Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 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, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. – 1 Corinthians 7:25-31 ESV
For the second time, Paul uses the phrase, “now concerning.” It would appear that he is answering yet another question that he had received from the church in Corinth regarding particular matters with which they were struggling. He opened this chapter with the words, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Corinthians 7:1 ESV). He has addressed the issue of sexual abstinence, agreeing that it is good, but that due to sexual temptation, it would be better to get married than to “burn with passion.” He has warned that sexual abstinence within marriage is viable only under one condition: that the couple do so in order to dedicate themselves to prayer. Otherwise, they should act as if their bodies do not belong to themselves, but to one another. Paul has indicated his desire that those who are single, remain so, so that they might dedicate all their energies to serving the Lord. But he knew that to do so and remains sexually pure would require a special gifting from God. Without it, they would be better off getting married. Those married to unbelievers should not seek a divorce, but remain in their marriage and have a godly influence on their spouse and children. And everyone should seek to remain as they were when God called them. There was no need for a radical change in circumstance, as much as a need for heart change. Slaves should seek to be godly slaves, rather than spending all their time obsessed with gaining their freedom. Everyone needed to understand that the greatest change in their lives was their newfound relationship with God. They were children of God whether they were free or not, married or single, circumcised or uncircumcised. It was their relationship with God that set them apart, not their particular circumstances.
Now Paul turns his attention to another group within the church: those who were single. The Greek word he uses is παρθένος (parthenos) and it can refer to a virgin, a marriageable woman, a single man who has remained sexually pure, or an unmarried daughter. In this context, it would seem that the term, as Paul uses it, “refers to young, engaged women who were under the influence of various groups within the Corinthian church not to go through with their marriages. The central issue would then be whether the young men and women should continue with their plans and finalize their marriages” (NET Bible Study Notes). In Paul’s day, fathers were the ones who determined who their illegible daughters would marry, so he is addressing them with these comments. But he most likely has single men in mind as well. The issue, as it has been all along, has to do with the Corinthians misunderstanding of the spiritual and physical dimensions of life. They had been heavily influenced by the philosophy of dualism and there were those within the church who were advocating abstinence from marriage altogether. Why? Because they viewed sexually activity as somehow evil. It was unspiritual, because it involved the body. Anything done in the body was viewed as either evil or nonessential. This view could lead to license, where anything was permissible because the body didn’t matter, or it could lead to asceticism, a rigorous form of self-denial.
To address this issue and to deal with those within the church who were single, Paul repeats that it would be best to remain as they are. If they are single, remain so. And he gives a more detailed explanation to his answer this time. He says, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is” (1 Corinthians 7:26 ESV). We are not exactly sure what Paul means by this statement, but it would appear from the context, that he is talking about the end times. He also says, “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Corinthians 7:29 ESV). Paul lived with a strong belief that the end of the age was near. It strongly impacted his approach to life. He tells the Corinthians, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 ESV). He had a strong sense that the return of Christ was near and that each believer should live with a sense of anticipation and eager expectation that He could appear at any moment. With that in mind, Paul encourages the singles within the church to remain so. But he also makes it clear that they are perfectly free to marry should they choose to do so. “But if you do get married, it is not a sin. And if a young woman gets married, it is not a sin” (1 Corinthians 7:28a NLT). He plainly refutes the false view of the ascetics and dualists. But he also makes it perfectly clear that he believes the days ahead will be difficult for everyone – “those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems” (1 Corinthians 7:28b NLT).
The bottom line for Paul was that every believer needed to put their focus on living for Christ. They needed to have a single-minded devotion to their faith, living with their hopes and passions fixed on the future, not the present. Paul gives some curious and seemingly confusing advice: “let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Corinthians 7:29-21 ESV). He is not advising married individuals to act as if they weren’t married. He is not advocating the neglect of your spouse. He is simply saying that marriage cannot be your sole focus in life. As believing couples, they were to make it their goal to live for Christ and to make an impact for the kingdom through their marriage. Those who found themselves in times of difficulty were not to spend all their time mourning over their problems, but they were to get to work, replacing their temporal concerns with an eternal focus. Those with money were not to live as if material things were the most important thing in life. Those who enjoy all the things this world has to offer – power, possessions, pleasure – should hold them with open hands, because this world is passing away.
Debates about marriage and singleness, abstinence and avoidance, spirituality and worldliness, were all a waste of time if believers do not remember who they are in Christ and why they are here. Paul’s life was gospel-driven. He saw himself as the citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, not of this earth. He lived with the end in view. And he longed for the Corinthians to have the same mindset. He wanted them to share his outlook on life: “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT).