If you would please go ahead and take your copies of God's holy Word in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians, chapter 7; 1 Corinthians 7, verses 6 through verse 16 on page 955 if you're using one of our church Bibles. While you're turning there, let me thank you for your fortitude and your stamina as we've worked through some challenging portions of this letter of Paul. I think after last Sunday morning's message, a teenager came to me after the service and said, "I'm ready for 1 Corinthians to be over!" Well, it may hearten you to know that after this morning I will be gone from the pulpit for four Sundays. I'll be on vacation for a couple of weeks with my family and then about fifty-seven of our church members will be joining my wife and my family and myself in the UK to do a sort of spiritual heritage tour. We'll look at Reformation sites and learn about our heritage, which is also not just the heritage of the church in the UK but our heritage here also. So please pray for us. And you may be grateful to know, especially as you look at the material before us that after this morning there will be a little bit of respite provided before we return to Paul's message in this letter.
I should also say to you that I labored hard to try to be concise and to do this with some lightness of touch; I fear that I have failed miserably to accomplish that, so get ready! I'm serving up something of a slab of raw beef this morning and I hope it won't be too indigestible to you! 1 Corinthians chapter 7 – let me just give you an outline of some things to look for. This is where we'll be going as we work through the material and then we'll read it together after we pray. First of all, Paul is going to teach us about singleness and the gift of God. Singleness and the gift of God. Then secondly, divorce and the Word of God. Divorce and the Word of God. Then finally, marriage – in this case, a less than ideal and difficult marital situation – marriage and the Gospel of God. Singleness and the gift of God. Divorce and the Word of God. Marriage and the Gospel of God. That's our outline. Before we begin to work through it together, would you bow your heads with me as we pray?
Father, Your Word is now spread before us and we pray for the work of the Holy Spirit to give light to our understanding and to open our hearts to receive the truth, that we may with ready submission walk in believing obedience as we seek to follow our King and our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, who speaks to us here. For we ask this in His name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 7 at the sixth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
Singleness and the Gift of God
Let’s dispense with any further introduction and deal with the first point, if you wouldn’t mind. Let’s consider what Paul says here in the first place about singleness and the gift of God. Singleness and the gift of God. The world around us thinks that to insist on celibacy in singleness, as the Christian Scriptures clearly do, is to condemn singles to an incomplete life. Right? “You’re an incomplete person. You can’t possibly be satisfied if you live a celibate, single life.” That’s the world’s perspective and sometimes under the pressure of that point of view, many of us who are single feel a deep restlessness and dissatisfaction. We find contentment hard to come by. And let’s face it, there are times when the church doesn’t help much, does it? While the world pressures you to change your sexual ethics while you’re single, the church sometimes pressures you to marry as soon as possible. So many of our assumptions presuppose the normativity of married life that we sometimes fail to remember the singles in our midst altogether. And you can be left with the distinct impression that as a single person in the Church of Jesus Christ, you are somehow deficient and what you need to do, if you’re really going to belong, is to get married as soon as humanly possible. There’s no question that singleness today, especially if you’re a Christian, can be tough going.
It is Good to Remain Single
But look at how Paul speaks about singleness in our passage, would you? Verses 6 through 9, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.” Now Paul knows that if he affirms singleness as positively as he is about it, he runs the risk of being misunderstood by a certain segment of the Corinthian congregations. “It is good to remain single as I am,” he says, but there were Corinthian hardliners you remember who thought that celibate singleness was not merely one possibility for a Christian but ought really to be normative for everyone, everywhere as they seek to follow Jesus. Sex for them, in any circumstance, was inherently unclean and wicked, and therefore to live a holy life must mean to live like an aesthetic, free from bodily passions and sexual appetites.
