Tonight, we continue our study of Paul’s extended discussion about marriage and singleness in chapter 7 of this letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. So far, we’ve seen that singleness is not necessarily a problem to be fixed, nor it is an inherently superior spiritual status compared to marriage. Likewise, marriage is not something that has to be escaped when we come to Christ, even if we’re married to an unbeliever.
God can and does work holiness into the life of a believer, and even a measure of holiness into the lives of unbelieving spouses, through the believing spouses’ perseverance in marriage.
And the main point is this, neither marriage nor singleness is a status that needs escaping or pursuing in order for someone to be faithful to God. And that frees each of us, and everyone who comes to faith, to serve God faithfully where we are. We can bloom where ever we’re planted, because it is God who has planted us, or assigned or distributed to us, according to His sovereign and good will.
We can be content, because our station in life has come from God, and therefore is not an impediment to our spiritual flourishing in this life, but instead is God’s chosen means to make us more like His son.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin by reading 1 Corinthians chapter 7, starting in verse 17:
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Let’s begin by looking at verse 17 and see: The Principle stated. The principle stated.
Paul begins this passage by stating a principle that seems quite simple at first glance, but that the Corinthians were failing to grasp. He says,
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.
Lead the life that God has assigned to you, the life that God has called you to.
Let’s first look at the context in Corinth and see what Paul was driving at when he wrote this principle. As we have seen in previous sermons, some of the Corinthian believers were apparently mistaken about what needs to happen when someone becomes a believer. Some were saying that to be “truly holy” and free to serve the Lord, you need to be single. You need to free yourself of a spouse so that you can devote yourself totally to the service of God.
Others were teaching that in order to be a faithful Christian you needed to be married. Singleness, as we have seen, was viewed by some as an inferior status, and thus faithfulness demanded that it be remedied by marriage.
Paul, as he so often does, corrects their thinking by re-framing it in a theological perspective. He says instead that each person should lead the life that the Lord has assigned to you (or that the Lord has distributed to you). This is hugely important; so important that he restates the principle 3 times in this passage. And a statement like this has significant implications.
His statement affirms the absolute sovereignty of God over every aspect of our lives. He affirms the providential care and concern that God has over his children. Were you married at the time of your coming to faith, then stay married? Were you single? Then you can stay single. God’s salvific call, his drawing you to faith, is in no way impeded by his providential call on your life, which is your circumstantial status.
Or, to say it more plainly, no marital status is inherently more holy than the other, and No circumstantial status is able to impede the calling of God on a believer’s life.
What he is driving after here is the principle of contentment. Godly contentment. This is not a concept foreign to Pauline argumentation. In fact, he says in 1 Timothy 6 is that Godliness with contentment is great gain. It is great gain.
And that’s the wonderful blessing that comes with salvation in Jesus Christ. When we know that we have everything needed for life and godliness in Christ, and we know that every circumstance and every trial and every relationship and every job and every aspect of our life is coming to us from the hand of the Lord, then we can trust that HE knows what he is doing, and that he is doing it for our good.
And most of us can affirm those truths in the abstract. We can even affirm them in the lives of others. But how often are we tempted to forget those truths when we are going through something unpleasant or hard?
When the pressure is on, and you’re stressed, and you’re tired, and you’re lonely, and you’re neglected, how often do you rest contentedly in the Lord’s plan for your life in that moment? I know I am not quick to be contented.
How often are we tempted to think that if the external circumstances could just change, then I would be really thriving, then I could be really growing and useful in the things of the Lord?
- If it weren’t for this frustrating job, then I could be really happy.
- If it weren’t for my spouse, or my kids, then I could really be doing what the Lord calls me to do.
- If it weren’t for this sickness, or this problem, or this person, then, then I could finally be free.
And everything that Satan tells us from the world compounds these issues. Every commercial on TV, every self-help book, every Oprah interview, every political speech, promises us peace and rest and contentment as soon as we change some external circumstance or another.
