Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (19)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (19)

1 Corinthians 7:25-40

Broadcast: June 28, 1998; Message Number 1478

Celibacy

In Corinthians 7 the apostle Paul deals with several questions the Corinthian believers had raised about marriage. Is marriage mandatory or optional? Is it all right for Christians to remain single or does God require everyone to enter the married state? Opinions in Corinth were divided on the issue. Some thought celibacy was the way to go. If you want to devote your life to God, you had best stay away from marriage because it involves sexual activity. Others believed that it was sinful not to marry. Didn't God say at the creation of man, it is not good that the man should be alone? Well then, what could be more clear than that every man should seek a wife?

Throughout this chapter, however, Paul makes it clear that marriage and singleness are both good things. While recognizing that marriage is the biblical norm for most people, he also realizes that for some Christians singleness is a legitimate option.

In verses 25 through 40 Paul seeks to encourage those of his fellow believers who for one reason or another are living single. They were and still are looked down upon, not only by insensitive and thoughtless people, but even by well-meaning but uninformed fellow Christians. In this passage the apostle explains why in certain situations it is not only lawful for a Christian to remain single, but that it may even be preferable to be unattached since it opens up opportunities for Christian service that are closed to married persons. Single persons do not always see it this way. They are liable to feel sorry for themselves and to be dissatisfied with their lot. Paul, therefore, in this passage offers some much needed advice to persons in that state in order to help them look at their situation from the biblical perspective.

here are some 20 million bachelors in the USA, and 18 million unmarried women and girls. Many of these are what are called "unclaimed blessings," and a large percentage of them will probably never marry. Among this group, as among the married, sexual immorality is running rife. Encouraged by liberal attitudes toward sex as portrayed in books, magazines and movies, young people find it increasingly difficult to keep their minds and actions pure.

But there is help available for those who seek help. Scripture has something to say also about singleness. Both Christ and the apostle Paul emphasize the positive value of single life-which should help those who tend to view singleness as abnormal.

ccording to Paul, the single life is as much a gift and calling of God as is the married life. Celibacy is a divinely approved status and there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, Paul thinks so highly of it that he recommends it to everyone. "I wish that all men were as I am," he says in verse 7. Christ says the same thing in Matthew 19. Discussing eunuchs or emasculated men, He says, "There are some eunuchs who were so born from their mother's womb." He means, some people are born with physical or mental handicaps which make it impossible or unwise to marry. There are others who were made eunuchs by men. Kings in those days often employed slaves whom they neutered so they would be no threat to their harems. Also, Jesus said, there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. That is, they never marry because that is their choice. Because they want to give themselves completely to the Lord and His service they voluntarily forego the pleasures of marriage and the joys of parenthood.

Paul takes up where Jesus left of. Single life is a calling from God, he says. It is given to some to be single. God has so arranged life that for most people as they grow into adulthood, marriage is the rule and single life is the exception. It is good that it is so, for the human race would never have been propagated otherwise. God has created humankind male and female and has so programmed us that in most cases we are interested in the opposite sex.

I say in most cases. There are always some who remain uninterested and end up not married. But Christ, and Paul speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make it very clear that such individuals are not abnormal; they are not freaks. God did not intend that all should get married. It is not a failure or a mark of defeat to remain unmarried. It is a special calling of God.

Therefore, Paul says, if you are single, consider it an honour that God has bestowed on you. Be content with your lot, receive it joyfully and accept it thankfully. Do not fight your condition; do not feel embittered. Rather, receive singleness as God's gift to you. The apostle devotes a complete section to expounding and developing this important concept of celibacy and its potential for Christian service.

"Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord [i.e., the Lord has not spoken directly to me about this issue] but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage."

Two words stand out in that passage, "seek not." Paul says, do "not seek." Do not seek either to be free from marriage or to be married. In other words, "accept the single state, stop this frantic and frenzied search for marriage; do not adopt a marriage-at-all-costs attitude."

