Bible Study with Jairus – 1 Corinthians 7
Have you ever been in a situation where you faced a tough decision? How did you deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty? Often, when we don’t know what to do, we search for a dogmatic command from God to eliminate all uncertainty. However, God wants us to get to know him personally and accept his unique guidance in each specific circumstance of our lives.
Today we are going to discover that God’s word provides unchanging principles, as well as specific guidance that helps us navigate the ups and downs of life.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul continues his discussion of sexual purity (Ch. 6) by focusing on marriage and singleness. Paul emphasizes the importance of loving God from the heart rather than merely conforming to a rule or imitating a standard. No matter our external circumstances, we must respect God from the heart.
Paul explains the dangers of two extremes. On the one hand, immorality is not good, as Paul explained in chapter 6. On the other hand, it is not helpful to completely ban natural desires. In the spiritual experience, we tend towards one of two extremes. Either we indulge the lust of the flesh, or we swing to the opposite extreme of total sexual abstinence. In the Catholic church, we see these two extremes played out. On the one hand, we see the indulgence of clergy in Catholic history, and on the other hand we see the abstinence in the monasteries later in church history.
Paul explained that spirituality does not come merely from imitating another believer’s way of life. Believers in the Corinthian church wanted to imitate Paul’s singleness, perhaps in response to the rampant immorality described in chapter 6. But Paul stated that true spirituality lies in learning to live in the Spirit in any circumstances and in always putting God first. Whether we are married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, God does not require us to change our outward experience. Instead, he wants us to honor Him from the heart. Although Paul is single, he does not want the Corinthian believers to automatically imitate him. Instead, he wants everyone to learn to serve God according to God’s guidance.
Paul’s words were aimed towards specific problems in the Corinthian church. Although God’s words transcend time and space, we still must not regard Paul’s words as laws and dogmas. Throughout the ages, many Christians took Paul’s words as dogma, which caused a lot of harm to the church. For example, when Paul talked about the question of whether slaves should be freed, he was not at all supporting slavery. He was emphasizing that true spirituality does not lie in external imitation or in changing the outward environment, but in finding inner freedom and exalting Christ in all circumstances.
No Shortcuts to Spiritual Growth.
Understanding the context in which the biblical authors wrote these words will help us better understand the text. Through the Holy Spirit’s illumination, we can interpret God’s words accurately and avoid misunderstanding. For example, 1 Corinthians 6 discusses the issues of litigation and immorality. How does a discussion of marriage connect to these topics? 1 Corinthians 7:1 gives us a clue: “As for what you wrote, I think it is better for men not to be close to women…”
Theologians believe Paul wrote more than two epistles to the Corinthian church. Some other epistles were lost. The Corinthian church also wrote many letters to Paul, but these epistles were also lost. These verses give a clue to what the Corinthians may have asked Paul in their letters.
We know that some people in the Corinthian church were involved in immorality, but certainly not everyone was. When church problems arise, there are often certain members who are particularly disgusted with what is going on. For example, Boaz did not concur with the prostitution his mother was involved in. Jephthah, the son of another prostitute, was a judge of Israel and dedicated his daughter to keep her virgin for God. Although he swore rashly, it was definitely not accidental (Judges 11). Similarly, some believers in the Corinthian church were uncomfortable with the promiscuity all around them. Like the Catholics who reacted to sexual indulgence by forming monasteries, the Corinthians may have protested against the immorality in the church by making vows of sexual abstinence. They were eager to imitate Paul and learn to stay single. They may have asked Paul if they should stay single and lead a life of total abstinence.
In context, we see that the topic of marriage and singleness in chapter 7 are a continuation of the discussion of immorality in chapter 6. Members of the Corinthian church could not accept the behavior of the promiscuous believers, and they wanted this behavior to be corrected. But since they were spiritually immature, and their spiritual father, Paul, was single, they concluded that being single was a more spiritual way to avoid impurity.
However, Paul tells the church that his singleness was a special gift and calling of God. Without this special gift, believers would not be able to sustain their commitment to abstinence. A believer who is relying on their own sexual abstinence to please God will start to burn with passion and be easily tempted towards immorality.
Paul instructs couples to meet each other’s physical needs in order to avoid temptation (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). He counsels married couples not to sleep in separate rooms, so that Satan does not seduce them. The only exception would be when both partners agree to a short time of dedicated abstinence for the purpose of intense prayer. Paul specifically stated that his words are not commands, but suggestions. Not everyone has the gift of being single like Paul.
In verses 8-9, Paul tells the unmarried and widows that it is best for them to be single like he is. However, if they cannot control their lusts, it is better to marry. In verses 10-16, Paul discusses the topic of divorce. He says it is best that the husband and wife remain together. But if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave, let them leave. Paul’s discussion of divorce continues the conversation about avoiding immorality. Paul specifies that these directions are from the Lord, not merely his own opinion.
