Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:25–7:40
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 trouble, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. 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. 35 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.
36 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. 37 But 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. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
It has been seventeen years since eHarmony.com burst on the scene, promising to match single men and women with each other by (and I quote) “creating more meaningful connections that lead to fulfilling marriages.” Today it boasts of helping nearly five hundred couple every day find marital bliss.
But eHarmony is not alone. According to Online Dating Magazine (and, yes, there is such a thing), there are now more than twenty-five hundred online dating services in the United States, and more than twice that many worldwide. There are dating sites for nearly every imaginable demographic, including age, race, vocation, income, personal interests, and religion. And while not all of these sites promote marriage as their goal, many do. And of those that do, few will admit—as a recent Michigan State study has shown—the divorce rate among couples who are brought together by them is significantly higher than the national average.
So before giving thought to linking onto one of those sites, let me remind you that God has a far more competent word of instruction regarding singleness and marriage to pass along to us.
This morning we once again find ourselves in the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Although this one chapter does not give us a complete picture of the Bible’s instruction related to marriage, it does represent the most comprehensive discussion on the subject found anywhere in Scripture. So far in this chapter we have noted how Paul has addressed various groups of believers within the church at Corinth, including the married and the widowed. He has also given direction to Christians who are married to fellow-believers as well as those married to unbelievers. In each situation his concern is that God’s name be protected through the preservation of the marital commitment.
As we resume our look at this chapter today, we pick up the discussion in verse 25, where we immediately observe that he is addressing yet another group...those he calls “the betrothed.” We find that term reappearing throughout this section, so we would be wise to determine its meaning and to whom it refers before we proceed.
The word is “παρθενοs,” which the most reliable Greek lexicons translate as “virgin.” It is a term that is almost exclusively used of young women who have never had sexual relations. It is the word employed by both Matthew (1:23) and Luke (1:27) in describing the birth of Jesus by the “virgin” Mary. Here in 1 Corinthians 7 it is translated “betrothed” by the English Standard Version in order to describe those who had not yet been married but were engaged to be wed. It is perhaps possible that Paul meant for the term to have been applied to unmarried men as well—at least here in verse 25—but it is clearly used of men only once in all the rest of Scripture (cf. Revelation 14:4).
It is important for us to understand, lest we attempt to read our contemporary concepts of the “single state” into Paul’s instruction, that when the Bible speaks of the “singleness” it implies two things: being unmarried and being sexually abstinent. As you know, that is not always what is meant in referring to “singleness” today. Paul is addressing neither “cohabitation” nor “playing the field sexually” here. Elsewhere in Scripture, that is called “sin.”
Therefore, having identified the primary subjects of this passage—namely sexually pure young women who were engaged to be married—we can begin to see that Paul has a number of positive things to say with regard to the single state. In fact, he even appears to be recommending that such persons give pause and reconsider their plans to marry. And in doing so, he cites no fewer than five reasons why singleness may indeed be the preferred state for some of them.
In the first place, he suggested to these Corinthian believers in verses 25 through 28 that...
Singleness was preferred in view of the present distress (verses 25-28)
As we pointed out last week, and as Paul reminds us again here, Jesus did not address every circumstance regarding marriage during His earthly ministry. Therefore, Paul offers his “judgment,” and he reminds us that he is speaking with apostolic authority. Therefore, the comments he offers here are as “trustworthy” and biblically authoritative as if Jesus Himself had spoken them.
“In light of the present distress,” he writes, “it is good for a person to remain as he is.” That counsel merely reiterates the principle that he had already stated three times in verses 17 through 24. It is repeated here in verse 27, when he writes, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free? Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” Regardless of whether a person was married or single at the time of their trusting Christ, the apostle once again reminds them that, even though some among them may have thought otherwise, embracing the Gospel neither necessitated nor implied a change in one’s marital status.
But here Paul inserts a further qualifier, which he calls “the present distress.” While some commentators believe this to be a reference to the entire time in between the first and second comings of Christ—which would include the day in which you and I are living—it is more likely that Paul is referring to unspecified troubling conditions which existed in the time in which he wrote, and which would have had a direct bearing upon the lives of the believers in Corinth. “In light of the trouble that you are already experiencing,” the apostle appears to be saying, “who needs the additional burden of caring for a wife and family as well?” To this day we are forced to admit that the added responsibilities of the married state are felt more acutely in times of economic or other social crisis.
