To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Free from Concern

1 Corinthians 7:25-40
Preached Sunday morning, September 24, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we now enter our third and final message from chapter 7. We've already seen that the Corinthian Christians suffered from two wrong views about sexuality: first, that fornication and prostitution are permissible; and second, that all sexual activity, even in marriage, is wrong. Paul showed that both extremes were incorrect. Sex is a good thing, within the limits of marriage. The Apostle prefers singleness for Christians, but they do not sin to marry. Once Christians are married, however, they must stay that way—particularly if the Christian's husband or wife is an unbeliever. If the unbeliever wants to leave the Christian, then the believer should not try to stop him or her. In general, however, a Christian should stay in whatever circumstances he is called. We have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23); that is a glorious truth we should remember even when we consider the most earthly and ordinary choices before us. Paul reminds Christians of this great truth repeatedly: we have been bought with a price, through Jesus' sacrifice of his own life on the cross. Thus Jesus Christ crucified is not merely the subject of Paul's preaching (1 Cor. 2:2); he is the always at the center of the Apostle's thinking. Would that he were the at center of ours, too.

In 1 Cor. 7:25-40 Paul again tells Christians that it's good to remain as we are, whether married or single. Yes, Christians are permitted to marry or not marry, and a widow may remarry as long as she marries another Christian. When Christians do have a husband or wife, however, our minds and hearts become anchored in a special way to the day-to-day concerns of the world. Paul sincerely wants believers to be free from worry and anxiety about a world that is passing away (v. 32). Married Christians must take a certain amount of attention from the Lord's work to fulfill their earthly duties. Doing so is not a sinning; it’s simply the way things work. When we take on earthly responsibilities, we are obligated to fulfill them. That principle applies to more than marriage, by the way, which is why Christians must be careful of what we take upon ourselves. Whatever our earthly obligations, all Christians must concern ourselves first of all with the Kingdom of God.

In verse 28, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” [1]. Most congregational ministers face this issue every day. Churches expect their ministers to devote long hours to Kingdom work, yet they usually expect them also to be married and have families. Giving due attention to both family and church is not an easy task. I for one can't imagine being effective in ministry without a Christian wife. Much of the work we do in the church, Carolyn and I do together. If my wife were not a Christian, I simply couldn't do a lot of what I do now for the church. A fellow minister once told me about being brought in to preach with a new congregation. As he walked out of the meeting where he had been offered the opportunity to preach for the congregation, one of the elders asked my friend if his wife might be able to lead a women's Bible study. "Oh," this preacher said, "my wife is not a Christian. In fact, she's an alcoholic and spends quite a bit of time in rehab." The elders asked the man if he would come back into the room and discuss the matter further. "No," he said. "I'm kidding. My wife is a Christian, and she doesn't even drink. But next time you might want to ask those kinds of questions before you hire a preacher." As any preacher knows, having a wife and children takes time from Kingdom work. But a believing spouse helps bridge the gap between our two sets of obligations.

The same is true for every Christian, of course. Marriage and family take time from Kingdom work, but being married to a Christian makes the task easier. If you are married to an unbeliever, don't expect to spend as much time serving in this building. You must never let your husband or wife keep you from worship, from the Lord's Supper, praise, fellowship, and growth in the Word. But a large part of your service will be winning your spouse to faith and obedience in the Lord: "For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor. 7:16).

And all of us, married or single, need to remember what Jesus said about balancing faith and family:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:37-39)
As families continue to be under assault by the culture around us, Christians need to remember that families are important, and that God himself ordained them. But in some religious circles the family has taken such an important place that it comes close to idolatry. As important as the family is, our focus needs to be first of all on the cross—on Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

The family is the most important of our earthly commitments. But it's not where our first obligation lies. Jesus told us, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). Our first citizenship is to the Kingdom of God. First and foremost we are not husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, grandparents, as important as those roles may be. We are not primarily what we do for a living: teacher, skilled craftsman, salesman, manager, nurse, student. We are not first of all Americans. Christians are first of all disciples and servants of the King.

God’s Kingdom is fundamentally different from the world around us. The Kingdom has a different mission: first to worship and glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20; Rom. 15:6-9), and second, to go into the world and make disciples (Mt. 28:19-20). The Kingdom has different rules of operation: the first are last and the last are first (Mt. 20:16). A man who would save his life must lose it (Mt. 16:26). A true leader must be a servant of all (Mk. 9:35). The Kingdom has a different wisdom: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). And finally, the Kingdom offers very different rewards—ultimate rewards—from the world.

So for Christians our first obligation is to the Kingdom of God. But Kingdom work is no excuse for neglect our earthly obligations. Christians are not Eastern ascetics who believe our earthly existence is unreal. We are not called to be detached emotionally from the world and the everyday affairs of it. In fact, we sin if we neglect our families. Jesus blasted the scribes and Pharisees for giving money to the Temple while neglecting their earthly parents (Mk. 7:9-13). Paul told Timothy, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). So Christians are called to provide and care for our families.

And in practice, isn’t that where we worry most: in caring for our families? Sometimes people quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 as being “don’t worry.” But in fact, Jesus’ teaching on worry was that we should not worry about our own food, clothes, and health. Families bring a whole new collection of worries into a believer’s life: for the health and safety of children and for their souls’ development. There are legitimate concerns for Christians—and all the more reason to pray without ceasing (1 Ths. 5:17).

The challenge for the faithful is to rightly balance our commitments to family and to God. We must give proper care and attention to our families, but we must not make them idols. Marriage, after all, is only temporary, even if we’re blessed with a marriage that lasts most of a lifetime. Some religious groups teach it’s eternal; that idea has a certain appeal if you have a happy marriage. But Jesus specifically said it’s not true: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt. 22:30). The form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). We have to live in it, but if our highest value is our families, then we’ve invested in something that will soon be gone. A family can be a wonderful shelter and rest by the ocean of eternity. But the tide is coming in and one day will sweep this old world away.

The Apostle hoped that all Christians could provide undistracted service to the Lord. That’s challenging to do for every believer. Single Christians have to make a point of it, those with spouses have to work even harder, and those with children harder still. Yet how could we better spend our resources than honoring and worshiping God?

Here’s a reminder: All of this advice in 1 Corinthians 7 is simply foolishness if we don’t live it by faith. We can simply follow the letter of Paul’s instructions and become Pharisees, clean on the outside but dirty at the heart. As we’ve seen, Paul’s thinking, even on what we call practical matters, always begins with Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). It’s Jesus’ sacrifice Paul reminds the Corinthians—and us—to remember (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Ti 2:8).


1. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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