Living for God’s approval

  1. Living for God’s Approval (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

On June 28th, 1991 I watched one of the greatest displays of strength and endurance I’ve ever seen. The location: Las Vegas. The setting: Caesar’s Palace. The event: Donovan “Razor” Ruddock vs. “Iron” Mike Tyson in a scheduled twelve round championship bout. This was a much-anticipated fight because it was the rematch that followed their highly controversial bout. In their previous brawl, the referee stopped the fight because Tyson was pummeling Ruddock.

Well, in the rematch Ruddock was out to prove that he deserved another chance. Ruddock and Tyson were pretty evenly matched in the first three rounds, but in the fourth round Ruddock suffered a broken jaw. Most people expected him to favor his jaw and fight soft, but not Ruddock. He came out fighting round after round after round against, at that time, the world’s greatest fighter and most devastating puncher. He fought eight more rounds after the broken jaw and actually finished the fight stronger than he began! The fight went the scheduled twelve rounds and Tyson won by the judges’ decision.

Although Tyson won this fight, I believe the real winner was “Razor” Ruddock. Why? Because he endured to the final bell and finished well. He overcame many obstacles and saved his best fighting for the final rounds. I want to encourage you to be a Razor Ruddock. This will require enduring to the end and finishing well.

This raises the questions: “Why is endurance so important?” “Isn’t my perseverance guaranteed?” Well, if we are to take seriously the numerous warnings and exhortations that are presented in the New Testament, we had better consider the possibility that our endurance is not so certain. While our salvation is quite certain and totally secure, our success in our Christian lives and ministries is not. That’s why the Scriptures teach that living for God’s approval requires finishing well. I’d like to take us to Paul’s famous words in 1 Cor 9:24-27. In this passage, Paul coaches us to run and fight for the prize. This simple training tip will help us live for God’s approval by finishing well.

In 9:24, Paul tells us to run the Christian race with the intent to win the prize at the end of the race. Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” Paul begins with the question, “Do you not know?” Now whenever Paul uses this question he is confident that his readers already know the answer. This passage is no exception. Paul’s audience knows that in any race there can only be one winner. Fortunately, Paul uses plural verbs and the exhortation is not “you” singular but “you” plural. Paul is saying, “You all run in such a way that you all may win.” The prize is offered to each and every believer. Unlike a foot race, we’re not competing against each other. Every Christian can win the prize. That’s good news because there will always be someone faster, stronger, or smarter than us. But that’s okay, because you and I are running against opportunities God gives us, not what He gives other Christians. We are competing against ourselves.

The running metaphor works like this: When a person believes in Jesus Christ he or she becomes a runner in the Christian race. So if you are a Christian, whether you like it or not, you are a runner. Paul finishes 9:24 with these words: “Run in such a way that you may win.” This is not an apostolic suggestion or a divine option. Instead, Paul issues a command, “Run! Don’t walk. Don’t stop. Don’t sit down. Run because you can win the prize!” After all, the point of entering the race is to win the prize. The prize does not represent salvation. Salvation is a free gift; the prize is an earned reward. Paul is not discussing salvation in this context. He has been writing about his ministry as an apostle (9:1-23). Understood properly, then, the prize that Paul is speaking of is a reward that may or may not accompany salvation. The Christian’s prize is the honor and glory of eternal rewards. It is the joy of hearing Jesus say, “Well done!” (Matt 25:21, 23) This is the amazing grace of God. We receive salvation as a free gift and then the Lord blesses us on top of that with temporal and eternal rewards for faithfully serving Him. What a God!

So what does faithful running look like? Who are those who run in such a way that they may win?

  • Christians who finish their lives still growing, still serving
  • Senior saints that persist in daily prayer until the Lord calls them home
  • Husbands and wives who stay faithful to each other “until death do us part”
  • Young people who preserve their virginity until marriage, in spite of crushing peer pressure
  • Pastors who stay passionate about ministry until their last breath
  • Church members who weather the rougher patches and remain joyful, loving, and faithful

Today, you may be thinking, “I’m not running well. In fact, I’m barely in the race at all. What should I do?” The answer is: recommit to win God’s race. As long as you are in the race, run to win. Don’t just run to finish, but to win. No one just happens to make a comeback to win. Not when he is far behind. Only by believing it can happen, and with a renewed resolve to win, is a comeback accomplished. If you find yourself far behind in the race, don’t give up. Keep on running. You can still win. Don’t quit. Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In 9:25, Paul commends the commitment of athletes who will sacrifice everything to win a temporal prize. Listen to these words, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” The phrase translated “competes in the games” comes from the Greek word agonizomai. We get our word “agony” or “agonize” from it. So Paul is talking about some heavy-duty sacrificial striving here. Verse 25 also tells us that competing for the prize requires “self-control in all things.” What does it mean to “exercise self-control in all things?” Well, remember that Paul’s analogy is training for the Isthmian games. All of the events in these games were one-person individual sports. Hence, these athletes could not coast in their training; rather, they had to go all out! What did this require? It required many months and even years of sacrificial discipline and rigorous self-control. These athletes kept a strict diet. They made sure they got the proper amount of sleep each night. They trained daily for their particular events. They performed strength and cardiovascular exercises. They often abstained from drinking and immorality. They ate, drank, and slept succeeding in their particular event.

Why did these athletes go to such great lengths? They did it to obtain a “perishable wreath”—a paltry vegetable crown of celery. Of course, this crown eventually withers away. It is here one day and gone the next. Most people don’t remember who won last year’s championship. This is old news. Next season is coming up. The question becomes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Next time you drive past a soccer, baseball, or even football practice, consider the effort they are putting into the practice. If they did this because their lives were threatened we might understand. What is difficult to grasp is that they do this voluntarily. All for a trophy that will be kept in a glass case and soon forgotten in this life and most assuredly not remembered in the next. They voluntarily wanted to play, and they will torture themselves in order to win.

Now if athletes are willing to undergo this type of discipline and self-control, how much more so should we as servants of Jesus Christ? For unlike the athletic crown, our victor’s crown will affect us forever and ever. Paul states that our reward is “imperishable”—it is eternal! This means it does matter whether we gain or lose the prize. Hearing Jesus say “Well done!” is no small matter. Think about that for just a moment. Only what you and I do for Jesus Christ will last. And it will last and last and last. Forever is a long time. And we only have 70 or 80 years to invest in eternity. That is why I pray like Jonathan Edwards, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!” We must run and fight for the prize, for living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

I realize that very few people would say self-control is one of their greatest strengths. Yet, Paul tells us that self-control is necessary if we are to win the prize. So may I ask you: In what area(s) of your life do you need to exercise self-control?

  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your media intake? Do you watch too much TV? Do you play too many video games? Do you surf the web for too many hours?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your leisure? Do you spend too much time working out? Does your hobby come in the way of your relationship with God and your family?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your friendships? Are your friends more important to you than your God? Are your friends keeping you from being all that God wants you to be?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control over an addiction? Is food a drug to you? Are you a Christian glutton? Do you drink or smoke too much? Are you addicted to sleep? Do you need to repent for laziness? Paul says, “NO” to flabby Christianity! The Christian life demands discipline!

Now again, let me clarify that the Christian life is NOT a race to achieve entrance into heaven. We are saved by grace, not by effort or discipline or obedience or good works or anything else we do. We are saved by believing, not by achieving. We are saved for good works, not by good works. Still, the Christian life is a race, a race to accomplish what God put us here for, a race to present ourselves approved unto God, a race to finish in a way so as to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In 9:26-27, Paul is going to tell us how to avoid losing in our Christian race. He puts it like this in 9:26, “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air.” Verse 26 begins with the word “Therefore.” Paul often uses this word to reflect on what he has previously said. He has just stated that “the prize” lasts for eternity. Therefore, he writes that he doesn’t run aimlessly, for only those headed toward the finish line qualify for the prize. Now, imagine the following cross-country meet. The runners take their mark; the official fires the gun and the runners all head in different directions! A sun lover runs toward the west, another fond of the mountains runs toward the east, and the third heads toward the sea. This would be ludicrous. Only those headed toward the finish line qualify for the prize.

Paul also states that he isn’t a boxer who merely beats the air. Seriously, some of us are great shadow-boxers. We make loud noises about our faith when we’re in church, but when we get out into the real world—the boxing ring—we never land a blow for Christ. In fact, many of us are so ill-prepared that we are a sitting duck for the sucker punches landed by those who deny the faith! Yet, Paul informs us that only those who stay in the ring, duke it out, and make every blow count qualify for the crown. Like Paul, we must be motivated by the gripping thought of standing before Jesus Christ and giving an account of our earthly lives. We must have a purpose and a goal to please the Lord. Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where Alice asks Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t much care where…” and the cat replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” Alice says that she just wants to get somewhere, and Cheshire Cat tells her, “Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.” We are certain to end up somewhere. The important question you must ask yourself is, “Where am I going?”

