And the authorities encourage people living in a bushfire zone to have a BUSHFIRE SURVIVAL PLAN. To be READY when a bushfire threatens.
And the first part of a bushfire survival plan is to decide whether to STAY, or GO. As the flames get closer, should you STAY where you are, or CHANGE where you are? If you GO, you’re guaranteed to be safe. But there’s no chance you’ll save your home. But if you STAY, there’s a RISK to your safety. If you STAY, you need to make sure you’re PREPARED. And you need to TRUST your equipment and your home. Stay, or go? Make the choice, and prepare accordingly.
And there’s a similar choice here in 1 Corinthians 7. The Corinthian Christians knew that Jesus was coming back soon, and so they wanted to be ready. They were putting together their JUDGMENT DAY SURVIVAL PLAN. They were living in the LAST DAYS, and they wanted to be ready. And it seems like some of them thought it was all about GOING. About moving from where they were / to somewhere ELSE. Especially in the area of MARRIAGE. Which is what chapter 7 is all about.
But Paul’s message is that God’s put you exactly where he WANTS you. And you should REMAIN AS YOU ARE. You should STAY. Being CONTENT, and being STEADFAST, is a measure of your trust in God. And that’s true whether you’re married, or widowed, or single. And it’s just as true TODAY as it was THEN.
The chapter begins, v1, with a reference to a letter the Corinthian church had written to Paul. “Now for the matters you wrote about.” And it seems like they had a number of questions. And here’s the FIRST one. “It is good for a man not to marry.”
It literally says, “It is good for a man not to TOUCH a woman.” And it’s probably what the Corinthians themselves thought. So Paul is QUOTING their letter.
It seems there were some who thought it was more spiritual for husbands and wives not to have sex. And their thinking probably goes something like this: “Jesus is coming back soon. And the flesh will be FINISHED. And we’ve already begun to live the heavenly life. We’re in the END TIMES. So let’s get a head start on that by being extra spiritual NOW.
But Paul says that’s not God’s will. Marriage isn’t the PROBLEM. It’s part of the SOLUTION. Abstaining from sex in marriage won’t make you LESS EVIL and MORE SPIRITUAL. It’s actually God’s way for us to AVOID sexual immorality. It’s part of his protection AGAINST evil behaviour. Not PART of the evil.
God’s will is verses 2-6. To guard against sexual immorality, each man should have a wife, and each woman a husband. And they shouldn’t DENY each other. Because their bodies belong to each other. THAT’S God’s plan for these last days. Depriving each other doesn’t lead to greater spiritual maturity. It doesn’t prepare you any better for Jesus’ return. It just leads to a lack of self-control and temptation. The message is “Don’t change. Stay as you are!”
And he’s got the same message for those who’ve been WIDOWED. V8-9. It’s good to STAY unmarried. (Which he comes BACK TO near the END of the chapter.)
Or those who are married (v10-11). They should STAY married. Don’t divorce because you think it’s, somehow, more SPIRITUAL. Or getting you ready for Jesus’ return.
Or the SPECIAL case of those married to UNBELIEVERS. V12-16. It’s no different for you. STAY AS YOU ARE, he says. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re any less holy because your husband or wife isn’t a believer. In FACT, (v14-15) there’s a sense in which THEY are more holy, because of YOU. They might benefit from YOU. It may be, v16, that your spouse is saved by YOU.
But notice what he DOES say. V15. If your unbelieving spouse chooses to divorce, let them DO so. You can’t MAKE someone commit to a marriage if they don’t WANT to. And then he makes two comments. “God has called us to live in peace.” And “how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?” In other words, it’s not about YOU convincing them. (Only GOD can do that). You can’t FORCE them to stay married. Or force them to become a Christian. Better to lose the argument, and win the soul. Act with grace and humility and love and peace. And leave the “saving” up to God.
In verse 17 we can see the general principle that applies in a whole range of situations.
17 Nevertheless, each one should RETAIN the place in life that the Lord ASSIGNED to him and to which God has CALLED him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
In all sorts of situations. And not just in Corinth, but every OTHER city where there’s a church. God has CALLED each person to that position in life. And so they should STAY AS THEY ARE. It’s an expression of trust that God is SOVEREIGN. That he doesn’t make mistakes. And that he’s working all things for the good of those who love him. Who’ve been called according to his purpose.
And he goes on to give some MORE examples. Circumcised or Uncircumcised. Stay as you ARE. And then the REASON, v19. Circumcision is NOTHING. Doesn’t affect anything either way. What MATTERS is obeying God.
