Now please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me in them to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In our morning services, we’ve been working through 1 Corinthians together. And in chapter 7, we’re in the second half of chapter 7 this morning, Paul has been responding to some questions the Corinthians have asked him about singleness and marriage. He’s concluding this part of his discussion about singleness and marriage in the last chunk of the chapter, verses 25 to 40. You’ll find it on page 956 in the church Bibles and you will find it helpful, I think, to have a copy of the Scriptures in your hand so you can follow along with me throughout the sermon. I will say this by way of preface – sometimes the Bible is marvelously clear and simple and straightforward in its message and sometimes it is not. This is one of the times when it is not! So I want to ask you please to join me as we pray and cry out to God to help us not only understand His Word but to meet with Him as He speaks to us in it. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, Your Word is light and life. It takes us where we are and leads us back to Christ. It shows us how much we need Him and then it gives Him to us. And so that’s what we pray You would do, by even this difficult part of holy Scripture in our lives this morning. Lead us to Jesus, show us how much we need Him, and then give Him to us. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 7 at verse 25. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:
“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry – it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
One of the scholars who writes on 1 Corinthians that I was consulting as I was preparing this week, quotes a comedian who summarizes what many people think are the only two options available in this whole question of relationships, singleness and marriage. He summarizes it with a question. He asks, "Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?" Those are the options. It's a pretty cynical view of things, isn't it? Single and lonely or married and bored. I suspect that some of us, however cynical, even comic those questions may be, some of us actually find it hard to shake the dark suspicion that that may, in fact, be the truth of the matter. At least marriage isn't lonely, but isn't it terribly boring and safe and predictable? Singleness, on the other hand, need never be boring, but every pleasure is surely halved by having no one with whom to share it.
There is the suspicion, perhaps, lurking deep in some of our hearts that when we move from one state to another – from being single to being married – maybe all we're really doing is swapping out one set of trouble for another; one set of burdens for another. And to be sure, let's be frank, there are particular challenges that come with singleness and different challenges and burdens that come with marriage. And Paul, as we're going to see, will be quite straightforward and realistic about those things. Naïve romanticism mustn't be allowed to blind us to the challenges of marriage and of singleness. But the message of our passage this morning is actually that Christians have the resources to cut through both bleak cynicism on the one hand, and naïve romanticism on the other hand when it comes to the whole question of marriage and singleness.
And the first way that Paul does that is to call us to profound contentment. Profound contentment. The Corinthians have written to Paul asking whether or not to pursue marriage now that they have been converted. And in verse 25, if you’ll look there, Paul says he admits frankly he has no particular word of Christ’s to quote to them on the matter, but he does have some pastoral advice of his own to give. As an inspired apostle of Jesus Christ, by the mercy of the Lord, he is, he says, one whose judgement is trustworthy. And here is his judgment. Look at verses 26 through 28. He says, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have many worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”
It is Good to Remain as You are
Now, I wonder if you noticed the similarities between this passage and the way Paul speaks here and the previous passage that we dealt with two weeks ago. If you’ll look back for a moment at the previous passage, look at verses 18 to 21. You see how Paul speaks back in verses 18 to 21? “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. Were you a bond servant when called? Do not be concerned about it.” Now look down at our passage for this morning. Verse 27, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” You see the same rhythm of question and answer, the same style continuing in both sections of the chapter – the previous one we dealt with two weeks ago and this one, his whole approach is continuing. Or there’s even, you may have noticed, the same vocabulary in both sections. Back in verse 20, Paul says, “Let each one remain in the condition in which he was called.” And now in our passage, verse 26, “It is good for a person to remain as he is.”
The paragraph break between verse 24 and verse 25 really obscures it, but it’s clear when you pay attention to the details of the text that Paul is continuing the flow of thought from the previous section into this one; the same theme occupies his mind. He wants us to connect the two together, not to separate them apart. And if you will remember two weeks ago, verses 17 to 24, Paul is dealing with the question of Christian contentment. He wants believers to be content with their lot in life, with their earthly calling and vocations. He reminded them that, “You’ve been called by God in the Gospel into union with Jesus Christ. That’s where your identity and worth and satisfaction is found; not in your earthly callings. And so find your satisfaction and contentment in Jesus and be able to rest content with your earthly lot.” And Paul is continuing that theme and applying it now more specifically to the question of singleness and marriage. He wants the Corinthians to be content, whether single or married. So he says to them, as he said in the previous section, “Remain as you are.” Be content with your present lot. If you’re married, don’t divorce. If you’re single, in his judgment, he actually says it’s best not to marry.