Paul continues, “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (vs. 17, ESV). As he responds to the Corinthians’ questions, Paul acknowledges that each person’s gifts and callings are different. As we pursue spirituality, we should not simply imitate another believer’s external life choices. At the same time, imitation is an important first step for every young believer. We all start our Christian lives as spiritual babies, imitating people who led us spiritually. Our spiritual parents subtly shaped our spiritual growth, and we imitate them unwittingly. This is understandable. But when our spiritual life has reached a certain stage and it’s time to enter into a deeper and more abundant spiritual life, simply imitating others is not enough. We must strengthen our fellowship with God, understand the gifts and unique calling God has given us, and then personally and subjectively follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we continue to pursue spiritual growth.
I heard a story about a spiritual sister who discipled many other ladies in their spiritual growth. This sister walked very slowly. Many people she discipled began to think that walking slowly was a manifestation of spirituality. They imitated her by deliberately walking slowly. This is not spiritual growth, but just imitation.
Another time, several Christian sisters in Korea read from the Bible that Peter walked on the water. They imitated him to show their faith. But unfortunately, they drowned. Another brother from Taiwan tried to imitate Daniel by entering the lion’s den at the zoo to show his faith. Unfortunately, he was bitten by the lion. An American pastor who saw that Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but did not die, took a poisonous snake in his hand. Tragically, he was killed by the poisonous snake.
I cannot confirm the authenticity of these stories, but there are countless examples of such imitations. Each of these stories remind me of the Corinthians. Throughout the ages, many Christians have tried to show their faith by imitating Paul, Peter, or other saints. But they only imitated them on the outside. What seems like a shortcut to growth is actually a dead end.
In the next section of the chapter, Paul continues to contrast outward imitation with inward obedience. Paul says that obeying God’s commands matters more than outward circumcision (verse 18). Today, Christians easily accept the fact that circumcision is not required. But for Jewish believers, this assertion was a major betrayal of all they had learned throughout Jewish history. The topic of circumcision led to many disputes between Jewish believers and Gentile believers. However, Paul emphasized that external surgery (circumcision) had no real impact on the heart.
There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth. We must not rely on imitating other believers’ outward choices. Instead, we should get to know God personally and ask him what his will is for our life.
In verses 21-22, Paul seems to imply that slaves who were believers should not seek freedom. Paul explains, “Each one should remain in the situation he was in when he was called. Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it concern you—but if you can gain your freedom, take the opportunity. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman. Conversely, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.” (BSB) Many believers in history have misused these verses, asserting that Paul was supporting slavery. This opinion comes from a legalistic, dogmatic interpretation of Paul’s words. What Paul meant was that true spirituality does not lie in external behavioral changes. We don’t please God by changing our environment or our identity, but through worshiping God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
In verse 25, Paul shares his opinion about singleness. He seems to encourage individuals to stay single, even encouraging those without wives not to seek wives (verse 27). Verse 38 says, “It is good to ask your virgin daughter to marry, and it is better not to ask her to marry” (verse 38). Paul also said that although widows can remarry, it is best to preserve chastity (verse 39). Paul mentions that though his opinions do not reflect a specific command from the Lord, they are guided by the Spirit of God (verse 40).
Though Paul seems to lean towards the opinion that virgins and widows should not marry, we must look at these words in the overall context of the chapter. Paul’s desire is to encourage people to learn how to best serve the Lord in their own environment. For example, he instructed people who are bound to marriage to stay faithful to that commitment (vs. 27). If you are married, you understand that marriage is full of difficulty. Many people are eager to be free from the commitment to each other. Many couples don’t seek a divorce because they want to commit immorality with someone else. They simply are tired of the difficulty of getting along with another person. Corinthian believers may have raised the issue of singleness because they wanted to break free from the bondage of marriage. However, Paul clearly told them that those who are married should stay faithful to that commitment.
Paul said in verse 26, “Because of the current hardship, I think it is best for people to maintain the status quo.” The Holy Spirit highlighted the words “the current hardship.” What does Paul mean by this phrase?
Even though the United States is a Christian country, Christians still feel great pressure from the secular world. Similarly, the brand-new Corinthian church faced powerful social pressures toward idolatry, secularization, and immorality. The pressure they faced were even greater than the pressure Americans face in their “Christian” nation.
Corinthian believers experienced pressure from the outside, as well as from the inside. Their own weaknesses caused spiritual problems. Therefore, in their specific situation, Paul advised them to maintain the status quo. Perhaps the ” current hardship ” referred to the secular pressure faced by the Corinthian church at the time.