And then the general principle again in v20. Each one should remain in the situation they were in when they were called.
Same thing, v21, if you were A SLAVE when you were called. Don’t let it TROUBLE you. Stay as you ARE. Because the REALITY is you’ve been purchased by something far more valuable than MONEY. By the BLOOD OF JESUS. And you’ve been SET FREE in the way that’s MOST IMPORTANT. Set free from sin and judgment and death. So work at being the best Christian slave you can be. And then, again, at the end of the paragraph, v24, the same instruction. “Each man should remain in the situation God called him to.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s advocating slavery. Notice what ELSE he says? Some wise, realistic advice. There at the end of v21. “Although if you CAN gain your freedom, DO SO!” This confidence in God’s sovereignty shouldn’t be misunderstood to be FATALISM. Sometimes it’s RIGHT to try to change your situation. But if it doesn’t work out, don’t be concerned. God’s in control, and he’s working things for good.
If we pushed Paul’s position too far, we end up with FATALISM. We might stay as we are when it’s RIGHT to change. Like not seeing a doctor when we’re SICK. Or not getting an education when you have the opportunity. Or not buying a house, or getting a job, when you’re ABLE to. Paul’s saying, “If the opportunity comes up to change, and it seems right. Take it. But don’t WORRY about it EITHER WAY. Because God knows what he’s doing.”
So how do you know whether it’s a situation where it’s RIGHT to change, or whether it’s right to STAY AS YOU ARE? One test is to look at your MOTIVATION. Is your desire to change because you’re not CONTENT? Do you think you know better than God? Are you distrusting God’s plans? Or is it genuinely because you’re seeking God’s will? And you’re happy EITHER WAY, because you know God’s in control? (Like Jesus, who prayed, “If it’s POSSIBLE, take this cup from me. But not MY will, but YOURS be done.”)
V25. Paul moves on to consider those who’ve NEVER been married. Same thing with THEM. V26. “Now about VIRGINS.” (Probably another question from the Corinthians’ letter).
26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for YOU to REMAIN AS YOU ARE.
He’s careful to point out that it’s not a matter of right and wrong. They’re not disobedient if they marry. V28. But if you DO marry, you have not SINNED
Rather, it’s a matter of WISDOM. V25, he says there’s no specific command from the Lord, just Paul’s own JUDGMENT as someone who’s trustworthy. There’s some good reasons NOT to marry. And then at the end of v28 he says But those who marry will face MANY TROUBLES in this life, and I want to spare you this.
Now, taken out of CONTEXT that verse could get you into a lot of trouble! (That there’s many troubles in marriage). But remember he’s just said WHY it’s better not to marry. “Because of the present CRISIS.” Which is probably PERSECUTION.
What a terrible situation it must be for those fathers and husbands whose family are taken by ISIS. Or they themselves are threatened with having a family member killed unless they renounce Jesus. What a choice to make! And Paul’s saying that, in the light of THAT sort of situation, it’s WISER not to have any earthly connections, like a wife or children. It’s the PRESENT CRISIS that causes the TROUBLES he’s thinking of.
Everything needs to be coloured by the fact that Jesus is coming back
In fact, this advice to remain single is just ONE example of A BIGGER PRINCIPLE. EVERYTHING needs to be influenced by the fact that Jesus is coming back. V29. 29 What I mean, brothers, is that THE TIME IS SHORT. And then again, at the end of v31. For this world in its present form is PASSING AWAY.
And then, in between, a whole series of situations and relationships, INCLUDING remaining SINGLE, that need the perspective that Jesus is coming back. And that nothing will LAST, and so shouldn’t be over-valued. V29 “From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.”
Gordon Fee, in his commentary, says “Those who have A DEFINITE FUTURE, and see it with clarity, live in the present with RADICALLY ALTERED VALUES as to what COUNTS and what does NOT.” None of these situations (marrying, buying, using things of the world) is wrong or right on its OWN. What counts is your ATTITUDE to them. How you VIEW them through the lens that Jesus is coming back. If you’re MARRIED, remember that marriage won’t last. ENJOY it, WORK at it. But don’t IDOLISE it, or make it your top priority. Only your relationship with JESUS will last. Your marriage is coloured by THAT reality. If you MOURN, remember THAT won’t last. Grieve, but not like those who grieve without HOPE. If you’re HAPPY, don’t OVER-EMPHASISE that. It’s not ULTIMATE. IT won’t last EITHER.
