We’ve been seeing in previous weeks that the Apostle Paul has been addressing a number of issues and problems which were spoiling the church in Corinth, a church which Paul had planted when he went there and preached the gospel. But since he left, a number of different problems had arisen in the congregation. Some of these problems were reported to Paul; people had passed on to him the news of what was happening in Corinth. For instance, it had been reported to him that there were divisions in the church and that there was sexual immorality among them. But then there were some other issues which they had raised with Paul in a letter to him. One of the issues they had raised with him concerned marriage. It seemed that there were some in Corinth who were saying that now that they believed in the Lord Jesus, now that they had been converted to Christ and were Christians, they should make a complete break with their past; and those relationships which belonged to their old, unbelieving life should be brought to an end. In other words, some were saying that those who were married should either separate or, at the very least, they should live as if they were not married. Perhaps they thought that spiritual people shouldn’t be concerned with physical matters like marriage and sex. And then there was the case of believers who were married to unbelievers. Perhaps believers in such marriages should seek a divorce. Perhaps living with an unbeliever will make you unholy; and so, perhaps we should be divorced. That seems to be what some people in Corinth were saying.
But what does the Apostle Paul say? Chapter 7 and verse 20:
Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.
Were you married before God called you to Christ? Then remain married, he says. Believers who are married should remain married and should continue to fulfil their marital duty to one another. And husbands and wives should not separate, even if one of them is a believer and the other is not. So, remain in the situation you were in when God called you to Christ.
And we noticed the last time that this is very helpful for us, because from time to time we think to ourselves: It would be so much easier for me to live as a Christian if this were different or if that were different. If this were different, then I’d really be able to serve the Lord better. But from Paul’s words we learn that we can serve the Lord wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, whether we’re married or single, in work or retired from work, young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Our circumstances don’t really matter: what matters is that we remain obedient to the Lord in whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Paul continues to speak on this theme in verses 25 to 40 of chapter 7; but this time the focus is slightly different. If in the first half of the chapter he’s referring to those who are already married, in the second half of the chapter he’s referring mostly to those who are not yet married. However this is a difficult passage for several reasons. So let me go through it, making a number of remarks on the way and explaining it as clearly as I can. And then, having gone through the passage, there are two further points to make at the end.
So, first of all, in verse 25 Paul tells us that he now wants to raise with them the subject of ‘virgins’. And from what he goes on to say, it’s clear he’s thinking about single people who are engaged to be married. Now there’s some discussion among the commentators concerning exactly who Paul is addressing in these verses. Some suggest that he’s addressing single women only. Others suggest that he’s addressing these words to single men, since they were the ones who took the lead in proposing marriage. It seems to me, however, that Paul is directing these instructions to both single men and single women. Look at verse 28 for instance. When Paul says, ‘But if you do marry, you have not sinned and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned’, he seems to be addressing men in the first half of that sentence and women in the second half. He’s addressing both men and women. However, it seems they were now having misgivings about going through with the marriage and they were wondering whether or not it was sinful to marry. So, Paul is referring to those single men and women in Corinth who were engaged to be married, but who were now having second thoughts because they had come to believe it would be wrong to marry.
Secondly, we need to think about what Paul means by ‘the present crisis’ in verse 26. Paul writes:
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.
Now, when Paul says something is ‘good’ in this chapter, he doesn’t mean ‘morally good’ as opposed to ‘morally bad’. In this chapter, when he says something is ‘good’, he’s talking about what is advantageous for us or what is of benefit to us. And so, Paul saying here that there are certain advantages and benefits to be had by remaining single in ‘the present crisis’. So what’s the present crisis? Well, Paul doesn’t say. Some commentators think he’s referring to the second coming when the Lord Jesus will return to earth in glory and power to judge the living and the dead. So, in view of his coming, it’s good to remain single. However, others argue that Paul never refers to the Lord’s second coming in this way and that he’s probably referring to something else. Perhaps he’s referring to the persecution of believers at that time. Or perhaps he’s referring to a famine which occurred at that time in the Roman Empire. Or perhaps he’s referring generally to the troubles and trials of life which we all face, and which believers especially face while we wait for the Saviour to come again. Whatever form the crisis took, Paul is saying that there are advantages to be had in remaining single while this present crisis was happening.
So, what is the advantage of remaining single in this present crisis? Well, Paul tells us at the end of verse 28:
those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
Because of the many troubles which married people will have to face in this life — troubles which are presumably caused by the present crisis — then Paul says it’s good for you if you remain single and are spared them. Well, if by the present crisis, Paul meant a famine, then a husband will not only be worried for himself, but he’ll also be worried for his wife and his children. Think of his heart breaking as he goes home to a house of hungry children. Or if by the present crisis Paul is referring to persecution, then again think of a husband and wife, worrying over the safety of one another and their children. If he’s thinking of the troubles and trials which we all experience in life, then our worries are only compounded if we have a spouse and children to look after. Married people love one another and they care for one another and they therefore worry about each other’s welfare and safety and happiness. But a single man, or a single woman, won’t have a spouse or any children to worry about; they’re spared that kind of anxiety.
Thirdly, what does Paul mean by ‘the time is short’ in verse 29? Some commentators think that he’s referring again to the present crisis; and he means that the present crisis will soon be over. Other commentators suggest he’s referring to the shortness of life; since life is short, our time here on earth is brief. However, others think that this time, he’s referring to the Lord’s return. And so, in verses 29 to 31 he’s saying that — since Christ is going to return one day — we should use the time we have appropriately.
What does he mean by that? Well, let me use an illustration to explain. When we lived down south, there were lots of place we wanted to see. But we were in no real hurry to visit them, because we lived there all the time and had plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to see what we wanted to see. We had all the time in the world. However, when we go on holiday in the summer, we’re only in Italy or France or Holland for two weeks. And since the time we have on holiday is short, and since there are lots of places to see, then we have to use the limited time we have carefully. We can’t waste time, because the time is short and soon it will be time to go home. Well, since we know that the Lord Jesus will return one day, just as he has promised, then let’s use the time we have appropriately and wisely.
Fourthly, we have verses 32 to 35. Paul contrasts an unmarried man with a married man; and he contrasts an unmarried woman with a married woman. What do the married man and woman have to think about? Well, they have to think about each other. They have certain responsibilities and duties to fulfil towards each other. And that’s the way it should be, of course. No husband should neglect his wife; no wife should neglect her husband; no parent should neglect their children. If someone is married, then they must fulfil their duty to their spouse and to their children (if they have any). And, of course, Paul deals with the duties of husbands, wives and children in his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians; and he’s clear in those passages that we’re not to neglect one another. And since he’s clear about our duty towards one another, then that means he’s not using the phrase ‘the affairs of this world’ in verses 33 and 34 in a negative sense. He’s not being critical of those who must care for their loved ones; it’s not wrong to be concerned with the affairs of this world when the affairs of this world involve loving and caring for our family.
But here’s the thing. Unmarried men and women don’t have a spouse to think about. They’re free from the responsibilities and duties of a married person. And so they have this advantage over the married person: they can devote more of their time and attention to serving the Lord.
Now Paul isn’t denying that the married man and woman also want to serve the Lord. He’s not saying married people don’t care about serving the Lord. But he’s stating the obvious point that married people are limited in what they can do because of their family responsibilites. The single man and the single woman have more time to devote to serving God. I mentioned in a previous sermon my friend in the ministry who is single. In the past, when I was at home, playing with the children — which is a good and important thing to do when they’re young — he was able to be out and about, visiting people, or teaching people, or studying and preparing. He had more time to devote to such work because he had no family responsibilities.
Fifthly, in verses 36 to 37 Paul underlines again that it is not sinful for someone to marry. Referring to a man who wants to marry, Paul says at the end of verse 36:
He is not sinning. They should get married.
