RPM, Volume 13, Number 29, July 17 to July 23 2011

1 Corinthians 7:17-24

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning in our study of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at verse 17 of chapter 7 and working through to verse 24 of that same chapter. Now, in actual fact, the whole section - from verse 17 through to the end of the chapter, at vs40, really ought to be read together. However, as it would be too much to try and cover it all in one sermon, I am tackling it in three parts but, hopefully, we will still be able to see, in a few weeks time, how the whole section works together.

Now, as most of you will know by now, our study of Paul's letter to the Corinthians has revealed that the letter can be divided into two main sections - the first part, consisting of chapters 1-6, is dealing with problems that have arisen in the Corinthian Church, and which Paul has heard about, while the second half of the letter, from chapter 7 until the end of chapter 16, is dealing with some specific questions the Corinthians are asking.

We have completed our study of the first half of the letter and are currently in the second half, giving our attention to chapter 7 in recent weeks. Thus far in chapter 7 - which is all about Christians and relationships - Paul has addressed a number of things, including:

1) why married believers should not stop having sex and

2) the continuing importance of the institution of marriage itself.

Along the way, Paul has given some specific - although not exhaustive - counsel to Christians in a variety of circumstances; counsel that can be summarized in six words - "wherever possible, remain as you are". He has given this counsel to Christians who are married, to Christians whose spouses have died, to Christians who have divorced, and to Christians who are married to Non-Christians. To be sure, Paul has allowed for some exceptions in each circumstance, but in the main his instruction has been for them not to seek to change their current situation.

Now, thus far Paul has only given the instruction but has not really tried to explain it in any way. However, in verses 17-40 Paul begins to do just that: he explains WHY he wants people to stay as they are, as much as possible, and verses 17-24 are the first part of that explanation. In this first part, Paul states a general principle that, notably, he wants all churches, not just the Corinthians, to abide by. And along with that statement of general principle Paul then goes on to apply that principle in two situations that have nothing to do with the subject matter of the rest of the chapter but which, nevertheless, help to illustrate his point. This is what we will be looking at this morning. Following that, and over the next two weeks, we will look at two further installments on this subject in verses 25-31, and finally in verses 32-40. With that as a bit of introduction, let me pray, and we'll continue looking at the chapter together. Let's pray....

(Read 1 Cor. 7:17-24)

Now, as always, it is important to think about the context of anything you read, and this is especially true for the Bible. And, because we have done a lot of that in our journey through Corinthians, I won't rehearse all of the context we have previously looked at. However, for our purposes this morning, I do want to draw your attention to two important aspects of the Corinthian context - one which we have not really mentioned before and one which we have.

First, it is helpful to think about something that a commentator named Hodge has pointed out, which is this: the considerable effect that the introduction of the Gospel would have had within this very pagan Corinthian culture. Their situation was not at all like our circumstances here in America, and especially in the South, where all of us have grown up in a culture that, while it is not expressly Christian, is certainly heavily influenced by and dependent upon the borrowed capital of Christianity. As a result, Christian ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving have been around for some time and are not perceived as being terribly radical, and are not as socially disruptive.

However, in the Corinthian context things would have been very different. And it is difficult for any of us to really grasp the impact that the introduction of something like Christianity - for the very first time - into a pagan culture would be like. As Hodge points out:

It [Christianity] offered a radically different view of the world and one in which many people, as we have already seen in this letter, responded by looking for change in lots of different ways - e.g., some Christians thought their new spirituality meant that they could break loose from their marital ties, some felt that their new life in Christ required them to abandon their marriages to unbelievers, some who were slaves (and we'll say more about slavery in that day and age in a moment), but some who were slaves were questioning the authority of their masters, and still other believers were wondering whether recognizing the Lordship of Christ meant that they were free to ignore ALL other authority - including civil authority.
In short, the introduction of Christianity held the potential for a great deal of social upheaval. Thus far we have seen Paul addressing some of this, especially as it relates to human relationships, and a little later on in this letter we will see him address it in other ways. But, again, there was with the introduction of Christianity at least the potential for social disruption. And so, in the face of all this agitation and potentially disruptive behavior, Paul advocates stability, continuity, peace - in short, encouraging people to, as we've seen, "remain as you are", wherever that is possible.

That's one bit of context that we have not, as yet, spent much time thinking about. The other bit of context that we HAVE already seen on a number of occasions - and which is one of the chief sources of this restlessness and change-seeking going on amongst the Corinthian believers - has to do with this particular theological position that was being advocated by some in their midst and which we have referred to in previous studies as "the Corinthians' clocks being all wrong...." Remember this?

The Corinthians, or at least some of them, had come to believe that the end of the ages had already fully arrived and that they were now living IN that age. As a result of this conviction, they had taken to heart some of Jesus teaching about what life would be like in the age to come - particular his teaching about marriage, as well as other teachings - and they were acting as if things that one day WOULD be true, were in fact true NOW.

That is one of the other major things going on in Corinth. And so, if you combine this reality with the sheer potential for agitation and upheaval that introducing something such as Christianity into a pagan culture would create - you have a really good recipe for social disruption and chronic restlessness. And so, again, in the face of all of that, Paul says, "...each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him...." This principle, that he has been applying in specific ways since the beginning of this chapter, he now raises this to the level of a sort of general principle that has application in lots of other areas - not just in the area of human relationships.

So, Paul makes this statement of general principle in verse 17. Now, as we delve into the passage here, it is important to think about this language of "call" and "calling" that Paul uses in this verse, and then keep repeating in the following verses. As you look at what Paul says, you see that there are two ways that he uses these words. The first and most important use of the word "called" refers to the "calling" that is salvation - i.e., the calling to repentance and faith by which one becomes a follower of Jesus Christ. If you were to look up every reference to the word "call" or "calling" or "called" in the NT what you would find is that it is almost always used in this way. That is the primary calling of every believer - to love and follow the Lord Jesus and you see it here in verses 17, 18, 20, 21, and 22.

The other way that "calling" is used in these verses is in the sense of "vocation" or perhaps "station" or even "situation". This sense of calling appears very rarely in the NT but we do see it here in verses 17 and again in verse 24.

Now when you look at Paul's usage of this language of "calling" both here and from his other letters as well, it is clear that for him the most important sense in which we are to think about this idea of "call" is as it relates to our salvation. Any other sense of "call" or "calling" is always secondary to that. And so here we have Paul addressing the Corinthians as those who have been called, in the first instance, to God in Christ Jesus, and who, at the time of that calling, were in a particular place, station, position, vocation - however you want to characterize it - which can also be considered as God's calling or, God's "assignment" - to use the language of verse 17. In other words, where they are and what they are doing with their lives is no accident.

Nevertheless, while their particular station in life was no "accident" but rather should be seen as God's assignment, still what was more important than THAT calling was their primary calling to follow Jesus. To put it another way, what was of primary importance was not their occupation but their preoccupation - not their role or situation itself but how they were IN that role or situation.

Now we see this truth come out when we look carefully at the two examples that Paul offers here, and which have been placed in the midst of this principle that he states three times in this passage - in verses 17, 20 and 24. You can think of this as a kind of "literary Big Mac", in terms of the structure/content: the first layer is a statement of principle, followed by an example, followed by another statement of principle, followed by a second example, and topped off with a final statement of principle. If you're not a Big Mac fan, you can just ignore my silly comparison. But the thing to notice is the structure.

At any rate, let's think about Paul's two examples for a moment. In the first example or illustration Paul uses a cultural/religious situation. "... Was a 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 un-circumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts...."

Paul here takes a cultural/religious situation that was relevant to his situation and uses it to illustrate what he means when he tells the Corinthians to "retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him". As you know, in Paul's day many of the early Christians were people who were formerly Jewish and so, when they became Christians, they brought a lot of their Jewish heritage and traditions with them - a heritage that had been fulfilled by Christ and much of which, because it had been fulfilled in Christ, was no longer binding upon God's people. So, these formerly Jewish people, as Christians, no longer had to make the required sacrifices, no longer had to be concerned with the Temple, and no longer had to be concerned with things like circumcision.

However, as it was still early days in the Church, and people were still working out the transforming impact of Christ's coming upon these kinds of things, some of these Jewish Christians were going about making other Christians - especially the non-Jewish converts - feel like perhaps they needed to adopt the Jewish traditions and heritage if they wanted to be full-fledged Christians. These were the "uncircumcised" who were seeking to be "circumcised"

On the other side of this were those who were formerly Jewish and who understood the impact of Christ only too well and, for that reason, were seeking to "hide" or somehow "mask" their Jewishness and, in effect, disdained their former heritage. These were the "circumcised" who were seeking to be "uncircumcised."

