1 Corinthians 7:17-8:13
First Corinthians 7 treats the question of marriage. First Corinthians 7:1-16 primarily instructs those who have married. The remainder of the chapter treats the question of whether or not a person should get married.
Remaining as You Were When Called - 1 Corinthians 7:17-24
The basic thrust of Paul's advice in verses 8-16 was not to change marital status. The married persons were to stay married and the unmarried were advised to remain unmarried if they could. Verses 17-24 appear to change the subject. Circumcision and slavery are the subjects directly addressed. However, Paul deals with those subjects by urging people to remain in the state they were in when converted. Thus circumcision and slavery are not what he was really concerned with. They simply illustrate his instruction not to change marital status.
Verse 17 states the general principle. Persons should live the life appointed to them by the Lord when they became Christians. The expression "when (or as) God called you" is one of the ways the New Testament describes conversion to Christian faith. In our time a call is almost always associated with God's direction of people to a profession of Christian ministry. In the New Testament a call referred to the awareness of every believer that God had summoned them out of their old way of life into newness of life in Christ.
Paul states that God appoints a person to a position in life when they become a believer. This does not mean that God predestined the person to that social position. Nor does it mean that no change is possible in the future. Rather, by saving a person from a particular situation God also wills that they serve him in that situation without desiring a change. Obviously, Paul does not mean this as a blanket recommendation to continue in just any lifestyle. First Corinthians 6:11 highlights the great change that took place among some of the Corinthians who moved from a life of sexual immorality (including homosexual practices), debauchery, and addictive greediness to a life of purity in Christ. Paul's point is that a married person should not seek an end to her or his marriage just because he or she became converted.
The final part of verse 17 states that Paul issues such instructions in all of his churches. The Corinthians seem to resemble spoiled children who demand special treatment all the time. Then when they are disciplined for their problem behavior they complain that they are singled out for punishment. Paul rejects their complaint. His standard teaching is that every Christian should plan to serve God in the station of life in which they found themselves when converted. The following verses provide two illustrations: circumcision and slavery.
Paul taught that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to become Christians (the point of Galatians and also found in Romans). It would have been possible for someone to argue that male Jewish converts should undergo surgery to hide their circumcision in order to show the genuineness of their Christian faith. Paul says, "No." There were Judaizing Christians at that time who argued that Gentile believers had to be circumcised to fully enter Christian faith. Again, Paul says, "No."
The principle is stated in verse 19. "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing." What matters is obeying God. Barrett (p. 169) observes that Paul is speaking of "an obedience to the will of God as disclosed in his Son far more radical than the observance of any code, whether ceremonial or moral, could be." Though the illustration dealt with circumcision Paul's point was remaining married or unmarried according to one's status when saved. Conversion calls us to total obedience to God in our condition of marriage or singleness. It does not ask us to change our marital status.
Verse 20 repeats the principle and verse 21 introduces the illustration of slavery. Paul's language and thought are more difficult to understand here. The first part of verse 21 is clear. If a person was converted while a slave Paul commands that person not to be concerned by his or her status as a slave. The second half of verse 21 is the source of the difficulties. Paul states, "Even if you are able to become a free person, use it rather." Paul does not state what it is that the believing slave who has the chance to become free is to use. Some scholars and translations believe that Paul wanted the slave to use the opportunity to become free. This is the understanding of the NIV, NASB, New Century Version, and Peterson's The Message. On the other hand the NRSV translation suggests the slave use the unique opportunities of Christian witness provided by being a slave.
In either case verse 22 relativizes slavery. Romans 6:15-23 provides a more developed statement of Paul's position. Freedom from slave status in the economic system is a small matter in Paul's mind. A person is either a slave of sin or a slave of Christ. Slavery in the social status sense mattered little to Paul. A person was either free from Christ or free from sin. There was no absolute freedom or slavery. Every person is both free and a slave. The question is always, "Free from what or whom and a slave to what or whom?"