However, Paul then proceeds to say that if someone can live an unmarried life, then he should do so. So, we mustn’t think it’s wrong to get married; yes, there are advantages and benefits to remaining single; nevertheless, if you want to get married, go ahead; it’s not a sin to be married. Now, the one who can live a single life does even better, says Paul, because he’ll be able to devote more time to serving the Lord. However, if you want to be married, and have the opportunity to be married, then go ahead. You’re not doing wrong.
And then finally in verses 39 and 40 Paul permits a widow to remarry, so long as she marries ‘in the Lord’ which means that a Christian should always marry another Christian. And I should add: if a Christian should always marry in the Lord, if a Christian should always marry another Christian, that means Christians should only date other Christians, because dating often ends in marriage. But then Paul adds that — because of all the concerns and demands of married life — he thinks that widows will be happier if they remains single. In other words, Paul is once again saying there are advantages to remaining single.
So, to summarise what Paul is saying: It is not sinful to marry. However, there are certain advantages to remaining single if you’re the kind of person who is able to live a single life. Isn’t that interesting? Sometimes single people in the church can be envious of those who are married. It’s as I said last week: we think ‘if only’: If only I were married, things would be so much better and I could serve the Lord so much better than I can now.
But Paul insists there are benefits to remaining single if you’re able to live a single life. I can think of one of my aunts who recently turned 90 and who was never married: but after she trained as a nurse, she was able to go overseas with WEC and serve the Lord in Ghana. Then she came home and devoted her life to serving other people in her family and in her church and in the church worldwide. She’s a single woman, and she’s lived a full life, because she devoted her life to loving and serving the people around her.
Paul has been saying there are advantages to remaining single if you’re able to live a single life. But, says Paul, those who want to get married, should let nothing stop them.
Having gone through the passage, let me make two further points. And the first one is that we should notice Paul’s flexibility. He’s really very flexible whenever he’s dealing with an issue like this. He’s saying it’s not sinful to be married. If you want to be married, then go ahead. However, there are advantages to remaining single if you’re the kind of person who can live a single life. But if you’re not that kind of person and if you want to get married, and have the opportunity to do so, then go ahead. It’s not a sin. You shouldn’t feel that you’re doing anything wrong.
Do you see how flexible he is? One person wants to do this; and it’s fine. Another person wants to do that; and it’s fine too. He’s so flexible. Does this mean that Paul is not a man of conviction and stong beliefs? We meet people like that and their views change depending on who they’re with. If they’re with someone who thinks this, then they go along with it. If they’re with someone who thinks that, they they go along with that. They don’t really hold any strong convictions themselves. Is Paul like that? Well no. In the book of Galatians, for instance, he’s writing to a group of Christians who were shifting away from what Paul had earlier taught them about the gospel of Jesus Christ. And Paul was adamant that there is only one gospel and he tells them that even if an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one Paul preached, then let him be condemned. And just to be sure that they understand, Paul repeats it:
If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
In other words, when it came to the gospel message of Jesus Christ, Paul was utterly inflexible: there was only one gospel and he would not give way on that. But with regard to this issue — the issue of whether a single person should remain single or be married — Paul is wonderfully flexible. Why? Because there’s no law from God in the Bible preventing us from being married. God doesn’t command us in his word to remain single. And on the other hand, there’s no law from God in the Bible preventing us from remaining single. God doesn’t command us in his word to be married. And since there’s no law from God, Paul is flexible: you can marry, and you haven’t sinned; and you can remain single, and you haven’t sinned.
