Most, if not all, people experience a time in their lives when they can’t wait for time to move on. It might be the teenager who can’t wait to be eighteen and to leave home. Or the worker, who is bored with his job, who wants to move on.
The college student in their third year of studying longs for the day to finally put her studying into practice. It could even be the older person, longing to die because they feel they have outlived their usefulness.
We humans have always had a hard time with being content in the circumstances that life has thrown at us. Over time, we’ve invented proverbs to remind ourselves to be content with our lives:
- Accept the things you cannot change; change what you can.
- If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.
- Bloom where you are planted.
- A Yiddish proverb says, “If grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolleybus;” meaning, stop worrying about the “what-if’s” and focus on what you got.
In this chapter, we’ve seen Paul argue that single people should remain single, if they can do so in purity. We’ve also seen that he argues that married Christians should avoid divorce, and even to seek reconciliation with former spouses if they get a divorce.
Some of the new Corinthian believers had spouses who didn’t believe, they wondered if they should divorce their unbelieving spouses. Paul says, “No.” Basically, his guiding principle is: “stay where you are.”
In verses 17-24, he stops to explain that principle and why it’s important. Notice that he repeats the principle, “Stay where you are,” three times—verses 17, 20, and 25. It’s like the slices of bread in a Big Mac! The meat in the passage is found in verses 18-19 and also verses 21-23.
17 But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.
18 Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.
21 Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. 22 For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. 23 Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. 24 Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. (1 Corinthians 7:17–24)
THE “STAY PUT” PRINCIPLE
1 Corinthians 7:17 But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.
God Has Placed You
God has “distributed” (ἐμέρισεν, VAAI3S, μερίζω) “to every man” in that God has assigned to every person a set of situations and circumstances from the moment that they were born.
What race are you? God determined it.
What gender are you? God determined it.
How smart are you? God determined it.
What are you naturally talented at doing? God determined it.
We accept that these things and more are out of our hands. There are thousands of circumstances in our lives that we did not have a part in choosing. There are even things in our lives that we did choose, like marriage, that are things that God says, “You need to stay here now.”
What’s more important than your circumstances is the salvation to which the Lord has “called” (κέκληκεν, VRAI3S, καλέω) you. “Called” is an important keyword in this passage—it appears eight times in our passage here. It refers to our salvation, not to our profession and circumstances.
Why did Paul use the word “called” here instead of “salvation” or some word like that? Because he is emphasizing God’s sovereignty in our lives. God called us to salvation. God placed us where we are now.
His sovereignty (even while we make our choices) overshadows our lives. That’s a comfort in the midst of trials, and it’s also the reason you ought not to fret because of the circumstances you live in. Instead, you should…
Live As God Has Placed You
As God has “distributed” (or assigned) a person in life, and as God has called a person to salvation, “so let him walk.” The word, “walk” (περιπατείτω, VPAM3S, περιπατέω) is often used in the Bible to refer to living out one’s life. For example,
13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. (Romans 13:13)
12 That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:12)
Here Paul is saying that we need to live as God has placed us, putting our call of salvation ahead of our desire for different circumstances. We need to stay put. He has already shown that in his discussion about marriage and divorce. In the next verses, he gives two more examples of this truth.
DON’T CHANGE WHO YOU ARE
Be Circumcised or Uncircumcised?
1 Corinthians 7:18 Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.
Circumcision was a major issue in the early days of the church—Acts 15 records a major church meeting over the question of whether or not a Gentile believer needed to become circumcised or not. There were Jewish believers who felt, in order to be really saved, a Gentile believer should be circumcised.
On the other hand, there were some Jewish believers who felt pressure to be “uncircumcised.” For a Jewish man living in a Gentile town like Corinth, it could be embarrassing to visit the local gym or public bath. So there was a surgery that would make them at least appear that they were uncircumcised.
Paul says, “Don’t do any of that. Stay who you are.” Why does he say that? Because…
Both Are Nothing; Obedience Is Everything
1 Corinthians 7:19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.
This would have been an earth-shaking statement to the people in Paul’s culture. To the people in that day, it would have been the equivalent of saying, “Being an American is nothing and not being an American is nothing.”
