Now, I’ll confess, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when Paul preached that sermon. But I am almost sure he asked the Corinthians that exact question in a sermon one time. You see, he spent a few years with the Corinthians. And on some Sunday, I am nearly 100% certain that Paul stood before the congregation and asked them, “How would you live your life differently if you knew you had only one week to live?”
Remember that country song by Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”? Some of you remember the gist of the song: a man is dying and sets out to do things he’d always wanted to do.
Rocky mountain climbing
Riding a bull named …
Anyone remember? Fu Man Chu!
Sure, we all have bucket list things we’d love to do. But I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind. "How would you live your life differently if you knew you had only one week to live?” Actually, Paul wasn’t sure he had even one week. Paul was convinced when he preached that sermon that Jesus would return at any moment. In fact, for most of Paul’s ministry, he believed Jesus’ return was imminent. In his letter to the Romans, he writes:
Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. (Romans 13:11–12)In his letter to the Philippians, he writes:
Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. (Philippians 4:5)When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he spoke to them about how the Lord would return:
First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. (I Thessalonians 4:16–17)I think Paul preached this sermon wherever he went, and when you hear that sermon over and over again, you begin to think seriously about its implications. Let me share with you one serious implication that surfaced in the earliest days of the church.
There were some who believed that since Jesus would return at any moment, they should leave everything and prepare for God’s arrival. This same thing has happened at other times in history. Even in America, there was a man named William Miller who predicted Jesus would return on March 21, 1843. Miller’s followers prepared for that day. They sold their possessions. Many of them went to the top of mountains to meet the Lord in the air. My favorite story is of some high-society women. They went outside the city limits so that when they ascended to heaven, they wouldn’t have to meet God with all of the common folk! Well, that is kind of what was happening in Corinth. They took Paul at his word, and they were preparing for the end. But one thing they were “leaving behind” was marriage. You see, they had come to believe that since Jesus was returning at any moment, they should leave their families. Leave your wife, leave your husband, leave your children. If you are married, walk away. Don’t concern yourself with “fleshly things.” Instead, concentrate only on the Spirit! And to be honest, it’s not difficult to see how they could have come up with that idea! Church, think of it this way: these earliest Christians were still inventing the Christian life. Do you remember what Paul wrote in Galatians 3?
All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27–28)It’s possible that in those earliest days of the church, they also knew about this saying of Jesus:
Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage … they are like angels. (Luke 20:34–36)Now, take those two teachings and add to them the fact that Paul was not married! We must remember that these Corinthian Christians had no past Christian tradition to look to. They were inventing the Christian life as they went! They were trying to work out what the gospel looks like in real life, and one conclusion they had drawn: It’s not good for men and women to marry in this Christian era. As chapter 7 of I Corinthians begins, Paul responds to some questions posed by the Corinthians and right out of the box, we read this:
Now, about what you wrote: “It’s good for a man not to touch a woman.” (I Corinthians 7:1)And by “touch a woman,” they mean “have sex with a woman." Really, they are talking about marriage. There were some Corinthians who believed marriage was inappropriate in these last days. And so, Paul responds to that statement here in chapter 7. And boy does he respond! He gives the Corinthians more than they asked for! With this one chapter, we could construct an entire series on marriage, sex, celibacy, singleness, and even slavery! But when you step back from all of the trees, you begin to see the forest. You begin to see Paul’s main concern.
I think what we have here is a follow-up sermon by Paul. “Yes, I said in my sermon that you should live like Jesus would return at any moment, but maybe I should have been more specific. Here is what I really meant…” If you are married, stay married. If your spouse has died, don’t get remarried, unless you just really want to. And as he begins to talk to single people, I think we get Paul’s main point. Listen…
I don’t have a command from the Lord about people who have never been married, but I’ll give you my opinion as someone you can trust because of the Lord’s mercy. So I think this advice is good because of the present crisis: Stay as you are. If you are married, don’t get a divorce. If you are divorced, don’t try to find a spouse. But if you do marry, you haven’t sinned; and if someone who hasn’t been married gets married, they haven’t sinned. But married people will have a hard time, and I’m trying to spare you that. This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them. Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away.
I want you to be free from concerns. A man who isn’t married is concerned about the Lord’s concerns—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the world’s concerns—how he can please his wife. His attention is divided. A woman who isn’t married or who is a virgin is concerned about the Lord’s concerns so that she can be dedicated to God in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the world’s concerns—how she can please her husband. I’m saying this for your own advantage. It’s not to restrict you but rather to promote effective and consistent service to the Lord without distraction.
