Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sermon Notes on 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 "Wisdom for Living Between Worlds"

Today we are looking at 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, but I won’t get to that text until later, the reason being is that to really make sense of what we read, we need to understand the context both in the world at large and in the church, so I’ll spend about half my allotted time talking about that. The benefit being that is that if we understand the context well, Paul’s words will be less confusing and how we are to live as a result will make so much more sense. We won’t make the mistake of either badly applying or misapplying what he says to our own lives or worse to the lives of others.

So let’s get going on the context. Paul is not speaking into a prosperous peacetime context, but one of great upheaval. In this passage he says in verse 29 that “the time is short” and in verse 26 he talks of a “present crisis.” What did he mean by these things?

First, there was a famine that had been prophesied by Agabus over the whole (Roman Empire) World in Acts 11:28 and that came to pass in AD51 during the reign of Claudius. Whilst we don’t know when exactly this letter was written, many people with cool combinations of letters after their names seem to think it was between 53-57AD, that the “present crisis” Paul is referring to is this famine and that they are living in the traumatic aftershocks of that deadly period. Poor people are always hit harder by these kinds of events and in 1 Cor 1:26, Paul suggests that most in the church were poor and therefore most in the church would have gone through a severe time of testing. Whilst I don’t think this is the primary reason for the advice that Paul gives in this section, the famine obviously contributed to an understanding of the fragility of life; of not taking the gift of life for granted.

Secondly, the world at this time was in a phase of massive turbulence and transition both spiritually and politically.
  • On a political level, the emperor Nero was fermenting trouble for the sake of boosting his own self-esteem. Less than a decade after this letter was written, in AD64, he set fire to the city of Rome so that he could rebuild its public spaces as a monument to his own enormous ego and when he found out that his people didn’t really like him for burning down much of the city, he blamed the Christians, thus unleashing both the power of the vigilante lynch mob and the state on the church, arresting, torturing and killing many. Moreover, after Nero’s death (soon after the fire) Rome would go through a massive civil war as various factions sought to gain supremacy. 
  • But at the time of writing, pressure building from Rome was not as great as the pressure being applied by the Jews, many of whom were now actively persecuting the church, either from the outside, by getting people arrested, or from the inside, by leading people away with false teaching; telling them they have to follow all the Old Testament law and that the men have to be circumcised. Even more significant than that, the world was in a 40 year cross over between the end of the Old Testament Age and the beginning of the New Testament Age. Jesus said that The Old world, centred around Jerusalem: the temple, the sacrifices and festivals was about to come to a dramatic end (Matt 23:37-24:51) and that his generation of people would see it. And that is exactly what they did see, when the Romans razed Jerusalem and its temple to the ground in AD70 and whilst the nation of Israel was resuscitated back in 1947, the Temple has never yet been. Emerging from the wake of that collapse was a new world centred on Christ and his Spirit filled church which was to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. There are parallels here with the 40yr period in the wilderness (transition) which Israel experienced between the “old world” of slavery in Egypt and the “new world” of conquering the promised land. All this makes Brexit look like a walk in the park.
Finally, the end of the old world had begun. When the Cross of Christ was lifted high and dropped into the ground, it was, as it were, like a stake through the heart of the old creation. Ever since that moment, that old world ruled by the devil and full of sin and suffering has been passing away and the new world of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, the new world of Christ and his bride the church, has been advancing growing and maturing. And it will one day culminate with the return of Christ. Those of us old enough to remember the Matrix trilogy of films will remember the final moment when Neo defeats Agent Smith, causing the whole dark system of the matrix crash. The Cross of Christ, caused the crash of the old world and out of the ashes of that defeat, God is not only resurrecting and transforming people, but He will also resurrect and transform the whole universe.

So whilst Corinth was a relatively prosperous, liberal and multicultural place, there was nevertheless a large amount of uncertainty and upheaval in the background of everyday life:
  • On the level of physical existence getting enough food,
  • On the level of politics and society – with the earthly powers vying for supremacy and
  • On the level of the unseen, spiritual world, with the old order passing away – but not going without a fight with Satan trying to take down as many with him as he goes to destruction.
But there was an added complication. Into all this external upheaval, competing voices were vying for supremacy within the church. You will know from history lessons and from our own recent EU referendum that in times of tension and upheaval, extremist views find it easier to get heard in the public square. The church at Corinth was no different. But they weren’t just dividing over which leader they liked and thought they should follow, but also over the best way live out the Christian life. There were those who said “No worries! It’s all about grace.” Versus those who said “No Compromise! It’s all about righteousness.”

