Can I just say that this passage, 1 Corinthians 7, we're looking at today is one of the reasons why we teach our way through books of the Bible. Because there is no way in the world I would have sat down at my desk at the start of the week and thought:
"I wonder what we should look at in church this Sunday? I know let's do 1 Corinthians 7!"
This isn't an easy bit of the Bible to understand and for many of us it's also not an easy bit of the Bible to accept. I've been so aware of that as I've prepared this week. Which is why it's so important that we ask the Lord Jesus to help us, before we dive in. So let me pray for us: "Father God, we do want our souls to bless you as we've just sung. So I pray that we would hear the gentle voice of our saviour Jesus and understand what he has to say to us. And that you would help us as a church family to be kind to each other, that we'd help and encourage one another. We pray in Jesus name. Amen."
Folks, I think it's a fairly regular experience for most of us to experience envy... or discontent. We look at others and we think: "I wish I had what they had."
It happens when you go to a restaurant, doesn't it? I mean – have you ever experienced "plate envy"? The desire for what is on their plate rather than what's on your plate is an overwhelming and powerful thing. You know, the food comes out for others and it's all sumptuously presented in copious quantity. And then they bring yours out – and you go, "What is that? Oh no, no, no – I want what they're having."
And I think that happens a lot in our lives – As we look at others and say, "I wish I had the job they have." "I wish I had the house they have."Or "the husband or wife they have." Or "children like theirs." "I wish I had the life they have, the freedom they have." It goes on and on, doesn't it?
We struggle so much… to be content where God has placed us… and with what he has given us.
So over and over we are wanting to change our circumstances. In fact, it's not just that we want to – we are positively encouraged to by our world: "Come on you can better yourself! Got a rubbish job – get a better job! Unhappy with your circumstances – well cut free and move on!"
But here in 1 Corinthians 7 the Apostle Paul says completely the opposite. Paul says six times in this chapter: "Whatever situation you find yourself in… remain where you are."
Now that seems a strange command to our 21st Century ears – But it must have seemed strange to first century Corinth too! Which is why Paul goes to such pains to apply it to a range of different circumstances over the rest of this chapter.
Starting with married people – to whom he says this:
1. Marriage Is For Life
That's the first of the two points we're going to look at here.
So let's get to it as in verse 10 Paul says: "To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord)..." In other words, this is something Jesus spoke about explicitly in the gospels. So this isn't just a command from Paul, this is a command directly from Jesus.
And here is the command:
"…the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife."
I don't think that Paul could be any clearer in those verses, do you? You do not divorce. You do not remarry.
And this is exactly what the Lord Jesus taught. Asked about divorce in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 Jesus immediately teaches about marriage.
He quotes God's design for marriage from Genesis 2.24 saying: "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?" – and he concludes with the words used in marriage ceremonies the world over: "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."
Now I must acknowledge that in Matthew's reporting of Jesus' teaching about divorce – he appears to offer an exception in the case of "sexual immorality". But the word translated "sexual immorality" is not the usual word used for adultery and there is much debate as to what exactly it means.
I haven't got time to go into that just now, which is why I've produced this little booklet which gives a fuller explanation of what Matthew 19 is all about.
Whatever you make of that possibility of an exception it should not cause us to lose sight of what is undoubtedly the basic principle of the Bible – the norm, not the exception if you like: Marriage is For Life.
It is like glue… God's design for marriage creates an inseparable bond between a man and a woman.
I once managed to glue my fingers to one of those model aircraft carrier kits. And so I did the totally unmanly thing of actually reading the instructions – which helpfully told me to: "urgently seek medical advice". To which I thought, "No way! I'll look like a total idiot." So I shut my eyes and just pulled. And it ripped layers of skin from my fingers so that they were scarred and sore for weeks to come.
And folks, that is the Bible's picture of why God is so against divorce – it's because once married, people can't be separated without a physical, emotional and spiritual tearing of their own flesh.
God "hates divorce" as that reading we had from Malachi 2 said – He hates it, because he loves those who are wounded and damaged by it – not just the couple but also any children involved too.
Now I can imagine that for most of us that raises all kinds of questions. We can almost feel ourselves wanting to shout out: "Yes, but…"
Like… "What if we find we've made a mistake? What if we find we're not compatible?"
Well the Bible says that if you're a boy and she's a girl – then you are compatible. You fit together. Did you hear what Genesis 2 said? "Male and female." That's who God made marriage for.