Paul concludes this paragraph by expressing a sincere fear that he himself could fail to win the prize. Instead of running aimlessly or shadow-boxing (9:26), Paul makes this contrasting statement, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” With the judgment seat of Christ in mind, Paul writes, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave.” The word translated “discipline” literally means “to strike under the eye” or “to beat black and blue.” Paul beat his body into submission doing all that he could to ensure his success. He deliberately knocks himself into unconsciousness, so to speak, thus bringing his body into slavery.”

Most people, including many Christians, are slaves to their bodies. Their bodies tell their minds what to do. Their bodies decide when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and get up, and so on. An athlete cannot allow that. He follows the training rules, not his body. He runs when he would rather be resting; he eats a balanced meal when he would rather have a chocolate sundae; he goes to bed when he would rather stay up; and he gets up early to train when he would rather stay in bed. An athlete leads his body, he does not follow it. It is his slave, not the other way around.

In his book Your Own Worst Enemy, social psychologist Roy Baumeister talks about an experiment with college students who practiced walking with a book on their head in order to improve posture.

These students not only learned to stand up straight, they also began eating better, studying harder, and sleeping more — without specifically focusing on progress in these areas.

Baumeister says that small improvements pave the way for big improvements.

Leadership coach Penelope Trunk agrees: “Self discipline snowballs.” Mastering one area makes it easier to master others.

Maybe that’s why Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave…” He knew that small victories in self-discipline pave the way for greater victories.

If you need to develop discipline, and (like most) you have a number messy areas to choose from, start with the easiest, not the toughest.

Put the proverbial book on your head and begin walking straight.

Many of us hate the word “discipline” as much as “self-control.” Yet, Paul says both are necessary. However, being disciplined in your Christian life doesn’t mean being straitlaced, sober, and sad. It means measuring everything you do by the goal of pleasing Christ. Discipline means asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing now going to help me win my Christian race later?” If you struggle with discipline, consider a workout routine and partner.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us needs a spiritual workout partner or coach. We need to be pushed, stretched, and held accountable. If we don’t have someone like this in our lives, we will never be all that God intended us to be.

We need a workout partner or coach so that after serving Christ we will not be dealt a black eye of disqualification. Now the question that looms before us is: What did Paul mean by the term “disqualified” (adokimos)? To be “disqualified” simply means “disapproved.” It means “not standing the test.” Paul’s fear was not that he might lose his salvation, but that he may not persevere in his Christian life and ministry. The context of this passage and the rest of Paul’s writings bear this out. In Paul’s mind there’s a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is the result of a one-time act of faith. Approval is the result of ongoing faithfulness. God promises us His unconditional acceptance, but He does not promise us His unconditional approval. As a father, I will always accept my children but I may not always approve of their behavior. This is also true in our relationship with God.

Paul’s ultimate goal was the approval of Christ. As Paul’s death was quickly approaching, he had these words for young Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8).

The phrase translated “I have fought” (agonismai) is one word in the Greek. Interestingly, it is a form of the same word that was used in 9:25 that was translated “competes according to the games” (agonidzomenos). Both of these passages deal with the doctrine of eternal rewards. Another interesting tidbit is: 1 Corinthians was one of the earlier books that Paul wrote and 2 Timothy was the last. What is the point? Paul finished his course because he kept his eyes fixed on the prize. Paul realized that living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

In the 1986 NYC Marathon, almost 20,000 runners entered this famous race. What is memorable about it is not who won, but who finished last. His name is Bob Wieland. He finished 19,413th. Dead last. Bob completed the NYC Marathon in…are you ready for this?—4 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes, and 17 seconds. Unquestionably, the slowest marathon runner in history. Ever! What makes Wieland’s story so special? Bob ran with his arms. Seventeen years earlier, when he was serving as a solider in Vietnam, Bob’s legs were blown off in battle. When he runs, Wieland sits on a 15-pound saddle and covers his fists with pads. He runs with his arms. At his swiftest, Bob can run about a mile an hour, using his muscular arms to push his torso forward one step at a time. Bob Wieland finished four days after the start. What did it matter? Why bother to finish? Here’s why: there is great reward in just finishing the course.

Today, like Ruddock and Wieland, we can finish well. If we follow the example of the Apostle Paul and countless others, we can finish well. Therefore, my challenge for all of us today is to live for God’s approval by finishing well.

 

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Getting what we paid for

My wife and I are very careful about how we spend our money. Some call us cheap, others call us frugal; I like to call us shrewd stewards of the Lord’s resources. Yet, over time I have noticed something rather discouraging. In my attempt to save money, I buy inexpensive items that quickly break down or fall apart. Whenever this happens, I tend to say, “You get what you pay for!”

However, this worn-out cliché does not always prove true. Occasionally, I buy brand-name goods that fall apart while the el cheapo merchandise lives on. It’s rather frustrating and unpredictable. Hence, I’ve learned that you don’t always get what you pay for. This is true in other areas of life as well. Hollywood can spend millions of dollars seeking to produce the latest and greatest movie, only to watch the movie bomb in the box office. At the same time, a small-time producer can spend peanuts producing a flick only to see it become the latest rage. In the world of sports, it is all too common to see an athlete sign a ridiculously lucrative contract only to be injured or have a sub-par season. Simultaneously, a rookie can sign the league minimum and have an explosive year. You can’t always judge a movie by its budget or an athlete by his salary. Furthermore, you can’t judge a servant of Christ by his pay or lack thereof.

Take the apostle Paul, for example. He chose not to receive payment from the church at Corinth. Instead, he established a church in this sin-hardened city at his own expense. He served them freely so that the gospel would have an open door to travel through. Paul’s personal sacrifices brought about great results for God’s kingdom. Likewise, we have been called to have a godly work ethic as ministers of the gospel. Some of us will be paid, others will serve as volunteers. Yet, we are all called to represent Christ and to offer Him our lives. We will learn that proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. In 1 Cor 9:1-23, Paul is going to share with us an autobiographical sketch of his ministry. In doing so, he will exhort us to follow his example. First, Paul will argue that…

  1. We must relinquish our individual rights(9:1-14). Paul builds a lengthy argument for ministers being paid. I know what you’re thinking: I picked the wrong day to come to church. Well, believe me when I say, this is as awkward for me as it is you…probably more so. Nevertheless, I will proclaim God’s Word as faithfully as I can. In 9:1, Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of his apostolic identity. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” Paul’s four rhetorical questions all expect a positive answer, and they become increasingly specific. Certainly he enjoyed the liberty that every other believer had. Moreover, he possessed the rights and privileges of an apostle. The proof of his apostleship was twofold. He had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22) on the Damascus road (Acts 22:14-15; 26:15-18), and he had founded the church in Corinth, which was apostolic work (cf. Rom 15:15-21).

In 9:2, Paul continues, “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” Although some may have doubted Paul’s apostleship, that should not be the case with the Corinthians. They themselves were the proof that he was an apostle. If the Corinthians deny Paul’s apostleship they deny their own existence. Paul, therefore, takes the opportunity to work that issue into his discussion at this point, hoping he can nip it in the bud. He explains that the Corinthians are the “seal” of his apostleship. A seal in the ancient world was a warm blob of wax into which a signet ring was pressed to seal a letter or package. It was an assurance that the contents had not been opened; it showed who owned the contents; and it showed the genuineness of the contents, that it was sent by the right person. Paul is saying that the Corinthians are his work in the Lord.

If you are a Christian, it is critical that you have your own “seal” of people you have impacted and influenced for eternity. Like Paul, our goal must be to see lost people trust in Jesus Christ and then grow to maturity in Him. In light of eternity, nothing else will matter.

In 9:3-14, Paul shares his apostolic rights to make his living from the gospel. His argument is based on a barrage of rhetorical questions. This seems to be Paul’s way of going for the jugular in a natural and persuasive way. By using this device, he presents rationale for his financial support. Yet, in the end, Paul will conclude that it is best for him to forgo these rights in Corinth (9:12b). But in the present discussion of receiving support for his ministry, how could accepting money from his converts hinder the progress of the gospel? There are several possible answers to this question: (1) Some people might not believe the gospel if they knew it would lead to financial obligations. (2) Others might see a contradiction between Christ’s grace being free but becoming a Christian not being free. (3) Paul perhaps did not want to become a “slave” to a patron donor who supported his ministry and who could then control the content of his preaching (“money is power”). (4) Paul wished to dissociate himself from other religious hucksters in the ancient world, some of whom made a good living from flowery rhetorical appeal.

 

Paul lives what he preached: proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. Unfortunately, the Corinthians assumed that “you get what you pay for.” Since Paul was serving for free, some questioned his credentials. In Corinth, orators, teachers, and philosophers were well paid. It was unthinkable that someone like Paul would not receive a paycheck. So Paul builds an air-tight case for remuneration and then insists that he will not make use of his rights. For Paul, proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

In 9:3-4, Paul writes, “My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink?” In the context, “the right to eat and drink” is a figurative reference to financial support. It means to “eat and drink” at the expense of others. Six different times the word “right” is used in this chapter. It’s a very central issue. Paul is saying that he had a legitimate right to receive financial support from the people to whom he ministered.

Paul continues his argument in 9:5-6 by raising two other issues: “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?” All of these questions expect a positive answer. Paul states that apostles have the right to be married and to cease to work.

Now, in 9:7-14, Paul is going to give five reasons why he has the right to be supported by the churches to whom he ministered, why he shouldn’t have to work at a trade to earn a living, so he can devote his energy to study, prayer, preaching, and teaching. He begins with an appeal to common sense in three illustrations from everyday experience in the workplace. “Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?” Paul is pointing out that soldiers don’t fight all day and then go to civilian jobs at night so that they can pay for their food, lodging, clothing, and armaments. No, the government provides all the necessary resources for them to function as a soldier. Paul makes the same point about farmers. You don’t plant a vineyard or cultivate crops for somebody for free, and then take a night job to subsidize the farming work. You expect that if you work hard in the vineyard or on the farm, you’ll be paid, perhaps in kind with some portion of the crops. He makes the same point about shepherds who care for flocks or sheep owned by other people. At least they have the right to have some of the milk. In the same way, a Christian worker has a right to expect benefits from his labor.

In 9:8-10, Paul uses the Scriptures to back up his point. Paul writes, “I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.” Paul demonstrates a most unusual use of God’s Word. Quoting the Old Testament law regarding the treatment of oxen, he noted that Deut 25:4 commanded God’s people not to muzzle the ox while it was in the process of threshing. Instead, God commanded that the ox be allowed to eat the grain. If God cared so much about the animals who served His people, how much more must He care for the people who serve them?

If something is true on a lower scale, it is certainly true on a more important, higher scale. In other words, if mere animals are given the right to eat as they are working in the fields, certainly human beings made in the image of God have that same right. In fact, God is more concerned about getting across a principle for human beings in this text than He is about getting across a principle for animals.

Several times Paul asserts that the Old Testament was written as an example for New Testament believers (cf. 10:6, 11; Rom 4:23-24; 15:4). This is an important reminder that the Old Testament is of great benefit to each and every one of us. We should read it frequently and look for opportunities to study and preach from it. Perhaps the price that you need to pay in proclaiming Christ is to spend some time studying the Old Testament. After all, the Old Testament makes up ¾ of your Bible. In order to proclaim Christ, we must be familiar with His Bible and that of the apostle Paul.

In 9:11-12, Paul appeals to the inherent fairness of it. He argues, “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.” Spiritual things are intrinsically more important than physical things. The former will last forever whereas the latter are only temporary. Consequently, those who benefit from spiritual ministry should physically support those who minister to them (cf. Gal 6:6). In spite of this spiritual principle, Paul surrenders his rights because proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

Now, in 9:13, Paul makes a reference to Old Testament Jewish history and custom pertaining to the temple: “Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar?” This refers to Old Testament priests and Levites. The concept of paying God’s servants is not a New Testament notion; rather, it goes back to the Old Testament. Paul saw his gospel ministry as priestly service (cf. Rom 15:16).

Paul closes out his argument in powerful fashion by stating: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (9:14). Paul explains that the Lord Jesus taught the same right for servants to be paid (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7). Case closed: full-time vocational servants have the freedom to be paid.

Like Paul, our staff are not asking for a raise. But there is something to think of here: I want our staff to always be free from the distraction of money. I would also suggest that there are other ways we can honor those who serve. An encouraging email, letter, or phone call would mean the world to any of our leaders. There are other creative possibilities as well (e.g., child care, providing services, etc.).

[Having argued vigorously for his right to the Corinthians’ support, Paul now proceeds to argue just as strongly for his right to give up this right. This section gives the reader a window into the apostle’s soul.]

  1. We must fulfill our individual calling(9:15-23). In these nine verses, Paul explains that his passion for lost people and for preaching the gospel consumes him. Consequently, he will go to any and every length to share Christ. In 9:15, Paul writes, “But I have used none of these things [i.e., financial provisions]. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.” These are certainly strong words! Paul actually felt it was better to die than to receive any financial support from Corinth and lose out on freely boasting in the free offer of the gospel. This idea of boasting is used in Paul’s Bible—the Old Testament, of glorying in God. So when Paul uses the word “boast” in his writings, he isn’t talking about personal accomplishments. He is talking about what the Lord has done through him in spite of his weakness.

Why is Paul so adamant that he should not be paid for preaching the gospel? If he has the right, why not capitalize on it? He explains his reasoning in 9:16-17 (note the two uses of “for” that begin each verse): “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.”

Paul says that he cannot legitimately boast in his ministry of preaching, because God ordered him to do it. He states that he is “under compulsion” (9:16) and has been entrusted with a “stewardship” (9:17). There is an irresistible call of God on his life, and he can’t take any personal credit for doing it. He is a man on fire for God! Hence, Paul says “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (9:16). The word “woe” occurs frequently in the Old Testament prophets to denote coming disaster and even divine judgment. Paul felt the weight of severe consequences if he chose to forego preaching for another profession. Since God dramatically called Paul to preach, he had to proclaim the gospel. There was no reward in simply doing what God had called him to do (cf. Luke 17:10).

This leads Paul to raise a question in 9:18: “What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” Paul’s “reward” is demonstrating love to people by freely preaching the gospel. His highest pay was the privilege of preaching without pay. Of course, Paul also believes that his loving service will be recognized in the future by his Lord (cf. 3:12-14). However, Paul recognizes that we do not get rewarded for our calling in and of itself, only for the manner in which we fulfill it. Thus, Paul sacrificed much and served well so that he might one day be rewarded for his service.

Ultimately, what I want us to see is that Paul’s spirituality is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the gospel. One such right is that of having a full-time ministry. Let us be very careful not to assume that God’s servants can be more effective by ministering “full-time.” The great apostle Paul chose to serve in “part-time” ministry, for the sake of the gospel. I don’t think anyone would argue that Paul could have been more effective if he had been serving full-time. Likewise, there are many people in our church who could be in full-time ministry, but they are incredibly effective and fruitful in part-time unpaid ministry. Such people never ask to be paid and faithfully serve year in and year out. They have the reward of offering the gospel for free. Additionally, they will be rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ for faithfully serving the Lord. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

[Paul now moves from the subject of giving up his right to financial support to giving up cultural rights.]

In 9:19-22, Paul is going to describe his passion to do whatever it takes to win lost people to Christ. Paul explains, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” Six times in this paragraph Paul states his desire to reach the lost. He reaches the lost by adapting his methods according to the group he tried to reach. Paul goes after anyone and everyone: (1) Jews; (2) “those who are under the law” probably includes Gentile God-fearers and proselytes to Judaism as well as ethnic Jews; (3) “those who are without law” refers to Gentiles apart from any Jewish influence; and (4) “the weak” most likely refer to Christians with weak consciences. Paul must therefore be using “win” in the broader sense of winning to a more mature form of Christian faith.

Paul’s missionary principle, of course, has practical applications. For missionaries it means learning the local language and customs to make the gospel understandable in the local environment. For those doing inner-city work it means ministering in a way that does not patronize the inner-city mentality. For those in campus ministries it means bringing to college students a message that challenges them in an academic environment and shows that Christianity is not anti-intellectual. The applications of “being all things to all people” are endless. I have known of people who share Christ in bars, homosexual clubs, and Mormon churches. If Christianity is to make a mark in the 21st century, fresh and radical methods will need to be pursued. As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the US once said, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Why does Paul go to such great lengths to win lost people? He tells us in 9:23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” The work of the gospel was the great axis around which everything in Paul’s life revolved. He made it such so he might share in its blessings.

Paul still has in mind what he said in 9:17-18. He is looking for reward. Paul lives in the way he does to become a “fellow partaker” of the gospel. The thought continues the ideas of 9:12-14. He does not “share” the financial blessings of the Corinthians. But he expects to get a “share” in the rewards of the gospel eventually. He might turn down rewards from particular congregations, but he expects that God will compensate him for that which he has lost. To become “a partaker of the gospel” means to receive its ultimate reward: to gain “the prize” that Jesus gives.

