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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 7

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This is one of the most interesting chapters in the New Testament, due to the nature of its being Paul’s apostolic answers to no less than six questions propounded in a letter from the church at Corinth, that letter being lost, of course, and thus leaving the communications in this chapter to be understood very much in the same manner as listening to one end of a telephone conversation.

Significantly, Paul had sternly reprimanded the Corinthians for the various sins already noted in the first six chapters, before getting down to the problem of their questions. Therefore, the second major division of the epistle begins at this point, from whence through the next nine chapters he would deal with questions raised in the lost letter.

The six questions treated in this chapter are:

(1) Should married couples continue normal sexual relations after becoming Christians? Answer: Yes, it is their duty to do this (1 Corinthians 7:1-7).

(2) Should single persons get married? Answer: Yes, in all normal situations; but for the gifted, such as Paul, celibacy was advantageous, especially in unsettled times (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

(3) Is divorce permitted for Christians? Answer: No (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

(4) When one partner of a pagan couple becomes a Christian, the other refusing to do so, is such a marriage binding? Answer: Yes, except when the unbeliever deserts the Christian partner (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

A brief digression. At this point Paul, having given an exception in the matter of mixed marriages, allowing liberty in certain cases, interjected a comment on the general rule that becoming a Christian does not free any man from obligations already binding upon him. Evidently there was at Corinth, even at this early date, some impression that becoming a Christian wiped out all prior debts, contracts, even marriages and all other obligations existing prior to conversion. It will be recalled that this very error was the principal motivation for vast numbers of knights and princes who participated in the Crusades at a much later time (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

(5) Should Christian fathers (or guardians) give their daughters in marriage? Answer: The fathers and guardians were given authority to solve their individual problems, there being no sin involved, however the decision went; but certain guidelines were suggested (1 Corinthians 7:25-38).

(6) May a Christian widow remarry? Answer: Yes, provided that she marry "only in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39-40).

Like many other chapters which are sometimes labeled "difficult," this one contains some of the most instructive teaching in the New Testament, and affords glimpses of the apostolic method which add greatly to one’s faith in the integrity of the apostles.

Verse 1

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

The development of this paragraph a little later indicates that the question regards the conduct of Christian couples toward each other, a question no doubt related to the broader question of celibacy as a way of life, this being a deduction from the terminology "not to touch a woman." "Epictetus used this word to denote one’s MARRYING."(F1) Morris also agreed that "In this context TOUCH refers to marriage."(F2)

It is good not to touch a woman … Paul first addressed himself to the prior question of celibacy, admitting here that, in a sense, it was "good." The word "good" in this place "does not mean morally good, but that it is for man’s best interests in some circumstances to remain single."(F3) "He is teaching that because of the persecution of Christians, it is better not to get married and bring children into the world to be killed and suffer persecution.(F4) It should be carefully observed, however, that Paul in no sense advocated celibacy, except in certain situations and circumstances, and that even in those cases it was merely "allowable," and not commanded. There is no disparagement of marriage here, Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5:22-23, etc., making it abundantly clear that he held the institution of marriage in the very highest esteem. As Marsh said, "He is not writing a treatise on marriage, but answering their questions within the context of current attitudes and circumstances."(F5) Marsh translated this place, "It is WELL for a man not to touch a woman … meaning COMMENDABLE, but not morally or intrinsically better."(F6) It is true now, even as it was in the beginning, that "It is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). As Lipscomb noted, "Paul’s teaching here regards the persecution then raging against the Christians; and, on account of these, if a man could restrain his lusts, it was better not to marry."(F7)

The background of this paragraph included widespread agitation of the question of the desirability of marriage. Many of the Greek philosophers, such as Menander, held marriage to be "an evil, but a necessary evil";(F8) but the Jews, on the other hand, "absolutely required that every man should marry, and reputed those as murderers who did not."(F9)

Verse 2

But because of fornications, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.

