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I Corinthians 7:29-31

I Corinthians 7 is one of those chapters I imagine many pastors are hesitant to preach a sermon on. The subject matter may not be well-received from the pulpit on Sunday morning, especially if there are kids in the sanctuary. Verses 1-9 deal with the role of sexual relations between a husband and wife and whether it’s better off for a man just to remain celibate and unmarried. Verses 10-11 tell couples not to get divorced and that if they do, the woman (at least) must not remarry. And verses 12-15 basically say that a believer should remain with an unbelieving spouse rather than divorcing them, in the hopes of bringing them to belief. All are subjects which would possibly make listeners “say ‘Amen’ or say ‘Ouch,’” as my husband is fond of saying. However, while the situations discussed in this chapter are specifically about sexual and marital issues, the core principle that Paul articulates in vv. 29-31 can and should be applied to every part of a Christian life. Therefore, we must do not just exegesis but also hermeneutical work in order to discover the relevant message for a 21st century audience.

One of the first things you learn in biblical studies is that context is extremely important. The common saying is “a text without a context is a pretext.” And this chapter is a particularly good example of context making a significant difference to interpretation. All texts have contexts, of course, but some texts are more shaped by and grounded in them than others. In the case of the NT Epistles, it’s important to remember that they were first and foremost letters, often written to address a particular situation happening in a church, or to answer questions on matters of belief or religious practice.

There are a couple layers of context that are crucial here. First of all, just a brief refresher on the city of Corinth and Paul’s relationship to the Christians there. Corinth at the time (early 50s CE) was a large Greek port city. As a result of the traffic from trade, the city was cosmopolitan and liberal to the point of excess. Not only did dozens of different religions, philosophies and beliefs mingle together, but the city was widely known as a center of sexual immorality and licentiousness. Perhaps the equivalent of today’s Las Vegas, but even more extreme. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that Paul would have approached the city “in weakness with great fear and trembling” (I Cor 2:3).[1]

Paul began the church there with the help of resident Christians Aquila and Priscila (Acts 18:1-4). He remained there around a year and a half and his ministry bore some fruit among Gentiles, but he faced the same kind of Jewish opposition as he had in Philippi, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. Paul eventually left this ministry in the hands of Apollo and went to Ephesus, where he ministered for 3 years. Ephesus was another port city, this one on the east coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), so trade and communication between the city and Corinth was frequent, which meant Paul was able to keep up with the happenings in Corinth through letters.

Just how many letters were sent and received is unknown, but Paul had written the Corinthian church at least one previous letter (no longer extant) that gave them advice on avoiding association with sexually immoral people (I Cor 5:9). At some point after that Paul received news from the house of Chloe (I Cor 1:11) that factions had formed among the Christians at Corinth. The church at Corinth then wrote Paul a letter that asked for his guidance on a number of practical issues facing a church made up of mostly new believers from pagan religious backgrounds. The letter we know as

I Corinthians was Paul’s response to their questions. This is evident from the fact that Paul sometimes begins a section of the letter by indicating he is about to answer the question they asked him about (7:1; 8:1; 12:1).

Chapter 7 begins with one of these markers indicating Paul is answering one of the questions sent to him. Apparently the Christians at Corinth had enquired about whether it was better for a man to remain celibate, or if it was ok to get married. Earlier in chapter 5 Paul had called them out for reports of sexual immorality, including incest, occuring among members of the church (5:1-5; 9-13). So how Christians were expected to appropriately handle sexual desire and urges was clearly a very real life question for the Corinthian church, not simply an esoteric theological debate.

Paul’s answer to this question is contained throughout all of chapter 7. He makes it clear that in his opinion celibacy is the best option (vv. 1-7), because it allows the man or woman to focus on God’s work rather than on pleasing a wife or husband (vv. 32-35). However, he is willing to make a concession (vv. 6-7) for those who have trouble controlling sexual desires: “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v. 9b). Clearly he sees marriage as the only appropriate place for the exercise of sexual urges. Paul then expands on this theme by emphasizing the importance of those who come to Christ remaining as they were when they were called: a man should remain in the same state of circumcision he was in when called (vv. 17-20). If a man is engaged to be married, he should keep the commitment; if he is not engaged, he should not seek to become so (vv. 25-28). However, Paul points out, this is only his personal opinion on the matter, not an injunction from the Lord (v. 25; cf. v. 12).