While we cannot say with certainty what the specific “distress” in Corinth might have been at the time of the writing, it does send a message to those living in any era of history to exercise a measure of common sense and good judgment—coupled with much prayer and searching the Scriptures—before entering into a marital commitment.
The unusually difficult circumstances in Corinth meant that staying single was advisable, at least for the time being. The wisdom (or not) of marrying or making other critical life decisions that will affect the lives of others may depend (at least in part) on the timing of events. We all need wisdom to be able to discern the times and understand our circumstances so as to know the best way to glorify God and avoid putting ourselves or others under unnecessary duress.
Recognizing that not everyone would follow his advice, Paul adds in verse 28, “But if you do marry (and, no doubt, some of you will), you have not sinned, and if a betrothed (or engaged) woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly trouble, and I would spare you that.” Whether to marry or not is not a matter of “sin,” per se, but of discerning what is best...best for you, best for the one you are thinking of marrying, and ultimately best for the glory of God.
Given life’s circumstances, there are times when singleness is preferred over marriage, and Christians need to ask for grace to discern properly which is the wiser course to pursue. As the writer of Ecclesiastes (3:1 and 5b) wrote, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” Therefore, we need the Lord’s wisdom in making this critical life choice.
Beginning in verse 29, Paul adds both further explanation and expands upon what he has just said. So next he tells the Corinthian Christians that...
Singleness was preferred in view of the passing world (verses 29-31)
One of the books I like for couples to read and discuss when I am doing premarital counseling with them is John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage. For some it is a real eye-opener inasmuch as the writer presents the biblical view that (and I quote),
Romance, sex, and childbearing are temporary gifts of God. They are not part of the next life. And they are not guaranteed even for this life. They are one possible path through the narrow way to Paradise. Marriage passes through breathtaking heights and through swamps with choking vapors. It makes many things sweeter, and with it come bitter providences.
Marriage, as decreed for this life, was not intended by God to be eternal. The fact that death claims the very best of marriages testifies all too vividly to that reality. Marriage, however, was (and is) meant by God to illustrate a higher truth.
To again quote Piper,
Marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore, the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream.
To put it in the words of another, “Marriage, then, is a parable, a gracious, glorious parable given by God, that tells of the permanence of Christ’s commitment to His people.” Earthly marriage is a graphic picture of the eternal marriage that the Lord will one day consummate with His Church. On that day, there will be no more need for the shadow...the reality will have arrived.
Neither this life nor the trappings of this life will last forever. What’s more, like sand in an hour-glass, Paul reminds us that “the appointed time has grown very short.” All of us have less-life to live than we might like to imagine. Therefore, let us live now with eternity in view. That is the essence of the comparisons Paul makes in these three verses.
Please notice that he employs five “as though” (“‘ωs μη”) statements, beginning midway through verse 29: “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
What this is meant to imply is that the followers of Jesus Christ live in this present life with one eye firmly fixed upon the next. Christians are to “use” the world without allowing themselves to be “used” by it. To paraphrase Paul from Romans 12:2, we are “not to let the world squeeze us into its mold” by becoming overly “conformed” to it. Nothing about the “form” of this present world should characterize or define us as Christians.
Verse 31 assures us that there is a new world coming, and the things of this world are even now beginning to fade away. In light of that, seeking to be married should not be the primary goal of our lives. While God grants marriage as a “gift” to some (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7), it still remains something that is a part of this life. Later in this same letter, Paul will encourage believers to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31). That counsel applies to every aspect of our lives. So, where does your heart’s “desire” lie this morning?
Singleness just could be the preferred state for many in light of life’s present circumstances and the fact that “the form of this world is passing away.” There is yet a third factor that Paul wanted to impress upon the readers of this letter and, by extension, to us as well. We find it in verses 32 through 35 where...
