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The Present Distress (Pt 2)

*1 Corinthians 7:32-40
June 3, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 17:00 in the audio file.

Or, Marriage: A Mess Worth Avoiding?

It is always a good challenge to figure out how to redeem the time because the days are evil. Presumably, those who are not saved don’t really care about the redeeming part. They serve the competing gods of Happy Moment Providers, Inc. But for those who have God’s Spirit, those who hear God’s Word, those who love God’s Son, we want to know how to honor Him in the world.

There are inevitably, though, some Christians who prefer to do this with the least amount of tension as possible. Another word for tension could be “anxiety,” and while there is a wrong way to be anxious, there is an appropriate way if by it we mean that we are concerned to do the right thing. As disciples, we are concerned to please our Master. How can we do that the best?

The most crucial human relationship that requires consideration is marriage. From the beginning, men and women have been getting married, or wanting to get married, or not getting married, and it takes up a lot of effort. Think about how dominant this theme is through all the love stories, the love songs, and the credit card bills in history. From dating to wedding to signing mortgage papers, then to being fruitful and multiplying, all this, as it turns out, consumes a lot of resources both individually and as a society. For those who love Christ more than anyone else, should they keep their love and service “pure” from any other commitments, including a spouse (and kids)?

These are some of the questions Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians 7. The church in Corinth had written Paul a letter, which he referred to in verse 1, and to which he’s replying. Based on the tone he takes, their letter to him sought his confirmation on their choice standards for holiness. Some of them had a dualistic, an ascetic, an almost anti-body approach. They argued that married couples should remain celibate, and that if married couples could become single, even better.

Starting in verse 25 the subject switches to the betrothed, to those who were promised to others for marriage but who were not yet married. Paul’s counsel is consistent with the previous 24 verses: be content and be holy, and if that is in marriage, so be it.

He refers to “the present distress” in verse 26, and I believe that this was a unique, local, more temporary problem facing the believers in Corinth. Paul’s “judgement” is not relative, but it is related to the particular life setting. He says, especially in light of the present distress, it avoids some stresses if you ca go through the distress without a wife (and family). That said, it is better to be in the distress with a wife than to be in the distress with the guilt of sexual immorality.

Verses 32-40 continue the counsel with another reason to consider not getting married, along with a final word of counsel for the betrothed and then extended to widows.

Married Couple Distractions (verses 32-35)

Paul’s recommendation of celibacy is for those for whom God gives this gift, which is not everyone. Consider your calling.

I want you to be free from anxieties. These stresses come along with the present distress, as well as distractions. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

This is a simplistic description, and yet a fair distinction. Thinking about one is less than thinking about two.

Paul refers to two sources of anxieties. The word anxieties means “cares” or “concerns,” and cares are inevitable. But can you have less cares, or more focused cares? Apparently yes. The single man, who is content and who is in control of his desires, cares mainly about one relationship. He lives on one level, he is only pulled on one direction. He is interested in pleasing one other person, the Lord.

The married man (who is content and who is faithful) cares about two relationships, the horizontal–with his wife, and the vertical–with his Lord. But it is not that simple; he serves his wife for the Lord’s sake (per Ephesians 5:25-30), not just for her sake. Yet this still is two-levels to think about, and guys are not always so multi-tasking able.

This does mean that, if you are married, you cannot please the Lord by attempting to only please the Lord. That is, you can’t neglect your wife (sexually—verses 1-5, materially, or any other kind of way) and claim that it is for Christ.

Paul repeats his observation about the females, too. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. This is another way to say the same thing. To be holy in body and spirit is to be fully holy, but it is in her devotion that she is holy, not necessarily her celibacy. Married couples can also be holy in body and spirit even though it is a different application.

I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. Paul is not laying down law. He is not throwing a “noose around their neck” (BDAG). He is acknowledging that with the present distress there are benefits to serving the Lord as a single person.

As I said regarding verses 25-31, I am not convinced that this is his counsel for all times and all places. The reason he gives for undivided devotion applies to directly to the present distress facing the Christians in Corinth. Yes, we can see how there are always a multitude and variety of challenges that married couples face that do not come to those who are single (in-laws, bills, kids, etc). And yet, he never says anything like this in his other letters. His concern is about contentment, purity, and ability to focus on serving the Lord.

Instructions for the Engaged (verses 36-38)

These three verses have a high number of translation questions. The ESV represents one approach, and I think it is the best approach.

