A sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, … (ESV)
My friends Luke and Megan were high school sweethearts. They married and had several children. Last year, Megan had a short affair with her colleague. Luke was ready to forgive her, but Megan pushed for a divorce: “I am looking for more than you can give me, even though I don’t know what.”
Another friend, Mark, confided in me during a birthday party. “I think I am gay,” he said, “but I know that God does not approve of it. I will fight my inclinations.” But people around Mark told him that he should not hide his true identity. Today, Mark lives together with another man in an intimate relationship.
More uplifting was Anna, who was so in love with Peter… “But,” she asked me, tears in her eyes, “doesn’t the Bible say that when Jesus returns, we will no longer be married? I can’t imagine ever being separate from Peter!”
––These are just three examples of how people think about and struggle with intimate relationships, with sexuality and marriage. I am sure you could add many examples. Perhaps you already have decided for yourself what you think about Megan, Mark, and Anna, about their thoughts and actions. Much can be said about this. For instance, what does the Bible say about right and wrong in these matters? How do we show Christian mercy and love to people who struggle in their intimate relationships?
In 1 Cor 7:29 and its context, Paul teaches us that our intimate relations
- are created good
- will fade away
- must be kept holy
Our intimate relations are created good
This chapter in First Corinthians has surprised many people because Paul seems so negative about sexuality and marriage. “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (v 1). “It is good to remain single” (v 8). “Do not seek a wife” (v 27). Is this the advice you want a minister to give to teenagers in catechism class?
Some have painted Paul as a hater of woman, a grumpy, frustrated single man. They don’t take him very seriously: Whatever you say, Paul, but thankfully there are Bible texts that are more positive about marriage. But such an attitude does no justice to the fact that 1 Cor 7, too, was written by an appointed apostle of the risen Lord Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit.
But Paul is not against marriage. Immediately in 7:2ff, he affirms that it is good to have a spouse, and that sexual intimacy is an integral part of marriage. In Corinth there were some new converts who thought they should stop being intimate with their unbelieving spouses; after all, they now belonged to Christ! But Paul sets them straight. If you are married, your spouse has a right to your love and to your body.
When v 1 says: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” it is probably not what Paul is saying, but what some Corinthians were saying. Paul opposed this asceticism. It is not true that sexual abstinence makes you holier, because there is nothing bad about intimacy between husbands and wives. Looking down on such bodily things is an idea from Greek philosophy, but not a Biblical attitude.
Paul actually speaks very highly of marriage in his other writings. In Eph 5 he even compares marriage to the most profound and marvelous relationship that exists, that between Jesus Christ and his church. That is hardly grouchy!
1 Cor 7 does not at all undermine the positive teaching of Scripture about sexuality and marriage. People are created in two essentially different ways, male and female (Gen 1). It is a delightful difference that drives people to write songs, as Adam did in Gen 2, and to form new families. The sexual intercourse of husband and wife is blessed with fertility and growth. It is part of God’s very good creation that boys are attracted to girls and vice versa. And although our sinful attitudes can also make it rather messy, it is a fun aspect of our lives that gives glory to God.
Throughout time, there have been Christians who thought marriage was fine but sex was less than sacred. They put more emphasis on the mind and soul than on the body. But the Bible embarrasses them. Psalm 45 talks about the great bridegroom-king who desires the beauty of his bride. The Song of Songs does not only talk about matching personalities but also about passionate kisses and much more. Proverbs 5:18 tells the young married man to “rejoice in the wife of your youth; let her breasts fill you at all times with delight, be intoxicated always in her love.” If that makes you uncomfortable, you may actually be more ascetic than the Bible, including Paul.
No, the apostle fully recognizes marriage and intimacy and family life as something good and proper and even holy (v 14). Why, then, does he not rush to tell single Christians to find a good spouse?
Our intimate relations will fade away
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none. Paul’s surprising advice has to do with the time in which we live. We live in the “last days”, in the end-time, in the final stage of the history of this world. Soon, the Lord Jesus will return and pass the final judgment; and he will give the world a complete, absolutely radical overhaul. That is the point of v 31: The present form of this world is passing away, i.e. the familiar way in which our world works is not going to last; it is already on its way out.
Paul challenges us to view our entire lives, including our intimate relations, from the most important point of view. What is their role and value in God’s big plan, as he brings the world toward its consummation? How does this earthly aspect of our lives look in the light of eternity? Let’s look at four conclusions we must draw.
First, after Christ’s return things will be different than they are today. Sexuality, intimacy, and marriage as we know them now will simply no longer exist. Jesus said: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mat 22:30; Mk 12:25) That is not to say that we will become angels; it certainly does not mean that we will lead some disembodied, ethereal existence, floating on clouds as it were. The Bible clearly teaches the resurrection of the body. But our glorified bodies are not made for marriage or sexual intercourse the way we are now.