Christianity is opposed to polygamy, concubinage, divorce and all related evils. Also, there is implicit in this verse a practical condemnation of celibacy. Celibacy being an absolutely unattainable state for the vast majority of mankind, marriage is required as the only practical alternative.

But because of fornications … By these words and the command following, Paul refuted absolutely the false argument of Jerome who said, "If it is good for a man not to touch a woman, it must be bad to do so; and therefore celibacy is a holier state than marriage."(F10) Far from being a holier state than marriage, celibacy, enforced upon the clergy of the historic church contrary to nature, became the worst of evils. As Barnes said:

How much evil, how much deep pollution, how many abominable crimes would have been avoided, which have grown out of the monastic system, and the celibacy of the clergy … if Paul’s advice had been followed by all professed Christians!(F11)

Let every man have … This was an apostolic order, "a rule, and not a mere permission";(F12) and Paul applied it equally to women as to men. Such a commandment does not allow any exception for persons who, early in life, take vows of perpetual chastity; because, as Macknight observed, "No person in early life can foresee what his future state of mind may be … therefore vows of celibacy and virginity taken in early life, must in both sexes be sinful."(F13)

Verse 3

Let the husband render unto the wife her due: and likewise also the wife unto her husband.

In marriage, the sensuous impulse, by being controlled and placed under religious sanctions is refined and purified … Instead of being any longer the source of untold curses to mankind, it becomes a condition of their continuance and an element in their peace, because it is then placed under the blessing of God and of his church.(F14)

Unto the wife her due … also unto the husband … The sexual relationship in married couples, far from being wrong, is a lawful and necessary function of Christian marriage. This verse establishes the idea that "Among some of the Corinthians there existed an exaggerated spiritualistic tendency which threatened to injure conjugal relations."(F15) There existed a view among ascetics that sex relations were in and of themselves wicked, or evil; and the blight of this monastic error has fallen upon all succeeding generation.

Verse 4

The wife hath not power over her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power over his own body, but the wife.

It may be assumed that Paul delivered such teachings as here, not through any love of the subject, but because all kinds of unnatural and immoral propositions were being advocated by ascetics and "super-spirituals" among the Corinthians. The equality of husband and wife in the marriage partnership is in the foreground here. Neither partner in marriage was to subscribe to any form of "sexless" behavior, because there was a positive duty that each owed the other in marriage.

Verse 5

Defraud ye not one another, except it be by consent for a season, that ye may give yourselves unto prayer, and may be together again, that Satan tempt you not because of your incontinency.

Except it be for a season … In such an apostolic directive as this, there disappears totally the notion that sexual relations between Christian marriage partners were allowable only for procreation. On the other hand, the refusal of one of the partners to cohabit is designated as fraud.

May give yourselves unto prayer … Abstinence from the normal marital relations was allowable only upon the consent of both partners, and even then only for purposes of prayer (in some special sense), and only "for a season."

Fasting … in this verse (KJV) was an interpolation, being not found in any of the primary manuscripts; but despite this, the requirement that married couples live apart during Lent was grounded on this interpolation.(F16)

Verse 6

But this I say by way of concession, not of commandment.

This verse has been grossly misunderstood as a denial of his inspiration on Paul’s part, as if he had said that he was in some manner unsure of the advice he gave. This is not true at all; but it indicates that such behavior as celibacy and married couples refraining from cohabitation for "a season" were allowable, but not required, a concession not a commandment. There is no restriction whatever upon Paul’s inspiration visible in this verse.

Verse 7

Yet I would that all men were even as I myself. Howbeit each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.

Would that all men … Paul could not have meant that he wished that all men were unmarried, like himself, but rather that all men had the gift of continence, which is clearly "his own gift from God."