And then we finally come to our lectionary passage, v. 29-31 which articulates the greater principle that Paul has based this advice on: everyone should focus on the work of the kingdom rather than earthly matters because the end times are coming very soon.

This brings us to another crucial point of context: Paul’s understanding of the second coming of Christ, or the “parousia.” Paul and most Christians in his day really believed that the return of Christ to the earth would occur within their lifetimes. After all, Jesus had told his disciples that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt 24:34; cf Mk 13:30; Lk 21:32) referring to the end times. He also made similar predictions in Matt 16:28, Mk 9:1, and Lk 9:27. In fact, this belief was so ingrained that it appears to have caused a theological crisis in places like Thessalonica where the first generation of Christians began dying without having experienced the parousia. What would happen to them? They were supposed to be alive for the second coming. The community had no theological framework for this eventuality, so Paul had to step in and provide one (cf. I Thess 4:13-18).

So while we today may understand that Jesus was not speaking literally (how could he be if we’re still here 2000 years later?) the Christians at the time did not have the benefit of centuries of waiting. For them, the second coming was imminent–literally it could happen today!–and this gave an urgency to the ministry of the early Christian church because it meant they had little time to spread the Gospel to all nations.

And this was Paul’s point: There is such little time that all matters of the world must be put aside, temporarily, in order to focus on the more important task at hand. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the activities he lists (except sexual immorality). He’s not saying they should stop marrying, becoming engaged, or becoming circumcised. Under normal circumstances there is nothing wrong with observing traditional mourning rites, being happy, or purchasing possessions (vv. 29-31). But these are not ordinary times. For the moment, these quotidian concerns must take a back seat lest they detract from the important matter at hand. In other words, Paul is asking Christians to arrange and live their lives at that moment in a way that would allow them maximum freedom to do the work of God’s kingdom.

And herein, I think, is the point modern Christians can take away. We probably don’t share Paul’s belief that a second coming is imminent within our lifetimes. So there is no need to temporarily change our lives to accommodate a short-term goal. However, we are surely all guilty at times, and maybe a lot of the time, of allowing concerns of the world–even good, necessary concerns like caring for our families, making money to support ourselves, and safeguarding our physical and mental health–to take constant priority over the goal of spreading the Kingdom. While all those things are necessary, ultimately those should be secondary priorities compared to the priority of serving the Kingdom.

Jobs should not be only seen as necessary evils in order to make a living, but also as an opportunity to spread God’s love and compassion to those outside our family sphere. Raising children should not be pursued merely as a means of personal happiness and fulfillment, but also as a chance to raise up further workers for the kingdom. The goal of physical and mental wellness should not be just a desire for a more comfortable, easier or longer life, but rather to have a body and mind capable of serving God to their fullest capacity for the longest possible amount of time. Again, as Paul would say, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, unless they draw our attention away from the real task at hand: furthering God’s goal of spreading his Kingdom on the earth.

Paul knew that if someone waited for the perfect “time” to work for the kingdom, that “time” would never come. The necessary, urgent needs of daily life would eat up all our time, energy, and resources. So he asked the Christians under his care to take an extraordinary step: to make God’s kingdom a priority that eclipsed all else, even if just for a short time. Today the urgency may not be found in the amount of time we have, but should be found in the scope of the task at hand. Our world is desperate, dying, crying out for life, for the healing and peace that can only come from participation in God’s kingdom. And God is relying on Christians to deliver that message.

So as Christians we must ask ourselves: what changes can we make to our lives, or to the way we approach our everyday activities, that allow us maximum time to serve the priorities of the Kingdom?


[1] All scripture references are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible (2011) unless otherwise indicated.


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