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, some Pharisees tested Jesus by asking if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24, where God commanded the husband and wife to unite and become one flesh. Jesus explained that in the beginning, divorce was not God’s plan. Because of the hardness of Israelites’ heart, Moses allowed them to divorce their wives (Matthew 19:8).
In this chapter, Jesus explains the difference between the overarching principle established by God, and the unique methods that we deal with problems in special circumstances. Christians often make the mistake of reading about God’s unique ways of dealing with special circumstances, and then applying those solutions as universal principles from God. The words of the Bible are undoubtedly from God’s inspiration, but some words clarify divine nature and overarching principles, while other words clarify God’s guidance in a certain situation.
Therefore, we need both Bible teachers and prophets in the church. Bible teachers help us understand God’s word, nature and principles. Prophets help us obtain God’s timely words about how to deal with special situations. We must understand the true meaning of God’s words in the Spirit, and we must not misinterpret God’s words. We need to understand God’s words in light of the linguistic context and target audience at the time. I absolutely believe that the words of the Bible are the breath of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, when we actually apply it, we also need to pray to God and receive revelation from the Holy Spirit on how to apply it to our lives. For example, Paul’s encouragement towards singleness was specifically related to the “current hardship” they faced in their unique circumstances.
When we use the word of God, we need to avoid dogmatism and legalism. I once heard a parable about a believer who decided to read God’s words and literally obey every word. For example, when he reads about giving alms to others, he gives alms to others. When he reads that he should love his neighbor, he will love his neighbor. He is very dogmatic and stubborn, literally imitating every Bible character he reads about. One day, he read that the Bible says that Judas went out and hanged himself. He did not know what to do. Although this story is a joke, it demonstrates that we should not interpret God’s words mechanically, out of context. We should interpret them in context in accordance with the personal guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
As we interpret God’s word, we must make a distinction between God’s nature and principles, and his specific guidance for special circumstances. For example, Scripture tells us about God’s overarching principle of purity. God is not pleased with sexual immorality. This principle applies to anyone at any time. In the same way, God’s principle unites a man and a woman in marriage for life. God’s unchanging character values purity and faithfulness in marriage.
But does this mean that people can never get a divorce? No. The Lord Jesus explained that spouses should not separate unless one partner is unfaithful. If a husband or wife commits the crime of fornication, divorce is permissible. Paul also added that if an unbelieving spouse insists on leaving, believers can get divorced. God provides guidance for these specific situations. Each person’s situation is different, so God’s guidance for each person is also different.
The same principles apply to the decision to marry or stay single. From Paul’s personal point of view, it is better to remain single. But he explains that this is not an issue of God’s nature and principles, but of specific guidance. God may lead a person to remain a virgin, like he led Paul. He may lead another person to marry, establish a family, and have children. God provides different guidance to different people.
Paul was an apostle and a pioneer of the gospel. If he had a wife or children, it might prevent him from preaching the gospel unhindered. Practical considerations and worry for his family would hinder his gospel ministry. But for a person serving as a pastor in a local church, getting married and having children could be a good thing. Having a family enables the pastor to serve not only brothers in Christ, but also sisters and children. Because of their experience in married life, they can serve everyone.
Living a Life that is Free from Worry
At the end of the chapter, Paul shares some fascinating verses that appear to be contradictory at first glance. Paul says, “What I am saying, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who weep, as if they did not; those who are joyful, as if they were not; those who make a purchase, as if they had nothing; and those who use the things of this world, as if not dependent on them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (BSB)
What is Paul trying to say here? Verse 32 to provides some insight: “I want you to be free from concern. The unmarried man is concerned about the work of the Lord, how he can please the Lord.” Paul wants us to be free from worry so we can focus on the Lord. Ultimately, Paul is not concerned with whether or not you are married, whether or not you decide to make a purchase, and whether or not you are happy. He is concerned that you are free from worldly worry and care. He wants us to have nothing to worry about so we can worry about the things of the Lord.
Paul’s words provide a powerful word of encouragement to believers today. Many American churches today are full of worries. These worries distract us and keep us away from the Lord. What is the solution? Do we need to swing to the opposite extreme, resign from work, divorce our spouses, stay single, and live in a monastery? No, God wants us to turn our hearts to him in all circumstances.
As we allow the Lord to reign in our daily lives, we will learn to please Him. Rather than imitating other people externally, we must follow God alone according to the specific gift, calling and guidance that God gives us. We must not treat God’s words mechanically and dogmatically, turning them into “laws” for beating people over the head.
I trust these words have been an encouragement to you. God offers you a personal relationship with him and personal guidance in your unique circumstances. Open yourself to his loving guidance today.