American history and the emphasis on freedom in our culture may cause us to miss Paul's point here. Political and even religious freedom means nothing if we are enslaved to sin. We ignore this truth to our peril. Likewise, political and religious freedoms are not the highest values as our culture often teaches us. Freedom from sin and enslavement to Christ are the highest values for a Christian. Paul's point is that social-economic slavery is far less significant than obedience to God. We need to remember that something far worse than the loss of our political and religious freedom could happen.
Is Marriage a Bad Thing? - 1 Corinthians 7:25-40
The final section of chapter 7 is more difficult to understand for several reasons. Paul seems to have trouble stating exactly what he wants to communicate. He uses words with more than one meaning and seems to waver between meanings. The relationship of these verses to the first part of chapter 7 is not clear either.
Most major translations indicate that the subject introduced in verse 25 deals with virgins. (The New Century Version translates the phrase more generally as "the unmarried.") However, Paul does not mention the "virgins" again until verses 36-38. Three different interpretations of what he meant appear there. Verse 25 introduces the word and implies that the subject had also been part of the Corinthians' letter to Paul. (The expression, "Now concerning . . ." or "Now about . . .," appears in verse 25; 8:1; 12:1; and 16:1 as an echo of 7:1.) Verse 25 also admits that Paul was not aware of any teaching of Jesus on the particular subject he was going to treat. However, before treating that subject, the apostle changed subjects.
Verses 26-27 explicitly apply Paul's point in verses 17-24 to marriage. Don't seek a spouse if you don't have one. Don't seek divorce if you are married. However, verse 26 hints at the reason Paul was so content to urge believers to remain in the status in which they were converted. It is "the present distress" that is the reason Paul urges his readers to remain as they were. It is possible to translate "distress" as necessity and see the "present necessity" as a reference forward to verse 37. From this viewpoint Paul would be talking about feeling the necessity to marry. However, the context of verse 26 makes this unlikely. Verse 29 is more likely what Paul is thinking. If so the apostle is stating that the distress and pressure of the approaching end of time makes it better to remain in one's present marital status.
The NRSV reflects this understanding of verse 26 by its translation, "impending crisis." On the other hand, Fee (pp. 328-329) emphasizes the word "present" in the NIV translation "present crisis." He argues that Paul's concern in verse 26 is simply that life is so complicated and pressure-packed that one does not need to add stress by changing one's marital status.
Given the way Paul thought about end times it is unlikely that we need to assume so much contrast between the present and the future. It is the closeness of the second coming, in Paul's mind, that creates most of the pressure for the present. If we knew Christ would not come back for a long time, we could relax and be in no hurry to evangelize the world. However, given the possibility (and in Paul's mind probability) that Christ could return any moment, we must be focused on the work of winning others with as little distraction as possible.
Verse 28 acknowledges that it is no sin to marry. However, Paul is sure that marriage will multiply the pressures of life and he advises against marriage to alleviate that increased pressure. Verse 29 specifically brings in the nearness of Christ's second coming. Paul states that the time has been shortened.
The exact wording chosen by the apostle is significant. Greek had two words for time: chronos (from which we get our word chronology) which meant clock-time or the passage of time and kairos, which meant the special time appointed for key events. Paul chose the word kairos here. He meant more than simply that the clock was running out on human history. That would have been chronos time. Rather, he meant that the special time appointed by God for the evangelization of the world was running short. Second Corinthians 6:2 reflects the same thought when it states, "Now is the accepted time (kairos). Now is the day of salvation."
Further, this special time has been shortened. The Greek verb that Paul uses means to restrict, reduce, limit, or compress. But the construction of the verb form indicates that this compression of time has already happened and we are now experiencing the results of that shortening of time. Paul was convinced that the coming of Christ had set into motion the flow of events that would lead to the end of time and the end of opportunities to spread the gospel.
This squeezing of the time of opportunity to proclaim the gospel created a unique situation in Paul's understanding. He states in verse 31 that the present form of this world is passing away. Since that is the case "business as usual" would be impossible. As a result Paul had little interest in the "ordinary" concerns of life. Married people would need to live so focused on finishing the work of the gospel that they would live as if they weren't married, according to verse 29. This is not a statement about ignoring one's spouse or avoiding sexual relations as verses 1-7 made clear. It is a statement about priorities. Verses 30-31 amplify the thought. Mourning, rejoicing, buying, or doing business are all aspects of life that must be de-prioritized because of the urgency to spread the gospel.
