We live in a restless age. Whether it’s houses, jobs or relationships, people are always trying to move onwards and upwards.
Houses: It’s called a housing ladder. It’s increasingly hard to get on that first rung, but once there some people change their home every few years, climbing that ladder.
Jobs: I have several friends who change their employer every few years, either because they’re dissatisfied with their current job, or because moving sideways is the way to move upwards.
Houses. Jobs. And relationships. Many who are single wish they weren’t. I’ve never watched Love Island, and probably never will, but that show’s popularity is partly because it taps into our desire to find love, to find a partner, or to find a better one.
Sadly, some who are married wish they could be single again. Many with a boyfriend or girlfriend chop and change and churn. Those without kids wish they had them. Some with kids hand them off so they can live like they used to before kids.
There’s nothing wrong with lots of that. Nothing wrong, in and of itself, with improving your home, pursuing a career, or taking up kind offers to give yourselves a break from looking after your children. But sometimes these things are symptoms. Symptoms of the restlessness of our age, the endless desire to improve, to move on up, to change the circumstances of our life for more favourable ones.
We derive our identity from the circumstances we’ve managed to manoeuvre ourselves into. Our longings come from the desire to improve our life.
The grass is always greener but that doesn’t mean it’s always right to jump the fence.
Sometimes being a Christian makes all of this harder. Harder, because we also start to ask whether it’s God’s will for me to take that job, to move house, to get married or whatever it is.
Introducing 1 Corinthians 7
Well, the good news of Jesus Christ offers rest and calm and in this restless age. If you’re a Christian here this morning, I want to tell you what God’s will is for your life in a way that will help you to live for the Lord Jesus with confidence. And if you’re not yet a Christian, I hope to offer an alternative to the fickle restlessness we see all around us.
We’re looking at the second half of 1 Corinthians chapter 7. This is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in ancient Corinth. He’s tackled some things he’s been told about the church there, and then in chapter 7 he starts to reply to a letter they’d sent to him.
Topic number 1 was marriage. Some in Corinth were teaching that marriage is a bad thing. We human beings are body and soul, and the really important bit is your soul. Anything to do with the body is a bad thing, and that includes marriage, and physical relationships. “What do you say to that, Paul?”, they asked.
So he launched in. Two weeks ago, we looked at the first half of this chapter, which mainly addressed people who were married. They mustn’t withdraw from their relationships. They mustn’t withdraw physically. And they mustn’t divorce either.
And then in the second half he starts to address others – single people, those who were engaged, those who were widowed. And he has a bit more to say to the married amongst them as well.
There’s a lot in here, and I don’t propose taking us through every single detail. If there are details in here you want to ask me about, please get in contact. For this morning, I want to take us to the heart of this passage. What’s the main thing that Paul is wanting to say to the Christians in Corinth? Let me take us to the heart of this with 4 simple points
Marriage and Singleness are Different
Number 1: Marriage and singleness are just different. They’re not a matter of better and worse. And they’re certainly not a matter of right and wrong.
So the Christian who is not married is free to get married or to stay single. It genuinely doesn’t matter.
It comes several times in the passage, but let me just read verses 36 and 37: “If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honourably towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing.”
Get married if you want. Don’t get married if you want. It’s your choice. It has to be your choice. Nobody else can make it for you. You’re choosing between two right options.
Notice how he falls over himself to say that the person who does not get married has to have reached that decision for themselves. They mustn’t have been bullied into it by the people who are trying to say that marriage is wrong, is dirty, or is inferior.
Marriage and Singleness are the Place we Live out our Christian Calling
Number 2: Marriage and singleness are the place we live out our Christian calling.
In verses 17 to 24, Paul gives two examples that were not contentious in Corinth: circumcision and slavery. He uses these to illustrate the fact that some people live in one set of circumstances, and other people in another set. Some are Jewish. Some are not. Some are slaves. Some are free.
So here’s the point: It doesn’t actually matter whether you’re a Jew or not a Jew. It doesn’t actually matter whether you’re a slave, or whether you’re free. Human beings come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Who you are: Jew, not Jew, slave, free, just gives you the situation in which you’ll live as a Christian.
Very few slaves had the opportunity to obtain their freedom, but if they could they should. Other that, Paul says not to try and change your circumstances. There’s no need. You can be a Christian slave, a Christian free man, a Christian Jew, or a Christian Gentile. In every case, what matters is not the Jew, Gentile, slave, free bit, but the Christian bit. Whatever your circumstances, God has called you to live that life as a Christian, as a follower of the Lord Jesus.
Let me read from the beginning and the end of that paragraph. So, verse 17: “Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.” Verse 24: “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
You can be a Christian man, a Christian woman, a Christian child. A Christian mechanic, a Christian accountant, a Christian policeman. The important thing is that you’re a Christian. The rest just describes the arena in which you’ll live out your life as a Christian.
Which brings us to the point of all this: You can be a single Christian, or you can be a married Christian. The important thing is that you’re a Christian. The “single” or “married” bit just describes the arena in which you’ll live out your life as a Christian.
Being married and being single are not what defines you. After all, Paul himself was not married, and neither was Jesus. Whereas the apostle Peter was married. That’s just the post at which God has stationed you. He wants you to put all your efforts into being the very best Christian single person you can be, or the very best Christian husband or wife you can be. And not to put all your efforts into how to change your story.
Christians Don’t Belong in This World
Number 3: Christians don’t belong in this world.
This may sound a little strange to some of us. Let me re-read verses 29 to 31: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
“The time is short”. Let me explain what that means. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen from the dead. He’s alive today and he’s returned to heaven.
And one day he’ll return to this earth. When Jesus does come back, it will be simply wonderful for everyone who has loved and followed him. He’ll bring us all back to life, if we’ve died. And he’ll bring with him a perfect life that is utterly unspoilt. No sickness, suffering or pain of any kind.
It may be many thousands of years before he comes back, but that’s the next event on the horizon. Compared to the eternity that we’ll spend enjoying a perfect life with Jesus, the remaining years before he comes back is a tiny amount of time. The time is short. This world in its present form is passing away.
And so we live in this world as those who know that time is short. We’re just passing through. We may be married. We may be single. We may be happy. We may be sad. We may buy things. We may sell things. We may enjoy many aspects of this life. But we do so with a light hold on them. Those are not the things that define us. We’re just passing through and one day those aspects of life will be gone.
So we don’t let the fact that we buy, the fact that we sell, the fact that we do business and have a job, the fact that we are married, the fact that we are single: We don’t let those things define us.
What defines us is our relationship to the person of Jesus. As he says in verse 23: We were bought at a price. When Jesus died on the cross, he rescued us from our sin, he’s bought us back, and now we belong to him. That’s what matters. We don’t belong in this world. Our circumstances in it are not at all what defines us.
So far, I’ve said three things Paul is saying: Marriage and singleness are just different. Marriage and singleness are the place we live out our Christian calling. Christians don’t belong in this world – we’re just passing through.
Singleness has Some Advantages
And then number 4: Singleness has some advantages.
Here’s where we have to remember the first point. Singleness isn’t the only right option. It’s not even better.
But it does have some advantages. Two little examples:
First, Paul says that those who marry will have many troubles in this life. He doesn’t elaborate. One single friend of mine regularly speaks of his friendships with married couples and families, and watching them trying to get their young children to eat a place of spaghetti, and being reminded each time why he’s not married. Paul doesn’t explain himself, so we mustn’t speculate.
Then he talks about how the person who is not married can have undivided devotion to the Lord Jesus. Those of us who are married have a husband, a wife to love and to care for. Remember: Paul wouldn’t do that down. As we love our husbands and wives we’re living out our Christian calling in the situation called “married life”. But it certainly makes living a life of devotion to the Lord Jesus more complicated when there is one person he calls you to love and care for as well.
And so it is that Paul ends this chapter by saying that widows are free to marry again. Provided they marry a Christian. If you’re a Christian, if your love for Jesus is at the centre of your life, why would you choose someone who doesn’t share that heartbeat? But in his opinion, he thinks the widow is happier if she stays as he is. Again: He doesn’t explain.
So Paul is asked: Isn’t it better to stay single? Isn’t it somehow more pure, more devoted to Jesus?
He answers with a firm “no”.
Marriage and singleness are just different. They’re not right or wrong, or even better or worse.
Marriage and singleness are the place we live out our Christian calling. They don’t define us.
Christians don’t belong in this world – we’re just passing through.
Having said which: Singleness does have some advantages.
This is a refreshingly different outlook on life.
Don’t define yourself by the fact you are married. Or by the fact you are single. Don’t let the fact you have children define you either. Don’t live life endlessly trying to climb the ladder, or letting the rung you’ve reached define who you are.
Don’t wish you could swap your circumstances for somebody else’s.
But do: Find the Lord Jesus Christ. If you’re a Christian, he’s purchased you at a great price, purchased you with his own blood. He now owns you, which is a wonderful thing. And one day he’ll come back and find you, and he’ll live with you forever.
The time until then is short. The time until is time we’ve been given to live for him, to love him, to love his people, to live our lives for whatever brings him glory.