Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 18: 1 Corinthians 7:17-28 (ESV)
Everybody faces important choices in life. Our decisions often effect the rest of their lives. We make career plans, and look for the best way to prepare for our work. We often decide what person we’ll marry, or if we’ll get married at all. We choose the place we’ll live, and what kind of housing is best for us. We make choices about friends, what kinds of food we’ll eat, how we’ll spend our spare time, and what church we should join as members.
As a Pastor and school teacher, one of the questions I was often asked was, “How can I know God’s will for my life?” With our fallen nature, and with the confused advice we get from other people, there are some very dangerous and wrong methods of learning God’s will.
Some expect God will speak to them directly in visions or dreams. They look for omens and signs from God. But it’s like seeing faces in clouds — our imaginations can see things that aren’t there. God never tells us to look for signs like that when we face important choices. Even in biblical times God rarely revealed himself to his prophets that way. The advice the Scriptures give us does not include omens and signs.
Some times people believe God directs them by their emotional feelings.
Others think that they can figure out God’s will by pure reason. They imagine they have enough information and intelligence to rationally figure it all out objectively.
But the Bible makes it clear that these are not the ways God reveals his will to us.
The Corinthians had asked Paul some questions about marriage. He used the opportunity to deal with this more general issue.
to specific areas of kingdom service.
17. 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.
1. This verse shows that God calls each person to specific assignments in life.
God is sovereign over all creation. By his eternal decree he moves everything toward it’s purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this in question 7, “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”
That plan is carried out through each person, each with particular duties in life.
2. This verse also means that God’s callings are discoverable.
We can’t know the exact details about what God has planned for us individually, but he does give us basic principles to help us make responsible decisions. There are three basic steps we should follow when making our choices in life.
First: We need to consider the moral boundaries revealed in God’s word. Any choices that violate God’s revealed will should be immediately rule out. We should only consider jobs which allow us to obey God’s commandments. We should manage our belongings and finances by biblical principles for responsible stewardship. We should only get married within the boundaries set by God’s word. If we choose to stay single we should be prepared to live morally. We should choose to marry other believers who will share our respect for God’s word. If God has calls us to be married, we need to remain faithful to our vows. Our hobbies and entertainments should not be things that tempt us to sin or hinder our obedience to Christ.
Psalm 119 is filled with helpful ways of keeping this first principle in mind. Verses 9-11 say, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
The first thing we should consider when we want to know God’s will for our lives is: are there boundaries set by God’s word that some options would violate?
Second: We need to see how God’s providence narrows our choices within those boundaries. Our Sovereign Lord shapes all our circumstances. They’re not just random things. Nahum 1:3 tells us about our God, “… His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.”
He directs all the opportunities that come along. He directs our contacts with people and the choices we have to choose from. If certain opportunities never come along, we shouldn’t grumble and complain against God’s providence. We should pay attention, and make good use of what does come our way.
It’s God alone who gives us the abilities we need to fulfill our calling. When the church is commissioned to ordain Elders and Deacons the Bible tells us to look for evidences of God’s preparation of these men. He gives us all recognizable skills and abilities when he calls us to serve him. If he calls you to be a musician, he doesn’t make you tone deaf. If he calls you to be a surgeon, he gives you a steady hand. If you can’t do math well, it would be unwise to do statistical analysis. If a single person is unable to live morally, then he should consider marriage. Back in verse 9 Paul had written, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Some of theses skills and tendencies are things we are providentially born with by our genetic make up. Some can be developed when we get a some education or training. But if ability is lacking, it’s wise to recognize that this is probably not be your calling at this time.
Sensitivity to God’s providence is important if we’re to discover God’s will for our lives.
Third: God calls us to make wise and careful decisions. He gives us information in his word, and providentially guides our personal experiences.
The confusion that came from the fall into sin begins to be repaired when we come in faith to Christ. We are beginning to be able to understand and apply the teachings of the Bible. Sometimes we get counsel from Pastors and church Elders or Deacons as we make decisions.