Have a look at the slide behind me? Which column do you more naturally gravitate towards? “No worries!” or “No compromise?” One of the problems of living in an advertisement saturated culture is that we begin to live life by well-meant but misleading slogans and clichés. All of the words on the slide behind me (“No Worries,” freedom, desire, spontaneity, hectic-ness, informality, “No Compromise,” rules, discipline, routines, order, formality.) have elements of truth in them, but if left unquestioned, or if we don’t allow the Bible to define how we understand those words, they will become infused with our own confused definitions and then they become dangerous to us.

Christian freedom is not the freedom to do what we want, it’s the freedom to do what is right.

Christian discipline is not the opportunity for us to show God how faithful we can be to him, but the opportunity for God to show how faithful he has been and will be to us! We read our Bibles not because we are trying to prove how faithful we are, but because when we read our Bibles we see how utterly faithful God is!

Some in Corinth were all about freedom and license – sleeping around at the temple, getting drunk during communion, eating food that had been offered to idols in pagan temples, (more on that in the coming weeks) and they thought nothing of it – No worries. God loves us – the Cross of Jesus covers all our sin! And yet over time, they start to make God look like a weak and overindulgent parent, spoiling their child.

But others in Corinth were all about legalism – they were no longer making love to their spouses, they were withdrawing from public spaces and they were spending all their time in church meetings speaking in tongues, because they seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that normal everyday things like grocery shopping, making love to your spouse and talking intelligibly to other people were far too worldly and not spiritual enough for “real Christians” (whatever they are). Yet they were in danger of portraying God as a harsh task master and looking down their noses at all those who didn’t share their view.

Paul will not be drawn into either of these two camps because, whilst having elements of truth in them, they are both ungodly at their root. They both are human-centred. The “no worries” people put their own desires for pleasure at the centre and the “no compromise” people put their own desire for glory and vindication at the centre. Neither of them have Christ at the centre. Paul seeks a different way, which explains why he might at times seem to contradict himself. He is neither totally for nor totally against either group, he wants to show them a yet more excellent way – the way of love – love for God and love for others. (More on that when we get to chapter 13 of the letter.)

Paul seeks wisdom which is founded on Christ and his goodness, full of the Word and Spirit of God. This kind of godliness does not seize what it thinks it should have now, but waits upon the Lord for his timing. This kind of godliness is full of praise, thanksgiving and hope, it’s wise, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, sincere, it honours God and blesses others, it is willingly self-sacrificial and it shows to the world a vision of life as good, the next life as even better and of God as a loving father, with us in Christ, as his joyfully obedient children.

Paul has waited on God, meditated and reflected on the context of the world at large, the economic uncertainty, the political struggles going on in Rome on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other and how the new life of the gospel of Jesus is transforming everything. He has meditated on the basis of his own first-hand experience of planting the Church in Corinth and now on the basis of the report that Chloe’s house has brought to him and in the midst of all that, he has meditated on the truth of God’s timeless word. And now, whilst he has had no direct heavenly revelation, he gives them trustworthy Holy Spirit inspired answers regarding the unmarried in their church.

V25-28: Singles? Stay as you were.
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but 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. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
Paul’s advice to singles in the church given the times that they are living in is the same as it was to the slaves and the married people from earlier in the chapter who have become Christians – stay as you were. Don't worry about the situation you find yourself in, do not rush to change it. Singles who are engaged to be married and on the road to being married do not now need to call off the engagement and if they get married, they have done no wrong – contrary to what the super-spiritual bunch in the church at Corinth might have been telling them. The only word of caution Paul has for them is that because of the times they are living in, they may have their hearts broken as they try to hold their family life together in the midst of a world that is falling apart. Paul, being the loving pastor, seeking their best interest wants to spare them this sorrow.

This week, as a nation we have been celebrating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In terms of loss of life it was the worst ever battle in British military history. The first day alone saw nearly 60000 men killed or wounded.