And this is important because we’re tempted very often to make up our own rules about what is right and what isn’t right, what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, what’s appropriate for Christians and what isn’t. We make up these rules and we impose them on our fellow Christians. Isn’t that what was happening in Corinth? It seems that someone must have been saying to engaged couples that it would be sinful for them to be married. Perhaps they were saying that Christians are far too spiritual to become entangled in anything so earthly as marriage. And in the gospels we see how the Lord Jesus addressed a similar problem with the Pharisees who made up lots of different rules about what God’s people should and shouldn’t do. And their rules just made them proud and judgmental. They were proud of the fact that they kept their own rules; and they looked down on all those who didn’t keep them. But here’s the thing: these rules which they were so careful to keep were the traditions of men, man-made rules which God did not command them to keep. And the same thing was happening in Corinth: someone was confusing the members of the church by saying it was sinful to be married.
The question is really this: Where do we go to for guidance about what to believe about God and how to live as his people? What rule is there to guide us concerning what we’re to believe and what our duty is? And the answer is very simple: God himself tells us what we’re to believe about him and how we’re to live as his people. And he tells us these things in his word, the Bible. And that’s why we spend so much of our time Sunday by Sunday, reading God’s word, and studying God’s word. The job of any preacher is not to share with you what I think about this or what I think about that. You’re not here to listen to my views and opinions about life. You’re here because you want to learn more about what God has said to us in his word concerning what we’re to beleive about him and how we’re to live as his people in the world.
Paul could be flexible on the subject of marriage, because there’s no command from God either to marry or not to marry; and the rule we must follow concerning our faith and practice must always be what God has said in his word.
Time is Short
The final thing to notice today is this: Paul reminds us in this passage that there’s more to our life than this world. There’s more to life than all we can see and touch around about us. He reminds us that there’s this life and there’s the next life. We have our life here on earth, but Christians will go on to enjoy everlasting life in the presence of God when Jesus Christ returns.
Look back to verse 29. Paul reminds his readers that the time is short. Then jump forward to verse 31. Paul teaches us that this world ‘in its present form’ is passing away. One day the Lord Jesus will return to earth to gather together all his people, all those who have believed in him and trusted in him and in him alone for the forgiveness of our sins and for acceptance with God. One day he’ll return to gather his people together so that we will be with the Lord for ever and ever in the new heaven and the new earth.
And knowing that, knowing that Christ is coming again one day to bring us into the presence of the Lord, helps us to remember what really counts. In verses 29 to 31 Paul refers to our relationships; and to the things that cause us sorrow and joy; and to the things we possess. He’s referring to things which are important to us: and we can all think of people who are very important to us; we can all think of events which took place in our lives which are so very important to us: either they caused us great sorrow or they caused us great joy; and we can all think of things we own which are very important to us.
For those who aren’t Christians, and for whom this world is all there is, these things are crucial. This is the best it ever gets for them. But for Christians: we know that the most important and significant person in our life is not yet with us; and we’re still waiting for the day when he comes again. And, of course, I’m referring to the Lord Jesus; he’s the most important and significant person in our life; and we’re still waiting for the day when he comes again and we get to see him face to face. Yes, he’s with us by his Spirit, but none of us has ever seen him yet. But one day we will see him; and we’re looking forward to that day.
And for Christians, we know that the most important and significant event in our life has not yet happened. We’re still waiting for the day when we will step into the presence of God and into that everlasting joy and those pleaures forevermore which he has promised to all his people. Yes, we experience a taste of that joy in this life; but what we have now is nothing compared to what it will be like. We’re still looking forward to that day.
And for Christians, we know that the most important and significant thing we will ever possess has still not become fully ours. We’re still waiting for Christ’s return when we will be glorified and when we will possess everlasting life in the presence of God. We’re still looking forward to that day.
While we go on living in this world, we will continue to enjoy the good things which God has given to us to enjoy. But we know — don’t we? — that the best is yet to come; and that whatever good things we have now in this life will pale in comparison to the glory that will be revealed in us when Christ returns. If you’re a Christian, if you trust in the Saviour, then you know that not even the best things in this life come near to the joy which will be ours when Christ our Saviour returns. And so, whether we’re married, or whether we’re single, we should live in the light of the knowledge that Christ our Saviour is coming again. And we should live our lives for him: if we’re married, we should live our married life for him; if we’re single, we should live our single life for him.