Marriage and Singleness are Both Good
Now that is only Paul’s pastoral advice to the Corinthians. It’s not a command. And so Paul very quickly adds – do you see this in the text? – “If you do marry, you have not sinned. So I’m advising you to think twice before you marry, but if you do marry, that’s fine. I’m not binding your conscience here.” So for Paul, marriage is a good thing; singleness is also a good thing. That is his point of view. But there are some circumstances as it turns out, as we’ll see toward the end of our time together, at Corinth, that Paul suggests may give some of those who are headed toward marriage pause. He wants them to think carefully before they marry. “Think it through,” he’s saying. “And if you can remain as you are, be content in your present situation. Learn to practice godly contentment so that you’re able to be satisfied whether you’re married or not. Find your satisfaction not in your earthly lot but in God’s saving grace, in Jesus. Find your identity and your contentment and your heart-rest in this relationship above all others, before every other – in your relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is enough.” That’s the big idea. You can be content married or single. You can be content as you are when you see that Jesus Christ is enough for your heart.
But then I want you to notice that Paul carefully qualifies all of that for those at Corinth who, though still unmarried, were headed in that direction; they were betrothed. Look down at verse 36 for a moment. If a man feels he is behaving improperly, that is, if he feels like the situation is unfair toward his betrothed, and he wishes to marry and his sexual passions are strong and maybe even overwhelming so that marriage is wise for the sake of purity, well then, Paul says so be it. It’s not a sin; go ahead, get married. God will be honored. Paul doesn’t want any of the young, engaged couples at Corinth explaining to frustrated future father-in-laws why they broke off their engagement by saying, “Well, you know, Paul says we’re supposed to be content as singles!” “No, no,” Paul says. “If this is what you really want, and for the sake of purity so that you do not fall into temptation, then please go ahead and get married. God will be honored in it.” He’s actually just repeating here what he’s already said at the other end of the chapter back in verse 9. You remember what he says in verse 9? “If a person cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Marriage, Paul is not at all ashamed to say, marriage is one of God’s great answers to sexual temptation.
Importance of Chastity
And just as an aside, whatever else you make of all of this, this much at least is very clear. Paul expects chastity from engaged couples before they marry. I’ve counseled lots of couples over the years who profess to follow Jesus and are preparing for marriage. And I always ask them, usually fairly early on as we are counseling together, I always ask them if they are already sleeping together. And I can’t tell you how many have to confess that they are. Some of them are surprised that I would even ask the question. Brothers and sisters, it should be obvious, but sadly I think it’s now become necessary to spell it out. Sex belongs in marriage between one man and one woman for life and nowhere else. As Christians, we are called to model that. Never more urgently, don’t you agree, never more urgently than in our own day when confusion about sex and sexuality is almost universal. What a witness we can bear to the watching world as we strive to live in purity and chastity in singleness and in fidelity in marriage.
So in verse 36, Paul is affirming that marriage is good and acceptable and pleasing to God and he wants us to be content in it. And then he balances that in verse 37. Look there with me, please. Now, verse 37 is among the most difficult verses to interpret clearly in the New Testament Scriptures. I consulted lots of commentators and every single one of them comes at it differently from every single other. So this is my best attempt. It is somewhat provisional but I think this might help us navigate our way to what Paul is getting at. And I think part of the problem is that the English Standard Version that we are using translates this unhelpfully, as though Paul were saying in verse 37, "If you're engaged to be married and you can just stay engaged forever, then that's what you should do." I don't think that's what he means. The Greek phrase translated in verse 37, "has determined in his heart to keep her as his betrothed," there are some classical sources from around this same time that use that phrase actually to mean, "to maintain your own virginity; to stay single and chaste and pure."