But the Bible also says: You're not compatible! Your bodies fit together, but your lives won't. Because you're a sinner and they're a sinner! So there are inevitably going to be tensions and difficulties. And sometimes you'll want to give up.
I have to say that's been mine and Fiona's experience of marriage. Even though I married my best friend and thought that our lives would just slot together perfectly and that we'd live happily ever after – we didn't. The first few years of marriage were really tough. And they made us wonder whether we'd done the right thing. By the way – I checked with Fiona and she's fine with me saying that. The point is that we've got to have the right expectations for marriage. Marriage is not a bed of roses. It's not the easy option.
And so lifelong marriages require lifelong work.
Love within marriage is not a feeling. Love within marriage is a commitment. A commitment that says, "This hurts like hell and it would be much, much easier if we could just break apart – but I made a promise, so I'm going to stick at it. I'm going to stick with you and work things out, for richer, for poorer; for better, for worse; in sickness and in health… till death us do part."
To which you might say: "Well yes, but what if I find myself in an abusive marriage?"
Well folks, Paul lives in the real world and his "but if she does…" at the start of verse 11 shows a sensitivity we often miss when we only read the headlines.
There may be circumstances in which because of physical violence or extreme psychological abuse a wife may have to leave the marital home for her or her children's protection. If that's you this morning, please don't suffer in silence – but seek help. You could speak to myself or Mohini Wood our Pastoral Worker – or someone else who you feel you can trust.
If you are the perpetrator of domestic abuse – can I call on you to seek help too. You need to repent! This may be a secret you have kept from human eyes – but God sees. And so you need to turn from your sin and seek rehabilitation.
But whatever the reason for separation Paul is clear about God's future for you – it's reconciliation not remarriage – verse 11: "…she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband." Which I'm sure must seem almost impossible to consider if your marriage is creaking at the seams or has broken up or God forbid there is abuse involved.
But we must remember that this is the God who can raise the dead who is speaking to us here – and so if he has the power to raise Jesus on Easter Sunday, he can also raise dead or dying marriages too.
I can think of a couple who started coming to our partner church and heard a sermon like this just at the point their marriage was in the process of falling apart. I remember speaking to the husband about that experience a couple of years later and he said quote: "It saved our marriage." Knowing Jesus' teaching – that marriage is for life – made them both knuckle down and fight for it.
And one of my prayers this week as I've prepared for this has been that maybe – by God's grace – we might save some marriages now. What an amazing thing that would be if God's Spirit moved in such a way for us to see that marriage is not a small thing to be entered into – but worth giving yourself to fully and worth fighting for.
But here's another question popping up: "Yes, but what if my husband or wife is not a Christian?"
Well look at verse 12: "To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)..." which is kind of interesting. Perhaps at this point, Paul is saying, "This isn't quite so important."
No, he's just saying that Jesus doesn't explicitly talk about this in the Gospels – But he is going to speak about it. And he's Jesus' apostle so we'd still better listen to him.
"To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him."
I have a friend who got married and then became a Christian – and he wishes he was married to someone who shared his faith – Paul does, after all, encourage us in verse 39 to only marry someone who is "in the Lord" – who is a Christian.
So how should we counsel someone in that kind of situation?
Well Paul says, "Even there, if your unbelieving partner is willing to stay… then you stay with them."
Why? Why do that? Well Paul gives his reason in verse 14:
"For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy."
Well great! That makes things clearer, doesn't it?!
Well Paul is not saying that the believing wife or husband somehow magically makes their spouse a Christian. But it seems like there were some people in Corinth who were saying to the wives who had unbelieving husbands: "Well your marriage is dirty. It's unclean."
And Paul is saying, "No, no, no your marriage is not dirty. Your marriage is holy." And that word holy means "Set apart" – uniquely purposed by God. So Paul says, "If you're married, no matter who you're married to... it's exactly the right place for you to be. You are not sinning by continuing there." It may not feel it, but it is godly to stay in your marriage. Your godliness may look different to others who have Christian partners – but it is not second class, it is not less spiritual than anyone else's.
But verse 15 – "But if…" you can almost see the hands going up in class now, can't you?! "But what if the unbelieving partner doesn't want to stay?"
To which Paul admits that there are some occasions when divorce is unavoidable – but notice where the initiative lies: "But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace."
- Peace with others – not in an endless battle with someone refusing Christian persuasion and discipline and not wanting to be in the marriage.
