Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (18)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (18)

1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Broadcast: June 21, 1998; Message Number 1477

Marriage to Unbelievers

Wherever Christianity is introduced and takes hold on people, great changes take place. That was certainly true in New Testament times. The Gospel of Christ changed both individuals and communities, not only spiritually, but also socially and economically, and in other ways as well. Its message of salvation from sin as well as equality before God, whether one was male or female, rich or poor, freeman or slave, caused a tremendous turmoil and ferment in the minds of many people. Here was something so new and so revolutionary that many who embraced the new religion were ready to sever all the old social ties and relationships. Christian wives thought they had to leave their unbelieving husbands and vice versa, husbands their wives. Converted slaves felt they no longer owed obedience to their masters and citizens were tempted to throw off the yoke of the government.

This amounted to a serious misunderstanding of the Gospel and the apostles laboured hard to correct this evil. Paul also dealt with this problem in his letter to the Corinthians. His advice to those who thought along these lines was that they should not be in a hurry to change the outward circumstances of their life, simply because they had become Christians. Whatever your marital status or social position in life was when the Lord called (saved) you, stay in that position and serve God faithfully.

Here Paul lays down one of the most fundamental principles of Christianity, namely that Christians can serve the Lord wherever they are and in whatever circumstances they happen to live. Serving the Lord never depends on the social conditions in which we live. We should willingly accept the situation into which God has placed us and be content to serve him there. "Nevertheless," the apostle writes in verse 17, "everyone should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches."

Contrary to the opinion of many, Christianity was never designed to disrupt social relationships. When Jesus was on earth, He made it clear that he had not come to stir up a revolution. Rather, His mission was "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). That is also the primary mission of His church. Notice, I said primarily--the church also has a social responsibility. Wherever biblical Christianity has been faithfully taught and practised, it has had a profound effect on individuals and communities as well as institutions and public morality. Christians, individually and corporately, are to minister to people's needs: feeding the hungry, healing the sick and injured and various other services.

Yet, the primary purpose of the gospel is to change people, not institutions. Its focus is on changing hearts, not social conditions. This is what Paul means when he says, be satisfied with the place and position God has assigned you and be faithful in serving Him in whatever situation you were in when He saved you.

f course, Paul is not telling the Corinthians to stay in occupations and relationships that are immoral or illegal. A thief was not to keep stealing. A temple priestess was not to continue to prostitute her body or a drunkard to keep drinking. What Paul meant was that as Christians they should be content to serve the Lord while remaining in the same social conditions and situations they were in when they became Christians. We can serve our Lord whether we are men, women or children; whether we are married, single or divorced, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. Christians can let their light shine in all kinds of conditions, whether they live under a totalitarian regime such as the former Soviet Union, present day China or whether they enjoy the freedoms of democratic countries such as our own.

True, God does not approve of corrupt government or immoral institutions and He will judge them in His time. But the purpose of the Gospel of His Son Jesus Christ is not to revolutionize social institutions but to revolutionize hearts. Because faithful Christians are better husbands or wives, better slaves or masters, better sons or daughters and better citizens, they cannot help but improve relationships and conditions. Through the leavening process Christians can and do make a difference. Where the Lord has assigned and where God has called us, there we must walk. The principle is universal. It was not given to the divided and immature Corinthians, but to all the churches.

In verses 18 to 20 the apostle gives an illustration of what staying in one's original situation means. Was any man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. What really counts is keeping God's commandments. Each one should remain in the situation he was in when God called him.

Circumcision or the lack of it was a real issue in the early Christian church. There were people called Judaizers who tried to force Christians with a Gentile background to be circumcized. There were also Jews who were embarrassed about their circumcision, so they tried to remove the tell-tale mark. But the words "circumcision" and "uncircumcision" can also be taken in a figurative sense. They were often used to represent Jew and Gentile respectively. In that case, what Paul meant was that when Jews become Christians they should not give up their Jewishness or try to appear like Gentiles. Many of their religious beliefs had to be changed, of course, but not their racial or cultural identity as Jews. The same principle applied to Gentiles. When they were converted they were under no obligation to start acting like Jews.

Circumcision as such has no religious value for Christians. Neither does uncircumcision. They have no impact on our relation to God. The only thing that counts is keeping God's commandments. What we should be concerned about is not external things, but whether our life and conduct are in harmony with the revealed will of God.

In verses 21 to 23 the apostle gives another illustration of the same principle. Here Paul contrasts the experiences of Roman slaves and freedmen. "Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you-although, if you can gain your freedom, do so." Paul does not approve of slavery as such, but his point is that even if you are a slave you can still live a Christian life. Don't think that Christ can only be served by people who are free. As a mater of fact, a slave is in a position to serve Christ in a way that few others can. They have a unique opportunity to witness for Christ, namely by their faithful service to their masters.

I realize that today we feel rather uneasy when reading these exhortations to slaves. But then we should remember two things. Although the institution of slavery was not attacked by Christ or His apostles, the influence of Christianity eventually led to the abolition of it in most countries. Slavery was simply too well-entrenched in ancient times to be changed overnight. Had the apostles tried to abolish it, they would have given the impression to the world that their primary motives were social and political rather than religious and spiritual. In other words, they would have misrepresented the Gospel.

Paul urged Christian slaves to remain as they were for the time being. They should be willing to do so as part of their obedience to Christ. Only sin can keep us from obeying and serving the Lord; circumstances cannot. Therefore--and this was Paul's point--if we are in difficult circumstances through no fault of our own, we should not be unduly concerned about our lot. Rather, we should serve the Lord faithfully as long as He leaves us in the situation we are in.

Paul does not consider slavery a good thing. If you can gain your freedom, he says, by all means do so. But even if you must live and die a slave, he argues, if you are a believer you are the Lord's freeman. There is a slavery or bondage that is far worse than that any slave even under the worst conditions can experience. It is the bondage to sin and Satan and the exposure to judgment, condemnation and the curse of the law. All men are slaves in that sense and therefore the greatest blessing anyone can receive is deliverance from this spiritual bondage.

A Christian is a person who has been delivered from the slavery that really matters, no matter what his position in life may be. In Christ we have the greatest, most complete and most glorious freedom possible--a freedom that will last forever. Should you then be overly concerned about remaining in human bondage for a few years? That is what Paul is asking.

Is this advice still relevant for us today? I believe it is. True, the times have changed. Slavery poses no threat to us. Nor are many of us tempted to divorce our wives because we want to be better Christians. Yet the principle remains the same. For instance, do not think that the only way or the best way to serve the Lord is to quit your job and to go into full-time Christian service. Some young people think that only the ministry or teaching and maybe the nursing profession are suitable occupations for believers. Not so. You can serve God in any type of work. A variant of the same idea is to think that your spiritual life and usefulness to the Lord will improve only if you leave the denomination or congregation you belong to for another one that is more to your liking. This too is wrong, because in that case you are making your spiritual health and effectiveness depend on external changes.

aul says no, stay where you are and serve the Lord in the situation in which He placed you and there be an influence for good. If the Lord has directed you to a church where His Word is faithfully preached, you need a very good reason for leaving that assembly. Paul's message to you is: stay where you are unless you are convinced by Scripture that you must leave.

Remember, if you are a Christian, you belong to Christ. You are His slave, bought with a price, the price of His blood! Christianity does not make a man kick over the traces and become discontented with his lot in life. Rather, it makes him willing to serve his Master no matter how ordinary and humdrum the task assigned to him. "Though in a lowly station, the service of my Lord I choose above all pleasures that sinful ways afford."

"For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love."

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1105201137
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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