And if that’s the right reading, then you see what Paul is actually saying here. In verse 36 he’s saying if you are engaged to be married and sexual temptation is overwhelming, for the sake of purity and holiness, then marry. God will be honored in your marriage. But then he’s also saying in verse 37 if you’re single and you can fight the good fight of sexual purity, then retain your virginity and stay single and in your singleness be content and be godly and be pure. That, I think, is Paul’s argument. He wants purity in singleness, fidelity in marriage, and contentment in both. Be content as a married person, be content as a single person, because you’re not looking to relationships but to Jesus Christ as the source and anchor of the contentment of your heart.
Marry in the Lord
He actually has similar advice if you’ll look at verses 38 and 40 for widows. Do you see that? "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment, she is happier if she remains as she is, and I think that I too have the Spirit of God." The marriage bond is inviolable, Paul says, but if a spouse dies, the widow or widower is free to marry but only in the Lord. Not just press the "pause" button there for a minute. Once again, this used to be, this used to require really not explanation among Christians but I think now it is worth repeating. The Bible teaches that Christians are not to marry non-Christians. The widow may marry, Paul says, but only in the Lord. Loneliness is a terrible partner, isn't it? Loneliness is a terrible partner, and sometimes loneliness makes us settle and soon we begin to compromise Biblical standards and we rationalize our behavior and we make excuses and then we fall in love and we marry someone who does not love Jesus. And instead of persuading him or persuading her to follow Jesus with us, more often than not, we find ourselves pulled away into a spiritual wasteland wandering far from the Lord. I've seen it happen over and over again in pastoral ministry, and I want to warn you, and Paul warns us, not to make shipwreck of our Christian lives by flagrantly disobeying the commands of holy Scripture. We are to marry “in the Lord,” Paul says. So the Christian widow is free to marry “in the Lord.” And then he says, just as he’s been saying all along, if she can stay single, in his judgment she will be happier. If she’s able to be content as she is, she should be content single.
Now step back and put all of that together; I wonder if you can see the big point that Paul is driving home. He wants the Corinthians to be content with their lot, doesn’t he? He doesn’t want them thinking the only way they can be happy or fulfilled or satisfied in life is to have Mr. Right or Mrs. Right, “the one,” to be always in a relationship. That, I think, is still a real temptation for some of us. We have to be in a relationship. Our whole identity is bound up with it. We could never be happy unless we are. Paul, I think, here is seeking to deliver us from the idolatry of that if he can. He’s calling us to be content with our lot and our calling in life. If we’re gifted for singleness, by God’s grace, that was part of his teaching in the first part of the chapter, if God has gifted us and called us to singleness by His grace, we are not to be bullied into thinking ourselves somehow defective because of peer pressure. If you’re single let me say to you very clearly – I’ve said this before; I’ll say it again – you are not failing. You are not odd. You are not deficient. In fact, as we’re going to see, Paul is about to teach us that your singleness has many benefits that bring glory to God and are good for others. “No,” Paul says, “I want you to learn contentment as you are. And if you’re married, well then, praise God and be satisfied! That is the call of God in your life for His glory and for your good. And find your contentment there in the context of your marriage but not from your marriage. Find your contentment, rather, from Jesus Christ.” So Paul calls us first of all to a profound contentment.
A Passionate Consecration
But then secondly and more briefly, he also calls us to a passionate consecration. A passionate consecration. Look at verses 32 through 35. Verses 32 through 35. “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided." And the same goes, he says, for the wife and the unmarried woman. There is a single mindedness that an unmarried person can know that a married man or woman simply can't as we all serve Jesus together. You want to go on a mission trip as a single person? Well, you pray, you raise the support, off you go! If you want to go as a married man or a married woman, that's a decision you simply cannot make alone. You want to devote yourself to a life of Christian service, to spend and be spent in Jesus' name for Jesus' glory? You can do that. You can pour yourself out for your Savior with nary a second thought. But a married person has to consider the needs and the gifts and the feelings and the fears and the doubts and the questions of his or her spouse. As a single person, you have to struggle with your own besetting sin. But as a married person, you have to struggle with your partner's besetting sin too. You can face persecution for Jesus' sake as a single person and it's hard, but no one else bears the burden but you. But as a married man or a married woman, you have to consider your spouse and your family. If, as Paul seems to be suggesting in verse 26, the Corinthians were facing a season of unusual suffering, perhaps even persecution for Jesus' sake. A married person at Corinth might think twice about standing up for Jesus if they know that doing so paints a target not only on them but on their wife or husband and their family as well.
