Well let me say what a great joy it is to be home again with you all. I want to thank you for your prayers for my family and for me and for the group from our church who joined us in the UK. We had a wonderful time together. You’ll need to judge for yourself whether my accent has changed at all! I may still be as impenetrable as ever! I have missed worshipping with you a very great deal. If I can put it this way, Scotland is my homeland and I love it, it was a thrill to show it off to some of our people, but there really is nowhere I’d rather be than with you on the Lord’s Day and in this pulpit opening God’s Word to you. I have been comforted in the knowledge that while I’ve been gone you’ve been so ably assisted and ministered to by our excellent staff/team. Praise God for them. I’m so grateful for our ministers. But now I am back and so I need to ask you to try and cast your minds back four weeks and to remember that in our morning sermons we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We are about halfway through. Some of you, I know, were perhaps hoping that I would have forgotten that we were working through 1 Corinthians while I was gone, but alas, no! Actually, I think 1 Corinthians is a tract for our times. It’s message, though sometimes difficult and challenging, even awkward, is one we badly need to hear today.
So let me invite you, if you would, to take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 7. If you’ll look in the bulletin, there’s actually a change. We’re not dealing with 1 Corinthians 7:14 but 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Now you may remember that Paul has been dealing with the tangled, confused thinking of the Corinthians, particularly in the area of sex and sexuality. And so chapters 5 and 6, Paul dealt with one extreme of this problem at Corinth where there were those who, though they’ve come to join themselves to the church and professed faith in Jesus, nevertheless had a very hard time indeed leaving behind the promiscuous ways of Corinthian culture. There was even a case of incest. There was prostitution. There were all sorts of immorality happening at Corinth.
But he’s also had to deal, and this is chapter 7, with the opposite extreme. There were those who seemed to think that celibacy is actually the only way to really live for God’s glory if you’re a Christian, and so they tended to devalue marriage and even to positively assert the need for divorce. And Paul has had to deal with both groups in the beginning of chapter 7. He’s going to come back to speak some more as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, God willing, about singleness and marriage in the remainder of chapter 7, but before he does all of that, right here in the middle of the chapter he breaks off his discussion of marriage and divorce and singleness to assert, to teach a vitally important principle that he’s then going to pick up and apply later on.
Look with me, if you would please, at our passage then; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 on page 955. And before we read it together, we’ll pray and then we’ll read it in just a moment. Before we do that, all I want to do is ask you to lookout for the word "call" or "called" in the text. You'll see it in verse 17 and again in verse 18 and again in verse 20; then twice in verse 22 and again finally in verse 24. Paul is going to talk to us about Christian contentment, about being content with our lot. And vital to gaining the rare jewel of Christian contentment in our lives is understanding the call of God towards us. To understand His call, our calling, if we are to find contentment. That said, let's turn our attention to the reading of God's Word. Before we do, let's ask God to help us understand it together, shall we? Let's pray together.
Lord, we do need the ministry of the Holy Spirit now to take up Your Word and by it, to apply grace to our lives. We want to be more like Jesus. We hate our sin and we love our sin and we want to be rid of it. And so we know that Your Word is the instrument of our sanctification, our change, and so we pray that You would sanctify us by the truth; Your Word is truth. And we pray for those under the sound of Your Word who are not Christians. And we ask that You would open their hearts and show them the bankruptcy of life without Jesus and then draw them to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 7 at verse 17. This is God’s holy Word:
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
Amen, and we praise the Lord that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
I wonder if you would agree with me that you can sum up the mood of our culture right now in one word – and that word is "more." We have been schooled not to be satisfied with our present lot, haven't we? There's always something bigger and better and sweeter just over there. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence so don't stay here. The old saying that tells us to "Bloom where we are planted" is almost incomprehensible in a society that privileges the next big thing. And of course, that way of thinking often has tragic consequences even for Christians. When the next big then, when we're always taught to aspire to what's next is the way we live and think and operate, well then dissatisfaction and discontentment become epidemic. That, I think, is true for those of us who profess to follow Jesus as much as for others. Listen to this confession I came across last week, for example. The author is actually writing about the effects of social media in his life and he says this:
“Sometimes I get jealous of your calling. And sometimes I confuse your calling with my calling. As I scroll through my newsfeed, I see you doing big, exciting things for God. Maybe you’re doing missions, maybe you’re writing a book, maybe you’re leading an amazing Bible study at your church; maybe your church has some crazy cool new program. Meanwhile, I am at home doing small, seemingly unimportant things – taking kids to school and going to work and going to church on Sunday. Nothing big; nothing that’s going to get lots of “likes” and “retweets.” It’s kind of depressing. I get jealous. I want your calling. I want to do those fun, amazing, big, fast things. I want big, now, cool things for God. Quiet is boring. Mundane seems lame. I feel pathetic and purposeless. Social media stretches me beyond my calling. It makes me want people and places and things that God has called you to and not me.”