Singleness is Not Obligatory
And so as Paul affirms and commends singleness here, he is anxious that we see clearly the careful balance of his argument. Look at the text with me. Notice this is not a command. Verse 6, singleness is not obligatory, no matter what the Corinthians rigorists were saying. The Church cannot bind consciences and compel celibacy of anyone. And so the long, ugly history of sexual scandal, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church, surely that provides all the evidence we need to demonstrate what can happen when we go beyond the Word of God in this area. This is not a command, Paul says; this is a concession. He is conceding that singleness is indeed a good and noble calling. In fact, he even says that he wishes all could be as he is and live a single life – free of the burdens and cares that sometimes come with marriage. As he’ll put it later on in verse 28, “Those who marry will have worldly troubles and I would spare you that.” In his singleness, Paul found a freedom and a liberty to live for Christ and to follow Him wherever He leads. And in that singleness following Jesus, he found great satisfaction and joy and he wants something similar for the Corinthians.
As we work through Paul's message here, it may help you to know that there is at least circumstantial evidence to suggest that Paul was, at one point in this life, quite possibly married himself. Before his conversion, you will recall that he was a member of the strictest sect of Judaism. He was a Pharisee, for whom, if you were a male and a Pharisee, for them it was normative that you would be married. He was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin membership, of which required that you be married. So by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, perhaps he was already a widower, or his wife may even have left him and divorced him upon his conversion to Christ. Which, by the way, would make the words of verses 12 to 16 more than just abstract advice and teaching from Paul. It would make them, in fact, painful, personal history as well. It is at least probable that when Paul talks about marriage and singleness here, he is not writing as some confirmed bachelor who is phobic about women. No, he is likely writing as a person whose own heart bears the scars of loss, who wants to spare his beloved Corinthians the same pain.
But whatever you make of that – and it is only speculation – whatever you make of that, this much is clear. Paul doesn’t think about singleness the way our contemporaries tend to think about singleness, does he? Whether they’re out there in the world, who, while they may not care much for the institution of marriage simply cannot understand why singleness and celibacy should ever go together. That’s the world. Or in here in the Church, you think that singleness is something to be escaped from in order to be truly valid as a part of the local Church. Paul rejects both extremes, do you see? No, Paul says singleness is good. Singleness has its own dignity and worth.
Each Has His Own Gift
But notice carefully, would you, that Paul locates the difference between those who remain single and those who marry not in the individuals themselves, per say, but in the gift of God. You see that in verse 7? Look at verse 7. “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” So celibate singleness is a gift of God. Now I know what some of you are thinking – “Gee, that’s a gift I hope I never receive! Some gift!” Well, I get it. But before you rule Paul out altogether, let what he’s saying sink in for a moment. He says it is a gift. The word that is translated “gift” shares the same root as the word that we often translate “grace.” That, I think, helps us some. Paul is saying that, if God in His providence is calling you to a single life, He will give you the grace you will need to find, in your singleness, satisfaction and contentment and usefulness in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace in singleness is the ground of faithfulness and patience as you follow the Lord Jesus. There’s grace for you in your singleness.
Singleness is Not a Punishment
Maybe today you struggle with lifelong, same-sex attraction and as you seek to walk in holiness and trust in Jesus you know that for you the path of faithfulness will entail a life of sexual chastity and singleness. Maybe you would love nothing so much as to find your life’s partner, and yet God in His providence has simply not led in that direction. Please understand that there is, in the mind of Paul, no possibility that your singleness is somehow expressive of a failure on your part. Singleness is not a punishment. It’s not a prison sentence, no matter what your peers may say to the contrary. No, as odd as it may sound to us, the Bible teaches that singleness can be a gift of grace and the resources of grace are available to you to keep you and sustain you and to satisfy you in the midst of it as you cling to Jesus Christ.
Not Everyone is Called to Singleness
But having said that, do notice that Paul is quick to qualify his teaching here in verse 9. Notice verse 9. Not everyone is called and gifted for singleness. For some, the fight for sexual purity is overwhelmingly difficult. And so Paul says, “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” So Paul is setting before us the binary pattern of the Christian life. It’s a binary that we are not free to break. Chastity in singleness; faithfulness in marriage. That’s the pattern of the Christian life. And the gift of God differently distributed, according to His sovereign purpose, is what makes all the difference. Celibate singleness or faithful marriage are together paths of faithful obedience to the call of the Lord Jesus for which He will give the grace we need that we might honor Him and live a satisfied and contented life in His service. So that’s the first thing that I want you to see here – singleness and the gift of God.