- At peace with yourself – not torturing yourself with guilt as if you could control or even verse 16 – "save" them.
- And at peace with God.
And as I say all that I'm well aware that I'm rubbing my fingers around some very sensitive wounds for some people here. It may be that you have personal experience of divorce – and so you know more than anyone the pain that it brings and the struggle to find peace.
But please see how God knows:
- what it is to suffer,
- to feel rejected,
- betrayed and deserted by those whom he'd given himself to most fully.
And whatever the circumstances that caused your divorce whether unavoidable or self-inflicted – I need you to hear that divorce is not an unforgivable sin. So do not allow the devil to overwhelmed you with guilt or shame, because where repentance is necessary – God's forgiveness will be total.
And if you are remarried and even if that new marriage should not be entered into – you should regard it as a binding covenant and pray that God will strengthen it.
- You will, of course, have to live with the consequences of the breakdown of your first marriage – the "one fleshness" of that marriage will always keep pulling you back. And in order to be godly, you need to fulfil your responsibilities financially and as a parent, if there are children from that marriage.
- You also may have much to repent of too. As do we all!
- But you should still stay where you are – God is the great healer and provider – and he can and will still use and bless your marriage.
The principle remains: Marriage is for Life.
That's my first point. Here's my second one – and don't worry it's going to be a lot shorter! But we have to make time for it because it is absolute key!
As in verses 17-24 Paul goes on to say:
2. You Are Not Defined By Your Circumstances
Now that is a big problem for our thinking. Because we tend to define ourselves by things like our jobs. We even teach kids to do this from a young age, don't we?
- Bob the... Builder
- Dora.. the Explorer
- Fireman Sam
- Postman Pat
You see – we are often defined by what you do. You are defined by your job. Or we are defined by your marital status – by whether you are single or married, or engaged, or going out, or widowed, or divorced.
But Paul says, "No! You are not to be defined by your circumstances. You are not defined by any of those things." Verse 17:
"Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him." (Or Her!)
There's that principle again: "Remain where you are." Don't get twitchy and fidgety thinking the grass is greener on the other side. God has called you to be where you are. He's placed you there for a purpose. So be content and make the most of it for his sake.
But then Paul goes on to talk about circumcision and slavery in the following verses – which seems like a total change of topic! And totally shocking in the case of his instruction to slaves. They too are to "remain where they are"! Why? Because, well look – verse 22:
"For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price..."
Here is what defines you if you are a Christian. If you are someone who is trusting Jesus – it's not your circumstances that define you – it's this… that… "You are not your own, you were bought with a price."
That is what Paul said at the end of chapter 6 – and here he's saying it again. You were bought by Jesus blood – so your fundamental identity is now in him. You belong to him. You are free in him.
And that is who I am as a Christian. "I am not Ken the... Cleric." OR "Matthews the Minister." That is terrible, I know I know! That is probably one of the reasons why no one has ever made a children's cartoon about my life. There are many others too I'm sure!
But do you see? I am not fundamentally Ken the minister, but Ken the Christian. Ken the Christ-bought possession of God.
So Paul is saying: "Your circumstances – don't define you. If they change – like verse 21 – if you're a slave and you can get your freedom, then great! Of course you should take it."
Paul is not saying, "Don't take good gifts that God sends you, like you're some kind of masochist." No! "But if you can't get what you want at the moment… whether it's your freedom from slavery… or from your marriage… or whatever other change of circumstance you're currently hoping for… don't let that define you. Don't let it dominate all your thinking and planning. Don't live for it."
Run away from sin, not your circumstances… and live for Jesus.
He bought you. He gave his life for you. He shed his blood for you. You were a rebel far, far away from God and Jesus came to rescue you, to take you, to grab hold of you and to bring you back to him. So be content to do the very best for your Lord and Master Jesus Christ… wherever you are. Wherever he has put you.
Do you see the difference that should make to how we view our lives – If we fundamentally belong to Christ?
Why don't we take a moment to run to Jesus and pour out our hearts to him now? Let me give you a moment of quiet to pray on your own.
Lord be merciful to us and hear our prayers. Amen!
If ever there was a man who was not defined by his circumstances it was the writer of our closing hymn! Joseph Scriven, lost one fiancé to drowning the day before his wedding and another to illness – but still wrote the story of his life in these four verses to encourage his mum when she feels seriously ill: "What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer."