Imagine, if you can, you belonged to the first generation of Christians. You are someone in a distant place, like Greece for example, who heard the message of Jesus Christ which was brought by Paul and you knew it to be true and it changed your life. You know the key truths about Jesus, the fundamentals we confess in the Apostles’ Creed: Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried, descended into hell, but on the third day He rose from the dead, He ascended into Heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty. You know all these things, and because of them you live in peace with God and without fear, even of death, because you know it has been overcome in Christ.
But you also know Jesus left with a promise, namely He would return. So, while He sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, He will also come again, to judge the living and the dead. Perhaps you have been a Christian living in this hope for a few years. It is now about twenty years or a couple more, since Jesus left, and you are thinking His return could be any day. What do you do? And what do you not do? Over in Thessalonica, Christians have been dropping-out of society. They do not bother too much about things like jobs because, with the end just round the corner, there might be better things to be occupied with – spiritual things perhaps. And here in Corinth, people were also wondering about making much of a commitment to this earthly life and putting all their chips on the end game.
There were other issues too. What about the person who got married before they became a Christian? While they were brought to the saving faith in Christ, their partner was not. So, they are now Christians wedded to non-Christians. What should they do? They sense they belong to a new aeon. It is like they have stepped into a parallel universe in Christ, where everything is different. But their partner has not stepped with them. Do they belong together? Can they stay together?
With all these questions, what to do? Where do the Corinthians go for answers? They will refer the matter to the apostle who brought the Gospel to them in the first place. Paul will have the answer.
Where do the Corinthians go for answers? They will refer the matter to the apostle who brought the Gospel to them in the first place.
As a result, a letter was duly drafted containing all the matters of uncertainty. Questions about relationships and marriage are included together with other people’s concerns about whether it is okay to eat meat that has been offered to idols, what is the status of a slave after he becomes a Christian, and so on.
A reply comes after some weeks, possibly months, all the way from Saint Paul who is working in Asia Minor at the moment. It is not a short letter, but he finally gets to the part where he says, “Now, concerning the things about which you wrote…”
But this is the strange thing about chapter 7, penned by hand to the first generation of Christians in Corinth. Paul, the fount and source of knowledge on all things spiritual, actually does not know for sure about everything the Corinthians ask.
Some things he knows for sure. The question about whether Christians should stay married if their partners do not become Christians, that is clear-cut. Paul knows, because God has told him: Stay married. “To the married I give this charge,” Paul says, and then he adds, “(not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband.” So, that one is settled. Becoming a Christian married to an unbeliever will be a challenge, but there is still a duty to uphold. As a matter of fact, Paul adds, “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” And we know he has a point because we have seen it happen. One more thing: Sometimes the unbelieving partner may not be willing to stay in the marriage because the new person in Christ is not the same as the person they first took on. Paul mentions it in passing. The Corinthians have their answer.
Then there is the other question. Should the young get married when you are expecting the true bridegroom, Jesus Christ, to come and claim His bride the Church? They might already be engaged. Should they take the next step? “Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord,” is Paul’s response. That is not all there is to it. This will be Paul’s answer, honestly given as a spiritual father, but it is not the Law of God. This whole chapter is peppered with phrases one does not find elsewhere in his letters: “I say,” “I mean,” “I want,” “I think,” “in my judgment,” “I say, not the Lord.” So, here is his answer. “I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” In other words, he would be inclined not to marry. His reason has given rise to some amusement over the centuries from those with a cynical view of marriage. “Those who marry will have worldly troubles,” he says, “and I would spare you that.” Of course, Solomon, if he wrote the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, takes a less jaded view: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” Anyway, Paul realized his advice is not for everyone. Some would choose to marry. Some would need to marry, just the way they are. That is alright. More than once he points out how they are not committing any sin by doing so.
But the interesting thing about the whole discussion is the reasoning he uses in arriving at the advice he gives. Why might people choose not to marry? “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short.” This is the basis on which he offers his own advice. Perhaps the time is too short to be used on courting and marrying and setting up home. The true home of Christians is something more permanent. As he put it elsewhere: “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” And his conclusion, in that light, looks reasonable.
Perhaps the time is too short to be used on courting and marrying and setting up home. The true home of Christians is something more permanent.
However, scholars have suggested the conclusion is reasonable, but the premise is wrong. Paul was mistaken. He shared the expectation of Christians in the first generation that Jesus’ return was imminent. We know of this expectation by reading between the lines of the New Testament. He had to reassure the Christians in Thessalonica who had seen their loved ones die in Christ that they had not missed out on salvation. Jesus was coming for the living and the dead. Peter’s second letter has to deal with scoffers who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Perhaps they recalled the teaching of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Among those things seemed to be the Son of Man coming with great glory. They all seemed to think Jesus would come to meet them before they went to meet Him.
Today, we know different. We still live in the hope of His coming, though many generations have come and gone in that hope. Why, though, does it make any difference? Nothing of what Paul wrote has changed. If the time was short in the first century, it is shorter now. It is the fact of the consummation of our age that is important, not the time of it, which has always been unknown. And because this life is transient and we already live in the new and eternal age restored in Christ (at least in part), our preoccupations are different to those bound to this world and life. Marriage and matrimony are important, even to us, because we see them in connection with the goodness and provision of God (especially with the latter) as participating in the divine life of Christ and His bride. So, imitate His fidelity. Let those who mourn live as though they were not mourning. We do not grieve as others who have no hope. Let those who rejoice live as though they were not rejoicing. Not that there is anything wrong with rejoicing, but we have something more eternal underpinning all our joy than the passing things about us. “Because,” the text concludes, “the present form of this world is passing away.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in I Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35).