So far as we’ve been considering this letter from Paul to the church in Corinth, what we’ve seen is that after having briefly greeted these believers, Paul dove right in and began to address reports he had heard—at least some from the home of a woman named Chloe whom Paul clearly trusted—on a variety of topics, many of them having to do with inappropriate sexual conduct. This morning in the seventh chapter of this letter we see Paul turn from matters that have caused him concern to concerns this church wrote to ask him about. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, these, too, have to do with appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior but they revolve primarily around various marital statuses:
- First, for believers who are married (1–7, 10–11) and whether they can re-marry when widowed (39–40);
- Second, for those who are unmarried, including widows (8–9) and virgins (25–29);
- And last, what to do in the case of a believer being married to an unbeliever (12–16).
I’m focusing on the first sixteen verses since this is where each of these issues is introduced and the remainder of the chapter loops back around to each. But as we consider each of the groups being addressed, it will be helpful to keep in mind an overarching principle that lies behind all that Paul has to say and which can be found in verse 17, namely, “…each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” I always think of Paul as the apostle of contentment. As he writes the church in Philippi, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In this chapter and in his life in general, Paul sought to pass on his secret which is: if we know Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, we can get through anything life throws our way.
So to begin, in addressing married people, Paul does so from the perspective of what this church has asked him to address, namely, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” In the abstract, this might seem more like a request about the value of remaining unmarried or perhaps of becoming a eunuch. But from what follows, it’s clear that this matter is being presented within the context of marriage, i.e., should a husband and wife ever refrain from sexual intimacy? Is such abstinence ever a good thing? Paul answers by considering the many abuses already addressed concerning sexual immorality among this body of believers. As we’ve seen, these include incest, adultery, homosexual behavior, and even prostitution. So he says in verses 2–4, “…since sexual immorality is occurring….” And I’m going to pause here, because given all of the behaviors Paul has addressed, it seems possible that part of the reason that men, for example, have gone to prostitutes is due to a mistaken belief that they shouldn’t be sexually intimate with their wives and therefore that may have concluded that if that’s the case, then going to prostitutes might be an appropriate way of meeting their desires. Talk about meeting the letter of the law, but missing the spirit! In other words, I think it’s possible that Paul may be correcting such misunderstandings when he states by way of response in verses 2—3 “since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Part of the purpose for marriage is sexual intimacy and Paul is stating clearly here that such intimacy is not only to be expected but he even uses the language of duty. Husbands and wives have a marital duty to each other for they belong to one another. Therefore wives are to yield to their husbands and husbands similarly are to yield to their wives.
Paul places this marital obligation within the context of the specific concern the church wrote to ask him about—whether it’s good for a husband and wife not to have sexual relations. So in verse 5 he states, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” If a husband and wife mutually agree not only to abstain from marital relations for a time but to do so for a specific purpose—namely, devoting themselves to prayer—then such abstinence is fine. However, once this time and purpose have been met, “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” We don’t often talk about spiritual warfare, do we? Yet we need always to remember that we have an adversary who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Satan specializes in taking that which is good and using it for evil purposes. For a husband and wife to abstain from sexual intimacy leaves them open to temptations in seeking to meet good needs in wrong ways, that is, in ways that aren’t honoring to God or in keeping with his good intentions for us. Paul adds that he is making this “abstention proviso” not as a command but as a concession since it seems to be part of what the Corinthian believers want to practice. For he adds, verse 7, “I wish that all of you were as I am.” In other words, he wishes everyone were celibate as he is. But, ever the realist, he notes at the end of this verse, “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
In verses 10 and 11, Paul adds this further note to those who are married: that wives and husbands ought not separate from or divorce each other. Though Scripture is clear on the sanctity of marriage, it’s also important to note what we all know to be true: divorce is a reality of a fallen world. In addition to the Scripturally indicated provisions for divorce—marital infidelity and an unbelieving spouse—we need to acknowledge that there are many reasons why people divorce. So though the oft-stated “irreconcilable differences” or “we were too young when we married” are weak as reasons for divorce, there are more serious situations—including verbal and physical abuse, refusal of one partner to work things out, and abandonment, to name just a few—that may result in divorce. So though divorce isn’t Scripturally sanctioned, it’s important to note that it isn’t beyond forgiveness. It’s not beyond Christ’s redemption. Therefore if we’re divorced, it doesn’t mean we can never meaningfully serve Christ or others again. In fact no sin can keep us from meaningfully serving Christ or others. And we need to remember that no one among us, Jesus Christ excepted, has ever lived a life free from sin. Though Scripture continually calls us to be holy as God as holy, should we sin and when we sin, we are also provided a means of dealing with that sin by seeking God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ. This is an appropriate reminder as we’ll shortly be celebrating the Lord’s Supper. As John reminds us, “8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.…10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” Yet nothing is beyond Christ’s forgiveness for in between these two verses, John states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Our righteousness is due to Christ’s obedience, not our own. So brothers and sisters, let us remember that we are new creatures in Christ and because of Christ. And what this means in part is that when we sin, we ought to grieve that sin, yes, but let us also move beyond it and continue to devote our lives to loving and serving our gracious and merciful and compassionate Savior and Lord.