Divorce and the Word of God
Then secondly, let’s think about divorce and the Word of God. Focus for a minute with me on that little parenthetical statement in verse 10. Do you see it, where Paul says, “(not I, but the Lord)” and it’s opposite down in verse 12, “to the rest I say (I, not the Lord)”? Those two statements in parenthesis over the years have caused not a few to struggle to wonder what Paul is teaching here. Some worry that perhaps it implies that one part is inspired and the other not. Or, that one part has the authority of Christ behind it while the other is merely Paul’s advice, optional at best. Here’s what’s really going on. Very simply in verse 10, Paul is citing the expressed teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ regarding divorce and remarriage. That’s why He says, “Not I, but the Lord.” This is the familiar teaching of Jesus known in the churches, presumably even among the Corinthians. And so, for example, the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:12, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” Paul is paraphrasing the words of Jesus here. “Don’t separate; don’t divorce. If you do, don’t remarry or else be reconciled.” He’s referencing Jesus’ words – “This is not I, but the Lord.”
In the same way, down in verse 12 when he makes the verse statement, “Not the Lord, but I,” all he’s doing is spelling out that at this point, this is not the expressed, recorded words of Jesus that he’s using, but rather this is Paul in his office as an inspired apostle speaking. He’s careful not to pass off his own teaching as though it were the words of Jesus. That’s actually a claim that has dogged the Church throughout its history, you know. “Well the New Testament authors, they just invented sayings of Jesus to suit their own agenda. When they’re trying to persuade the Church to follow a particular course of action, they just came up with another saying and passed it off as the words of Christ when in fact it was merely their own opinion.” But that is not how the apostle Paul operates here at all, is it? He references the words of Christ and he wants to be clear when he is citing one source or when he is speaking in his own office as an apostle. Let’s be clear – both his own words and Christ’s have the authority of the Word of God, but Paul isn’t willing to play fast and loose with his sources or try to claim the authority of Christ’s recorded sayings for something that he himself is teaching by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the operating principle governing Paul’s whole approach here is a deep reverence and submission for the authority of God speaking by His servants now recorded for us in holy Scripture.
Authority of the Word of God
And that's important for us to see because Paul has some challenging things to say here. And we need to know, and the Corinthians needed to know, "Why in the world should they submit to them?" And Paul wants us to understand that we ought to submit to them because they have the weight and the authority of Christ and His apostle. They carry, that is, the authority of the Word of God. Now notice carefully Paul's teaching. He says that divorce is not an option to be sort of kept in your back pocket should things get a little tricky along the way. That is not how Christians are to operate. The Corinthian hardliners were arguing – remember, they placed celibacy at the top of the pyramid of virtues. And so they say if you can't be celibate even in your marriage, then the best option for you if you really want to be holy is to go ahead and divorce. Well, Paul reminds them of Jesus' teaching. Divorce, while sometimes permissible, was never desirable. Instead, we are to stick together, to fight for our marriages.
Now there are two exceptions on the basis of which the Scriptures allow divorce. We'll come to them in a few moments. But Paul says if you do divorce illegitimately, you ought not to remarry. You should remain unmarried or be reconciled. Now that is hard; let's face it. That is hard. And Paul leaves a lot here unsaid. We have questions that Paul is simply not dealing with. He's responding to the Corinthians' particular circumstances and so we have questions that remain unanswered. What about those who have divorced and remarried when they ought not to have done. Is there no hope for them? Or what about those who have remained in a marriage when to do so has been unspeakably painful? What about them, Paul? We probably all know people in circumstances somewhat like that, don't we? And Paul doesn't say much about either situation.