But that’s the Lie. And it’s the same lie from the garden. Satan promised Adam divine-like status if he just added one more piece of fruit to his life. He provoked Adam to be discontent with his current situation, discontent with what the Lord had given him, discontent with the God who had provided him an entire world of peace and rest, and so Adam took and ate. And so has ever person since Adam.
All of Adam’s children are prone to be discontent. From the moment of our birth, we’re discontent with this toy and demand the toy that that child has over there. We’re discontent with the decisions of our parents, discontent with the clothes we’ve been given, with the school we attend, with the body God has assigned to us, discontent with the job we’ve been placed in, and discontent with the spouse we’ve been given.
And all of this discontentment actually reveals less about the circumstances and more about our hearts within the trial. God in his kindness brings us through tough trials, brings us through moments of temptation to reveal the discontentment and unbelief that remains within us. He doesn’t assign to us tough times in order to hurt us, but in order to heal us.
He leads us through valleys to reveal to us the subtle unbelief that remains in our hearts. He uses trials to show us the little idols that remain, the little fears that hide within us, and ultimately, leads us through tough times to draw us back to Him, our only source of true, lasting contentment.
Do you find in yourself a measure of discontentment? Are you quick to thank the Lord for trials, knowing that even tough times are from his good hand to drawn you back to contentment in Him and Him alone? Or are you quick to grumble and complain blame somebody else, or some circumstance, whenever things don’t go the way you want them to?
If we’re truthful, we’re all marked by some measure of discontentment, whether it is yelling at the slow driver in the fast lane, or grumbling about the situation at home, or fuming about the disrespect we receive at work. We’re all like Adam, deceived into thinking that we deserve a little taste of something that God is unjustly keeping from us. And, too like Adam, we deserve a condemnation of death for it.
But the bible doesn’t just leave us there in our condemnation. Adam was not immediately killed for his discontentment. He was instead promised a coming savior.
- A savior who wouldn’t grasp after a forbidden fruit, but was instead given the bitterness of sour wine to quench his thirst.
- Our savior didn’t reach for a crown of earthly glory, but instead willingly bore the crown of thorns.
- He didn’t have robes of fine linen, but instead wore on his back the whips and lashes earned by his discontented people.
- Our savior didn’t count equality with God as something to be grasped, like Adam did, but instead gave up his status, and trusted the Lord in the path assigned to him.
He became nothing, bearing the shame and guilt of his covetous people, and dying the death that they had earned, in order that his discontented bride might be set from her discontentment and death.
He was content in his death, so that we might be content in His life.
And it is only IN HIM that we can be content in this life. It’s only by faith in him that we can be freed from the guilt of sin and the punishment of death. It’s only by coming to Jesus and enjoying his salvation that we can truly be free to be content in whatever situation is assigned to us.
Come to Jesus afresh tonight. Confess your discontentment to him, and remember again how he died for it. How he loves you. How he longs for you to have so much more. Remember how he’s not assigned you a bitter lot that he himself hasn’t already tasted. And how he’s using the disappointments, the trials, and the tough times of this life to prepare for you an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all imagining.
This is Paul’s rule in all the churches, he says. Not merely for Corinth, but for all of us. Let each of us live the life that has been assigned to us, knowing that God has called us, not merely to endure it, but to thrive in it, contented in our assignment by the power and strength of the Holy Spirit, and to drawn closer to the Lord through the trial, rather than using the trial as an excuse for our discontentment.
Second, we’ve seen the principle stated, now let’s move onto verses 18-21 and see the Principle illustrated. The principle illustrated.
Paul moves to illustrate his principle in two specific realms: the religious and ethnic realm, and the social realm. Let’s look at Paul’s application of the principle to the religious and ethnic realm in verse 18:
18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
Paul moves onto something that, while it doesn’t seem to be a huge issue in Corinth at the moment, it does become something of a thorn in Paul’s side in other regions of his ministry. In Galatia, for example, we later see that Paul deals with contingents of religious zealots, called Judaizers, who were requiring circumcision as a mark of Christian faithfulness. That is, without circumcision, these people argued, you were outside the salvation of God. Faith alone was not enough to save you, but you had to add to faith, works of the flesh, like circumcision.