These words are clearly addressed to those who have passed beyond the stage in which they might normally expect to be married. Perhaps they have gone beyond their early twenties into their thirties and have already begun their life's work. This is evident from the context. In the early adult years it is entirely proper for individuals to seek marriage, if they are thus inclined. This is the normal thing, as we have seen in previous messages. But if the normal processes of meeting a partner have passed you by, then the counsel of both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul is, accept this, do not fight it, put out of your mind this constant desire to be married, but give yourself to that which God has marked out for you for the present.

his is very important advice coming from an inspired source. God's Word to those who are single is to stop trying to correct what seems to be an abnormal situation and simply accept what is evidently God's will for you.

Paul lists several reasons for this advice in verse 35 and let me paraphrase him so you get his meaning. "I say this for your own benefit," he says, "not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." I am not interested, he means, in simply putting you under a vow of celibacy; I am not trying to make monks or nuns out of you, but I am saying this for your own good. It will be to your advantage if you follow this counsel: that you do not seek marriage, that you do not make this the end-all of life.

There are two very good reasons why this is true. First of all, to promote good order. What does he mean by good order? The King James translation has "that which is comely." The New King James uses the word proper. Paul is evidently concerned that the singles in the congregation behave themselves properly. He would spare them the heart-ache and the trauma caused by their pathetic attempts to catch a spouse as if this is the only thing worthwhile in life. It is a fact that much social turmoil has been caused by the predatory female, or the wife-hunting male. There are some individuals, unfortunately, who seem to devote their whole lives to seeking marriage. As a result, they cause endless confusion, not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others as well. The danger is not that they will not find a partner, but that they will. They are so set upon getting married at all costs that they have lost the ability to judge the character of those they meet, with the result that their marriage is a disaster.

The second reason Paul gives for this counsel is "in order that I might secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." Let me make one thing clear at the outset. When Paul speaks of devotion to the Lord, he does not necessarily mean a call to the ministry. These words are not meant for ministers and missionaries only, but they are for everyone who is single, no matter what his or her work may be. Paul is simply recognizing what the New Testament recognizes everywhere, that all callings in life are to be performed as unto the Lord. We do our tasks coram Deo, before the face of God, whatever work may be involved.

Paul then develops two reasons for remaining single in order to give undivided attention to what God wants us to do. He has already mentioned one of them in verse 26, where he points out a special condition that makes single life especially advantageous. "I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is." He enlarges on this in verses 29 through 31. "But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remains that both they that have wives be as though they had none," etc. What was the "present distress" Paul is referring to in verse 26? Most commentators simply assume the apostle is thinking of persecution. But there is no evidence that the believers in Corinth endured much persecution, at least not more than most first century Christians. What Paul probably means is that in light of Christ's imminent return His people are to be so taken up with the work of the Lord that they have but little time for such "natural" things as marriage and raising a family. Some should even seriously consider staying single, he suggests, because this would free them up for Christian service.

To us this seems very strange and perhaps even radical. But we should try to understand how New Testament Christians looked at life and their responsibilities as believers. They firmly believed that Christ would come back soon. Paul certainly did. Must we conclude that he was mistaken in this? I don't think so. Paul did not necessarily expect that Christ's return would take place in his life time, but that it could occur at any moment and in this he was certainly right. Paul believed what we tend to forget, namely that the decisive events of history lay behind them. Christ's death, resurrection and ascension being the turning point in redemptive history, all subsequent history is little more than an epilogue, a footnote which by its very nature has to be short, even though it may seem to last a long time from the human point of view. The fact is that since Calvary we are living in the last days. Because 2,000 years have gone by, we have lost that sense of urgency and expectancy that characterized the early church.

What the apostle writes to the Corinthians, therefore, is every bit as relevant to us today. There should be with us also this sense of urgency to serve the Lord, because we do not know when Christ will come back. To mention only one thing, after He returns it will no longer be possible to engage in soul-winning. Let us therefore redeem the time, seeing that the days are evil and short. May our attitude be that of our Lord when He said: "I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:4,5).

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1105201259
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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