Jesus is Enough
And so let me simply say that I know some of you struggle with failure or with pain or with the complicated consequences of bad decisions in this whole area of divorce and remarriage. And you need to know that there is both forgiveness of sin in this as in everything else, and grace for heartache for each of us in every circumstance. We need to remember, don’t we, even in the midst of the fallout from our messy, broken relationships, Jesus Christ really is enough for us and there’s grace for us in Him. And let me also say, if you do want to talk about the particulars of your circumstances and situation, I would love to meet with you as I know the other pastors here would as well. So do please come and speak with me later.
Call to Marital Fidelity
But let’s acknowledge honestly the difficulties here and the questions that the text before us leaves unanswered by all means. But the exceptions that we can cite and the often complicated cases of which we can be aware, do not invalidate the principle that Paul wants us to embrace. The authoritative teaching of both Jesus and His inspired apostle, calls us to marital fidelity, to faithfulness. The call to discipleship penetrates our marriages, do you see? Speaks to how we live together as husbands and wives. Jesus’ words, if I can put it this way reverently, Jesus’ words meddle with the way we respond and care for and whether we serve and how we serve one another in the bonds of Christian marriage. You simply can’t read Paul fairly, in this passage, and conclude that it’s okay to follow Jesus on a Sunday and trample on your marriage vows at home Monday to Saturday.
And in our day and generation, when divorce is easy and cheap and quick, when, if you don’t feel it anymore you can get out of one marriage and on to the next with minimal fuss and little stigma, in a day like that, Paul’s words here – don’t you agree? – they speak with a particular pointedness and relevance that we need to hear. And as we hear them, let’s remember they come with the weight and authority of the Word of God. Jesus commands it, Paul teaches is, and while we might not like it, that settles it. Doesn’t it?
Marriage and the Gospel of God
Singleness and the gift of God. Divorce and the Word of God. And then finally, marriage and the Gospel of God. Let's look at verses 12 to 16. It seems that some of the members of the church at Corinth were already married when one partner in the marriage becomes a Christian and the other remains unconverted in their old paganism. And under those circumstances, some at Corinth were saying, "Not knowing Jesus is grounds enough for divorce. The unbeliever is surely a pollutant, a contaminant in your Christian life. You need to get out of that marriage if you are to be truly holy." That's what some at Corinth seem to have thought. Notice Paul's reply to them in verses 12 to 13. "If the unbeliever is willing to remain in the marriage, the believing husband or wife certainly should not divorce them." And notice the rationale in verse 14. "For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of the wife. The unbelieving wife is made holy because of the husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean. But as it is, they are holy." There is a kind of holiness, a sanctity that extends to the marriage because one partner has been converted.
The Holiness of an Unbelieving Spouse
Now clearly Paul does not mean that the unbeliever becomes personally and automatically holy, as if by osmosis, simply because they are married to a believer. If you look at verses 15 and 16, you'll see that Paul even anticipates the possibility, the tragic possibility, that the unbeliever might in fact actually remain an unbeliever and even walk out of the marriage altogether. So this is not teaching some sort of salvation by association. To help us get at what Paul does mean, he gives us a rather useful illustration. You see it there in the second half of the fourteenth verse. He says the situation is somewhat analogous to the situation with regard to your children. If you have an unbelieving spouse, it's somewhat analogous to that. He says children, simply by virtue of belonging to one believing parent, have this special status. They are not unclean; they are holy. Now that language is important. It is borrowed from the Old Testament Scriptures, Old Testament categories. In the Old Testament, the unclean were shut out of the covenant community; they were forbidden to draw near to God as members of the congregation of Israel. But the child of even one Christian parent, Paul says, is not in that situation. No, they belong to the covenant community. They are insiders, not outsiders. They are members of the church; not unclean but holy, all simply by virtue of being the child of at least one believing parent.