So you see the problem? Social media, in this fellow’s life, was generating discontent. And then, he quotes Calvin. Things usually take a turn for the better when someone quotes Calvin! Seriously, you should listen to this. I found this actually very helpful and gets to the point of our passage. Here’s Calvin: “Each individual has his own living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander throughout life.” And so the author concludes, “Your calling isn’t my calling, and if I try to take what you have, I will wander heedlessly throughout life. I will leave the place of good, fruitful, productive work God has staked out for me and wander into wastelands.”
That, I think, actually summarizes rather well Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. For Paul, the answer to the discontentment that a culture of “more” generates, is bound up with understanding God’s call in our lives. Actually, if you’ll look at the passage, you’ll see there are two callings. We noticed earlier how frequently Paul uses the word “call” and “called” and in every case except one in our passage, it refers to God’s special, saving call in our lives through the Gospel. He summoned us to faith in Christ by the Gospel and the Holy Spirit worked in our hearts enabling us to answer that call and to run to Jesus and made us new so that we received an entirely new identity. We were new creatures in Christ because of the effectual call of God by His Word and Spirit. That’s the majority sense in which Paul uses the word “call” in our text.
But if you look at verse 17, Paul uses the word "call" in a different way. Here it refers, in verse 17, not to God's saving renewing, transforming call in the Gospel; here it refers rather to our unique, particular vocations in life. You see that in verse 17? Look at the text with me, please. "Only let each person lead the life the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him." We've been called by God to an assignment in life, a lot in life, as husbands or wives, fathers and mothers, children and siblings, doctors and teachers and lawyers and homemakers and carpenters and shopkeepers and so on. God has given us, in His providence, a calling in life; a lot in life; a vocation. And so do you see, there are two senses in which we are subject to God's call. The first is the saving call of the Gospel that remakes us and renovates us and makes us new at a basic level. And the second is the call of God, in His providence, given to each of us in the various circumstances of our daily lives.
And our dissatisfaction, our discontentment with our lives, very often results when we confuse the two, when we root our identity in the vocational call of God that is focused, if you like, horizontally on the web of human relationships and earthly responsibilities that He has given to us. When we look there for our identity, we are placing a burden on our jobs and our marriages and our daily duties they were never meant to bear. When you look for your identity and your worth in your daily vocation, you will never, you will never be satisfied. But when you begin to understand, if you’re a Christian, that your identity now is rooted in fact in the saving, transforming call of redeeming grace in the Gospel, well then you’ll begin to see that success or failure at work, frustrations and inadequacies as a parent – I wasn’t actually looking at my boys sitting up there as I said that; sorry guys! – frustrations and inadequacies as a parent or doing well in school, keeping up with the brightest kid in the class, you’ll begin to see that those things simply can’t touch who you are. Your identity is not derived from your performance in your earthly vocation. Rather, you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Your security is elsewhere; your identity elsewhere – in Him, in the vertical call of God through the Gospel by which He has made you new. Recognize that your real, your true identity is rooted there and you’ll begin to find some freedom from the daily demands of our “more” culture, for always looking for the next big thing, convinced by our culture that we can’t really be complete without academic success or employment advancement or accumulated wealth. No, you’ll be set free.
And so Paul wants to set us free from that kind of dissatisfaction that apparently was troubling the Corinthians and is almost certainly troubling many of us. He wants us to be content, to bloom where we are planted. And that is the message if you'll look at verse 17, that Paul has for us. Isn't it? Verse 17, "Lead the life the Lord has assigned to you.” Bloom where you are planted! And did you notice that he repeats that point as a basic principle three times in our passage? He says it again in verse 20, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” So when you were called, when you were converted, and everything changed for you, that doesn’t mean you abandon your lot in life or desert your sentry post, as Calvin put it. Bloom where you are planted! And he says it again one more time at the very end of the passage in verse 24. Look there. Verse 24, “So brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” You see the point?