We can’t know all the details of God’s over-all plan for us, or how it’s going to unfold daily. But we can know the boundaries in which we should make our life’s decisions. Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
If our careful and prayerful choice is moral according to God’s word, and we’ve prayerfully considered what God’s providence has provided, then we should go with our decision without doubts or worries.
3. These callings obligate us to be faithful to our duties.
Once we have made a responsible, godly decision and make a commitment to something, we are obligated to be faithful to our choices — as long as they’re moral choices. Whatever lawful promises we make, we should not try to get out of our responsibilities, until we fulfill all we promised to do.
In our jobs, we’re obligated to do our best to serve our employer and clients; as long as it doesn’t violate God’s moral principles. As we saw in the last section, when we get married we are obligated to love and encourage our spouses through poverty or wealth, sickness or health, for better or worse.
Our calling should never be despised or taken lightly. If God calls you to fix broken concrete — you should do your best at it to please God. If for now God has made you a student — study hard to learn all you can about God’s world. If God calls you to be a parent — you need to raise your children responsibly and with love. We have a duty to support our friends — even when they become unfriendly or are struggling.
We need to avoid the “greener-grass syndrome” where we become jealous of what others have. It’s easy to envy the lives of others; their nice lawns, better cars, naturally good looks — whatever. But our duty should be our focus. We are called to serve where we are, not we where somewhere else.
18. 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.
19. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
20. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.
Some of the Jews would hide their circumcision to fit in with the pagan culture. Some even had their circumcision hidden by drawing in a foreskin with paints. Gentile converts were often pressured by some Jews into getting circumcised. This was a major concern at the time.
But being born a Jew or Gentile, and being circumcised or not, were now merely circumstances. The old form of God’s covenant was fulfilled in Christ.
Jews weren’t to abandon their natural heritage, nor Gentiles theirs. Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
In verse 19 Paul explains what really matters: it’s the keeping of God’s commandments. The temporary ritual of circumcision was the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace before the time of Christ. Today that sign and seal of God’s covenant is baptism. Neither saves us. They marked us out as belonging to God’s covenant people.
These outward things are only good when they are done for the right reasons. Once the old form of the covenant was fulfilled by our Savior, the old sign of the covenant lost it’s necessity.
If God called someone to be born a Jew or to be born a Gentile – that was their calling. But the outward sign of Covenant Membership had changed.
to those who are slaves or who are free.
21. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)
22. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.
23. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
24. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Some believers in the early church were slaves. One example is Onesimus, the slave of Philemon. Slaves under God’s law were not dehumanized. They were more like contracted employees. If someone was redeemed as a slave, he should serve well in his responsibilities.
If a slave had a rightful opportunity to be set free he should gladly take it. An opportunity like that is also God’s providence and shouldn’t be neglected. God may call us to more than just one duty in life. A slave later in his life may become free, his contract ended. As God brings changes and lawful opportunities, we should take advantage of them.
This means that ambition and self-improvement are not rebellion against God’s will. They are part of our duty as long as we do not abandon our present responsibilities. We are to work hard to make the best of our providential circumstances.
Change should only come after we carefully and prayerfully consider God’s word and providence. But our advancements should never be driven by envy, jealousy or other wrong and selfish motives.
Others converted to Christ were born free. They are called to serve Christ as those who are free, and they should not let themselves become slaves to men. Free people can become slaves to others when they let themselves become deceived and manipulated as the false teachers were doing in Corinth. Believers belong to Christ because he bought them with the price of his own life.
Those who became believers while they were slaves or free, are the Lord’s servants first. Their duty is to serve Christ as they are, rather than despise God’s providence in their lives. While they should take advantage of opportunities to become more free, they should first of all, and meanwhile, serve in the condition in which they were called.
Paul applies it to the original question:
25. 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.
26. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.
27. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
28. 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.
The ESV differs from most other translations (NASB, Genevan, KJV, NKJV, ASV… ) in Verse 25. The ESV has “betrothed” here while the others translate it as “virgins”. Most commentators also see the flow of context, and usual use of the Greek words to favor “virgins”.