To both of these categories of people Paul says, "remain as you are" or rather "remain as you WERE when God first called you to himself in Christ Jesus. If you were circumcised, great. If you were uncircumcised, great. These things are an irrelevance now. What really matters is keeping God's commands....."

Now, to the astute reader, you might see Paul's words here and go, "Now wait a minute. If keeping God's commands is what counts, then how can Paul say, "ignore circumcision" when circumcision was PART of God's commands?" How can Paul say this? What does he mean by all of this?

Well, the answer comes precisely from considering the fact that Paul puts these two statements together. For Paul to talk about ignoring circumcision and yet still talk about keeping God's commands - in the same breath - shows quite clearly that for Paul "keeping God's commands", after the coming of Jesus, has taken on an entirely different meaning. And indeed it has.

If you look at passages like Romans 2:25-29 and Romans 8:1-4 and Romans 10:1-3, what you see is that the primary way the Christian "keeps God's commands" is not through striving to obtain some standard of righteousness on our own but rather by keeping them "in" Jesus, by embracing Christ's righteousness as our own, by trusting in his keeping of God's commands.

So, when Paul talks about "keeping God's commands" he is not referring to ome sort of works righteousness that amounts to self-salvation by self-effort. That is why he puts this statement together with the statement that "circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing" - because he wants them to see that he is not thinking about keeping the commands of God under the terms of the old covenant but under the terms of the new covenant - the will of God for his people as revealed in and through Christ.

To be sure, for God's people, there is such a thing as "commandment keeping" - especially as we continue to honor and uphold God's moral law. But this always has to be seen through the "lens" of Jesus Christ and what his coming has meant, and continues to mean, for God's people in every age. For believers in Jesus, "keeping the commandments" is better understood, not as the mere application of external rules but rather as the demonstration of an internal reality - the indwelling of the Spirit of God, by whose power and work within us we WILL live out what, by our own power and effort, we would never be able to do otherwise - and for entirely different reasons.

So, for people in Corinth to make a big deal out of things like circumcision - either having it or disguising it - was to make a big deal about matters of external religion and culture which had nothing to do with the heart and the Spirit's work IN the heart. It was to make crucial and vitally important things that were of no importance at all - like circumcision. This is what Paul means in Romans 2:28, when he says, "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter...."

Now, how and why this is important for you and me we will see in a moment, but first, let's take a quick look at Paul's second illustration. After restating his general principle in verse 20, Paul takes a second example, and one that is purposely something of an extreme example - in order to drive home his point. Paul takes the situation of slavery, which was quite common in his context.

Now in thinking about "slavery" here, we need to think about it in its Greek and Roman context, and not read these words through the lens of recent American history. This is not in any way an attempt to pass off slavery as a good thing, but it is a plea for accurate understanding.

The slavery talked about here was not anything like the slavery that existed in America prior to the Civil War. While slavery is always slavery, in Corinth, it was not, generally speaking, the awful human tragedy that it became in many places throughout the world. As one commentator writes:

Slavery was in fact the bottom rung on the social order, but for the most part it provided generally well for up to one-third of the population in a city like Corinth or Rome. The slave had considerable freedom and very often experienced mutual benefit along with the master. The owner received the benefit of the slave's services; and the slave had steady "employment", including having all his or her basic needs met - indeed, for many to be a slave was preferable to being a freedman, whose securities were often tenuous at best. But the one point that marked the slave was that in the final analysis, he did not belong to himself but to another. That is Paul's point with this imagery.
You see, Paul's point is this, even in the extreme situation of being in bondage to another person through slavery - as it existed in his culture - even in that situation Paul says, "don't let it trouble you". Even though, socially speaking, you belong to another person, in Christ you are free and you are not hindered in any way from honoring Christ fully with your life - even in your enslaved condition. Indeed, Paul's point is even stronger than the NIV translation would lead you to believe. As another commentator puts it, the NIV translation of verse 21 may be correct but,
.... I find it hard to accept since the principle he is illustrating is expressed in v. 20 is "Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called," and in verse 24 as "In whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God." It seems wholly out of place between these to say, "If you can gain your freedom, do it." Not only that, but this translation does not do justice to all the words in the Greek [words that are left un-translated in the english. If you keep these un-translated words in then what you end up with is something like this: ] "Were you called as a slave? Don't let that be a care to you; but, even if you can become a freedman, rather make use of [your present position. In other words, what Paul is saying is] 'Don't let your slavery make you anxious, but instead use it'. Use it to obey Christ and thus, "adorn the doctrine of our great God and Savior" (Titus 2:10)...
Now translating the verses in this way does not mean that Paul is issuing an absolute prohibition against an enslaved person - and keep in mind that we are talking about Corinthian slavery here, not modern day slavery - he is not absolutely prohibiting such a person's seeking freedom if it is offered. Rather, he is simply using this extreme example to make the point that your personal circumstances do not in any way hinder or prevent you from serving and honoring God, fully, with your life, just as you are, right now, even if those circumstances include slavery.