This issue of circumcised vs. not circumcised became a HUGE cultural issue, especially in the couple of hundred years prior to Christ’s coming. But Paul’s point here is to take these issues and show that the gospel reframes all of them. Gordon Fee summarizes it this way, “The gospel absolutely transcends, and thereby eliminates all together, all merely social distinctions. In Christ, Jew and Greek together, whether slave or free, make up one body. Since this is so, by analogy it frees one from the urgency to change one’s situation, as the Corinthians were trying to do.”
Paul’s point is this: the gospel is not bound by social or ethnic tradition. Nor is it bound by rigorous obedience to old covenant ceremonial law. Were you circumcised when you came to faith? (i.e., a Jew) Then stay circumcised. Don’t seek the strange and painful removal of your circumcision.
Were you uncircumcised at the time of your coming to Christ? Fine. Then stay that way. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything.
What matters, Paul says, is obeying the commandments of God. And that statement would have been quite inflammatory to certain Judaizers of the day, because they held circumcision as the highest of the commandments of God. But Paul’s statement here, as he does elsewhere, reminds us that what God cares about is obedience from a faith-filled heart to the moral law of God, rather than external obedience to the law that thinks it can earn righteousness.
And if the goal is heart-level obedience for any who come to faith, it is of no concern whether one is circumcised or not. Change on the outside doesn’t change the heart. Stay where you are, remain as you are called, and don’t seek to change that which has no bearing on your spiritual obedience. Circumcision makes you no more or less faithful than uncircumcision.
That’s what he was arguing for among the Corinthians. But does this argument, which seems quite foreign to us, have any application today? We could perhaps apply it in an analogous way to our setting in the post-civil rights era. You can hear the calls from the world saying that if you would be righteous, you need to rid yourself of your racial and ethnic ties, and instead embrace the ethic superiority of another. If you’re white, you need to divest yourself of your whiteness. You need to embrace blackness, or Hispanic heritage and culture, if you are to truly repent of your implicit racial-guilt. And this kind of poison is finding its way into churches as well.
But to such an error, I think Paul would respond that neither whiteness or nor blackness, nor Hispanic-ness, is anything. If you were white when you came to faith, then stay white. If you were black when you came to faith, then don’t seek to become white. Were you Hispanic, or Chinese, or Korean, or Nigerian, then remain so. What matters is not the external, but rather obedience to the commandments of God.
Ceremonial and ethnic markers stand as no barrier to faithfulness in the household of God.
But Paul doesn’t limit his comments to the religious and ethnic realm. He also applies his principle to the social realm. Verse 21
21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)
Here is where people’s ears perk up. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t be concerned about it. Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal.
In order to understand what Paul is and is not saying here, let me give a brief word about Greco-Roman slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was not like the slavery of the US. Slaves comprised something like 35-50% of the population of a city like Corinth. Slaves could be poorly treated manual laborers, but they could also be doctors, accountants, managers of estates, teachers and tutors, and many other noble professions.
Paul’s point here is that not even slavery is an impediment to faithful service to God. Your status as a slave, or your status as a freedman (which is someone who had earned their manumission, their freedom), your status as either is not an impediment to your faithfulness to God.
Paul is not calling for social revolution, as if someone comes to faith, and then immediately has to lead a rebellion in order to be a faithful Christian. The faith of the bible is a faith that works in any situation, in any status, in any country, and in any occupation. Stay where you are, and be content in it, and obedient to the will of God.
However, Paul here doesn’t say that all slaves must stay enslaved FOREVER. Like he did in his discussion of marriage, he offers an exception to the rule. He says, if you can gain your freedom, then do it. Slaves were often able to work extra jobs on the side. And the money that they earned, after giving a portion to their master, could be taken to a pagan temple, which would act like a bank. And after a slave earned enough money to pay for their freedom according to the market-rate of a slave at the time, he could go to the temple with his master, pay the money to the priest, who would them ceremonially pay off the master, and the slave would then be free from the service of the master, and transferred to the service of the “gods.” This is the process that would be familiar to Paul’s audience in Corinth.
