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The Present Distress (Pt 1)


*1 Corinthians 7:25-31
May 27, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:15 in the audio file.


Or, Marriage: A Mess Worth Avoiding?


When Jesus commissioned His disciples He told them to make disciples who identified with Jesus in baptism and then committed to lifelong learning about Jesus and obeying His commands. Jesus did not commission His disciples to get others to pray a prayer and then be transferred immediately to heaven. Being a disciple, and making disciples, involves living in the present world for Jesus rather than getting out of it.

When Jesus prayed for His people in John 17 (especially verses 14-19) He knew that the world would hate His people because they are “not of the world.” Yet He did not ask the Father to take us “out of the world” either. We’re not of, and not out. Jesus even prayed that the Father would send us “into the world,” sanctified in the truth. How much depends on these little prepositions. And how little do Christian disciples seem to understand how to do it.

It is a constant effort to keep our thoughts and our choices for the Lord. The Lord made us to do so, and He also taught that many are distracted by the world and the seed of the gospel is choked out by riches and cares of this life (Matthew 13:22). Because we don’t welcome living in tension about crucial things, we tend to choose one foot to hop on, then we know we’re right. Some choose to stay in the theological bed all day and try to ignore the larger implications, while others choose to hyperventilate over the smaller implications of everything. Either we give up trying to figure out what is good, or we decide that only certain things are good, especially the things that make us look good.

The Christians in Corinth struggled with this, especially when it came to relations between the sexes. Some thought that using a prostitute was as as good for the body as food (1 Corinthians 6:13), and others thought that abstinence with one’s wife was obviously the greater good (7:1). Both are wrong.

1 Corinthians 6 dealt with those who weren’t thinking enough about boundaries and restrictions on earthly appetites, 1 Corinthians 7 deals with those who desired castle moats and 50 foot tall electric fences. The apostle Paul teaches them how to think about relationships, and in the process teaches them how to relate to a lot of things in this world.

In verses 1-16 he addressed married couples. In verses 25-40 he addresses those who are engaged/betrothed or widowed. In between, in verses 17-24, he went over the basic principle of God’s earthly callings for each person and how committed service at our station is key.

We’re going to consider the last half of the chapter in two parts, starting with Paul’s counsel to the engaged in the context of “the present distress” (verse 26) in a world that is “passing away” (verse 31). Paul will give his judgement in the matter (verses 25-28), and then give five exhortations for Christian judgement (verses 29-31). Is marriage a mess worth making, or a mess worth avoiding?

Married Couple Problems (verses 25-28)

When I mention the ESV translation I usually am critical. I should express more thanks more often, since I do think it’s a great translation overall, it is what I read for myself and memorize and preach from, and it’s what I encourage others to use. In these troubled translation waters, the ESV does very well.

Now concerning or “about” (NIV) likely refers again to the letter that the Corinthians wrote him. He started the chapter that way (verse 1) as some in the church were arguing for the good of abstinence in marriage. They thought it was more holy, even for spouses, to avoid sex. They also apparently thought it was more holy to avoid certain foods, as the “now concerning” introduces chapter 8 as well. Here is the middle issue, it is more holy to not consummate an engagement.

The ESV translates, now concerning the betrothed, which again, I think is appropriate. The Greek word for betrothed is the word “virgins” (KJV) (found six times between verses 25-38), those who had never been married, what we might call bachelors and bachelorettes. But throughout the passage, and especially nearer to the front of church history, some Bible readers/teachers have taken this as instruction not for betrothed men or women but for fathers with their daughters, especially in verses 36-38. There are better arguments against that view (including the fact that “fathers” are never mentioned, nor are “daughters”), and those arguments support this being instruction for couples who are engaged to be married. Should they go through with it, or should they end it?

Jesus never gave a sermon on that subject, so Paul said, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. It is similar to verse 10 where he makes a distinction between himself and the Lord, but here he gives his judgement rather than a “charge” (he uses the same word again in verse 40, the other bookend to this section). He is giving his counsel but not a command. It is an “opinion” in the same way a judge writes an opinion. He expects them not to listen and obey his way of thinking, but to listen and think for themselves in light of what he said and choose wisely. Part of the shepherd’s job is help his sheep distinguish for themselves what is good.

Here is his judgement. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. He’s using language from verse 1 and the Corinthian position about what is “good.” What’s good is not being unmarried, but being content. This is not surprising after the previous paragraph with the “remain” refrain (verses 17, 20, 24). Rather than worry about religious symbols or social status, here he says again not to worry about your marital status. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. Probably this would make more sense to say, “Are you bound by promise to a fiancée? Are you free from engagement obligations?” He already gave counsel about not getting divorced (verses 10-11), and that was from the Lord; that’s not just Paul’s judgment. But whether or not to have a wedding, that is.

He follows it up with, If you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Guys and gals, marriage is good. Note which side the pressure is coming from. It’s coming from the ascetic side, the side that also said it’s good for a man not to have sex with his wife, the side perhaps going so far as to say that divorce is better. Of course that side says don’t get married.

Imagine this message preached at a Christian conference on celibacy for those considering it, run by those who think it is spiritually superior, not a conference for singles wanting to meet other singles run by those who think marriage is spiritually inferior. Paul is defending marriage, not demeaning it.