Singleness was preferred in view of the pressures of marital life (verses 32-35)
Simply put, there are distractions in the married life that do not exist in the single life. These distractions are referred to as “anxieties” in verse 32, and a form of that same word (“μεριμνα”) is found three more times in this paragraph. It means “cares,” “concerns,” or “worries.” Paul does not want his readers to be unduly “concerned” even as they must “concern” themselves with the affairs of this life.
I cannot help but reflect back to the story of Mary and Martha in this regard. “Martha,” you recall, “was distracted with much serving,” but her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” When Martha complained to Jesus about having to bear what she considered a disproportionate share of the meal preparations, He rebuked her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious (same word) and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Marriage brings with it “distractions” that the single life does not. And should children be added, those “distractions” begin multiplying exponentially.
In the passage before us, Paul is pleading that we maintain our focus and our “concern” on the things of “how to (best) please the Lord” by “be(ing) holy in body and spirit.” His intention is not that these Corinthians would find themselves unfairly “restrained” by being consigned to the loneliness of the single life, but rather that they might have greater freedom to dedicate themselves to more fully serving the Lord in the most fitting and proper way possible. In other words,“to secure (their) undivided devotion to the Lord.”
It is that statement which leads directly into his fourth consideration for recommending the unmarried state. In verses 36 through 38 he explains that...
Singleness was preferred in view of the purpose of pleasing the Lord (verses 36-38)
Nearly every expositor of the Word treads softly when coming to these verses. As someone has aptly pointed out, “Reading other people’s mail can be confusing.” That is particularly true when we do not fully understand the cultural background and circumstances with which Paul wrote to this young church in Corinth. We can surmise to a point, but only to a point. Thus, we are left to draw general principles to the extent that we are accurately able to do so.
This passage is plagued by uncertainties concerning its subjects as well as by its ambiguities. For example, who is the “anyone” Paul is addressing? What is meant by “not behaving properly”? Who exactly is the “betrothed” being referred to here? And what is meant by the phrase, “if his passions are strong”? In spite of these uncertainties, it is clear that the apostle is dealing with delicate issues of personal choice and responsibility. The matter being discussed does not so much concern “right” and “wrong,” but—to borrow Paul’s words—with what is “well” and what is “better.”
It would take too much time to work our way through the various interpretations of these verses that have been suggested, so I will fast forward to what I personally believe this text to be teaching. It is reasonable to assume that Paul is addressing “betrothed” Christian couples because that topic is consistent at the forefront of this entire passage. Therefore, the “anyone” in verse 36 would refer to the man who is “betrothed” or engaged to a young woman.
“Not behaving properly toward his betrothed” could mean a couple of possible things. He is either giving in to sexual temptation with her, or he has been holding off on marrying her for a longer period of time than would be considered appropriate. Quite possibly both of those things may have been true. With regard to either or both of those circumstances, Paul says, “Let them wed.”
There is much debate on how the phrase which the English Standard Version reads “if his passions are strong” should be translated. For example, the highly-regarded Holman Christian Standard Bible renders it, “if she is past marriageable age.” The committee of translators for King James Version colorfully interpreted it, “if she pass the flower of her age.” Lexically speaking, both meanings are possible. Regardless of how one translates the phrase, the interpretation seems to be that there will be times when circumstances dictate that marriage is to be preferred.
But unduly straining over how Paul may have meant for the phrase to be read is to miss his overriding point...which is in whichever course one follows—to be married or to remain single—the objective is to be found pleasing to the Lord. That is the consistent message of this entire section.
In commenting on these three verses, John Calvin considered them to be the summary of Paul’s marital advice to the Corinthian Christians. And in so doing he highlighted three main points from this section: First, celibacy is preferable to marriage because of the freedom it provides to serve the Lord. Second, no one should be compelled to remain single if circumstances present themselves and there is a desire to marry. And third, marriage is a “remedy” provided by God for our weakness, and is a natural choice for those not possessing the gift of celibacy.
That brings us to the final two verses of the chapter. More often than not, they have been set apart by themselves as a separate topic. Instead, I think that Paul meant for them to provide a fifth reason that the single state should be considered a viable option. He concludes his counsel to the Corinthians on this subject by telling them that...