Now, imagine you were living in that time. You were a young man called up to serve your country in that battle, or a young woman called to serve the war effort at home. Imagine that you had just got engaged, as WWI kicked off over Europe. At best your marriage plans would postponed until the war was over, at worst your fiancée might not come back alive, or if he did come back alive, he might have come back with a body and mind so mangled by the trauma of war that your expectations for marriage and family life would have been completely overturned.

Times must have been hard, because Paul tells singles who are not in a relationship currently, not to pursue one. He doesn’t say that they should never seek a spouse, just that in the current circumstances, you may do better to hold off at least for now.

V29-31: Have a “camping” mind-set.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I remember a conversation many years ago with a guy who was very worked up about whether he should marry or not. The reason being that he thought that marriage continued for ever, not just in this life but in the next one i.e. for eternity. He was scared he would make the wrong choice and have to live with the consequences for ever. When I told him that marriage is for this life only, the joy and relief on his face was incredible.

In this section, Paul isn’t actually telling his married listeners to live as if they weren’t married, if he was then he would be going totally against what he had just said earlier in the chapter – for more on that you can listen to Sean’s sermon from two weeks ago.

What he is saying; is don’t get overly attached to this world or the things in it. Don’t live your life as if the 70 or so years you hope to have down here were the only time you have. Have a camping mind-set in life. When you go camping, you know it’s for a short time, that your real life is elsewhere. If the camping is hard, it’s pouring down with rain, everything is sodden and you are cold, then knowing that the experience will not last long is a great comfort. If however, sun is shining and you are having a great time, you still live with the knowledge that one day you will have to pack up the tent and go home, back to real life.

That’s what Paul is getting at here. Live here in this life, fully in the knowledge that one day you will pack up your bags and go home.

Now if you’re a Christian living in North Korea or Iraq right now, that is probably a great comfort to you. However, if you are a Christian living in the prosperous and relatively comfortable West, then that might feel like an interruption to your fun you are having.

Irrespective of where you think you think you are, remember you are camping, this is season you are in, this life you are living right now is temporary. A day will come when we all have to pack our bags and go to our permanent home.

V32-35: Count the cost, honour your word.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
In saying that we should have a camping mind-set, Paul is trying to help anxious Christians calm down and take the heat out of some of their decision making. That being said, he is in no way saying that we should be casual in our decision making. Living in this world as though we are passing through is meant to help us have peace in our hearts; it is not at all an excuse for being flippant in our life choices. The paths we choose to walk, assuming that we have a choice in the matter, deeply affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us too. They also affect not only our own eternal destiny, but the eternal destinies of those around us too. We should be prayerful and careful in the decisions we make and then resolute and steadfast in following them through to the end.

Paul doesn’t lay down an exhaustive list of the benefits of singleness or marriage here so we should be wary of taking what he says here in isolation. Marriage and singleness both have their joys and their struggles, their pros and their cons.

Paul says that marriage comes with responsibility. Good responsibility. Those who are married have to fulfil obligations to one another and to their family. Single people also have obligations, it’s just that singles have fewer of them and they are not all legally binding. If, as a single man I got a lodger who I ended up not getting on with very well, then I could easily say to them that they needed to find alternative accommodation. However, if I get into serious relational difficulty with Elli or Evie, I am still bound both legally and in the sight of God to continue looking after them, I cannot cut my losses and leave.

When Paul says unmarried people can be more concerned with being holy, it doesn’t mean that single people are more concerned with purity or being “zen,” it just means that they can be more overtly devoted to the work of God. They can serve people in the name of Jesus, rather than spend hours and hours poring over the decision of which primary school to send their children.

Moreover, married people cannot embrace risk and danger for the sake of the gospel in the same way as single people can because they have others who are dependent on them.

This doesn’t mean that single people in the church should be viewed as cannon fodder for the mission field or that single people make better martyrs, nor does it mean that married people are let off the hook from living radically and sacrificially for Jesus - sometimes becoming martyrs.  It’s just that at times the risks, needs and costs of missionary work are better suited to singles i.e. people with fewer ties.

In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul will say that he has led a life that has gotten him imprisonments, countless beatings, often to within an inch of his life. He has been stoned, shipwrecked not once, but three times left adrift on the open sea, he has been in danger from robbers, from his own people, from the Gentiles, he has regularly been hungry, thirsty, cold and exposed. Now imagine if Paul had been a family man, what his letters home would have been like and the nervous wrecks he would have reduced his wife and children into as they wondered if he would ever make it home alive.

V36-38: Marriage is good and right, but singleness for Christ is “even better.”
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
The main question in this section is what does Paul mean when he says that he who marries does well and he who does not marry does better.

You don’t become an extra super Christian if you get married, and you don’t become an extra super Christian if you remain single. But equality of status, is not the same as equality of action and we should not confuse the two. God has no favourite children – the gift of Christ’s righteousness is the scandalous claim that all Christians, irrespective of track record stand as not only forgiven, but dearly beloved in the sight of God. But that does not mean that all our life choices are equally good.

Paul says here that marriage is good – very good, but that singleness is better. Why? Because it is a sacrifice. But marriage is a sacrifice, I hear you marrieds say. True, husbands are told to lay down their lives for their wives. But no one gets married expecting their life to get worse. No-one. When those who are married, met at the altar or the registry office, they did so in the hope of stepping into a better life together. It’s true marriage is not always easy and it can be a place of exquisite pain and sorrow. But it is still, at least at the outset, an enterprise of hope, help, joy and companionship.

Those who embrace singleness for the gospel whether in the short term a year at a time or for a life time, are making a sacrifice that others have not made, that is why Paul says they do even better. Because they embrace a loneliness that others do not, they embrace a sense of rootlessness in this life, that others, with their responsibilities to family do not. Their motives can be misunderstood; they can feel socially awkward – like black sheep, because they haven’t embraced the same behaviour as the rest of their peers. They are more vulnerable because, if they invest themselves in gospel and mission work, and it all goes up in smoke one day because of the moral failure of others or themselves, to whom do they go to grieve and find their sense of identity again if they cannot retreat back to their family?

A few months ago, Sean spoke on what happens when we die. On judgment day, I truly believe that those who have embraced singleness for the sake of the gospel, will receive a greater reward in tat area than those of us who married, because the cost they willingly paid in this life for the service of God was greater. And when that reward is given we will all say, Amen and give praise to God for the incredible things that he did through that single person.

Those of you who are single now should consider these things, and like Jesus said in Matthew 19:14 – if you can receive it, then receive it. But if you can’t you are not sinning, marriage for God is good, but singleness for God is better.

V39-40: Freedom with limits
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Finally Paul instructs that if a woman becomes a widow and decides to remarry, the man should belong to the Lord – i.e. be a Christian.

From this verse and others in the Bible, we have the teaching that if you are a Christian, you should marry another Christian.

This is not because Christians automatically have better marriages, there are some really toxic “Christian” marriages out there. Nor are we saying that when a Christian marries a non-Christian it is automatically worse. Those kinds of statement are demonstrably false.

Moreover, just because someone says they are a Christian, that doesn’t mean you should go out with them, nor does it mean that you will have no problems in your married life. Conversely, just because someone isn’t a Christian, that does not mean they won’t make for an excellent husband or wife. I know many spouses who aren’t Christians, who love their spouses in ways that demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the church.

What it means is this, that if you really love Jesus and want to live all out for him, then marrying someone who is at best, not invested in that same enterprise or worse, actively working against it, will be a source of sorrow or even outright conflict later in married life.

When it’s all dinner dates and romantic walks, and having lots of me time in between, it’s easy to think that later disagreements about how to spend your money, your time, how to raise your kids, where to live will all just somehow easily resolve themselves. They often don’t and the pain of that can be excruciating.

That said, like Scott said last week about divorce last week, it’s not the unforgivable sin. The issue is this, and I would address it to both the Christian and the non-Christian who are dating: why would you both knowingly embrace that potential conflict? Don’t do it. Just don’t.

I realise that I have touched on many issues this morning, and I may have left you with more questions than answers. I’m ok with that – my point this morning is to provoke you to godliness, not answer every possible interpretation or speak into every circumstance. But if there are now questions for you that need resolving then do come and speak to me or one of the other elders. The prayer ministry team will be at the back should you wish to talk / pray some of this stuff through with them.

But for now, let's eat and drink with Jesus in communion...

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