Paul agrees that not everyone needs to get married, but for a different reason than spiritual superiority. It is no sin to marry. There is no lesser holiness in marriage. To read any of his other writings on marriage corroborates the glory of a godly marriage. God instituted marriage for sake of illustrating the intimate joy between Christ and His Bride, the Church. Husbands sacrifice in love for their wives as an embodied illustration of Jesus, and wives submit in respect to their husbands as an embodied illustration of the church. Marriage is God’s idea for the world, for experiencing and illustrating divine, Trinitarian fellowship and also for dominion taking fruitfulness. It is no sin.

Due to sin, though, it does have difficulty. And back to verse 26, there is a present distress, and that relates to his final comment in verse 29. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. Is the distress and the troubles something present to the Corinthians that is not present for us (or other generations in other places)? Or is it distress and troubles that face every potential married couple, or even distress that comes from the marriage relationship itself? Does Paul’s judgment have more to do with the historical context or with eschatological implications?

Both?! (Ha!) There are principles in verses 29-31 that apply in all times and places, as well as observations about split anxieties and interests in verses 32-35 which we’ll see next Lord’s day. But there does seem to be something unique in the Corinthian context, possibly the regional famine reported by men such as Eusebius and Suetonius (c. AD 51), that does provide a specific example of the kids of general issues that may confront spouses. Marriage is difficult, and certain factors outside the home may make it even more so. It could be economic depression, it could be targeted persecution of Christians, it could be other afflictions.

The situation calls for “emergency measures,” so Paul says, think about it. Is now a good time or a difficult time to add marriage and family responsibilities? It’s one thing to feed yourself, it’s another to feed five.

Married Couple Perspective (verses 29-31)

Paul also says, This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. Appointed time for what? For the end of the famine or it’s lingering effects? For the destruction of Jerusalem and the effects of persecution on believers throughout the world in AD 70? For the return of Christ and the end of the world? It matters. Will things change in a couple months, and then we can get married? Or is this the new normal?

It relates to his last comment in verse 31. For the present form of this world is passing away. The form of the world is not the world itself, but an illustration from the theater, either of an actor crossing the stage or the backdrop quickly replaced by another between scenes.

In the meantime, there are five “as though” (or “as if”) exhortations. Paul starts, From now on and then shows different spheres for Christian disciples.

1. Marriage (and family). let those who have wives live as though they had none.

Already we know that this cannot mean sexual or physical separation because of the earlier part of the same chapter (verses 1-5). It cannot even mean mental or relational separation, let alone physical and material separation. There are too many other letters from Paul about it. “Husbands, love your wives.” Give up your life for her, rather than give up your wife for your (spiritual) life.

So what is Paul saying? He’s saying that your calling to salvation is a higher priority than your calling to marriage, so don’t sacrifice your Christian obedience for sake of your spouse. The callings are relative, but that doesn’t make them mutually exclusive, one or the other.

2. Grief and disappointment. (let) those who mourn (live) as though they were not mourning.

Do you have reasons to be sad? Do your family members or friends or fellow church members have a reason to be sad? “Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), but do not go about over-mourning. Do not mourn in such a way that death looks like it has sting. And death is worse than disappointments, so do not let your grief be your god.

3. Gladness and celebration. (let) those who rejoice (live) as though they were not rejoicing.

Did your wife give birth? Did your “baby” just graduate, or get married? Did your neighbor get a promotion? “Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). And also remember that your hope is in God, not in earthly successes. These things are good, and they are only part of what God has prepared for His people.

4. Purchasing and consuming. (let) those who buy (live) as though they had no goods.

As in, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions“ said Jesus (Luke 12:15). Don’t be a fool. But don’t be a fooling around the other way either. Don’t be a fool by burying your business, burying your talents, starving yourself to death by not eating the loaf of WonderBread. Sliced bread! Gap Kids! Or Goodwill!

5. Working and networking. (let) those who deal with the world (live) as though they had no dealings with it.

Are you a mover and shaker? Move and shake and don’t be defined by it. Don’t let it “occupy your entire attention” (Thiselton). Be defined by your worship of God, and then enjoy the process until you die or Christ comes back. Paul isn’t calling all men to be monks on Monday morning. He’s saying that we ought to have a different attitude and answer for others to see when we show up on Monday morning.

Hold on, loosely. God has planned great things for His people, and don’t get attached to your idea of what those things will be, especially if those things look a lot like what you love apart from Him rather than love from and for Him.

Conclusion

Where does marriage fit in the world? As a glorious, God-given, image-bearing opportunity that won’t always be the way it is now, just as every other disciple’s opportunity such as friendship and funerals, babies and businesses, and all other activities in the world.

Let goods and kindred go if God calls you to. Give thanks for goods and kindred as God calls you to. This life is mortal, not meaningless, and so is marriage. It is a mess worth making, not avoiding, at lease for many.


Charge

The Second Commandment is not named the Alternative Commandment for a reason. The First and Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. But it would be a mistake to think that loving God with our “all” means loving God “only” because Jesus also said to love our neighbor. It apparently isn’t a conflict to love another person, and for those who are married it can’t be the case that loving your neighbor is better than loving your spouse, a sort of live-in neighbor. So the two commandments don’t contradict, or even compete, not if we obey them correctly. The appointed time has grown short. Walk in love, it is not wasted in the world.

Benediction:

[M]ay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:1)