Even as I myself … The question of whether or not Paul was ever married always surfaces here, there being many dogmatic opinions supporting either view. One thing is certain, Paul was at this time not married. Halley gave his opinion that "This chapter seems to have been written by one who knew something of the intimacies of the married life,"(F17) and combined this with the fact of Paul’s voting in the Sanhedrin (Acts 26:10), for which, it was said, marriage was a prerequisite, making these the two reasons for supposing that Paul had been married. Shore, however, declared that "The almost universal tradition of the early church was that Paul was never married."(F18) However, that tradition appears to be weak. Farrar stated that it "has no certain support of tradition";(F19) and the testimony of both Tertullian and Jerome (in favor of the "unmarried" view) he wrote off as inadmissible, because both of them "were biased witnesses."(F20) It is not a matter of great import either way, but this student inclines to the belief that Paul was a widower, his wife having deserted him at the time of his conversion. Moreover, the tradition of Paul’s never having been married was most likely fostered by the historic church as a support of their unscriptural doctrine of celibacy for the clergy.

Verse 8

But I say to the unmarried and to widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.

Paul here began his answer to the question of whether unmarried persons (widows, naturally included) should marry or not.

It is good for them if they abide even as I … This was the permission of the apostle, and even his approval, that for those who were able to live chastely without marriage, it would be better for them not to marry due to "the distress that is upon us" (1 Corinthians 7:26). A savage persecution against the church was then raging, and it was an inopportune time for marrying; but, even so, Paul did not forbid it.

Verse 9

But if they have no continency, let them marry: for it better to marry than to burn.

McGarvey’s analysis of Paul’s answer has this: "He advises the unmarried who have the gift of self-control to remain unmarried, but those lacking it should avoid unlawful lusts by marriage."(F21)

Better to marry than to burn … has reference to being on fire with passion.

Verse 10

But unto the married I give charge, yet not I, but the Lord, That the wife depart not from her husband.

Not I but the Lord … The third question from Corinth had asked if divorce was permitted; and Paul here answered in the negative. The words "not I but the Lord" have been construed by some as an admission on Paul’s part that some of his advice in this chapter was not inspired, but no such meaning is logically derived from what is said here. What Paul declared here is that it was unnecessary for him to give any inspired utterance on such a subject, because the Lord himself had given specific commandment on this very thing (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). "Paul here distinguished between Jesus’ command during his ministry and his own apostolic rulings, for which inspiration is claimed."(F22)

Verse 11

(But should she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and that the husband leave not his wife.

Paul left out of view in this verse the exception Jesus gave in Matthew 19:9, "except it be for fornication"; but this may not be construed as a denial of it. Paul’s failure to mention the exception was likely due to the fact that it did not apply in the case propounded by the letter from Corinth. As DeHoff said, "Paul told her either to remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. Divorce never solves a problem; it only creates more problems." Of course, exactly the same rule applied to husbands who left their wives.

Verse 12

But to the rest say I, not the Lord: If any brother hath an unbelieving wife, and she is content to dwell with him, let him not leave her.

Say I, not the Lord … The meaning here is not that Paul’s injunction here had any less inspiration and authority behind it, but that its authority derived from his own apostolic commission, and not from any direct commandment uttered by Jesus during his ministry, such as that he had just cited. There is not the slightest disclaimer here of full and absolute authority for what Paul commanded in the Spirit of God. As Marsh expressed it, "In this instance Paul cannot refer to any direct command of Christ, as he could for the previous case; but his words carry the full weight of inspiration and authority."(F23) One must deplore the blindness of many commentators on this exceedingly important point.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage was directed to the Jews who were all in covenant relationship with God; and his words had no application at all to mixed marriages which Paul dealt with here; hence the necessity for Paul to issue the command himself in the fullness of his apostolic authority. How easy it would have been for him to attribute some saying to Jesus on this, instead of assuming full responsibility for it himself; but, in the light of his example, we may be sure that no apostle ever did such a thing. How vain, therefore, are the speculations of a certain school of critics who accuse the apostles of attributing to Jesus words which were, in fact, their own deductions and not the words of the Lord. Paul’s distinguishing such things in this verse is an overwhelmingly powerful testimony to the truth of the entire New Testament.