In verses 32-35, Paul specifically describes how marriage undermines all-out commitment to spreading the gospel. A married person's interest, time, energy, and commitment are partially obligated by that marriage. There is no way a married person can devote the same time and energy to the work of God that he or she could if they were single. In Paul's mind this is not a criticism of marriage; it is simply a fact of time and energy. There is certainly no guarantee that every single believer will be as holy and devoted to the cause of Christ as Paul describes in verses 32 and 34. But a single person has more potential for complete devotion to the gospel than he or she would as a married person.
This perspective on the urgency of total devotion to God in light of the soon return of Christ lies behind all the reservations Paul states regarding marriage. Careful reading of chapter 7 shows that Paul is not opposed to marriage; he does not despise sexuality; and he does not hate women. Rather, he was intensely focused on fulfilling the Great Commission in the short time that he believed remained. He questioned everything else, including marriage, that interfered with that goal.
However, understanding why Paul took the position he did does not completely answer the question of how we should think about the questions raised in chapter 7. He expected Christ's return in his lifetime or shortly thereafter. We have now lived almost 2,000 years since Paul wrote of the already compressed time frame available for the gospel. How do we respond to these questions? Should we echo Paul and downplay marriage and family life proclaiming the shortness of time? Do we frankly acknowledge that Paul was wrong about Christ's return and conclude that his teachings that arose from his beliefs do not apply to us? Is there some middle way of understanding our best response?
We do need to remember that marriage was not the only aspect of life Paul saw affected by the shortness of time. Business, joy, and grief are also mentioned in verses 30-31. Nor is Paul unique in his thought that the gospel has ultimate priority over all other relationships of our lives. His teaching here is not that different from the teaching of Jesus that can be found in Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 14:26-33. Jesus clearly taught that family and property had to rank lower than commitment to himself for a person to be considered a disciple. Our problem with Paul is not that the second coming has been delayed much longer than he ever thought possible. Our problem is with the question of priorities. When we resolve that question in favor of obedience to God Paul's words in chapter 7 seem quite reasonable.
The subject raised in verse 25 is finally developed in verses 36-38. These verses have been the subject of considerable confusion and debate. The problem primarily lies with the meaning of the words "virgin" and "marry." Three very different interpretations have arisen in the understanding of these verses. The first view sees these verses as dealing with the question of whether or not a Christian father should allow his virgin daughter to marry. In this view the word "virgin" means virgin daughter and the word "marry" means to "give in marriage." This interpretation was generally followed by almost all Christians up until the twentieth century and it is reflected in the translation of the NASB. The question of whether a Christian father who believed in the nearness of the second coming should allow his daughter to marry may have been an important question in Paul's time and since then. However, this interpretation does not fit the logical progression of chapter 7 very well and it requires an unusual meaning for "virgin" and "marry."
A second view, developed in the twentieth century, argues that Paul was dealing with "spiritual marriages." The term "spiritual marriage" describes a couple who live together but do not engage in sexual relations for the sake of spiritual devotion to Christ. In this view some of the men in the spiritual marriages at Corinth had begun to desire a sexual relationship with their wives and wanted to know if that would be permissible. Paul states his preference that they not consummate the marriage but also allows that there is no sin in doing so. However, there is no evidence of spiritual marriage until the second century and Paul's advice in verses 1-7 runs quite contrary to this view.
The third view and the one most commonly accepted by twentieth century scholarship is that Paul addressed young couples who were engaged to be married. These people were being pressured by some at Corinth not to go through with the marriage. This scenario raises questions that are consistent with the other questions Paul had dealt with in chapter 7. Paul's answer is the same that he has given throughout the chapter. It is best to remain in the marital state you find yourself. Thus, as not yet married, he recommended that these young people not marry. However, as before, he points out that marriage is quite permissible though he views it as lower priority to whole hearted commitment to Christ as a single (and celibate) person.