Turning to Paul’s advice for the unmarried and widows, he states in verse 8: “It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” But Paul also understands, verse 9, that marriage is a means for addressing sexual desires and so he encourages those thus struggling to go ahead and marry. Later in verses 25–28, he specifically addresses those who are virgins and, again, encourages them to remain unmarried while again allowing that marrying is fine. But in verses 29–31, it’s evident that what drives Paul’s advice is a sense of the brevity of life. As he states at the end of verse 31, “…this world in its present form is passing away.” And this gets us back to the guiding principle mentioned earlier from verse 17: “Nevertheless each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.” In Paul’s advice concerning both marriage and singleness, the overriding focus is the brevity of life for all people. So, from verses 29 through 31, he advises, “29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 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.”
As Paul applies this sense of urgency to those who are single, he indicates that those who aren’t married are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how [to] please the Lord” (32, 34) whereas those who are married are focused instead on how they can please their spouse (33, 34). And here is a place where we might wonder if Paul has gotten it right. Having been single for most of my life, and knowing many single people, I have to say that it isn’t always the case that those who are single are most concerned about how to please the Lord. There are those who find singleness a burden and a distraction and who feel they would be happier if they were to marry.
So I want to backtrack here to what Paul stated in verse 7 about each having their own gift from God, to pause and ask: Is there such a thing as the “gift” of being married or the “gift” of being single? As some have joked, if there is such a thing as a “gift” of singleness, it’s a gift many would like to return! And there are those who find themselves in difficult marriages who might say the same thing about wanting to return a “gift” of marriage. As I heard a pastor once say about marriage ceremonies he had performed, he would acknowledge that he realized that this couple believed that God had called them together and chosen just this person for them, but then he would add, “Remember that feeling. Because at some point in your marriage, you’re going to find yourselves questioning God’s judgment!”
More seriously, my point is this: Though I’m not sure what Paul is referring to in speaking of “your own gift from God” within the context of being single or married, I don’t think it’s helpful when we speak of the “gift” of being married or the “gift” of being single—as though marriage or singleness were pre-determined missions carved in stone that we were required to embrace. Don’t misunderstand me, if we have married, the Lord desires and expects us to honor that commitment to love and care for this person until death do us part. But I think it’s important to realize that though God’s sovereignty and providence—his rule and care over us and all his creation—are real, this doesn’t mean that we don’t play a part in the decisions we make. Again, having been single for most of my life, I can say with conviction that I think we do a disservice to single people when we ask them why they are single—or even worse, why they are still single—as though being single were some kind of deficiency. For if we’re honest, we would acknowledge that those who marry aren’t necessarily the most attractive, kind, intelligent, and winsome people. i.e., that they somehow “deserve” to be married due to some outstanding quality or virtue that single people lack. In the end, the only difference between those who are single and those who are married is that those who are married chose to commit their lives to someone with whom they felt compatible whom they happened to meet along life’s journey, and those who are single have not had this option. Though married, I’ve said to Ron on more than one occasion that what comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed still rings true to me, namely, that what is surprising isn’t that there are so many single people in this world; what is surprising is that there are so many married people for the chances of meeting someone with whom we are sufficiently compatible to commit our lives in today’s pluralistic and rapidly changing world seems extraordinary to me. But, more importantly, to divide the world into “single” or “married” is to lose sight of the common humanity and needs we all share by virtue of having been given the gift of earthly life. And as we continually see in Scripture, we all need one another and the gifts each one brings to Christ’s body.
