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First Corinthians

Wearing The World Lightly

1 Corinthians 7

We come now to one of the more turgidly written passages in the New Testament. It seems to oscillate between two extremes. Perhaps the extremes are not important; the oscillation is.

(1 Cor 7 NIV) Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. {2} But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. {3} The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. {4} The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. {5} Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. {6} I say this as a concession, not as a command. {7} I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. {8} Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. {9} But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. {10} To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. {11} But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. {12} To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. {13} And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. {14} For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. {15} But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. {16} How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? {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. {18} Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. {19} Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. {20} Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. {21} Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so. {22} For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. {23} You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. {24} Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. {25} Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. {26} Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. {27} Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. {28} But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. {29} What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. 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. For this world in its present form is passing away. {32} I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. {33} But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife-- {34} and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world--how she can please her husband. {35} I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. {36} If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. {37} But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin--this man also does the right thing. {38} So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. {39} A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. {40} In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is--and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

The problem of cheap advice

Two thousand or so years after Paul wrote, things have not much changed. As a teacher, the most frequent questions received are still about the same topic: marriage. The difficulty in the answers is still the same: cheap advice.

Here’s the temptation. Suppose a woman comes to you, complaining of her husband’s evil temper and behavior. She’s had enough, she tells you, and wants rid of the man. There is a very strong temptation to answer in one of two ways:

· One answer is in human sympathy. You feel sorry for her – she usually has a genuine problem – and out of sympathy you tell her to do what she feels like. This usually produces disaster. She goes away vindicated in her feelings, thinking herself righteous, and proceeds to produce more anger, more strife, and eventually a bitter divorce.

· The other answer is in self-righteous piety. You think of your own marriage; of the sweet submission of your own wife, and decide that the lady must be the problem. You call her to the high, holy road of Christ. She goes away bitter – and feeling very guilty. She will come back some day – to show you that your advice was wrong.

If you want the right answers, you must ask the right questions. The usual question is, “What should I do?” Paul here answers, “what may I do?”

· As always, he places the cause of Christ first. In each answer given, he encourages the individual to take up the high calling of Christ and to live sacrificially.

· But – please note – he recognizes that this is a gift from God. Some of us don’t have it. If we can live so sacrificially, our Lord will reward it. But if we can’t, there are certain things which are permitted.

Here are some of his specific answers. See how the general principles above are applied in them.

“I can’t stand the man”

Why? Well, suppose her husband is beating her. It happens, even in Christian homes. Is she called to be a punching bag for his anger? No – she is permitted to separate from him. Note- not divorce, separate. She must remain alone. (Paul doesn’t mention it here, but she should also take this matter before the church. Regrettably, the church has not been swift to deal with this.)

“He’s an unbeliever”

Often, in Paul’s time, this came about because the wife (or husband) became a Christian after marriage. Christians are strongly counseled to marry Christians. But hear Paul’s advice here:

· Is he willing to stay in the marriage? Then you should be too. Marriage is God’s institution, it is holy. If the unbeliever will keep to that, you should honor God by doing likewise.

· Marriage is holy; so is the Christian. By remaining in the marriage you sanctify your children. Should they suffer so that you can be free?

· Marriage is holy; in so suffering you may bring your spouse to Christ. Is that not a cause worth suffering for?

If, however, the unbeliever leaves – let him. You are not bound. But note that the action must be taken by the unbeliever. The child of God is called to remain in peace in marriage. Only the non-believer should furnish grounds for divorce or separation.


In all these, we see the objectives of the Christian:

· The salvation of the unbeliever.

· The sanctification of the children

· That God’s grace might be extended to all.


There are certain principles in this passage which are clearly stated elsewhere.

Put the things of God first – but other things are permissible

We see this in the matter of sexual abstinence regarding prayer. This passage has been much used to justify priestly celibacy, but that’s not his point at all.

· Permissible things – like sex – are used to “lead us not into temptation.” We have sexual desire. If we cannot overcome it and devote all our passion to Christ, this is not a sin. But it is foolish to try abstinence to the point of giving Satan an opportunity for temptation.

· This also stresses that such things are not intrinsically moral evils – as is sometimes claimed by ascetics. The key is to find their proper use. They should not serve as a roadblock to devotion to God, either by being overused or neglected.