Paul concludes the chapter on marriage by briefly mentioning the question of widows remarrying. He notes that they are bound to their husband as long as he is alive. If he should die before her she is free to remarry on the condition that her new husband be a Christian. However, Paul again notes that he thinks she will be better off to remain single.
Modern readers of the Bible are often frustrated because Paul does not answer all the questions we have about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. We must remember that this chapter was the first written material dealing with marriage in the history of Christianity. Paul was answering specific questions of the Corinthians - questions obviously different from our questions. What Paul affirms is the importance of maintaining one's marriage vows and of giving oneself sexually to one's spouse. The only acceptable consideration of divorce that he mentions is when an unbelieving spouse wants a divorce. Paul counsels the believer not to fight the matter.
Generally, he resists remarriage, not because it is wrong in itself, but because it would lessen one's ability to devote full energy and time to the advance of the gospel. However, he is quite clear that marriage and remarriage following the death of a spouse are not sinful. Though Paul does not answer all our questions he places the questions of marriage in the context of whole-hearted devotion to God, a context we often forget when we try to interpret texts on marriage legalistically.
Meat Offered to Idols - 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1
Chapter 8 begins with the expression, "Now concerning things sacrificed to idols." The "now concerning" phrase indicates that this subject was also contained in the letter from the Corinthians to Paul. First Corinthians 5:10-11 states that Paul had warned the Corinthians in his "Previous Letter" not to associate with idolaters. It is possible that some at Corinth either disagreed with Paul or wanted clarification of his position regarding idols and idolaters.
The context of chapters 8-10 makes it clear that the "things offered to idols" refer to food or meat offered to idols. Traditionally, this has simply been understood to refer to meat left over from sacrifices to idols that was sold in the meat markets of Corinth. Fee (pp. 358-360) argues that primary issue was whether or not Corinthians could or should continue to eat sacrificial food at the worship meals at pagan temples. Only at the end of this section does Paul raise the question of buying meat offered to an idol at the meat market. In the middle of this discussion Paul also defends his apostolic authority in 9:1-27. Chapter 8 introduces the problem, provides some fundamental principles, and urges the importance of love over knowledge in resolving the issue.
Love Not Knowledge Is the Basis of Conduct - 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The problem of meat offered to idols is a highly confusing matter for most modern Christians. We fail to understand the basic assumptions at work in the process. When a sacrifice of food was made to the various deities of the ancient world that deity was believed to be present at the sacrifice. In fact, the spirit of that deity (often called the daemon of the god) was believed to enter the sacrificial meal. It was believed that people who ate that food then took the spirit of the deity into themselves. At least some at Corinth appear concerned that eating such food would contaminate them by an "infilling" of the demon of whatever deity the food had been offered to.
The primary opportunity to eat meat offered to idols was at a celebration feast in one of the idol temples. Such celebration feasts were held for a variety of public holidays and private celebrations. There were both religious and social aspects involved in the celebration feasts. The religious meaning described in the paragraph above would be assumed but these feasts were also major social events. Fee (p. 361) describes these meals as "the basic 'restaurant' in antiquity." The Corinthians would have grown up attending such occasions.
The other way to eat such meat was to buy it in the meat market. Frequently, much more food than could be consumed at the temple was offered. "Left-overs" were sold in the meat markets (and obviously at a lower price than other meat since there were no costs involved). Paul treats the question of whether Corinthians could continue to participate in the celebration feasts at the idol temples in 8:1-10:22. Then in 10:23-11:1 he discusses eating such meat from the market and in private homes. His response is not the same for the two cases.
Chapter 8 addresses an improper attitude on the part of the Corinthians. Verse 1 appears to again quote the Corinthians with the words, "We know that we all have knowledge." The word "knowledge" (gnosis in Greek) was probably one of the buzzwords of the Corinthians like rhetoric (logos) and wisdom (sophia). These terms appear as the leading gifts mentioned in 12:8 when Paul speaks of a word (logos) of wisdom (sophia) and a word (logos) of knowledge (gnosis). For the Corinthians being spiritual meant having knowledge. Paul disagrees. He declares that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Knowledge can lead to pride, which can lead to increased sinfulness rather than decreased. Love, on the other hand, is beneficial and constructive. It will cause a person to behave in better ways rather than worse ways. Verse 3 states that love for God will lead to being known by God.