And just as an aside, that, by the way, is why we did what we did a few moments ago as we baptized Audrey Nicole White. We baptize children of believers because, since the days of Abraham, God has always included the children of believing parents within the membership of the covenant people and has ordained that they should receive the sign of that belonging – circumcision in the Old Testament; baptism in the New. And it seems, from the way Paul makes his appeal to the Corinthians, that they were all aware of that pattern and principle with regard to their children. And Paul says, “Now then, with regard to the particular situation of which you wrote to me, where you’re in a marriage where one of you has now been converted, what happens there? Will the unbeliever make the believer unclean? Does this make the marriage invalid? Does it render it offensive to God? No,” he says. Borrowing from that illustration, the flow of influence comes from the believer to the unbeliever in that circumstance and the marriage has this sanctity that attaches to it that makes it acceptable before God. Not a context where just to be in the marriage means to sin, but rather a context where even though it is less than ideal to be in this marriage can be a place of faithfulness glorifying to God.
Divorce Without Sin
Now Paul says if the unbeliever wants to leave, verse 15, the believer is not bound, “not enslaved.” That is, they may divorce without sin. And I believe, they may remarry in the same way that a widow or widower is free to remarry after the death of their first spouse. The marriage bond has been dissolved. They are not bound, not enslaved. And that means, just to be clear, that there are two circumstances in which divorce is permissible in Scripture. There is adultery, for example, in passages like Matthew 19:9. Jesus teaches that very clearly. And as Paul says here, there is secondly the abandonment of a believer by an unbeliever. And under those circumstances, Paul teaches us that it may be that divorce is unavoidable – less destructive to dissolve the marriage bond than to try to force it together. After all, Paul says, “God has called you to peace.” Sometimes you have to concede defeat. Perhaps the path of peace in this situation is to permit the divorce. Paul says that as a concession, given the sin that is disrupting the relationships at Corinth.
There is Hope
But there is hope. And this is where Paul ends – with a note of hope. Even in the less than ideal situation he is describing, even when their newfound faith in Jesus brings all sorts of new tensions into the marriage. There's hope. Look at verse 16. "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" Don't glibly opt out of marriage because it simply seems easier that way. Who knows. Maybe your quiet prayerfulness, your newfound peace, your lasting joy even in a stormy and turbulent context, your kindness and your patience with your unbelieving spouse, your witness to the transforming power of grace – maybe your testimony will win them to Christ by His grace. When you find yourself in a marriage that is painful rather than joyful, when Christ is not shared between you, where this tragic disconnect intrudes upon your unity, you are called so to cling to Christ that your unbelieving spouse will see in you that Jesus Christ is enough, that He is sufficient for you. You are to believe the Gospel and live in its light such that looking at you, your unbelieving husband or wife will be unable to deny its truth and its power. You have, if it's not too crass to put it this way, you have an opportunity in the midst of the pain of it all to make much of Jesus. Who knows whether you will win your spouse to Christ? There's hope through the Gospel.
Jesus is Our Strength
The same Gospel that broke in upon you and made you a new creature, through you, may yet break in upon your unbelieving spouse and break into your marriage and make it new. Remember in every marriage, every Christian marriage, no matter how difficult, there's always three of you. There's always three of you. You're not on your own with an unbelieving spouse. Jesus Christ is there with you and He is able, isn't He? Isn't He? He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine! So Paul is calling us to faithfulness in difficult places, but he calls us to remember that Christ is with us to strengthen us in those difficult places.
Singleness and the gift of God. There is grace to satisfy the heart in the noble calling of a single and celibate life. Divorce and the Word of God. The culturally challenging teaching of Christ and the apostle Paul carries the authority of the Word of God and to its commands we must submit. And marriage and the Gospel of God. Even in tough marriages, the Gospel is a change agent, isn’t it? A change agent. As it changes you, it may yet change your spouse, your whole marriage, to the glory and praise of God. There is always hope in Jesus Christ. May the Lord help us to live in the light of His holy Word and cling to Him. Let’s pray together.
God our Father, we confess to You that these are hard truths and as we wrestle with them and seek to apply them faithfully in our own contexts, we pray now for grace. Help us. Help us to live in joyful obedience and submission to the claims of King Jesus even as it touches upon us in our singleness or in our marriages, even when our marriages are not ideal but painful and broken and source of wounding. May the Gospel indeed, in each circumstance, be a change agent for the glory and praise of God. And may it start that great change in us, in our hearts, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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