Returning to Paul, not all who are single have a concern only to please the Lord and, conversely, not all who are married are simply concerned about pleasing their spouses. But his point is that, single or married, pleasing the Lord should be all of our primary concern. So in considering Paul’s directions, it’s important to note that prior to making his observations about single and married people, Paul states at the beginning of verse 32, “I would like you to be free from concern.” He wants believers to be free from those things that distract them from serving Christ. And this statement coupled with his evident sense of urgency about the present world not being our final home, help us better understand the point he is making. A truth that can help us persevere through difficult times is that of knowing that we all, whether single or married, were made for God in Christ. Therefore the greatest joy any person could ever have is that of knowing, loving, and serving the gracious God who created us in his image and redeemed us by his blood—redeemed us by his love. That truth should temper and provide perspective to all of our circumstances. As Paul states in verse 19 in speaking of the proper place of the practice of circumcision, “19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” So, too, even a slave who would have been viewed as the property of his master at this time should understand that really he belongs to Christ. In verse 23 Paul says to slaves what we heard him say last week to all believers, “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” Our ultimate responsibility—whether single or married, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free—is to God, verse 24. It is that truth—that reality—which allows us the freedom to serve and remain in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Lastly Paul addresses those believers who are married to unbelievers in verse 12–16. So we should ask, how is it that believers came to be married to unbelievers in the first place since elsewhere Paul teaches the importance of not being unequally yoked, i.e., of believers only marrying other believers? The answer lies in the Corinthian culture. These believers were pagans who converted to Christianity and consequently must now be taught what a life of following Christ, what a life of discipleship, looks like and entails. In all likelihood in the evangelism that was initially done in Corinth, there were wives who came to faith, but whose husbands didn’t and husbands who similarly came to faith but whose wives did not. The situation isn’t one of so-called “missionary dating” in which a believer dates and comes to marry an unbeliever in the hope and expectation that their spouse will eventually come to a saving faith. It is rather one of one spouse coming to faith in Christ therefore what ought the other spouse do? Should they divorce the unbelieving spouse? Essentially Paul’s answer is that if at all possible, a believer should remain married to an unbeliever for this may be an avenue the Lord uses to call the unbelieving spouse to faith, verse 16: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” Living faithfully before another person may be the means God uses to lead them to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ. Too, there is a sense in which the unbelieving spouse, by virtue of their union with a believing spouse, has—by extension—been set aside for God’s purpose. I think this is the sense of “sanctified” in verse 14. It can’t mean being made holy since unbelievers don’t have the Holy Spirit within them to enable them to be holy. But Scriptural faith being a communal one, there is some sense in which even an unbelieving spouse has a place in God’s ultimate purposes—and remaining in such a union may even lead to their embracing Christ.
Still and again, Paul is a realist. “[I]f the unbeliever leaves,” he says in verse 15, “let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” An unbeliever’s leaving a marriage is always a possibility and should they leave, the believing spouse needn’t torture themselves but should let them go in peace.
We can take heart from Paul’s teaching here for the primary thing God in Christ has called us to is a relationship with him and one another. There’s a genuine sense in which everything else in our lives ought to pale in comparison with knowing, loving, and serving Christ. Our earthly lives are the short part of eternity so even if we’re to live well into our 90s, even that amount of time pales in comparison with spending an eternity with our loving and gracious and merciful Lord.
So if we’re single, let us rejoice and remain in Christ;
If we’re married, let us rejoice and remain in Christ;
For ultimately what gives our lives meaning isn’t our marital status but knowing and loving God and those he has placed around us. Brothers and sisters, you and I have been given to one another and belong to one another because we belong to Christ. We are not our own—we have been bought with the incomparable price of the blood of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. His Spirit now binds us. His Spirit now unites us. His Spirit now enables us to remain in him. So let us live free from concern as we seek to love and serve God and each other faithfully as we look forward to the time in which we will love and serve together with all who have ever known him in heaven.
Let us pray.
 Philippians 4:10–13: 10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
 I Peter 5:8: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
 χάρισμα,n 1) a favour with which one receives without any merit of his own 2) the gift of divine grace 3) the gift of faith, knowledge, holiness, virtue 4) the economy of divine grace, by which the pardon of sin and eternal salvation is appointed to sinners in consideration of the merits of Christ laid hold of by faith 5) grace or gifts denoting extraordinary powers, distinguishing certain Christians and enabling them to serve the church of Christ, the reception of which is due to the power of divine grace operating on their souls by the Holy Spirit
 I John 1:8–10: 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
 2 Corinthians 6:14–18: 14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”[Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27] 17 Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”[Isaiah 52:11; Ezek. 20:34,41] 18 And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”[2 Samuel 7:14; 7:8]