What is most important is “the keeping of the commandments of God.” Is Paul advocating a works salvation here? What does he mean by keeping God’s commandments? Especially when, elsewhere, he says:
16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
How does this fit together? In Romans 8, we find the answer:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1–4)
Jesus obeyed the law perfectly in our place. When we place our trust in him, we are accounted his righteousness in God’s sight. Furthermore, we can walk “after the Spirit,” and begin to keep the commandments of God in practice. But it all begins with faith in Jesus Christ to save you.
They were giving “circumcision” such significance that the salvation message was lost in the debate. One side was worried about needing to be circumcised to be saved and the other side was worried about being uncircumcised because of how it looked to others.
To both sides, Paul says…
1 Corinthians 7:20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.
The word “calling” (κλήσει, NDSF, κλῆσις) is from the same root word as “called,” but it refers to the person’s profession or position in life, not to their salvation. If they had been circumcised as a baby, then remain that way. If they hadn’t been circumcised, don’t bother with it.
Recently a black woman (Rachel Dolezal), the president of the Spokane NAACP, was exposed as a fraud. She was actually white, posing as a black person. As far as I could tell, she never explained why she posed as a black person for years. When she was directly asked by a reporter, “Are you African-American?” She said, “I don’t understand the question” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/12/spokane-naacp-president-rachel-dolezal-may-be-white/).
We live in culture where it is possible to change a lot about who you are. There are surgeries for almost everything, nose, face, belly, hips, and, yes, even gender.
At the heart of the transgender movement today is the complaint that if your body doesn’t match who you are, then you ought to change it. Christianity says that God has gifted you with the body that you have and you should enjoy it as a gift and not to be ashamed of it.
The same is true of those who merely want to look better by tucking or cutting or reshaping. Why are you doing it? To glorify God’s creation that is your body? Or to build your own self-worth? You can pretty much guarantee that any phrase with “self” in it is going to be sinful, because sin focuses on self. What’s the middle letter in “sin”? It’s “i”.
Granted, there can be a fine line here. What if someone has been severely disfigured in a fire? Or, some have used this text say that Christians shouldn’t get glasses, but should accept the eyes God has given them.
But, in cases like those, it’s the motive that is important. Someone getting glasses isn’t defying God’s place for them in life, they are accepting God’s good providence in fixing what sin has done to Creation.
The wrong motive is like those Corinthians wanting to be uncircumcised because they were worried about what others would say at the bath or gym.
If you are overweight, there’s nothing wrong with losing weight if your motive is to get God’s temple—your body—healthy (1 Corinthians 6:20). But if you are doing it to impress someone else, it could be wrong.
In addition to the example of circumcision, of not changing who you are, Paul gives another example of the stay put principle: slavery. We could say…
DON’T FRET ABOUT YOUR POSITION IN LIFE
A Slave Should Not Be Concerned About Being A Slave
1 Corinthians 7:21 Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.
The word “servant” refers to a slave, not a paid butler or maid. Let me say outright that this passage was used to justify slavery, but that was a horrible misapplication of the passage.
Paul wasn’t justifying slavery here at all, he was giving instructions to slaves on how to endure their situation if they could not find a way to be made free. If they could find a way to buy their freedom, Paul says, go for it. Get out of the slavery.
But nothing that he could have written would have made them free instantly, so he opts for words to help them live for God in their situation.
I should also remind you that the slavery of the Roman Empire was vastly different from the American slavery we’re familiar with. Roman slaves were not of one race, they could be educated (indeed, some were bookkeepers and other administrative assistants for their masters), they were likely to be well treated, and finally, most had the opportunity to buy their freedom.
Still, some slaves who became Christians may have wondered, “If I have been set free in Jesus, why am I still a slave?” Paul says, “care not for it” (μελέτω, VPAM3S, μέλει). In other words, “Don’t be concerned about your position as a slave.” Don’t fret about it.
Naturally, “if thou mayest be made free, use it rather,” but otherwise, don’t let your slavery be the overarching concern of your life.
Why Shouldn’t A Slave Be Concerned?
1 Corinthians 7:22 For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant.
1 Corinthians 7:23 Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.
The reason that a slave shouldn’t be concerned about being a slave is that, even if you are a slave in this life, the greater thing is in Christ you are both free from sin and a slave to Christ.
Salvation in Christ sets us free from Satan, sin, death, and eternal punishment in Hell. But in the same breath of life, salvation in Christ also makes you a slave to Christ and righteousness. This is true because Christ “bought” (ἠγοράσθητε, VAPI2P, ἀγοράζω) you “with a price.”
18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. 19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. (Romans 6:18–20)
No matter what anyone does to you in this life; no matter what circumstances you find yourself burdened under—the truth is that you are a slave to no man (even if you are), because you are both free in Christ and a slave to Christ. Your body may be a slave, but your spirit is free in Christ.
The ultimate example of this happening for a Christian is when we are tortured for our faith and left to die. I read about a Christian named John in Nigeria:
With his family facing starvation in the refugee camp, John decided to make a quick trip back to [to his hometown] to retrieve some of his animals hoping he could sell them to support his family…
Boko Haram insurgents spotted him entering the house, and quickly captured him. “We know you’re John,” the militants said to him. “You must convert to Islam or else you will die a painful death.”
When John refused, the men tied him to a tree binding his arms and legs. The men hacked both of John’s hands with a heavy knife and mocked him. “Can you become a Muslim now?”
“You can kill my body, but not my soul,” John shouted in pain.
Using a machete as well as the knife, the men continued to torture John. They repeatedly cut into his feet and his back, stopping only to ask him if he would give up his faith in Christ and follow Allah. John refused. “We will show you,” they told him. The insurgents used an axe to cut so deeply into his knee that it reached the bone. His head was slashed with a knife.
Eventually, John lost consciousness. At some point, the terrorists left, and John was left bleeding and tied to the tree for three days before someone rescued him and he was taken to a hospital in a coma.
In the hospital, a VOM worker met John. When the worker asked John how he felt about his attackers, he replied, “I have forgiven the Islamic militants, because they did not know what they are doing.” (http://www.persecution.com/public/newsroom.aspx?story_ID=%3D373033)
Maybe you are in a situation today that you can’t get out of—perhaps you are in a nursing home, or you are a teenager who can’t wait to be on his own. Maybe you are in a job that, while dull and boring, is the only way that you can provide for your family.
None of what Paul is saying means that we can’t change our situations if we want to do so. However, there are some guidelines we should follow:
1) The change must be a biblical one—for example, don’t get a divorce because you feel like you don’t love your spouse any longer.
2) Neither should we make an unnecessary change as if it were necessary. Don’t get circumcised in order to be more spiritual. Paul did have Timothy circumcised, not because it was necessary for spiritual growth, but because it would avoid needlessly offending the Jews he would be ministering to (Acts 16:1-3).
3) In terms of employment, a person needs to think of providing for their family before thinking of his own personal desires. Sometimes, to do what is right (supporting your family) you have to make a sacrifice (working a job you don’t enjoy). So make sure that the new job at least has the potential to support your family as well or better as the old one.
4) Obviously, if you are in a sinful situation (there are jobs that are not appropriate for a Christian to do)—that ought to change immediately. Do not use this as an excuse to remain living together in sin, or doing a job that is sinful. If you are an alcoholic, Paul is not saying, stay in that situation. We are to leave sin when we become Christians.
IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, GOD IS THERE
1 Corinthians 7:24 Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.
The Christian is to be aware, that whatever job or life situation we find ourselves in, God is there and we can “abide” with him. He is there to comfort and to aid us through every trial and circumstance, if we choose to rely on him. Paul said:
11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. 12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
Because God is there, we can “abide” with him and be strengthened by him.
God’s presence also means that we should be challenged to always being living our lives in a way that honors and glorifies him, no matter our circumstances. Paul told slaves in Ephesus:
5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: 8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. (Ephesians 6:5–8)
When we go to a boring job, we go with God…we are to abide with him on that job. Imagine how that’s going to change your attitude! How do you abide with God at work, or in any situation? By memorizing and recalling his promises, like:
10 Fear thou not; for I am with thee: Be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. (Isaiah 41:10)
Instead of seething with anger as your boss chews you out, mutter a promise of God to yourself as you accept the criticism.
The challenge is remembering that God has made you the way you are and placed you where you are for a reason—so that you can be a praiseful witness to him in the world.