When the Gospels recorded the facts about Mary, the mother of Jesus, it used two different Greek words. In Matthew 1:18 and Luke 2:5 it says she was “betrothed” to Joseph. The Greek word is “mnaesteuo” (μνηστεύω). When in Matthew 1:23 when it describes her as a “virgin” it used the word “parthnos” (παρθένος). Here the word is “parthnos” (παρθένος), usually translated as “virgin”. There will be more detail about this and the context when we get to the last part of chapter 7.
Paul points out that he didn’t have a direct quote from Jesus about this as he did before about divorce. Never-the-less, Paul was confident that this was what God has revealed. There are many other passages in the Bible that support what he says here.
Marriage had not been mentioned from verses 17 to 24, but it’s the main theme of this context. After explaining the general principle he applies it to several specific situations. If God calls you to be single (that’s the context of this passage) then this is your calling for the moment. Until it’s clear that God calls you to get married, you should remain morally single.
If God calls you to be married — this is your life-long calling. Do not look for ways to get out of a bad situation just to avoid a hard duty. You need to be a loving helper and encourager to your spouse. The only exceptions as mentioned in our last study is when the spouse destroys the marriage through adultery or abandonment.
Considering the present difficulties and distresses that faced Corinth then, immediate pressures should not provoke carelessly made drastic changes.
define our duties and responsibilities.
Major changes in life, like changing our marital status, should be resisted unless God directs otherwise. His word sets the boundaries and nothing in your life is right if it takes you beyond them. God’s word also explains your duties. Nothing in your life should make you neglect them. His providence, unfolding moment by moment, brings opportunities. They move you along toward the path he set for you.
Jonah is an example of someone who tried to run from God’s calling in his life. He was called to do something very hard and distasteful to him. But he couldn’t run from God to find the easier way he imagined. He learned through hard trials that blessing only comes when we accept what God brings our way, and calls us to do.
Paul did not want to be a prisoner of Rome, but when he was arrested, he was a model prisoner. He was able to bring the Gospel to those there, and write letters we still learn from today. Stephen did not hope to become the first Christian martyr, but as he was being stoned to death he was an exemplary testimony for Christ. After that he found himself in the presence of his Savior.
This is the confidence we can have as redeemed children of God, though we live in an often confusing world. We move through time watching and participating as God’s sovereign plan unfolds.
The situations we find ourselves in should not be complained about or wished away. They should be faced honestly and handled responsibly with God’s glory as our focus. The decisions we make about the large or small things in life should be kept within the boundaries of what God’s word says is right, they should respect our circumstances honestly as providence brings them to us, and we should make wise judgments that aren’t rash or the result of covetousness.
If you have done those things, you can rest in your choice regardless of the outcome. We live in a world blinded by pragmatism. The only choice the world sees as right is the one that gets us what we want. But the believer in Christ has a different standard: our choices are right if they honor God’s word and accept our present condition. We strive to advance in our freedom to honor Christ, not just to get more for ourselves.
Therefore when things do not work out as we hope, we should avoid self-blame if we’ve tried to follow God’s methods. Even our bad circumstances are more opportunities for us to handle them well for Christ’s glory.
Each situation at every moment becomes your calling for that time. God’s word provides the best direction for any situation. Do not grumble and wish things were different than they are. Do not rush off to change things in your life just because it gets difficult.
Your calling is to know what God says is right, and do it without wavering.
Paul was a prisoner of Rome when he wrote these words in Philippians 4:11-13, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
God always enables us to fulfill our true callings, whatever they might be at the time. Of course that assumes you are obeying his word and respecting his providence. Later in 1 Corinthians10:13 Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The refrain of the hymn Yield Not To Temptation reflects this confidence: “Ask the Saviour to help you, Comfort, strengthen, and keep you; He is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.”
Are you called to some hard challenges? Probably they are not to be a prisoner or martyr. But what ever they mighty be, without complaint, rash actions, or dissent, take up the duty well. Then surely, you can expect God’s rich blessings.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)