So, Paul’s main point is pretty clear. He didn’t have a theological problem with marriage. He was not saying marriage and sex and family are bad things! Paul’s advice here stems from his conviction that the present world is passing away soon. He wants to set the Corinthians free for whole-hearted service to God. Regardless of whatever social condition they might presently find themselves in. Husbands and wives and children compete with our service to God and Paul’s greatest desire was that his spiritual children would serve God with their whole selves, unhindered, because the end was drawing near.
Now, before we make the same mistake these Corinthians made, I should point something out. It is tempting to read this chapter as a God-ordained pattern for the Christian life.
“Well, Paul said ‘singleness’ is better than marriage…”
“So, I guess we should try to remain single unless we just can’t help ourselves.”
“God must prefer the single life to the married life!”
“Look, that’s what he says…”
And that is exactly what some folks have done with this chapter. You know, sometimes we read the Bible and we completely ignore its context. One of the things I love about this passage has nothing to do with Paul’s advice about marriage. I love it that we see Paul wrestle with that difficult task of applying the gospel to new situations. I Corinthians 7 is a clinic on interpreting Scripture for new contexts. Just look at what he does with divorce beginning in verse 10.
I’m passing on the Lord’s command to those who are married: A wife shouldn’t leave her husband, but if she does leave him, then she should stay single or be reconciled to her husband. And a man shouldn’t divorce his wife. (I Corinthians 7:10-11)
Up to this point, Paul is simply repeating what Jesus said in Mark 10. Divorce is bad; don’t get divorced! But then Paul goes into verse 12:
I’m telling everyone else (the Lord didn’t say this specifically): If a believer has a wife who doesn’t believe, and she agrees to live with him, the he shouldn’t divorce her. If a woman has a husband who doesn’t believe and he agrees to live with her, then she shouldn’t divorce him. … But if a spouse who doesn’t believe chooses to leave, then let them leave. The brother or sister is not tied down in these circumstances. (I Corinthians 7:12-15)
When Jesus preached His sermon from Mark 10, all of His followers were Jews. But by the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the landscape of the church had changed. Now there were Jews and Greeks. Now there were believers married to unbelievers. This was a dynamic that didn’t exist when Jesus was here. So, Paul took Jesus’ words about divorce and applied them to a new situation. And we see Paul doing the same kind of thing with marriage. I Corinthians was one of the first writings of Paul that we have. Probably written around 50 AD, Jesus has been gone less than 20 years, and Paul believed His return was imminent. In this letter, Paul’s advice is: “Don’t get married unless you just have to.” You won’t hear this text preached at most weddings! But Paul’s advice comes directly from his conviction that Jesus was coming at any moment. “Don’t burden yourself with a family, because you need to be about the Lord’s work!”
Paul’s letters to Timothy were two of the last writings, chronologically speaking, in the New Testament. Probably written shortly before Paul’s death around 67 AD, nearly 20 years after Paul wrote I Corinthians and during those intervening decades, Paul’s perspective changed a bit. Concerning marriage, he writes:
“So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households.” (I Timothy 5:14)
Paul wouldn’t have written that 20 years earlier. In fact, he didn’t. The gospel doesn’t change. But the way that we apply it changes all the time. And I love Paul for showing us that!
So, how should we apply this teaching from I Corinthians 7?
We now live twenty centuries removed from the time when Jesus said He would return soon. We now know that Paul’s expectation of the imminent return of Jesus was wrong. Or, at the very least, his timetable was off. And if Paul began to change his tune on this subject (like he did in I Timothy), I think it’s OK if we do too. Yes, I think Jesus will return some day, without a doubt! I have faith in God’s faithfulness to His promises! But our definition of “soon” is obviously not God’s definition of “soon.” Boy, there are some days when I wish God’s definition of “soon” was more like my definition, how about you? But given the fact that our definitions are different, is there anything to be gleaned from Paul’s words in I Corinthians 7 for us? How should Christians today take Paul’s advice to “stay in the condition in which you were called?” I see in I Corinthians 7 an urgent call for followers of Christ to find their true identity as children of God. More than anything else, Paul reminds the Corinthians…
You may be married.
You may be divorced.
You may be a widow.
You may be single or engaged.
But none of these categories truly defines who you are.
And this question of identity moves far beyond the boundaries of family. In my essence, I am not just a preacher. In your essence, you are not just a doctor, or a teacher, or a mother or a father, or anything else. In your essence you are a child of God. And as a child of God you have been given a clear mission in this life. Glorify God in everything that you do. Make disciples that look just like Jesus. Some of those disciples might be in your own living room! We do not know when Jesus will return. It might be today! But it might be 2000 more years. In the meantime, I think Paul would have us consider this question: How would you live your life differently if you knew you had only one week to live? Now, go live that kind of life!