This verse through 1 Corinthians 7:16 deals with the problem of divorce in mixed marriages, that is, marriages between Christians and pagans, a situation which arose, not from Christians marrying pagans, but from the conversion of one out of a pagan couple. Paul’s command here is that the marriage stands, unless the unbeliever is unwilling and will not allow it to stand.

Verse 13

And the woman that hath an unbelieving husband, and he is content to dwell with her, let her not leave her husband.

The teaching here is the same as in the previous verse, except it applies to the Christian woman, just as 1 Corinthians 7:12 applied to the Christian man, with an unbelieving marriage partner. See under above verse.

Verse 14

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.

Sanctified … "This verb cannot mean `holy in Christ before God,’ because that kind of holiness cannot be predicated of an unbeliever."(F24) Paul here uses such a term in a ceremonial sense, rather than in a sense suggesting the salvation either of the unbelieving partner or of the children. As Johnson said:

Paul simply means that the Old Testament principle of the communication of uncleanness does not hold. The union is lawful and confers privileges on the members, such as the protection of God and the opportunity of being in close contact with one in God’s family.(F25)

Those who seek to find here any authority for infant church membership are frustrated by the fact that nothing of the kind is even intimated. "There is not one word about baptism here, not one allusion to it; nor does the argument in the remotest degree bear upon it."(F26) Furthermore, as Morris pointed out, the "holiness" here ascribed to children applies only "until the child is old enough to take responsibility upon himself."(F27)

Verse 15

Yet if the unbelieving departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace.

The brother or sister is not under bondage … Some question whether or not such a brother or sister might remarry; but the view here is that, if not, then the brother or sister would still be in bondage. This is another exception, distinguished from the "adultery" mentioned by the Lord (Matthew 19:9), but the desertion of a Christian partner by an unbeliever is thought by some to be presumptive proof of adultery also.] Besides that, Paul was dealing with mixed marriages, which were not in the purview of Jesus’ teaching at all. Many have disputed this interpretation. DeHoff declared that "This does not mean that he (the forsaken one) is free to marry again."(F28) David Lipscomb also believed that, "In such cases, remarriage is not approved";(F29) but he went on to add that if the departing unbeliever should marry again, the wife or husband forsaken would be at liberty to remarry. It seems to this student, however, that Macknight’s view of this place is correct. He said:

Here he declares that the party who was willing to continue the marriage, but who was deserted notwithstanding a reconciliation had been attempted, was at liberty to marry. And his decision is just, because there is no reason why the innocent party, through the fault of the guilty party, should be exposed to the danger of committing adultery.(F30)

See the note at end of chapter 7.

Metz was doubtless correct in the comment that "Paul’s directive does not grant permission for a Christian to marry an unbeliever."(F31) The guidelines apply to situations in which one of a pagan couple accepts Christianity, and the other does not. Even then, the marriage is binding unless the unbeliever deserts the faithful partner.

Verse 16

For how knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O husband, whether thou shalt save thy wife?

Bruce believed that "A mixed marriage of the kind Paul had in mind is fraught with missionary possibility,"(F32) indicating that Paul’s meaning here is that perhaps the faithful partner might be able to convert the unbeliever. There is another possible meaning of this somewhat ambiguous verse. It could mean, "God’s aim for us is peace, which will best be secured by separation; the possibility of saving the heathen partner is, after all, quite uncertain."(F33) Morris preferred the latter view, adding that "Marriage is not to be regarded simply as an instrument of evangelism."(F34) Despite this, it seems that the first view, advocated by Bruce, is preferable. The principal deterrent to this is the reference to God’s having called us to peace (at the end of 1 Corinthians 7:15). It is a known fact that many a marriage with unbelievers has proved to be the means of converting the unbeliever; but Paul certainly did not advocate marriage with such an end in view. This verse concludes Paul’s teaching on mixed marriages; and, as always, there is evident in it the most devout and sincere desire for the salvation of people’s souls. Everything else is secondary.