What kind of bodies shall we have? What kind of relations will we have? The Bible does not answer our curious questions. But everything will be vastly different. Sexuality and marriage were created very good, but they were not created for eternity.
My friend Anna struggled with this. She could not imagine losing the wonderfully intimate connection she had with Peter. She thought it was meant for eternity. For many people, the intimacy of a loving spouse is the most profound joy they experience; so they imagine that the ultimate glory of heaven must be like it. But they forget that God promises us something greater yet! “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no human heart imagined, God has prepared for those who love him.” Being united with Jesus Christ in a new and perfect world will be an unspeakable delight. The best time with the best spouse cannot hold a candle to it.
Second, because something greater is afoot, we do not need to find ultimate fulfillment in the here and now. How many poets and singers have mused, that life is only worth living if you find deep love? How many modern people are convinced that deep sexual fulfillment is one of the most important things to go after? It is so easy to live this life to “get the most out of it”.
This was the attitude of my friend Megan when she dumped Luke in the hope of a more satisfying relationship. We can call her selfish for doing so, or unrealistic. (I have told her both.) But Paul teaches us a more basic fact: there is simply no need to get the most out of things. He talks about buying things without expecting to get the full mileage out of it. About using the world without using them to the max. Because it is all going to be replaced by something better, it is okay not to get maximal return.
This is wonderful news for people whose love life get frustrated. Maybe you are in a marriage that gives little satisfaction. Maybe you desired to be with someone but must be alone. Maybe you lost your spouse and feel cheated out of a good life. Maybe you just have that itch, always wanting something more than you can have. But does it matter, given the fact that everything you could possibly want will be replaced by something infinitely better?
Third, in the light of the return of Jesus, Christians really have something better to focus on than their love lives. If you follow Jesus, your commitment to him takes priority. He tells you to show extravagant mercy and love to people around you, even the ones you hate. He calls you to take up your cross. He may call you to suffer for the sake of his Kingdom. And then it does not matter whether you are married or not, because being a Christian is a full-time job that will demand all your attention.
That is why Paul can talk about marriage as a distraction (v 32-34). It’s a good thing but it becomes bad when it takes your focus away from Christ. And how often are we, married people, more concerned about keeping our spouse happy than about our life with the Lord? How easily do we spend our time and money on our family rather than on God’s Kingdom? In a time of relative peace and great prosperity, you may think that you can juggle everything, but what if you are forced to choose? Our intimate relations can stand in the way of undivided devotion to the Lord (v 35); therefore it might be good to avoid them.
Fourth, this is really good news for those of us who struggle with sexual and marital brokenness. Neither your intimacy nor your struggles define your life before God. These areas in which you now suffer and fumble and fall, these areas in which you have hurt others and yourself, they will come to an end soon. Whatever the new world will bring, it will be free of the struggles of the homosexual, of the sex addict, of the pedophile, of the abused and the abuser. If the Lord does not give you healing and rest in this life, you may be assured that all will be well when his Kingdom is fully realized.
In summary: Because the intimate relations of this world will fade away, we can live with unfulfilled desires, avoiding anything that distracts us from Christ, in the assurance that he will take our brokenness and frustrations away.
Our intimate relations must be kept holy
Meanwhile, we still live in this world, with our desires of body and soul, with our relationships, with our marital status of single, married, divorced, or widowed. No matter what your status is, as a believer you are called to serve the Lord with body and soul.
Christians must live “chaste and holy lives” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 41). This means that we should have high regard for the God-given purpose of our intimacy. Sexuality belongs with marriage, bodily intimacy with a commitment of the heart. It is rebellion to separate these from each other. It is disrespect to our creator if we speak callously about his design. It is debasing his work to play around with intimate feelings of yourself or of others.
Our desires can be strong, and sexual desire can be overwhelming. That is why Paul in 1 Cor 7 tells us to be wise about yourself. What can you handle? If you cannot contain yourself, then find a spouse with whom you can share your desires. So that you can keep your body holy, without violating the boundaries the Lord has set.
In conclusion: Paul sees two kinds of gifts (7:6). One wonderful gift is the desire for intimacy, leading to a marriage in which spouses honor God as they become one in body and soul. As they do so, they reflect the unity of Jesus Christ and his church. Many of us have this gift, and we can be grateful for all the wonderful marriages among us.
The other wonderful gift is the ability to control that desire, leading to a single life in which a man or woman can focus fully on Kingdom service. Such a person lives out the unity of Jesus Christ and his church. Not many of us have this gift of singleness, but Paul insists that it is the greater gift. Let us honor and encourage those who live this single life of service.
In the end, the Christian with spouse and the Christian without spouse have the same task. Serve the Lord, with full attention on the endpoint. If we do that, then we married folks are no different than those who are single, since we have only one concern, one purpose, one destination: an intimate oneness with Jesus Christ that surpasses all earthly intimacy we can image.