But Paul's point does not stop there. He has something to say not only to the one who is enslaved but also to the one who is free. To the enslaved one Paul says, "You are perfectly free and perfectly able to fully serve and honor God, right where you are, right now." And then to the free person, Paul reminds them in verse 22 that they are slaves of Christ, that they were bought with a price and are not to become slaves to anything or anyone else - meaning not actual enslavement here but submitting to the "wisdom' 'and "will" of people over against God.

So, Paul illustrates two sides of the same coin here - talking about slavery and freedom. All people, says Paul, are at one and the same time slaves and freedmen. The truth you focus upon will depend upon your circumstances. The person who was enslaved is in no danger of forgetting that. But he/she might very easily forget or minimize the great freedom they have IN Christ to honor Him, even in that extreme circumstance. Likewise, the free person is in no danger of forgetting his/her freedom. But she may be in great danger of forgetting her enslavement to Christ, and thus not use her freedom for his honor and glory and, in the process, become enslaved and entangled all over again to the wisdom and passions of mere humanity.

So, when you put the two applications of Paul's principle together, the main idea seems to be this: what is vastly more important than your heritage or culture or your job or status is - what is vastly more important than all of those secondary callings and the actual circumstances of your life situation is your primary calling to love and honor Christ as his disciple. Because you can fully live out that calling, even in the most extreme of circumstances, then you should feel no compulsion to change your position. At the very least it means that you cannot use the fact of your being a Christian as a reason to either abandon or adopt another culture or to try and change one's situation, unnecessarily.

As Piper puts it, you should not be driven by fear or despair or wealth or pride but rather you should be able to say to your position in life, whatever it is, "Never mind. You are not my life" - because your life is not defined by your circumstance but by who you are IN your circumstance. You CAN serve God where you are, right now. YOU CAN. If you are not being faithful where you are, it is not because of where you are but because of who you are, or are not, as the case may be.

Now there are all kinds of implications that come from this passage, too many to really enumerate here, but let me at least start your thinking by offering a few examples, none of which we will be able to fully explicate....

First, as Plummer puts it, "Christianity must make a radical change to one's moral and spiritual life but it will not and does not normally require any radical change in one's external life, and it is best to abide in the condition in which the call came to us." Now we'll qualify that in a second, but please see that the momentum here is not in the direction of restlessness and change; it is not upon changing one's position but rather upon having a changed perspective within one's circumstances. If you can live as a Christian within your circumstances, you ought to pursue that.

Now this goes right against the grain of "upwardly mobile" America, and is not a popular thing to say, but it is a truth we must reckon with if we are to take the Scriptures seriously.

Second, Paul's words about circumcision and un-circumcision being nothing have big cultural implications. As one writer puts it, Paul's first application of his principle can be summarized like this:

...If you were converted as a gentile, don't try to become a Jew. If you were converted as a Jew, don't try to become a gentile. [translated into our own day and age that becomes] - if you are black, don't try to become white; if you are white, don't try to become black. If you are Mexican, don't try to become American; if you are American, don't try to become Mexican. In other words, putting on Christ doesn't require a change of cultural clothing.
Then Paul gives the theological reason for this admonition. Verse 19 says literally, "Circumcision is nothing and un-circumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God." That was about the most offensive thing Paul could say to a Jew: Circumcision is nothing. And if we understand its broad cultural application it offends all of us. But it's true.

Notice how radically different Paul's rationale is for keeping your cultural distinctives than the rationale current in our day. We say, white is beautiful, black is beautiful, red is beautiful, yellow is beautiful; therefore don't try to switch cultures. But, as one writer describes it, Paul argues differently. Paul says, in essence, "White is nothing, black is nothing, red is nothing, yellow is nothing, but [honoring God by] keeping God's commandments is everything; therefore don't try to switch cultures. Stay where you are and obey God."