The NASB “transterprets” this paragraph as addressing fathers with virgin daughters. “If any man things that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry.“ The NASB makes this an issue of a dad failing to find a match or allow an engagement to be consummated with his daughter (italicized because the word isn’t in the Greek text) that is coming of age or about ready to pass her prime. This is a better possibility than that the father is concerned about committing incest with his daughter.

The ESV acknowledges that the word “father” is not in the Greek text, nor is the word “daughter.” The ESV also acknowledges that referring to the parental level would be introducing a third group into the passage oddly and unnecessarily. All along Paul has addressed people directly, not those who have authority over someone else.

I believe that verses 36-38 are addressed to those who are in some sort of betrothal or engagement relationship. So, if you are engaged, and you’ve been holding off for some reason, perhaps even in light of the present distress, consider what you should do.

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry–it is no sin. Paul starts with this both because of the pressure from some who must have been saying that it was much more spiritual not to get married and also because of the present distress. It isn’t sin to get married. Not at all.

That said, whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. A number of factors make this a good choice. It has to be something that the young man has decided for himself, not something that someone else decided for him, whether a parent or someone in the church; he is under no necessity. Is he content?

It must also be something that belongs with holiness. He cannot be lusting and longing for sex, dissatisfied with his current condition; he has his desire under control. Is he self-controlled?

The additional phrases emphasize the free choice that he’s happy to make. If all these factors line up and he chooses not to get married, he does well.

Verse 38 summarizes the previous two verses. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. Neither is wrong, neither is sin. One is not better morally or spiritually. It is not that the one who remains single does better in pleasing God necessarily, but that he avoids some of the anxieties in the present world. It is not better to be anxious about staying single because someone is making you think that is the more spiritual way.

Instructions for Widows (verses 39-40)

The final verses finish Paul’s alternating pattern of addressing males and then females. His counsel to the engaged applied to both, and he finishes the section of response to them about widows. If it is not sin for the betrothed to marry, it is not sin for the widowed to remarry.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. This is the law, and he said more about this to compare the Christian’s relationship with the Mosaic Law in Romans 7:1-4. A marriage is, “till death do us part.” This is not a comment about divorce and remarriage, he already addressed that earlier in the chapter. The point is, God made marriage for life.

But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Those who say that any remarriage of any kind, even after the death of a spouse, have to answer this verse (along with Paul’s command to younger widows to remarry in 1 Timothy 5:11-15). Yes, a husband and wife have a connection that will not be forgotten. And also, when one spouse dies, the living spouse is free, the same status Paul assigned in verse 15 (“not enslaved”). She is free from her vows to her husband, and she is not bound to the Jewish (levirate) law of marrying one’s brother-in-law.

The only requirement is that she marry in the Lord. There is no good reason to understand this stipulation as anything other than saying that she must marry another Christian. In the first generation of believers, a wife may have come to faith apart from her husband, or visa versa. Those who were already in marriage should stay married as long as the unbelieving partner is willing. But now she knows better. Don’t take on a mixed marriage on purpose; that is not only being pulled in two directions, but more like two opposite directions. There’s enough mess in marriage as it is.

That said, she does not have to remarry. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. This bookends the “judgment” section (see the same word used in verse 25). Paul has been urging contentment all along. He is confronting those who seem incapable of being happy unless they change something. Spirituality doesn’t depend on the checkboxes. So if the woman doesn’t want to get married again, she has different opportunities, and like Paul she could be happy in the station of widowhood.

And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. He ends this way because some in Corinth were trying to convince the believers that they knew better, that they had more of the Spirit, than the apostle. He doesn’t argue that he has more, but he does argue that he doesn’t have less.


Men define their spiritual superiority by which teacher they associate with (so the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians). Men define their spiritual superiority by how much or how little they have sex (as seen in the last part of chapter 6 and the first part of chapter 7). Men define their spiritual superiority by marital status. This isn’t where Christlikeness is defined, but it is where Christlikeness should be at.

The Cynics spurned marriage because they desired freedom from obligation. By contrast, Paul rejects marriage for himself because it gives him freedom for service. (Garland)

What station has God assigned you to? There is where He wants you to honor Him and be holy as He is holy.


Go out and please the Lord. Learn His will, walk in His ways, and you will please Him. Bear fruit in every good work. Receive all your responsibilities and relationships as from Him and through Him and to Him. Devote yourself to the Lord and you will do well.


Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, 28, ESV)