Singleness was preferred in view of the prospect for serving the Lord (verses 39-40)
Paul begins here by reminding them that marriage is for life. Death and death alone was included in God’s original design to be the terminal point of the marital relationship. When a couple says to one another in the presence of witnesses—including the ever-present witness of God—that they will remain husband and wife “until death do them part,” they are making a sacred pledge to one another...a pledge meant to picture the covenant pledge that the Lord makes with His people. Just as Christ’s Bride is permanently bound to His Bride, so earthly marriage is intended to remain fixed, separated only by the passing of a spouse. Jesus called any other breach in the marital relationship an “allowance” brought about because of the “hardness” of men’s hearts (cf. Matthew 19:8).
Here and now, as we await that great “marriage supper of the Lamb” (cf. Revelation 19:9), a concession is made for those whose spouses predecease them. They are free to marry again, with the stipulation, “only in the Lord.” Indeed, as we have pointed out already in our journey through this chapter, that is a qualifier for every marriage the Christian may enter into. It belongs at the top of everyone’s list in terms of what to look for in a potential mate. Any time a follower of Christ marries an unbeliever, that person’s prospects for serving the Lord will be greatly hindered. And let it be noted, no one’s situation is an exception. This is the Word of the Lord!
Here again, restating the constant that has run throughout this section, Paul urges the widowed person to consider remaining single. The word “happier” means “blessed.” It is the very word Jesus employed in His Sermon on the Mount. Think of it this way: while it is not a universal principle for everyone, there seems to be a special “blessing” promised to those who have been called to forego marriage for the purpose of serving the Lord more freely and effectively.
As we draw to a close our study of this important chapter, taken from a letter addressing the real and practical situations found in local church life, it seems highly unlikely that any of us would be able to avoid finding our own circumstances somewhere within these forty verses. This morning’s passage is addressed not only to singles, but to the entire church. That is because we are all—marrieds and singles alike—members of the same family. I was reminded of this recently in reading again from Mark 10, verses 29 and 30, where...
“Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’”
That being said, I would like to conclude with words of application to three groups of people based upon what the Lord has been pleased to reveal to us through this weighty chapter:
First, to those of you who are married. As far as within you is possible, remain within your marriage and work to make it one that honors the Lord. It is He who has ordained your marriage in the first place, and He desires to use your marriage as a demonstration of His covenant love for His people. That is best shown when both husband and wife are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, but even if you as a believer are married to an unbelieving spouse, the Lord wants you to be that sanctifying influence (“the aroma of Christ,” as Paul speaks of it elsewhere, 2 Corinthians 2:15) within that marriage.
Second, to those who are not currently married. Within this group we could include those who are single but open to being married, those who have been divorced by an unbelieving spouse, and those who have been widowed. In each case, you are strongly encouraged to consider the single state. The reason is that there will be greater opportunities with fewer hindrances to serve the Lord, without having the inherent distractions that marriage brings. But recognizing that not everyone has been “gifted” (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7) to remain single and celibate, the Lord has granted permission to remain open to marrying, but “only in the Lord.” In such cases, to use the apostle’s words, “it is no sin.”
And then finally, to those who are not pursuing marriage. I refer specifically to those who have no desire to marry. That could change, given God’s providential ways, but right now at your present place in life you do not see yourself being wed to a spouse. That doesn’t mean that your thoughts sometimes drift toward wondering what it would be like to be married, but you feel neither compelled nor do circumstances seem to be directing you to pursue marriage. I urge you to consider that this could quite possibly be a special calling that God has granted to you. In fact, the Bible actually extols the advantages of singleness by promoting less-distracted devotion to the Lord.
When compared to and contrasted with marriage, 1 Corinthians 7 leads us conclude that the single life is good. Here at Temple Hills Baptist Church we value the single persons who are a part of this body, and we are grateful to God for their gifts and unfettered devotion with which many of them are able to serve the Lord. Is singleness, then, the “preferred” state? Perhaps it is for you, but perhaps it is not. As we earlier saw in verse 7, “Each has his (or her) own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” As Jesus spoke in another context: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Throughout this chapter, as well as in other passages like Philippians 4(:11) and 1 Thessalonians 5(:18) Paul has exhorted us to be content in whatever situation and circumstances we find ourselves. The main thought of this entire chapter, I believe, is found in verse 17, where we read, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Therefore, in all things, let us glorify Him together.