 

The designer of the famous yellow smiley face received a mere $45 for his work. Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts commercial artist, created the simple yellow face in 1963 as a morale-boosting campaign for two firms that had recently merged into the State Mutual Life Assurance Companies of America. Because Ball never copyrighted his design, he received no proceeds when the cheery icon appeared countless times worldwide. In 1971 alone, 50 million buttons were sold. After Ball’s death in April 2001, his son, Charles, said in an obituary that his father was never bitter about the small amount of money he earned from the smiley face and never regretted foregoing a copyright. He considered his greatest achievement not his famous logo but the bronze star he received for his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa.

As wonderful as that bronze star is, Jesus Christ promises us eternal reward for faithfully proclaiming Him. One day, we will stand before Him in a glorified body and He will evaluate our lives. My prayer is that when you see Him face-to-face, He looks you in the eyes and smiles a big smile and says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Whenever you see a smiley face, please remember your life in light of the judgment seat of Christ. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

 

 

We got the meats!

Texas allows motorists to make a right turn when the traffic signal is red—if the way is clear. This gives drivers liberty and keeps traffic moving. At some intersections, however, signs read, “No turn on red.” These corners are exceptions because they are potential danger spots. By turning on red at one of these intersections, a motorist could cause a serious accident.

Similarly, in the Christian life we have been given great freedom, yet there are certain potential danger spots that can cause a serious accident between brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 8, we have a dangerous intersection concerning meat offered to idols. Paul had perfect freedom to eat meat offered to idols. He knew that there was only one true God and that idols were nothing. Eating meat offered to them was neither right nor wrong. But not all believers felt that way. A person with a weak conscience had believed that the meat was defiled by the idol, and therefore it was off limits. Paul recognized the need to take special care, lest by eating he would influence such a person to eat, thus violating his conscience. Concern for weaker believers kept him from exercising his liberty.

As Christians, we are free in Christ—free to engage in social practices and customs not specifically forbidden by biblical commands. Yet, the Holy Spirit may prompt us to refrain from some legitimate practices. Then the principle of love must take precedence over the principle of liberty. A mature Christian will heed the “no turn on red” sign to keep from causing a weaker believer “to have a serious accident.” In 1 Cor 8:1-13, Paul will explain that we are not only responsible for ourselves but for one another. To put a spin on the words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9), Paul will insist, “You are your brother’s keeper.” You do have a responsibility to look out for your brother’s welfare. With this high calling in mind, Paul lays out two principles to guide us.

 

  1. Recognize that love is more important than freedom(8:1-6). Whether Christians should eat meat which had been offered to idols was a pressing question in the church at Corinth. For Paul, however, the more important question was how such issues were dealt with by the church. It had become a matter of pride on both sides of the question, so Paul begins at that point. In 8:1-3, Paul rebukes the Corinthians’ pride and insists that love trumps knowledge. He begins his argument with these words: “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge” (8:1a). The phrase “now concerning” clues us into the fact that Paul is once again responding to issues raised by the Corinthians in a previous letter. “We know that we all have knowledge” probably represents another Corinthian slogan (cf. 7:1). Some in Corinth were justifying their position by claiming a certain knowledge that idols were only things of human manufacture and did not represent any true reality (8:4).

In 8:1b, Paul grants the fact that believers can champion this knowledge, but such knowledge can easily lead to pride and arrogance. Paul puts it like this, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” This is one of the most powerful one-liners about Christian community found anywhere in Paul’s letters. Paul’s point is: Those Corinthians that are boasting of their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols are acting arrogantly, without demonstrating love and respect for their brothers and sisters. Yet the real aim of Christianity should not be knowledge but love. Knowledge apart from love makes one prideful. Hence, we must always be cautious. A famous preacher used to say, “Some Christians grow; others just swell.”

Are you “puffed up” in your knowledge? Do you look down on others who don’t know as much as you do? Paul tells you to recognize that “love edifies.” The word translated “edifies” means “to build up.” Originally, the word was used of the formation of buildings. However, Paul uses this word figuratively throughout his letters to describe the development of Christian character. The Christian life isn’t how much you know, or how strong you are, or how much Christian liberty you possess, but how much you love. You are your brother’s keeper.

One of the dangers of being a Bible fellowship is that we may be strong in knowledge but weak in love. Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.” Therefore, we must strive to remain humble at all times and manifest love to all that we come in contact with. You are your brother’s keeper.

Paul continues his challenging words in 8:2-3: “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” The grammar in this sentence assumes that this is a present problem in the church at Corinth. The force of the verb tenses in 8:2 suggests a paraphrase: “If a person thinks that he has attained to some degree of knowledge, he has not yet reached the stage when he has any knowledge at all in the real sense of the word.” Paul is simply saying that if we think we are all knowing, we can be confident that we are not.

Our knowledge as finite human beings is never final—we can always know more and achieve deeper insights. Socrates once said, “Knowledge is proud that it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more.” The truly wise person clearly grasps how very limited his knowledge and understanding is, even in respect to the grey areas.

Paul adds a very unusual comment to 8:3: “but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” Again, the grammar makes it clear that there are those in Corinth who love God. Paul prioritizes love over knowledge. Accumulating all the facts about God that one can will not result in the most realistic knowledge of Him. One must also love God. If a person loves God, then God knows him in an intimate way and reveals Himself to him (2:10). Consequently, it is really more important that God knows us than that we know Him. When He knows us intimately, He will enable us to know Him intimately. Logically, not only will God enable those who love Him to know Him better, but He will also enable those who love Him to understand other subjects as well. Paul said this to establish the priority of love over knowledge in determining our behavior in various situations. You are your brother’s keeper.

In 8:4-6, Paul resumes his discussion of knowledge after digressing briefly in 8:2 and 3 to comment on the superiority of love over knowledge. In these three verses, Paul will staunchly argue against idols and put forth a profound understanding of God. He writes, “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” The expressions “there is no such thing as an idol” and “there is no God but one” (8:4) are slogans the Corinthians apparently used to justify their behavior. Paul agrees with the slogans in part, but corrects them to show how the Corinthians have misused these ideas. He explains that even though idols are fictitious gods, nevertheless, people ascribe worship to them (8:5). Yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians that there is only one God worthy of worship—God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The way the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are spoken of together here is a clear indication of the deity of Christ. Calling Jesus “Lord” is a way of affirming His deity and oneness with Yahweh (cf. Phil 2:11). Hence, Paul is arguing that in the same way that the Godhead is one, we should seek to be one in the body of Christ. Love is more important than freedom.

[The heart of Paul’s argument, especially as it relates to Christian community, comes in 8:7-13. Even though, at least in theory, all members of the Corinthian church understand that idols have no real existence (8:1), many are unable to put this knowledge into practice. Old links between idol food and idols are impossible to forget.]

  1. Limit your freedom for the sake of love(8:7-13). In this section, Paul will challenge us to look out for our brothers and sisters because we love them and have their best spiritual interest at heart. In 8:7-8, Paul writes, “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” The weak Christians in Corinth felt it was a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Because of their upbringing, earlier habits, or former lifestyle, the weak still believed that they were participating in idol worship by eating the meat. The Bible suggests that some in Corinth could not shake their past. In the first century, thrifty church members saved money by purchasing marked-down meat in the market. Some church people later discovered that the meat was marked down because it had been used in the ritual worship of pagan deities in the city. Now what? Reaction was split. Some Christians refused to buy it. Others had no problem with the bargain meat.

Meat used in ritual worship was apparently divided three ways: one part was burned on the altar; another part was given to the pagan priest; and the third part was given to the one who brought it as an offering and who believed that the gods enjoyed the aroma of the burning meat. Leftovers not used by the priest were then marked down and sold at a substantial discount in the local market where it could be purchased by the people. The one who had brought the offering might also have served a portion to Christian friends at a dinner party.

The urgent questions were: Should Christians buy the marked-down meat? Should they serve it to guests? The believers of the city of Corinth disagreed.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we must be sensitive to our spiritual brothers and sisters. We must learn to defer to them when it is appropriate. For, in the end, what difference does it really make whether we eat or not?

Unity within the church. In the early years of the church, as Gentile converts began joining Jewish believers in local fellowships, an issue arose concerning the eating of meat. Greco-Roman society was saturated with idol worship, and it was common for meat sold in the marketplace to have been consecrated as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. The Jews would have nothing to do with such meat, wary of “unclean” food-handling practices and believing that to partake of consecrated meat was to give tacit approval of idol worship—kind of a “second-hand” idolatry. The Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and held that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they had not actually offered the sacrifice, after all. The matter was becoming a point of contention within the church.

The church in Syrian Antioch, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, struggled with this issue (Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council settled the matter by urging Gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). This decision was made not to promote legalism but to keep peace within the church. Since eating meat offered to idols was a divisive issue—carrying the possibility of scandalizing fellow believers—abstinence was expedient. Compliance with the council’s directive assured that, at the next church potluck, a Jewish believer could eat the brisket he was served with confidence, knowing it had never been part of a sacrificial cow. And the Gentile believer could not be accused of participating in idol worship.

With its ruling, the Jerusalem Council affirmed the need for deference, or consideration for the scruples of others. The principle is one of self-denial; we should be willing to lay down our personal rights for the sake of maintaining unity in the body of Christ. Spiritual growth takes priority over personal preferences.

Causing a weaker brother to sin.

The “weaker” brother is not someone who simply objects to a certain practice, but one who is in danger of falling into sin. To illustrate, let’s say there are two 1st-century Christians named Demetrius and Clement. Both are former idolaters, now saved by faith in Christ. Demetrius shuns everything to do with his old way of life, including the meat sold in the marketplace, because, for him, eating such meat would constitute a return to paganism. Clement avoids the temple and refuses to participate in the pagan festivals, but he has no problem eating the meat from the market. Clement understands (correctly) that an idol has no power to corrupt good meat, and, for him, eating such meat is a non-issue. Then one day, as both men are in the marketplace, Demetrius sees Clement eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Demetrius is horrified, but Clement laughs it off and encourages Demetrius to eat some, too. When Demetrius hesitates, Clement cuts off a piece and hands it to him. Demetrius—emboldened by Clement’s confidence—eats the meat. Biblically, both believers have sinned. Clement sinned by violating the conscience of a fellow believer. Demetrius sinned in that he essentially returned to idolatry—at least, that’s what his conscience is telling him. More importantly, Demetrius is learning how to ignore his conscience—a very dangerous thing to learn.

The principle here is that the conscience of a weaker Christian is more important than individual freedom. Doing something “permitted” should never hinder the spiritual health of someone else.

Maintaining a pure testimony. In 1 Corinthians 10:25-32, Paul again emphasizes the believer’s liberty and what should limit that liberty. If you buy meat for your own use, don’t inquire where it came from; it doesn’t really matter whether it was sacrificed to an idol or not. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). However, if you are invited to dinner and someone there says, “This meat was offered to idols,” then graciously refrain from eating. Since your associate obviously considers the meat to be “tainted” by the idols, do not eat it for his conscience’s sake—even though your own conscience is fine. The Christian glorifies God when he limits his freedom for the spiritual benefit of others.

Here is a summary of the Bible’s teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols:

Eating meat offered to an idol is not inherently wrong. Meat is not “defiled” because it was taken from a pagan sacrifice. God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). However, some Christians consider meat offered to an idol to be defiled, and for them it is, since they must follow their conscience. Their scruples should be respected by other Christians with a stronger conscience. Love dictates that all Christians make allowances for their weaker brothers.

However, Paul does have a word of warning in 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The phrase “take care” is a command that we must continually obey. Christ’s interest in the weaker brother is greater than His interest in you exercising your freedom. Paul acknowledges that we have “liberty” in Christ. Christian liberty is one of the central truths of the New Testament (John 8:31-32, 36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1). Yet, it is possible to use our liberty and become a “stumbling block” to the weak. A “stumbling block” is not an act that offends a person; it is an act that leads a fellow believer into what is sin for him or her. A stumbling block is not just anything that causes someone to be offended.

Practically speaking, there are number of illustrations that come to mind. I really enjoy Asian food. Yet, over the course of my life, I have entered into various Asian restaurants only to find idols. Now I recognize that these idols are nothing; however, I would not take a new Christian who had been saved out of Buddhism or Hinduism to such a restaurant.

Paul now illustrates his point in 8:10: “For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?” The “knowledge” that Paul is referring to goes back to 8:1-4. Strong believers know that there is only one God (8:4). Weak believers are influenced by their past. Thus, strong believers are to act lovingly toward other believers, even weak ones, superstitious ones, legalistic ones, ascetic ones, or baby ones!

Let’s consider another scenario. Do I have the biblical freedom to stock my refrigerator with Bud Light? The answer is “yes.” However, what would happen if a young man in our church was visiting at my home and when I opened the fridge he saw a case of beer? After seeing my stash, he might think to himself, “Well, if Wayne drinks freely, then maybe I can too.” Yet, what if this young man comes from a family of alcoholics and has determined he doesn’t have the freedom to drink? My example could have a disastrous effect on him. In the end, I choose to abstain from this biblical freedom for the sake of others. I am brother’s keeper.

In 8:11-12, Paul shares these disturbing words: “For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” By partaking in an activity I may have the freedom to enjoy, I can potentially “ruin” my brother. Paul does not mean ultimate spiritual destruction, for he calls this man a “brother, for whose sake Christ died.” The destruction for the weak brother is that he reverts to his old pagan ways. The stress is on weakening the faith and ruining the Christian life of the brother, or stunting his Christian life and usefulness. Paul takes this seriously and states that this is a sin against Christ! You are your brother’s keeper.

Paul concludes this chapter by using himself as an example. The point being: We need to remember that there is something more important than our freedom to do as we please. That something is the spiritual development of other people. In 8:13, Paul writes, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” What a Christlike attitude! He exhorts us by example, “Don’t look at your freedom; look at their need.” Our first concern should not be to exercise our freedom to the limit, but to care about the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is an emphasis on the term “brother,” which occurs four times in the last three verses. You are your brother’s keeper.

The Bible places the burden on the strong. The sin is not in exercise of your liberty, but in exercising your liberty at the expense of fellow believers. If somebody else might be hurt spiritually, a strong Christian should give up the freedom to participate. The highest principle governing my choice in disputable matters is love for a fellow believer who might disagree with me on that issue.

There are two extremes when it comes to nonessential issues. One extreme is license: If the Bible does not prohibit a practice then there is freedom under grace to participate. The other extreme is legalism: A judgmental certainty about these issues that demands total abstinence. We must educate younger and older believers in the body of Christ so that they can learn what true Christian liberty is. We must also train believers to not cause other brothers and sisters to stumble.

Giving up my freedoms sounds like I live a boring, joyless life—I may never enjoy my liberties in Christ because somebody might be hurt. Paul’s teaching requires that I defer to those who may be close by or to those who may see my actions and be hurt by them. If I deferred to all Christians everywhere, I probably would not even get out of bed in the morning! On every doubtful issue there is a weak Christian somewhere who believes my actions or ideas are sinful. It is unlikely that they all attend my church or are in my circle of acquaintances. My responsibility is to love those nearby who disagree with me and to respect the consciences of other Christians with whom I come in contact.

Freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when in fact freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward of discipline. It is to be bought with a high price, not merely claimed…. The [professional] skater and [race] horse are free to perform as they do only because they have been subjected to countless hours of grueling work, rigidly prescribed, and faithfully carried out. Men are free to soar into space because they have willingly confined themselves in a tiny capsule designed and produced by highly trained scientists and craftsmen, have meticulously followed instructions, and submitted themselves to rules which others defined.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Aren’t there some Christians who just sit on the sidelines taking potshots at other Christians, trying to find some fault?” Yes, there are. In fact, I know some, even in this church. “Do you mean that I have to limit my liberty for legalists like that?” No. Paul is talking about an action which might cause a weaker brother to stumble, not just make a pharisaical Christian frown. If we governed our entire lives by the frowns we receive from legalistic Christians, we’d be living in straightjackets indeed.

But distinguishing between the legalist and the weak brother is sometimes very difficult. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and only He can make known in any given case what an individual ought to do. We desperately need, in the words of Heb 5:14, “to have our senses trained to discern good and evil.” God does not ask us to give up our liberty to the legalist. But if a weak brother is sincerely trying to grow, he deserves every sacrifice we might make. We are our brother’s keeper.

In July 2005, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, was asked by ESPN reporter Andrea Kremer to explain his decision to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Roethlisberger response was, “I don’t wear a helmet because I don’t have to. It’s not the law. If it was the law, I’d definitely have one on every time I rode. But it’s not the law and I know I don’t have to. You’re just more free when you’re out there with no helmet on.” Unfortunately, Roethlisberger was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in June of 2006, less than one year later. A 62-year-old woman failed to yield at a Pittsburgh intersection and Roethlisberger was thrown into the windshield of her Chrysler Town and Country. His bike was totaled, and emergency surgeons spent over seven hours repairing a broken jaw, a fractured skull, missing teeth, and several other facial injuries. After being released from the hospital, Roethlisberger apologized to the fans, his family, and his team for risking his health (and life) unnecessarily. In another interview, he was no longer focused on taking advantage of his individual freedom: “In the past few days, I’ve gained a new perspective on life. By the grace of God, I’m fortunate to be alive.” He also added that, if he ever does ride a motorcycle again, “It will certainly be with a helmet.”