As much as possible, live at peace

We are not in charge of circumstances. There will come instances where peace is not possible. But so far as we have control over it, we should live at peace with all. Does your non-believing husband wish to remain in the marriage? Be at peace; remain in the marriage. Does he wish to leave? You cannot control that; you are to let him depart. The decision does not belong to you – now. You gave up that decision when you came to Christ. Just make it clear that – as far as you can – you will live in Christ’s commands. Our God is the God of peace.

God does not overburden us

Are you one of those strong-willed, self-disciplined souls who can fast for forty days and nights. Good! I’m not. God has blessed you with a gift he has not given me. But that same wise God therefore will not burden me with a forty day fast – though he will burden you. If you will accept his burdens, in his strength, you will find that “his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.”

An' I spoke to God of our Contract, an' He says to my prayer:

"I never puts on My ministers no more than they can bear.

So back you go to the cattle-boats an' preach My Gospel there.

(Kipling, Mulholland’s Contract)

Some of us are disappointed that God sends us back to our own cattle boats. We see others who are great in the kingdom, and we ask, “Why not me?” God’s answer is that he would not burden you with that which you cannot bear.

Human desire is the enemy of contentment

We seek things of this world which we think will give us pleasure. When we get those things, we seek more. When we examine ourselves, we say we are not content because we do not have. Perhaps we are not content because we desire so much.

Wearing the world lightly

What, then, is the secret of this contentment? It is to wear the world lightly, for the world is passing away. Consider two of the subjects Paul covers here:

· Marriage is the primary example, for most of us are subject to it. He argument is that marriage is for this life only. For all such things, we should use this life to bring us reward for eternal life. Therefore, we should focus our marriage on Christ. If there are troubles in that marriage, we should use them to bring glory to God. Christ first; then our troubles in marriage.

· Another example is slavery. Interestingly, the modern translators have (in verse 23) rewritten what Paul was trying to say. The ancients understood it quite well. He’s telling the slave that obtaining his freedom is not important – rather, that he is free in Christ and he should use that freedom to honor God. Chyrsostom interprets the Greek to mean here (as Paul tells us elsewhere) that the slave should serve devotedly – as a free man should.

Even “religion” should be worn lightly

Many of us were raised in Christian homes. That is a great blessing – but it can be pressed too far. How often have you heard the grumbles about the new style of hymns? (“If Old Rugged Cross was good enough for St. Paul….”) The matter is not one of hymns, or video screens, or guitars – but of true worship of the Lord. These other matters are things which are permitted, not required. In Paul’s time the issue was circumcision (from the Old Testament teachings). But the principle remains the same.

Your place, your ministry

Many of us seek to improve ourselves by changing our position; few of us seek to improve ourselves by remaining. Hear the words of an older generation:

Some persons have the foolish notion that the only way in which they can live for God is by becoming ministers, missionaries, or Bible women. Alas! how many would be shut out from any opportunity of magnifying the Most High if this were the case. Beloved, it is not office, it is earnestness; it is not position, it is grace which will enable us to glorify God. God is most surely glorified in that cobbler's stall, where the godly worker, as he plies the awl, sings of the Saviour's love, ay, glorified far more than in many a prebendal stall where official religiousness performs its scanty duties. The name of Jesus is glorified by the poor unlearned carter as he drives his horse, and blesses his God, or speaks to his fellow labourer by the roadside, as much as by the popular divine who, throughout the country, like Boanerges, is thundering out the gospel. God is glorified by our serving Him in our proper vocations. Take care, dear reader, that you do not forsake the path of duty by leaving your occupation, and take care you do not dishonour your profession while in it. Think little of yourselves, but do not think too little of your callings. Every lawful trade may be sanctified by the gospel to noblest ends. Turn to the Bible, and you will find the most menial forms of labour connected either with most daring deeds of faith, or with persons whose lives have been illustrious for holiness. Therefore be not discontented with your calling. Whatever God has made your position, or your work, abide in that, unless you are quite sure that he calls you to something else. Let your first care be to glorify God to the utmost of your power where you are. Fill your present sphere to His praise, and if He needs you in another He will show it you. This evening lay aside vexatious ambition, and embrace peaceful content.

(C.H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening Devotions, June 27)

Let us learn contentment from our Master – so that we may honor him in the situation in which he has placed us.

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