Apparently, the Corinthians were so overcome by the revolutionary transformation that had taken place in their lives when God called them to Jesus through the Gospel, they wanted to take radical action, you know. They were walking out of their marriages, walking out of their jobs, out of their daily lives. "Surely those things could no longer possibly satisfy. Surely there's something bigger and grander and better out there for me than this, now that I know Jesus!" That's what they were saying. A question you may have asked yourself more than once – "Surely there's something bigger and better and grander for me than this!" "No, no," says Paul. "Bloom where you are planted. I want you to discover the rare jewel of Christian contentment, understanding that contentment doesn't derive from your vocation but from your redemption; not from your life's work but from your life's Lord. Not from what you do for God, but rather in what God has done in you and for you in Jesus Christ. That's where contentment is found. Look there." That's Paul's message in these verses.
And to help drive it home, he gives us two case studies that were particularly pertinent in the Corinthian congregations, just to show us how this works out. There were two situations especially where the Corinthians were attempting to change their earthly lot because they were discontent with it, where Paul summons them instead to bloom where they are planted. The first in verses 18 and 19 has to do with the issue of circumcision. Would you look there, verses 18 and 19? Circumcision, of course, was the great badge of belonging to the Jewish people. But under the influence of Hellenistic culture, Greek culture, and given the radical impact of the good news about Jesus that sets us free from Old Testament regulations, there were some with a Jewish background at Corinth who wanted to distance themselves from their Jewishness. The historical record even says that there were some Jews who underwent surgical procedures in an attempt to efface the marks of their circumcision and fit in, in Greek society. “Well no,” says Paul. “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of his circumcision.”
Of course, the opposite reaction was also going on at Corinth. There were those who thought that if you were going to follow Jesus you need to be circumcised and become Jewish. And so verse 17, "Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision." In other words, be content as you are, because the Gospel is not about superficial externals. Rather, verse 19, "Neither circumcision is anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. That's what matters." In Galatians 6:15 Paul says something very similar to this. He says, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is what matters. You see, what Paul is trying to say to us is that now that God has broken in upon you in the supernatural work of His Spirit, calling you from death to life by His grace and given you a new identity in Jesus, what really matters is living out your new creation in a life that pleases the Lord; seeking to honor God, giving glory to Him day by day, keeping His commandments. Focus on a life that is vertical, that is God-ward, that is seeking to please Him. That's what counts most of all.
And that, I think, is a word for our times. Don’t you agree? We are so easily preoccupied with whether or not his face fits in our group; whether or not we fit in a particular social group or class to which we may aspire. Who’s in and who’s out? We focus far too much on making our lifestyles correspond to the expectations of our chosen social group. And we can be driven by those things. Paul is saying here that externals like that aren’t what really counts. If you’ve been called by God into new life through the Gospel, what really counts is living out the new life and the new identity that God has given you in a way that pleases Him. The Corinthians were in danger, you see, of defining themselves of locating their identity in whether or not they had the right badges of social belonging. They were in danger of rooting their identity and their worth in their earthly vocations, their earthly lot, and not in the heavenly call of God that really changes us forever. What really matters is a new creation. What really matters is joyfully keeping the commandments of God.
And then there's a second case study in which Paul is applying this principle. If you'll look down at verses 21 through 23 you'll see it. This time Paul tackles the issue of slavery. Apparently, some at Corinth thought that the radical freedom that Jesus brings from the guilt and bondage of sin ought to work itself out in immediate liberation from all forms of earthly servitude. And to understand how Paul deals with that, we need to remember that slavery in Paul's day is not about race. We often get sidetracked and confused when we read about slavery in the Bible because we tend to read back into it the institution of slavery that was a particular problem here in the American South. The product of race-based prejudice where an entire people were stolen from their homeland in Africa and forced into the most demeaning servitude and viewed as mere property. That's not really what slavery was in Paul's day at all. Certainly, some slaves had very difficult lives and circumstances, but others were skilled professionals, educators, businessmen, and women. They were often salaried and so could eventually buy themselves into freedom or could be set free by others. You could be made a slave as punishment for a criminal act, although many people actually sold themselves into slavery in order to deal with a particular financial problem, for example, to deal with an unpayable debt.