Zeal for Jesus’ Glory
Paul is promoting a kind of radicalism here; do you see it? A kind of holy zeal that puts the glory of Jesus Christ above every other concern. He wants a generation of young people at Corinth ready to go and give their lives in the service of Jesus, sold out for His glory and praise and the extension of His kingdom. But he’s a realist and he knows that if you’re married, that is much harder to do. The pulse that beats all the way through Paul’s message here, I hope you can see, is passionate consecration to the honor and glory of Christ. As he puts it in verse 35, he wants our undivided devotion to the Lord. The word that he uses there, “undivided” in Greek is a fascinating word. It’s a compound word. Woodenly translated it means something like, “good sitting beside.” He wants “good sitting beside” the Lord from each of us; undivided. He wants us to park our lives beside Jesus Christ and never to move from that spot. The weeds and the tall grass are to grow up around the wheels of our lives. Once we pull up beside Jesus Christ, we never move from there. That’s what he wants. Undivided commitment and devotion and consecration to Jesus.
Is that how you think about your Christian life? With this kind of radical claim on your relationships, on your life decisions? Younger people, can you imagine being so devoted to Christ that you might not pursue a romantic relationship so that you might be more free to pursue Christian service instead? "Now why in the world would anyone do that?" you might ask. Well, let me ask you a different question in reply. Let me ask you what it says about Paul's view of Jesus that he thinks the compensation of serving Him should far, far outweigh the joys of a romantic relationship or even marriage. Doesn't it say that Jesus Christ is infinitely, infinitely precious? That He is so soul-satisfyingly glorious that you can, in fact, let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill because His truth abideth still and His kingdom really is forever? Do you have room in your Christianity for a Jesus whose glory is so compelling, whose claims over you are so comprehensive that you might cheerfully even remain single for the rest of your life so that you might give yourself in His cause if that was what He called you to? Paul is summoning us certainly to profound contentment but also to passionate, radical, personal consecration because Jesus is infinitely precious.
And then finally notice that Paul teaches a practical conviction, that when it gets ahold of us, will help us understand how this kind of radicalism is even possible. What can make people less concerned about the big decisions like life partners and more concerned about advancing the glory of Christ in the world? What makes ordinary people hold the big-ticket items of life so loosely? Here’s Paul’s answer. Christians know that the end of the age is coming soon. Christians know that the Jesus who died rose and now reigns and is returning soon. I don’t know what’s on your bucket list. Do you have a bucket list? I’d like to see New Zealand before I’m done. What’s on your bucket list? Most of us, our bucket list just sort of sits there. We add to it from time to time. We may not be very good at scoring items off our bucket list. It’s sort of “sometime down the line we’ll get to it.” But if you got the diagnosis and it says, “You’ve got a year. That’s all you’ve got – a year,” you may attack your bucket list with alacrity and resolve and start striking those things off before time runs out.
That is somewhat like what Paul is teaching us here. In verse 26, we saw already Paul's reference to the present difficulties. We don't really know what they were at Corinth. We know that there had been a famine in the region, so that was difficult and hard. We know that the emperor had just initiated a new cult in his own honor and that Christians were suffering because they refused to burn incense to the emperor and say, "Caesar is Lord!" We know that the church internally was in a bit of a mess, morally compromised. We know that the Lord had been disciplining them. Some of them were ill and some of them had even died. We don't know exactly what the problems were that Paul is referring to here, but we know at Corinth things were challenging and difficult. But then if you look at verse 29, you'll see that Paul places their immediate crisis and difficulty into the context of something bigger. "This is what I mean, brothers," verse 29, "the appointed time has grown very short." Time is running out. Or verse 31, "The present form of this world is passing away." So the present difficulties they were enduring at Corinth, or the present difficulties we might be enduring here – riots on the streets, people peddling racial bigotry in public, moral compromise and collapse all around us, the weakening witness of the church – the present crisis, Paul says it's just the first rumblings of a quake that one day will shake everything to its core. The end is coming and Christians are to live in the light of it. You have a spiritual bucket list, the call of God in your life, to pursue the glory of the name of Jesus. And if you know the time is short, Paul says, "Time to get busy crossing off items on the list. Cut out the fluff," he says, "and pursue with new resolve the honor of the name of King Jesus because the Christ who died for you and rose and now reigns is coming soon."