And it is this background that informs what Paul says next. Let’s look at the remaining verses, 22-24, and see our final point: the Principle unfolded. The principle unfolded. Paul says:
22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.
Paul introduces us to a wonderful paradox of the Christian life. We’re all free and we’re all slaves.
Why is it that a slave can be content in his slavery? Because the salvation of the Lord is freedom from everything of eternal significance.
And why is it that a freed man can be content in his freedom? Because he himself is a slave to Christ.
We’re all free in Christ because the only ultimate slavery, that is slavery to sin and death, has been broken by Jesus. Think back to your life prior to faith in Jesus Christ. You thought you were free. You thought you could do whatever you wanted, and that you had no master. But you were actually slaves to sin.
That’s what Paul says in Romans 6:20, “20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” You thought you were free, but you were slaves to your own lusts, slaves of materialism, slaves to fear and the crippling desire to have others think well of you, slaves of workaholism, slaves to addictions, slaves to everything that would lead you to death.
But God. But God has acted. And what is the fruit of that, Paul? Romans 6:22, “22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
You’re free. You’ve been liberated. You’ve been emancipated from slavery to the cruel taskmaster that is the law of sin and death. And in being liberated, you’ve not been set loose to do whatever you want. You’ve not been untethered from all authority and allegiance.
Rather, you’re like the slave in the temple in Corinth. Your price of manumission has been paid, and you’re no longer bound to your old master, but instead you’re bound to a new master. But that master is no pagan god, and your priest is no mere pagan cleric.
Your old master was the law of sin and death, and your new master is the God of the universe.
But the differences don’t just stop there. Your liberation wasn’t earned because you worked some extra side jobs. You haven’t been granted emancipation because you were so diligent, or faithful, or righteous. In fact, there is no way that you could ever earn enough righteousness to cover the debt of lawlessness that you had accrued. You were stuck in slavery, with no hope of release from bondage.
But God. God sent another to purchase your liberation. That’s the good news of the gospel. He says in verse 23:23 You were bought with a price.” And what was that price? That price was the life of the Son of God.
Colossians 2 puts it this way:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, [how?] 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Your slavery has been broken. Your shackles have been destroyed. Your old master has been defeated. That means that in Christ we’re no longer destined to continual enslavement to sin.
Our sinning is not an inevitability. Rather, we have been given His holy spirit to help us pursue actual righteousness in this life. We’ve been freed from the cruel master we had, and instead had our allegiance transferred to the Lord of all.
And so what does that mean for us: Paul concludes verse 23 with, therefore do not become bondservants of men.
This is likely a reference to the Corinthian fondness for eloquent words of wisdom, man-made philosophy which was disguised as “spiritual maturity”, and thereby dictating that they had to change their marital, or social, or any other circumstance if they are to be “really holy.”
Ignore all that, Paul would say. You can be holy and thrive spiritually where you are, in whatever situation you find yourself, because the God of all the universe is not limited by any human status, and because no man can prevent you from being obedient to the commandments of God.
And so, to summarize this section and connect it with what preceded and what is to come, Paul concludes his “argument with those who would dissolve their marriages in favor of their alleged ‘higher spiritual status’ of celibacy… The analogy is that of the slave and the free, and the point is that neither marriage nor celibacy is significant; they should serve God where they are. But the concern raised by the celibates is not over. So in the next section Paul will again apply the principle here argued; but because he disagrees with their reasons, even if he agrees that singleness is best, he turns out to affirm change (i.e., marriage) in rather strong terms.” 
That’s where we will head next time. But for now, let us conclude with the final verse of this section: 24 So, brothers,[e] in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1987), 345.
 Fee, 345.
 Fee, 354.
 Fee, 355.