In verses 4-6 Paul sets the theological foundations for the question of meat offered to idols. It is quite possible that he agrees with some of the arguments of the Corinthians in these verses. The words "We know" suggest a shared viewpoint. The basic point is that an idol is nothing since there is only one God. This point is so obvious to modern believers that we find it hard to imagine a reason even to state the case.
However, Paul lived in a polytheistic world and Corinth was a polytheistic city. Verse 5 acknowledges that fact in a way that seems to concede the reality of a variety of other deities. Verse 6 then points out that for believers there is only one God and only one Lord regardless of how many may be acknowledged in the surrounding culture. Verse 6 could serve very well as a confession of faith then and/or now.
Most of the Corinthians understand that idols are nothing. Their conclusion is that the question of eating meat offered to idols means nothing also. Paul disagrees. Not everyone has their level of knowledge. For those who do not possess the same understanding serious spiritual danger lies ahead. If these believers who are "weak" in understanding are led to eat meat offered to idols because they have seen the "stronger" Corinthians doing so, they may be led into sin. Paul concludes that sinning against brothers and sisters with a weak conscience is the same as sinning against Christ. As a result he offers to never eat meat offered to idols to prevent spiritual failure in the weaker believers.
The applications of Paul's principles in our lives are complex and difficult. However, there can be no question of our responsibility to view how our actions affect others. Harm to others is harm to Christ.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 7:17-8:13. Look up the Scripture references.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant to you.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to be a person whose life is built on love rather than on knowledge.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-27. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 9:1-12.
1. Why does Paul regard the Corinthians as the "seal of his apostleship?" See also 2 Corinthians 3:2-3. Who will be the "seal" of your ministry? Why?
2. What rights do apostles have in Paul's opinion? What application would that have for our treatment of ministers today?
3. Verse 9 quotes Deuteronomy 25:4. Does the context of Deuteronomy 25:4 help you understand Paul's use of it here? Compare his use here with 1 Timothy 5:18. What conclusion can we draw concerning paying people in ministry?
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-27. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 9:7-18.
1. What "right" that Paul has does he avoid using? Why? What priorities in our ministries are more important than our rights?
2. What "rights" that we have might put an obstacle or hindrance in the way of the gospel? What changes in lifestyle and attitudes could you make not to cause obstacles or hindrances?
3. Is it a good thing for the gospel to be offered free of charge? Why or why not? If it is what must we do to enable unbelievers to receive it without fear of being asked for money?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 9:13-27. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 9:19-27.
1. What sentence best summarizes Paul's remarks in verses 19-23? What is his basic goal in life according to these verses? How does that compare with your perception of the basic goal in most preachers' lives?
2. Take Paul's words, "I have become all things to all people, that I might save some," as your motto. What specific applications would it have in your life if you were to develop it for your context like Paul did for his in verses 19-23?
3. What might have led to Paul being "disqualified" in the way he fears in verse 27? What things in your life might disqualify you? Write a brief prayer asking God to help you remove those things from your life.
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.
1. Exodus 13:21-22; 14:22-29; 16:4, 35; 17:6; Numbers 14:16, 23,29-30; 20:11; Deuteronomy 8:3; and Psalm 78:12-58 provide background scripture for 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. On the basis of these Old Testament passages why does Paul say God was not pleased with the Israelites?
2. Verses 6 and 11 describe Israel as an example for us. What can we learn from the mistakes of the Israelites?
3. Verse 10 mentions complaining as one of Israel's sins. What things most tempt you to spiritual complaining? What areas of spiritual growth should help you overcome the temptation to complain?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 10:6-13.
1. What specific things does the context suggest we should watch out for to keep from falling as verse 12 warns us?
2. What part(s) of verse 13 is (are) most important to you personally? Why are those parts so important?
3. Write a brief prayer telling God the areas of your life in which you feel that he is testing you to the very limits of your strength. Claim his promise not to test you beyond your ability to endure.