And slaves in Paul’s day were sometimes inclined to try and revolt against their masters, and when they did it was generally disastrous. You may know of the famous slave uprising under Spartacus in the century before Paul wrote. And it was brutally put down and suppressed by the Romans and the streets were lined, the roads were lined with crucified slaves to remind everyone and warn everyone what happens to slaves who try to act as revolutionaries. And so when Paul deals with slavery here, although he only deals with it briefly in a few verses, he is at once immensely cautious and immensely realistic. He has nothing positive at all to say about slavery, and in verse 21 notice he even encourages slaves to take freedom at every opportunity. He's not endorsing slavery, but he doesn't want anyone to think that the radical, spiritual liberation the Gospel has brought into their lives must also, therefore, mean that slaves should rise up and revolt against their masters. That would have undoubtedly spelled disaster for the early church and it would have been a misunderstanding of the implications of the Gospel.
The call of God in Christ does not result in social revolution but in personal transformation. And so, he says in verse 22, when the Gospel gives you a new identity and brings spiritual freedom, your outward slavery becomes less ultimate. “He who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freed man of the Lord.” And likewise, for those in the Corinthian church who were masters or free, their social status was also less ultimate, less important, less significant. Verse 22 again, “Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.” You see what matters most, Paul is saying, isn’t your social standing – your slavery or your freedom – but being rightly related to God in Christ; that’s what matters most. Find your identity there, he’s saying to them. Root your significance there and you will be set free from the intolerable burden and the impossible task of finding your worth and your significance in your earthly vocations.
What matters most, Paul says, is that you were bought at a price. You were bought at a price. Christ gave Himself to make you His. Those of you who are living in bondage, there’s spiritual freedom, he says, in Jesus who has purchased you. And those of you who think you are free to live however you please, when you come to Christ there’s a slavery to His mastery that is the very definition of true freedom itself. You were bought at a price. You are His now. And his rule defines and directs your life from here on out. You are His. You belong to Him.
And then he says, "Do not be slaves of men." He's still using metaphor here. He doesn't mean that if you're a slave that's somehow wrong. He's not contradicting himself. Rather, he's saying, "Don't let the opinions of men dominate your thinking on this point. They insist wrongly that social standing is what matters most. But I am telling you that your identity in Jesus is what matters most." Now that is a battle many of us have to face and to fight day after day, isn't it? Because our culture too says, "Your social standing is what matters most. Oh yes, I'm a Christian, but…" And then there are all the pressures of life that call us and have claims upon us and drive us to seek to live up to the expectations of others or of our particular social sphere. Paul is saying there is freedom from the oppression of that in Jesus Christ. Your identity, your significance, your worth isn't found there; it's found in Him. Not in your social standing but in Jesus Christ. You belong to Him. Live for Him! Don't let the opinions and dictates of the culture be your master. Let Jesus reign in your heart. He's the Master of your life.
So when you find yourself wishing you had someone else’s calling – we’ve done it, all of us, from time to time haven’t we? Wishing we had someone else’s calling and not your own. When a restless sense of not knowing who you really are undermines your ability to settle down. When you find it hard to bloom where you are planted, it might be that you have been confusing the two calls. You’ve been looking for true significance in the call of God to an earthly vocation when all the time you should have been looking for true significance in the call of God in the Gospel that gives you a new identity in union with Jesus Christ. Look there, Paul is saying. Look there. Your restless heart will always be restless until it finds its rest – remember Augustine’s prayer? “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless, Lord, till they find their rest in Thee.” Restless hearts, you always will be restless until you find your rest in Jesus Christ. “Come to Me,” He said, “all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Contentment at last to bloom where we are planted because who we really are is not a function of what we do but who God has made us in Jesus Christ.
May the Lord help us to turn to Him and to find the true freedom He gives us from the slavery of the expectations of our peers to find the true freedom that comes from knowing that our identity is secure in our Redeemer’s hands. Let’s pray together.
God our Father, we do confess to You that we often make that swap, that exchange. We trade out the rest and the freedom and the contentment that is found in knowing our identity is not derived from the things that we do and the vocation that we have received but is derived from Jesus. We swap that out, we trade that out for the rat race in pursuit of the next big thing. We're so easily dazzled. Our heads are turned by the allurements and the temptations of the world. Would You please forgive us? And would You help us to turn back to You, to remember that there's only real freedom in Christ? To come to the water of life and to drink, never to thirst again, that is Jesus Christ. Some of us need to do that for the very first time, so would You give them grace? Show them the weariness that festers in their hearts that they can never be rid of until they run to Christ and find rest in Him. And grant that they might do so now today. Some of us need to turn back, go back again to Jesus and bend our knee to Him, begin to trust in Him and rest on Him and live for Him. So we pray You would hear us, draw near to us, and have mercy on us, for Jesus' sake. Amen.