And when it comes to THINGS, don’t set your HOPES on them. Because you can’t take them with you when you die. Certainly, BUY stuff, and ENJOY IT. But keep some perspective. Don’t be ENGROSSED by it. Only fools build up riches on EARTH, and aren’t rich towards GOD.
And, even though he doesn’t MENTION singleness, it’s good advice for singles. Some singles want to marry so badly, they OVER-DESIRE it. But marriage won’t solve all your problems, or stop you ever feeling lonely, or satisfy all your sexual frustration.
And to put all that expectation on a marriage partner is FOOLISHNESS. A marriage partner isn’t perfect and can’t save you, or complete you. And even marriage ITSELF won’t LAST. It’s passing away. Much better, says Paul, to treat it as a GOOD thing, but not an ULTIMATE thing.
What these verses are really saying is that it’s about where you find your IDENTITY. If you see yourself as being a Christian FIRST, and a single SECOND. That determines your attitude to singleness. It’s not ultimate, because it won’t last. That’s not WHO YOU ARE. Being a CHRISTIAN is ETERNAL, Being a SINGLE isn’t.
Same with being married, or rejoicing, or being widowed, or using the things of the world. They’re all passing away. But YOU belong to GOD, and you’re eternal future’s WITH HIM.
Paige Benton Brown has written about her experience of being single. “Am I a Christian single or am I a single Christian? The discrepancy in grammatical construction may be somewhat subtle, but the difference in mindset is profound. Which word is DETERMINATIVE and which is DESCRIPTIVE? You see, we singles are chronic amnesiacs—we forget who we are, we forget WHOSE we are. I am a single Christian. My identity is not found in my MARITAL status but in my REDEMPTIVE status. I’m one of the “haves,” not one of the “have-nots.”
What a great word THAT is!
From v32 Paul has a few more things to say about SINGLENESS. And how it compares to MARRIAGE. And his point is that, because of the present persecution, getting married MAKES LIFE MORE COMPLICATED. It’s all about which life has the least concerns, or anxieties. V32 begins, “I want you to be FREE from anxieties, or concerns.” Someone who’s SINGLE can be UNDIVIDED in his concerns. He can focus on the Lord’s affairs. While a MARRIED person has concerns to do with his family, AS WELL as with the Lord. One’s not better or worse than the OTHER. There’s just MORE concerns when you marry. And they’re not necessarily OPPOSING concerns either. It’s not a matter of serving God OR your family. In fact, one of the ways married people SERVE God is to look after our FAMILY. One of the ways we SHOW our love for God is loving OTHERS, beginning with our family.
And so one of the advantages of being single is that you can be UNDIVIDED in what you’re devoted to. That means that if you’re single, make the most of this time in your life. Perhaps there’s a whole area of ministry you can be involved in / that married people CAN’T. Like missionary service, or youth work. Or some sort of TRAVELLING ministry. Grab hold of it with both hands. Don’t look longingly at ANOTHER situation. Be CONTENT where God’s placed you.
I think that’s what Paul means back in v7. When he’s describing God’s plans for sexual satisfaction in marriage, and then he says “I wish that all men were as I am (that is unmarried). But each man has his OWN GIFT FROM GOD. One has THIS gift, another has THAT.”
I think Paul’s saying that both states are gifts. Singleness is a gift, AND marriage is a gift. If you’re single at the moment, that’s the gift God’s given you at the moment. So rejoice in that. Use it. Be content with it.
It MAY be that, one day, God may give you the gift of MARRIAGE. Then, your response will be to rejoice in THAT. And work away in the area God’s given you THEN.
Paul’s sometimes accused of hating women and being anti-marriage. But I think it’s better to say he’s PRO-singleness. He saw the single life as VALID and VALUABLE. In a way that was INCREDIBLY counter-cultural. That’s what God says about singleness.
And a word to the REST of us. (Those of us who are married). Let’s make sure we INCLUDE our singles. Our church family is God’s instrument for providing love and nurture and support for ALL of us, but especially for singles, who often need it the MOST.
And INCLUDE them in your married life. Be real and transparent. Show them the REALITIES of married life. So they won’t OVER desire marriage. But feel free to show them what’s GOOD about marriage TOO, so they won’t UNDER desire it.
And PRAY for our singles. For contentment and self-control. It’s probably never been harder to be single. With all the garbage that’s on the internet, and all the expectations the media is filled with.
Paige Benton Brown finishes with a great perspective:
I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single.”
Remain as you are. CONTENT and TRUSTING. That’s the attitude God wants ALL OF US to have. The time is short, we should use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away.
 “Singled out by God for good,” PCPC Witness, Feb, 1988.