Verse 17

Only, as the Lord hath distributed to each man, as God hath called each, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.

The problem of the innocent party in a mixed marriage disposed of, Paul here made a digression to legislate in the power of the Holy Spirit on the larger question behind it, that greater question deriving from an error being advocated at Corinth by certain false teachers. "The Judaizers taught that, by embracing the true religion, all former obligations under which the convert lay were dissolved."(F35) Any widespread acceptance of such an error would have resulted in social chaos and precipitated even more savage and relentless persecutions against the church; therefore, for both practical and ethical reasons the error had to be struck down.

As the Lord hath distributed to each man … refers to the status of each man in the fabric of the social order, some being wealthy, others poor, some free, others slaves, etc.

As God hath called each, so let him walk … Accepting the gospel did not change prior conditions and obligations of the convert in any legal sense, despite the fact that the holy principles of Christianity were inherently charged with power to destroy many shameful institutions in the pagan society. "The gospel, instead of weakening any moral or just political obligation, strengthened them all."(F36)

Verses 18-19

Was any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Hath any been called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but keeping the commandments of God.

Let him not become uncircumcised … Through surgery, it was possible to do this; and Macknight related how "Apostate Jews (by such action) fancied that they freed themselves from their obligation to obey the law of Moses."(F37)

Circumcision is nothing … Three times Paul made this statement, each time concluding with a powerful statement of that which is everything; here it is "keeping the commandments of God." In Galatians 5:6, it is "faith working through love"; and in Galatians 6:15, it is "a new creation." Any reconciliation of these epic pronouncements with the Protestant heresy of salvation "by faith alone" is impossible.

As the apostle John said, "And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments" (1 John 2:3).

Let him not be circumcised … is an order applicable to all of every class who become Christians; and it may not be allowed that the practice of this rite, which is essentially racial and religious, could be acceptable under any circumstances in the church for any persons whomsoever. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy has no bearing whatever on this.

Verses 20-21

Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Wast thou called being a bondservant? care not for it: nay, even if thou canst become free, use it rather.

There is nothing in this passage which forbids any man to strive for betterment of conditions in his life; but what is forbidden is any thought that such "better conditions" could denote any higher spiritual condition. A slave could be just as noble and successful a Christian as anyone else. Furthermore, many Christians have destroyed their spiritual lives, or greatly damaged them, by inordinate desire to improve their economic or social status. There is something of what Paul wrote to Timothy in this admonition here: "Godliness with contentment is great gain … having food and covering we shall be therewith content" (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Even if thou canst become free, use it rather … There is an amazing uncertainty among the wisest scholars as to what Paul meant by this, and this is reflected in the various versions.

RSV: If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. (Footnote on last clause: make use of your present condition instead.) the New English Bible (1961): If a chance of liberty should come, take it. (Footnote: But even if a chance of liberty should come, choose rather to make good use of your servitude.)

Practically all scholars agree with Shore that the interpretation given in the footnotes "is most in accordance with the construction of the sentence in the original Greek."(F38) Furthermore, that view is in perfect harmony with the whole thrust of Paul’s paragraph here, as well as with his teaching elsewhere and his invariable practice.

Perhaps, if the circumstances of the slaves at Corinth to whom these words were originally addressed could be known, more light on the true meaning would be available. For example, was Paul addressing the slaves of pagans, or of Christians? If it should be allowed here that Paul advised continuation in servitude, even for one who might have procured his liberty, it would not necessarily follow that such was intended as the will of God for all ages to come. McGarvey believed that Paul meant that "If freedom can be obtained, it is to be preferred";(F39) and if master and slave are both Christians, it should be bestowed, as Paul clearly suggested to Philemon. Thus, there can be no doubt of the repugnance in which the apostle held the whole institution of slavery; but he held that conviction in the caution of a very wise restraint. Although the word EMANCIPATION seemed to be always trembling upon Paul’s lips, he never uttered it. Why?