Third, notice that what we DO with our lives IS important to God. It is a "calling" it is "God's assignment" - as Paul says. Now, to be sure, it is possible that some are in a situation when they are converted that cannot and must not be retained - e.g., when a prostitute becomes a Christian. And this is obvious when we take into account the whole counsel of God.

But, generally speaking, the places in which we are, which God has "assigned" to us are ones which are fully capable of being lived out in ways that bring honor and glory to God. Now, sadly, I think, we have gotten this particular sense of calling all out of whack in the church such that we have this crazy notion that "calling" is what people like pastors and missionaries have and everyone else just has "a job". And so, because of all this we make this big, fat hairy deal out of a Christian worker's "call" and "calling" and we have this big ceremony, etc for them, but for the rest of us, we just sort of show up at work one day, without any fanfare, and certainly without any signal from the church that says that this too is a calling from God.

Now, am I saying that we should not take any notice of things like a Christian worker's "calling"? No. But I am saying that I think we should take LESS notice of it and find a way to make more out of the fact that "vocational calling" is not the exclusive property of the clergy but is the birthright of every believer. I'm not sure what that will or should look like for us in the future. And I think this has particular application to those of you in university as you prepare to step into your "vocational calling" and how you prepare yourself for that and pursue that. So, like I said, I'm not sure how all of this will play out at SBRPC. But I'm thinking about it. So stay tuned.

However, having said all that, let me also say that while we need to recognize the broad fact of vocational calling as applying to all believers, we still need to keep this reality in check by learning to view our different, individual callings as always being secondary to our primary calling which is to serve and honor the Lord - in whatever circumstance or status or condition we find ourselves. And so, while the world might make a big deal out of one vocation or another, in reality, all vocations are relativized by the Gospel, and all are an occasion to honor God, or not.

This means that when you get up tomorrow morning, and prepare to engage in what it is you do with your life, you need to pray and ask God to show you how to live out your primary calling in the midst of your secondary calling. And some of you may need to repent of a grumbling and complaining spirit. You may need to repent of a faithless spirit and despairing heart that has wrongfully believed that somehow your circumstances are preventing you from honoring God with your life. They are NOT. The problem is not your circumstances. The problem is YOU. Deal with it.

Finally, and by way of qualification, let me say this: Paul's instruction to stay in the calling in which you were converted ought not to be taken and applied in an absolute and wooden sense. We know this is the case because Paul himself has allowed exceptions to this principle all along, especially as he was applying it in the first 16 verses of this chapter in situations like marriage and divorce, etc. We also know this because the Bible describes and approves these kinds of changes in status, from time to time.

As Piper points out, when you go to the Old Testament you see that there is provision there for slaves to be made free. And when you look at the New Testament we see Matthew - a tax collector, who became a preacher and apostle and we see fishermen who became missionaries. And, as we have already seen, there are some jobs in which you simply could not remain and honor God - like prostitution or some other form of immoral activity.

The issue in Corinth was: when a person comes to Christ, what should he or she leave behind? And Paul's consistent answer is, essentially, and properly understood: as little as possible. You don't need to abandon your relationships, even one with an unbeliever. You don't need to turn your back on your cultural heritage. You don't need to abandon your vocation. If you can stay with these things and remain with God, then that is fine.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with people wanting to improve their job situation or learn new skills or train or prepare for new careers. It is only when those things are being sought under false pretenses that it is an issue: when a person believes they must do so to honor God, or when a person believes that they simply cannot honor God in their present situation. As we have already seen, unless it is something that is inherently immoral or illegal, that is simply NOT TRUE. So, Paul's concerns is not to condemn people who change their jobs but rather to teach that you can have complete fulfillment in Christ and honor Christ, whatever your job is, right where you are, right now. Let me give you one final quote here, by John Piper,

This is a very unfashionable teaching in contemporary western society, because it cuts the nerve of worldly ambition. We need to think long and hard about whether what we communicate to our children about success is Biblical or just American. The word of God for all us "success seekers" is this: take all that ambition and drive that you are pouring into your upward mobility and pour it instead into a spiritual zeal to cultivate an enjoyment of God's presence and obedience to his revealed will in Scripture.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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