How to Model Our Lives
And so if you’ll look at verses 29 through 31, he gives us some advice about what that should look like. We’re just going to run through this very quickly and then we’re done. Verse 29, “From now on,” he says, “because the time is short, because Jesus is coming, because Christ is returning, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” That is to say, the world teaches you to put ultimate value in your earthly relationships, in your marriages, to derive your identity and your joy and your significance from them. But when you know that Jesus Christ has died and lives and reigns and is returning, you will love your wife and love your husband and serve them in Jesus’ name, but you will look for ultimate value and significance not in your marriage but in Jesus Christ and you will live for Him. Or he says, “Those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing” – he’s saying we don’t mourn because we know Jesus is coming back. We don’t mourn as though death were the end and earthly sorrow was ultimate. Rather, we know now don’t we, that “though weeping may last for a night, joy will, joy will come in the morning!” Christ is coming and everything sad will come untrue. And our joys – we don’t rejoice like the world anymore. We don’t find earthly joys to be the source of our deepest satisfaction. No, we would relinquish them and let them go that we might taste instead the “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”
Or he says those who buy as though they had no goods and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it, that is to say, because we know Jesus is coming back, we don’t buy and sell and engage in commerce as if the value of our lives was measured by the size of our bank accounts or the scale of our portfolios. No, we’ve come to know instead that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things.” We begin instead, because we know Jesus is coming and time is short, to leverage what resources and riches the Lord has blessed us with for His glory and the extension of His kingdom, that we might store up treasure in heaven “where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal.” And because we know that Jesus reigns and is returning, we will deal with the world as if we did not belong in it any longer. In it, but no longer of it. Here, we have no abiding city. We are looking, rather, for that city with foundations whose builder is God. We are marching to Zion. Aren’t we? That’s the perspective of a child of God resting on Christ, content in Him, committed and captured by a vision of His infinite worth and glory and knowing that the time is short. And we have a spiritual bucket list to begin scoring items off as the Lord has called us to serve Him.
And so we let goods and kindred go, we relinquish the fleeting pleasures of the worldling, and we seek instead to pursue eternal blessings and deeper joys that are found in Christ and in His praise and in His service. Do you see Paul’s program for the Christian life? It’s pretty radical, isn’t it? Jesus is the one in whom we may find our contentment. So be content with your lot in life – single, married. Jesus is the one who is so infinitely precious that you can give up your life, even your relationships, for His glory and passionate consecration. And Jesus is the one who is coming soon. So live in the light of the shortness of time and cut out the fluff and get serious about the pursuit of His praise. Start scoring off the items on that spiritual bucket list that you might give Him praise and glory. Hold the world and the things of the world lightly and cling tenaciously to Jesus Christ for all you’re worth.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do confess to You there are times when we have loved the world and the things of the world, when we’ve been distracted and diverted by the empty promises of worldly pleasure, when the love of money, which is a root of all kinds of evil, has gotten ahold of our hearts, when we’ve made an idol of our romantic relationships and sought to find our contentment and identity there. But Lord, as Your Word has opened our hearts, before You now we cry to You for mercy. Show us how infinitely precious Jesus really is and help us to find our true contentment in Him. And as we see His infinite preciousness, help us to see how that will shape every decision we make. “How can I make much of Christ?” will be the great question that determines what we do with our days and our lives. And as we understand anew that the time is short, would You help us to resolve with new abandon and determination to live singly, single-mindedly for His glory? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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