seem to underscore such fears. It may be that a person has remained single to avoid the commitment of marriage. It may be that one stays single for sinful and immoral reasons, even practicing their immorality with other singles in the church. Some have remained single because they are too selfish to give themselves to another. Staying single is not automatically the spiritual thing to do, but it most certainly can be an opportunity to devote oneself to the Lord.
Several years ago I conducted a wedding service, and I used verses 32-35 as the text of my message. It may seem strange to you—it certainly did to those at the ceremony. In truth, this text not only encourages someone who is single to seriously consider staying single, it also is a text which can greatly benefit those who marry. Remember that Paul has a lot to say in this chapter about staying in that condition in life in which we were called. Those who feel they have to change their circumstances to be happy, or to be spiritual, really do not understand what the Christian life is all about. I believe those most happily married are those who did not feel they had to marry to be happy. Those who feel that life is not what it ought to be unless they are married expect too much of marriage, and will consequently never be as content in marriage as they could be. Just as those who give up their lives are the ones who gain it, and those who lead do so by serving, those who are happily married could be happy unmarried. This is because their primary goal in life is not to be happy, but to be holy, whether this means staying single or getting married.
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better (NASB).
36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better (NIV).
You will note from these two translations that biblical scholars interpret Paul’s words in verses 36-38 in two distinct ways. The problem we face is how to understand Paul’s words “his virgin.” The NASB translators understand Paul to be referring to a father’s virgin daughter, while the translators of the NIV believe Paul is speaking to a young man who is engaged to be married to a virgin. In the East, often the parents choose the marriage partner for their child, and so one can mentally picture a father reading what Paul has written and responding, “Paul, what should I as a father of a young woman do? Should I heed your words by refusing to let my daughter marry? What if she is already engaged?” The young Christian Corinthian man who has already become engaged before Paul’s letter arrives might ask, “Should I go ahead and get married, or should I break my commitment to marry?”
In either case, Paul’s response is essentially the same as his teaching to those who have not committed themselves to another for marriage: “If you are able to take the heat for standing firm in your convictions not to marry your daughter to another, then do so; if not, do not agonize about it. It is not a matter of sin, but simply a matter of “good” and “better.” The same answer is applied to the young man who is engaged to marry a young woman: “If you conclude that marriage is the proper course for your life, then don’t agonize over this, do it; you have not sinned in so doing. If, on the other hand, you are able to gracefully reverse your decision, and you have the will power to do so, then release yourself from this commitment and remain single. The one who marries does well; the one who does not marry does even better.”
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.
Paul has almost completely covered the territory. He has spoken to those who are married, whether in a mixed marriage (one partner is a believer, the other is not), or those equally yoked. These are to stay married, and not even to think about divorce. They are not to deprive each other sexually, which would only tempt them to sin. Those who are unmarried should consider the spiritual benefits of remaining single. Those who are engaged (or who are planning their daughter’s marriage) should feel free not to proceed with marriage, but they should not feel guilty about marriage either. Now Paul turns to the only category which is left—widows (as distinguished from virgins).
Those who are married should consider themselves bound to that partner until death separates them. If a woman’s husband dies, she is then free to marry because the union is broken by death. The only condition placed on this widow is that she marry another believer. Nevertheless, Paul encourages such a widow to give due thought to remaining single, for the same reasons he has outlined above. These words of advice are an expression of Paul’s opinion, but failing to heed them is not sin. It is not just Paul’s opinion, he suggests, but counsel which he believes comes from the Spirit of God. It is, we might say, inspired advice.
Chapter 7 is a kind of self-contained unit. In this chapter, Paul shows the relationship of one’s spirituality to sex, celibacy, marriage and the single life. Paul deals with this subject in stark contrast to the ascetics of Corinth. I believe they set down rules for all to keep on this matter of sex and marriage. To them, one could hardly be spiritual if they enjoyed sex, even though in the confines of matrimony. Their hard and fast rules, without exceptions, are very different from Paul’s counsel. On some matters, there is no room for concession or compromise. Those who are married are to stay married. Those who are married are not to abstain from sex in that marriage, except for unusual and very limited circumstances. But when it comes to whether one should marry, Paul all of a sudden turns from laying down rules to giving advice. He does not demand that the Corinthians take his advice, and even tells them that they do not sin by acting contrary to his counsel. Rather than attempt to add weight to his every word, Paul indicates when he is speaking with full apostolic authority and when he is giving his opinion. Paul is not nearly as dogmatic and authoritarian as some in the Corinthian church (see 2 Corinthians 11:19-21).
This text reminds us of the freedoms we enjoy in the Christian life, and that we should not always look to the Bible or to others in authority to inform us of the content of God’s will. Some Christians want everything in black and white. They want nice simple rules, with all of the decisions of life about the will of God nicely summed up for them. In effect, they do not want to believe that they have the freedom to choose between acceptable alternatives. They want God to map out their life so that they do not have to make agonizing decisions. This text reminds us that many of life’s decisions are our responsibility. Paul gives advice. He tries to help us in thinking about the issues involved. But in the final analysis, Paul calls on us to decide what we will do. It is my opinion that when we decide between two morally acceptable alternatives, God is not as concerned with which we choose, as He is with why we choose as we do.
Paul’s teaching here makes it clear that what we do in this life must be determined in the light of eternity. Our choices should not be made on the basis of what “feels good,” or on what makes me “happy,” but on what pleases God and furthers His kingdom.
At the beginning of chapter 7, Paul seems to agree with the ascetics. In a sense, he does agree, for he goes on to extol the virtues of remaining single. But his reasons for doing so are so very different from those of the ascetics. The ascetics judge one’s spirituality by outward, external appearances. Paul calls for Christians to consider remaining single, so that we might serve God more devotedly and without distraction. Our decision about whether we should marry should not be made solely on the basis of what we are free to do, but on the basis of what course of action best enables us to serve God. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the time is short, and the days are evil. Let us make those choices which best advance the gospel and which enable us to serve God wholeheartedly.
93 The Greek word which the NASB here renders “trustworthy” is used by Paul a number of times. In the pastoral continued … epistles, it is used of sayings which are “faithful” or “reliable” (see 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 3:8).
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