Roethlisberger, who happens to be a Christian, had the freedom to ride his motorcycle without a helmet. Yet, he endangered his life and potentially many other lives. What do I mean? Well if Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl doesn’t need to wear a helmet, why should I? I’m sure many people watched this interview on ESPN and considered this freedom.

Spiritually speaking, beware of repeating this type of mistake and leading a brother or sister into sin. You are your brother’s keeper.

The benefits of being single

Today, on a good day, I stand 5’10”. Instead of being a professional basketball player, I have an even greater privilege—teaching God’s Word. I wouldn’t trade what I do for six NBA championship rings. Furthermore, I can buy my clothes off the rack, I can fit comfortably in a car, and I don’t have to duck as I walk through doorways. Being short in stature certainly does have its advantages. It can be a blessing in disguise. Likewise, being single can also have its advantages, if you use the time God has allotted you for His glory. The apostle Paul has some counter-cultural words for us. He will suggest that single-minded singleness has its advantages. In 1 Cor 7:25-40, Paul shares several of these advantages. While many of these advantages can be universally true, we must be careful to understand what Paul is saying in the context of his letter to the Corinthians.

 

  1. Singles are better able to cope with troubles(7:25-28). In these first four verses, Paul suggests that being single isn’t nearly as bad as some think. Rather, in the midst of a difficult period of time, Paul recommends that engaged couples consider remaining single. Paul unpacks his topic sentence. “Now concerning virgins [engaged women] I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.” The phrase “Now concerning…” harkens back to 7:1 where Paul begins answering the Corinthians’ questions. In this section, he is focusing on those who are engaged to be married. Paul makes it clear that he is giving an “opinion” on the matter of singleness. He even brackets off his remarks by reminding his readers again in 7:40 that he is expressing his opinion. This should caution us not to mandate what Paul has graciously and humbly suggested.

 

In 7:26-28, Paul now launches into the first advantage of singleness“I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you bound [betrothed] to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.” It seems clear that Paul was not providing advice to be used in all situations, but one that was applicable during that particular period of time. In these three verses, Paul recommends singleness in light of challenging circumstances in Corinth. In 7:26 he speaks of “the present distress” while in 7:28 he refers to “trouble in this life.” Most likely, the phrase “the present distress” is a reference to a famine. Corinth and much of the rest of the Roman world was suffering from famines. This is corroborated by secular history, and by the fact that in 1 Cor 16:1-4 Paul was taking up the famine relief collection for Jerusalem. These were challenging days, particularly for married couples.

 

But, you might ask, “How does this apply to me? I am not in the midst of a famine.” I can appreciate this. However, there are many other situations that might qualify as a “present distress.” Temptation, stress, financial difficulty, busyness, materialism, even peer pressure to marry or not to marry, are all modern stresses that could render Paul’s opinions here every bit as practical today as when they were first offered. Paul is not against marriage. Far from it! He is pro-marriage; however, he recognizes that marriage is not for the faint of heart.

 

The second crisis is described in 7:28 by the phrase “trouble in this life.” These troubles are not specified, but may refer to Paul’s conviction that Christians are called to suffer and will likely have more trials than others. The word “trouble” or “tribulation” means “pressed together under pressure,” which is an interesting description of the marriage relationship. You have two people who are pressed together in the closest possible way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They are two very distinct individuals with different personalities, different temperaments, different wills, different histories, different struggles and difficulties that they have brought as baggage into the relationship. And even believers in Jesus Christ are still subject to the limitations and weaknesses of the flesh. So you have two angry, selfish, dishonest, proud, forgetful, thoughtless people. And that’s true even in the best marriages. It’s hard enough for a sinner to live alone with himself, let alone with another sinner. You put those two separate constellations of problems together when two people are bound together in marriage, and the problems of sinful human nature are multiplied.

 

Again, Paul makes it clear that marriage is a legitimate option for single people, but he wants to spare us unnecessary grief. Hence, it is good to thoughtfully consider the option of singleness. Single-minded singleness has its advantages. So…

Don’t think that marriage will always make you happy. Don’t think that marriage will always solve your problems. Don’t think that marriage will always bring you closer to God. Don’t think that marriage will always make you a better person. Don’t think that marriage will always fulfill your dreams.  It won’t because it can’t.

Marriage is good and noble and holy and honorable (Heb 13:4), but it’s not the be all and end all of life. If you are miserable being single, how can you be sure you’ll suddenly be happy being married? The happiest married people are generally those who were also happy while being single. Changing your marital status doesn’t guarantee a change in your happiness or your contentment or your satisfaction with life. Discontented singles aren’t usually the best candidates for a happy marriage. [Singles are better able to cope with tribulations. Paul will now go on to share a second advantage.]

 

  1. Singles are better able to maintain spiritual priorities(7:29-31). In light of the transitory nature of the world, Paul challenges us to live with the end in mind. Looking at these three verses, notice the two key phrases that bracket 7:29-31: 1) “The time has been shortened” (7:29). 2) “This world is passing away” (7:31). The first phrase “the time has been shortened” reminds us of the brevity of life. No one lives forever on planet earth. You may live 30 or 40 or 50 years. Who knows? You may live 80 or 90 years, but sooner or later you’re going to die. And no matter how long you live, you’re going to be dead a lot longer than you’re going to be alive. If you doubt that, just check out the nearest cemetery. Every grave is proof that the time is short.

 

The second phrase “this world is passing away” comes from a Greek expression that means something like “this world is but a shadow of reality.” Everything we see is fleeting and insubstantial. The metaphor perhaps is drawn from the shifting scenes in a theater. The idea is that this life is here one moment and gone the next. It is similar to our sitcoms and movies that must change scenes every couple of seconds. This life is not all there is; therefore, single-minded singleness has its advantages.

 

So the time is short and the world is passing away. What follows from this truth? Matthew Henry says that we should live with “holy indifference” to the things of this world. Verses 29-31 flesh this out in five different ways:

  1. With regard to our intimate relationships“from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none” (7:29). Now there’s a verse you don’t hear quoted at many weddings. It simply means, enjoy your marriage but don’t make your marriage the most important thing in your life.
  2. With regard to afflictions“those who weep, as though they did not weep”(7:30a). Do not be so overcome with grief that you act as if God doesn’t have the final word.
  3. With regard to pleasure“those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice”(7:30b). Do not get so caught up in joy that you forget suffering is right around the corner. In everything you do, don’t forget about eternal realities.
  4. With regard to purchases“those who buy, as though they did not possess”(7:30c). When you do make purchases, be a wise steward. Don’t spend carelessly on the world’s toys and trinkets. And what you do purchase, hold loosely. Be careful, lest the things you possess end up possessing you. Acknowledge that you are a steward and the Master may call for what He has given you.
  5. With regard to all earthly concerns“those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world” (7:31a). Use the world, enjoy the world, live in the world, work in the world, buy and sell in the world, but do not let the world rule your life. The message is clear and unmistakable. You won’t be here forever. Enjoy life, live it to the fullest, take advantage of every moment, but don’t indulge yourself so much that you lose your focus on what really matters. [Singles have the potential to maintain spiritual priorities. One of the reasons that this is the case is because of Paul’s third advantage.]

 

  1. Singles have fewer distractions(7:32-35). Paul expresses the reality that marriage requires being absorbed in the “concerns” of one’s spouse and encourages singles in their devotion to Christ. “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Paul acknowledges that married people are concerned about their spouse, and rightly so! If they are not, they will not find themselves in a happy marriage. Marriage requires immense sacrifice, time, and energy. Thus, Paul’s point is that the marriage relationship can keep us from devoting ourselves more fully to Christ. For example, we must balance our devotion to our spouse, children, and God. Yet, at the same time be so consumed with God that every area of our lives is well balanced.

 

Dr. John Murray was once a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who because of creeping liberalism in that institution joined with a number of other fine scholars to found Westminster Theological Seminary. John Murray served on the faculty there for many decades as Professor of Theology, writing many excellent books that have served the church well for decades. A life-long bachelor, he finally retired at age 75, moved back to his homeland of Scotland, and married a woman about half his age. Less than two years later they had a child. I think he felt that he had given God the best 75 years of his life; now it was time to have a little fun. Unfortunately, his heart couldn’t take all that excitement, and a few years later he died.

Granted, this is a most unusual case, but it demonstrates that it is possible to honor God with singleness if you have the gift, and then marry at a later time. Single-minded singleness has its advantages.

[Paul’s final words draw out an important principle…]

  1. Singles have the option of marriage(7:36-40). This is a particularly difficult paragraph because the Greek is ambiguous and it’s impossible to know for sure whether he’s talking about a marriage arranged by a parent or a voluntary one between a man and his fiancée. I believe the man in view is the fiancé of the virgin, who is considering the possibility of marriage with her. These verses then summarize what Paul has already taught. In my estimation, the best English translations of these verses are found in the ESV, NRSV, and NLT. I will provide the NRSV rendering of 7:36-38: “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” Paul’s point is that an engaged couple is free to decide whether to marry or remain single. Everyone likes to have the freedom to choose, so here Paul leaves the choice up to believers. Both options are viable and permissible.

 

In 7:39-40, Paul concludes this chapter and his section on marriage and singleness with these words: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.” Paul wants to leave the topic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage with an emphasis on his two most important thoughts: marriage is for life and Christians should only marry Christians. Married people and singles both need to come to grips with these points. Of course, he isn’t here dealing with the two biblical exceptions: sexual immorality (Matt 5:32; 19:9) and desertion (1 Cor 7:12-16). He is envisioning the ideal circumstances—death is the only condition that frees a person for remarriage. Even then the freedom is not total, for a believer is to marry only another believer, whether it’s a first marriage or a second. That doesn’t mean simply that one must marry a person who believes in God; rather, it means the potential marriage partner must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I would also urge every widow (or widower) to only remarry a spouse that is at least a spiritual equal.

The truth is there are many excellent reasons to not marry. It is better not to marry…

than to marry a nonbeliever.

than to marry someone who will hinder your relationship with Christ or your service for Him.

than to marry someone without the commitment to give completely of yourself to that person.

than to marry for the wrong motive.

than to marry at all, if you have the gift of celibacy.

Paul’s last comment is a unique one: “and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” This doesn’t mean Paul wonders whether he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, for he knew that; rather, he believes he has the illumination of the Spirit on this topic. I like that because it shows Paul’s humility and honesty. He was never arrogant about God’s truth. When he had a word directly from the Lord (as in 7:10 of this chapter), he made no qualms about sharing it and enforcing it. When he had opinions that were apostolic (as in 7:12 and 25), he gave them with conviction. But when he wasn’t sure whether his ideas conformed to that which the Spirit of God taught, he was willing to say so. Unfortunately, there are many in the ministry today who would never admit what Paul says here, and they aren’t even close to being apostles. Yet they always claim to be right, always have a word from the Lord, and are usually dogmatic about it. They may be wrong, but they’re never in doubt. Beware of teachers who claim to have a direct pipeline to God.

 

I came across a book by a number of doctors who have discovered numerous advantages to being short: First, shorter people of the same proportions as taller people have many physical advantages based on the laws of physics, and these advantages are supported by many researchers. Shorter people have faster reaction times, greater ability to accelerate body movements, stronger muscles in proportion to body weight, greater endurance, and the ability to rotate the body faster. They are also less likely to break bones in falling.

Second, shorter people tend to live longer. A few years ago, a comprehensive study of about 300 height and cancer papers, concluded that taller people had a 20 to 60% higher incidence of cancer compared to shorter people. More recently, breast, testicular, and prostate cancer studies found taller women and men suffered from substantially higher cancer rates.

Third, shorter people have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Finally, shorter people have a reduced negative impact on the environment, water needs, and resource consumption. A population of 6 billion people averaging 6’ and 190 pounds can impact human survival by creating more pollution and depletion of resources, such as water, energy, minerals, farm land, and oil. The reason for this is that a 6’ person weighing 190 pounds is 73% heavier and has 44% more surface area than a 5’ person weighing 110 pounds. (The weight difference is based on tall and short people having the same proportions.)

Obviously, being short in stature certainly does have its advantages. It can be a blessing in disguise. In the same manner, being single also has numerous advantages: the potential ability to cope with troubles, maintain spiritual priorities, and remain undistracted and utterly devoted to Christ. Single-minded singleness has its advantages.

The call for contentment

One of the biggest challenges in life is to be content in our stage of life. It has been well said, “Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.” Nowhere is this truer than singleness and marriage. God’s desire and expectation is that you and I would be content in Christ, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

The apostle Paul modeled godly contentment. In Phil 4:11, he wrote that he had “learned to be content in any circumstance” (NET). Amazingly, he penned these words from a Roman prison. Paul could say he was content in Christ even while he was suffering great hardship. Paul allowed Jesus Christ to transform his heart and mind and give him a supernatural perspective. Can you honestly say that you share Paul’s perspective? Are you content in your singleness or marriage? If not, why are you not content? Could it be that you are seeking your own happiness? When it comes to issues pertaining to singleness, marriage, and divorce and remarriage, the question is not, “What will make me happiest?” but “What will make God happiest?”

In 1 Cor 7:6-24, Paul will tell us that God is happy when we are content. Therefore, if you want to bring a smile to the face of God, cultivate contentment. As you do, you will find that contentment is one of the keys to Christianity. In this passage, Paul will lay out three directives that will help us to live a life of contentment.

  1. Consider marriage carefully(7:6-9). Paul expresses his preference that all Christians be single as he is. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that both marriage and singleness are viable options for the Christian. In 7:6, Paul writes, “But this I say by way of concession, not of command.” Paul wants to make it clear that what he is about to say in 7:7-9 is a “concession” and not a “command.” The word “concession” means “permission to do something.” In 7:7-9 Paul explains his concession: “Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Paul wishes that all Christians would remain single. He will explain later in this chapter that a single man or woman is able to be more devoted to Christ (7:32-34). He will also make it clear that his concession is based upon the “present distress” he will mention in 7:26 (most likely a famine). In light of these factors, Paul believes that during this specific time, it is better not to marry. Yet, even during a time of crisis Paul is a realist and says, “…it is better to marry than to burn” with unfulfilled sexual passion (7:9).

As we reflect on these three verses, two principles rise to the surface. First, celibacy is a spiritual gift and should be treated accordinglyIn 7:7, Paul writes, “each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.” Those men and women who are able to be single have been gifted by the Lord to do so. It is unlikely that marriage is a gift, since it is a normal expression for humans. Nevertheless, it should be treated as a gift. Thus, if you are single you should value your gift of singleness, and if you are married you ought to celebrate your marriage. This is God’s express desire. Yet, often single people want to be married and married people want to be single. Our problem is a lack of contentment. We don’t value God’s gifts and timing. Consequently, we are always restless and dissatisfied. But it is worth recognizing that at some point in our lives each of us will be single. It may be before marriage or after marriage. Since 90% of all Americans will eventually marry, it is also likely that many people who are single will marry. God’s call is for us to be content in Christ, whatever our circumstances. Remember, God is happy when we are content.

I believe most Christians reject the legitimacy of singleness. I am convinced that is the reason for so much hurt in the church regarding this issue. Directly or indirectly, subtly or not so subtly, we have ascribed to the conviction that singles are unfinished business. We say in groups and in private conversations, “Aren’t you married yet?” “What’s a nice girl like you doing unmarried?” “What you need is a good wife.” “Found anybody to date yet?” “I’m praying the Lord will lead you to a good guy.” “It’s too bad he’s not married.” Parents say that; relatives say that. Family reunions apparently are notorious for these and similar comments. Books and articles are written from a Christian viewpoint that say, “If you will only commit your life to Christ, God will give you a marriage partner.” Christ never said that. He said He will lead you to a life of meaning and purpose and fulfillment. He never said He would give you marriage. He’s more concerned about other things. We need to accept the legitimacy of singleness. Simple mathematics says there are more women than men in this world, and there always will be. We need to accept singleness because there are some people whose circumstances involve singleness, and they have no opportunity to change. Others prefer not to change. We need to accept the legitimacy of singleness primarily because the Bible does.

Second, marriage is to be encouraged not discouragedIn 7:9, Paul encourages singles to get married if they lack control and are burning. This desire is from God and is not meant to be inappropriately squelched. Often, I will be asked the question: When should our young people get married? At the time of the New Testament writings (and for hundreds of years afterward), marriage occurred closer to the age of puberty. Marriage permitted the blossoming sex drive to be fulfilled and not frustrated. Today, however, marriage is usually postponed until later in life due to modern educational, vocational, and financial pressures. (SEE ABC NEWS ARTICLE) The longer one postpones marriage past puberty, the more sexual temptations he or she will naturally have to face. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 96 percent of Americans over the age of 20 have had sex. Premarital sex is an epidemic in the world and in the church. We must seek to protect our young people. Does this mean that young people should get married at 13 years old? No, I’m not suggesting this. However, I am recommending that young people avoid sexual temptation and not postpone marriage until all their proverbial “ducks are in a row.” If you are spiritually ready and are in a godly relationship that you are willing to commit to for the rest of your earthly life, you have the biblical freedom to marry.

Parents, apart from your child’s relationship with Jesus Christ, do you realize that the most important passion you can develop in your son or daughter is to be a godly husband or wife? We typically don’t give this as much thought as we should. We are more concerned about ensuring that our children get good grades, get into the right college, and learn the right profession. However, if you really want to set your child up for success, prepare your child to be a godly spouse. Teach your child responsibility and commitment. Encourage your child to look forward to marriage. Let your child know that nothing matters more than being a godly husband or wife.

A Christian marriage is a covenant before God that is filled with blood, sweat, and tears. It is not something to be entered into lightly. So if your child wants to get married soon or in the near future, I would suggest that they work feverishly on their relationship with Christ, prioritize their purity, and find a good job or finish college as quickly as they can.

I might also add that until God brings the right person into your life He will provide the strength to resist temptation. Two of the best means through which His strength is realized are spiritual service and physical exercise. Additionally, He expects you to avoid listening to, looking at, or being around anything that strengthens the temptation, and to focus your minds on that which is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of excellence and worthy of praise (see Phil 4:8). [Paul is clear: you need to consider marriage carefully. But if you choose to get married you must…]

  1. Remain married permanently(7:10-16). In this disputed section, Paul urges Christian spouses to remain married. In 7:10-11, Paul writes to Christian spouses in a Christian marriage: “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave [divorce] her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Paul gives instructions that are from the Lord Jesus who spoke about the permanence of marriage (cf. Matt 5:32; 19:6; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:8). Divorce is not an option—neither for the husband to divorce his wife nor for the wife to divorce her husband. It is worth noting that there is a parenthetical statement in 7:11: (“but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband”). It is possible that Paul may have been making a compassionate provision for an abused woman. This seems to indicate that God Himself is acknowledging that some marriages, even between Christians, are so difficult and so unwholesome and so degrading that divorce is the lesser of two evils. It is as though God is regrettably tolerating a violation of one of His own principles. Regardless, for the believer who divorces his believing spouse there are two options: singleness or reconciliation. Remarriage to a different spouse is not biblically permissible.

If you are married, God’s intent and expectation is that your marriage goes the distance. This means when (not if) there are problems in your marriage, it is imperative that you go to the leadership of the church before it’s too late. Too often, couples run to the pastors and elders when their marriage is on life support and nothing can be done to salvage it. Yes, God can and will work miracles, but it is wise to include Him in our marriage trauma before it’s too late.

Paul continues his argument for the permanence of marriage in 7:12-16. But in these verses Paul writes to a believer who is married to an unbeliever: “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” Four times in 7:10-13, Paul prohibits divorce. To write it once would be sufficient. Twice would be unmistakably clear. Three times would be more than enough. But four times? The man means business!

In 7:12, Paul distinguishes between his own apostolic instruction and Jesus’ teaching during His earthly ministry. Paul deals with a situation about which the Lord gave no instruction in his earthly teaching.

Now it is very important for us to recognize that the mixed marriages Paul is addressing here are the by-products of the conversion of one of the partners. When these two individuals got married they were both unbelievers; now one of them has become a Christian. This section does not apply to a believer who violates God’s law by knowingly marrying an unbeliever. For such a person to appeal to this passage would be like a teenager killing his parents and then appealing to the judge for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan.

In 7:12-16, the discussion is not about a believing spouse initiating a divorce. Instead, the unbelieving spouse initiates the divorce. The general principle in 7:12-16 is that those who are married are to stay married (i.e., the believer should remain married to the unbeliever). But although the believer should not initiate the divorce, if the unbeliever should do so, the believer is no longer bound to the marriage (7:15). Paul granted permission for divorce in the case of a believer being deserted by an unbeliever.

This is stated in 7:15, where Paul writes that the believer is “not bound in regard to marriage” (i.e., free to remain single or to remarry). In 7:39-40, there is a conceptual parallel where a wife is said to be “bound” (a different word in Greek, but the same concept) as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is “free” to marry as she wishes, only in the Lord. If the parallel holds, then not bound in 7:15 also means “free to marry another.”

Two motivations that Paul brings out for remaining in an unequally yoked marriage are the spiritual benefits that accrue to your family (7:14) and the hope that you may win your spouse to Christ (7:16). Paul says that the unbeliever is “sanctified” (i.e., set apart for God’s blessings) on account of the believer. Salvation does not change the marriage state. If the wife’s becoming a Christian annulled the marriage, then the children in the home would become illegitimate. Instead, these children may one day be saved if the Christian mate is faithful to the Lord. Paul also holds out hope that the believing spouse may influence the unbelieving spouse to believe the gospel.

Paul would counsel a Christian whose unsaved spouse has divorced him or her to remain unmarried as long as there is a possibility that the unsaved person may return. However, if the unsaved spouse who has departed remarries, I believe the Christian would be free to remarry since, by remarrying, the unsaved partner has closed the door on reconciliation. Remaining faithful to your marriage blesses your spouse and children.

[Paul urges us to remain married permanently, yet he will also counsel us to…]

  1. Stay put indefinitely(7:17-24). Paul now departs from commenting about marriage to offer more general considerations about one’s overall situation in life. But since he continues with issues concerning sexuality in 7:25-40, we cannot interpret the present section as unrelated to the marriage issues just discussed. In order to explain the general principle he has been trying to communicate in the previous verses about marriage, Paul uses two other less urgent issues (circumcision and slavery) as examples. His main point is that after experiencing the call of God, each person should remain in the situation he or she was in at the time of that call. Becoming a Christian does not mean totally revamping one’s social status. Do not seek marriage; do not seek singleness; do not seek divorce. In fact, do not actively seek any change in social status!

Paul writes, “Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.” Three times Paul insists that a believer is to remain in the situation he or she was in at the point of faith in Christ (7:17, 20, and 24). This means that a Christian does not have to seek “the right situation” in order to enjoy Christian freedom or to serve God’s call effectively. We should serve God where we are until He calls us elsewhere.

Again, Paul’s overarching point in this passage is God is happy when we are content. If you are single—be content, if you are married—be content. Whatever your stage in life, be content.

I read a story some time ago called The Stonecutter. Once upon a time, a stonecutter lived all alone. Though he had acquired great skills, he was very poor. He lived in a tiny bamboo hut and wore tattered clothing. One day as the stonecutter worked with his hammer and chisel upon a huge stone, he heard a crowd gathering along the streets. By their shouts he could tell that the king was coming to visit his humble village. Joining in the procession, the stonecutter gazed on as the king, dressed in marvelous silk, was greeted by his subjects. Oh, how I wish I had the power and glory of the king, he thought. He has soldiers at his command. There is no one more powerful. His cry was heard in the heavens, and immediately the humble stonecutter was transformed into a powerful king. He found himself riding on a great horse, waving at the crowds of people who had flocked to see him. This is power, he thought.

As the summer progressed, however, the new king watched the effects of the heat upon his people. Men and animals became weary, and plants withered under the powerful rays of the sun. As he looked at the sky, the new king realized that the sun was more powerful than any earthly ruler. How I wish I were as powerful as that, he thought. I wish I were the sun. Immediately, his wish was granted. The stonecutter relished his new role as the sun. He gloried in the power he felt as he surveyed the kingdoms below. As he sent his bright rays to earth, he watched kings and princes hide under their parasols; he watched as powerful warriors became weak under his gaze. Even the crops in the field were under his command. Then one day a tiny cloud moved over the land, shielding the earth from the sun’s bright rays. Seeing that here was something more powerful, he thought, I want very much to be a cloud. Again, his wish was granted. Now he blocked the sun’s rays and felt important. He gathered all his strength, becoming a gigantic cloud, and began to pour down rain on the earth. Rivers formed where previously there were none, and water flooded the streets of the cities and the farmland. Everything—trees, animals, people—seemed to be awed by his power. Only the massive rocks were unswayed. There is nothing, he thought, as powerful as a rock. How I wish I were a huge stone. His wish was granted. As a stone he remained motionless and powerful, unmoved by sun, wind, or rain. He felt exempt from all the forces that shaped the existence of those around him. Then one day a man approached, carrying a bag. When he stopped, he pulled out a chisel and a hammer and began to chip away at the rock. Realizing that the man with the tools was more powerful than any rock, he cried out, “Oh, I want to be a stonecutter.” Once again the heavens heard his cry, and he became a stonecutter. Once again he lived in a bamboo hut and made his living with hammer and chisel. And he was content.