If one single word could have been quoted in Rome as tending to excite slaves to revolt, it would have quadrupled the intensity and savagery of the imperial government’s hatred and persecution of Christians at a time when persecution was already under way; and that fact could have resulted in Paul’s recommendation here. Furthermore, Lipscomb gave this further analysis:

Nor would the danger of preaching the abolition of slavery be confined to that arising from external violence of Rome against the church; it would have been pregnant with danger to the purity of the church itself. Many would have been led to join a communion which would have aided them in securing their freedom. In these considerations, we find ample reasons for the position of non-interference with slavery which Paul maintained.(F40)

In keeping with such circumstances, Paul only hinted that Philemon should free Onesimus; and here he advised that slaves continue to serve God in their condition of servitude. Lipscomb preferred the rendition of Paul’s words as, "If the Christian slave could be free, he should prefer his condition as a converted slave."(F41)

Before leaving this, it should be noted that the apostolic commandment regarding what was preferable under those peculiar and exceptional circumstances may not be understood as binding at the present time and in far different circumstances.

Verse 22

For he that was called in the Lord being a bondservant, is the Lord’s freedman: likewise he that was called being free, is Christ’s bondservant.

"The man who is a slave is free in Christ, and the man who is free is the servant of Christ."(F42) Thus there is the fulfillment of the principle, "Let the brother of low degree glory in his high estate: and the rich, in that he is made low" (James 1:9-10).

Verse 23

Ye were bought with a price; become not bondservants of men.

Bruce favored the preferred renditions of RSV and New English Bible (1961) in 1 Corinthians 7:21, because, he said, "This interpretation is more in line with the principle of 1 Corinthians 7:23."(F43) However, it is the conviction here that Paul used the word "bondservants" in a different sense here, it being extremely unlikely that anyone would voluntarily have become a bondservant of another. What is meant is that "Christians should not be dragooned by others in the way they should live.(F44) In context (which we do not certainly know), Paul could have meant, "Do not allow yourselves to be made bondservants of those who are agitating the slavery question. You do not belong to them; you belong to Christ, having been purchased by his precious blood."

Verse 24

Brethren, let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God.

This is a pointed recapitulation of the whole paragraph (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

Verse 25

Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be trustworthy.

This is the fifth question answered in this chapter; and, "Apparently, the church at Corinth had asked Paul’s opinion regarding unmarried daughters and the responsibilities of parents in such instances."(F45) This comment is correct as far as it goes; but the duties of guardians as well as those of parents must be included; and sons as well as daughters were also included by the term "virgins" as used here.

Virgins … Wesley said this means "of either sex."(F46) Barclay’s objection that "It is hard to see why Paul used the word VIRGIN if he meant DAUGHTER"(F47) is refuted by the fact that Paul did not mean daughter, but unmarried young people of both sexes. As Adam Clarke noted, "The word in this place means young unmarried persons of either sex, as is plain from 1 Corinthians 7:26-27; 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, and from Revelation 14:4."(F48) The fact that the word VIRGIN has a different meaning in our day does not alter its evident meaning in this place.

I have no commandment of the Lord … is not a disclaimer of inspiration on Paul’s part at all; it is a statement that the Lord during his ministry did not make a specific pronouncement upon this subject. The meaning is like that in 1 Corinthians 7:12, above; Paul made a distinction between words that Jesus delivered during his ministry and his own inspired teachings, doing so, no doubt, out of respect to the Lord, but with no sense of diminishing the authority of his own inspired teachings. As Morris said:

Moffatt points out that Paul’s careful discrimination between a saying of the Lord and his own injunction tells strongly against those who maintain that the early church was in the habit of producing the sayings it needed and then ascribing them to Christ.(F49)

As one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be trustworthy … In context, this is a full affirmation of Paul’s apostolic power and authority, added to prevent any misunderstanding of the fact that the Lord had not personally legislated on this question.

Verse 26

I think therefore that this is good by reason of the distress that is upon us, namely, that it is good for a man to be as he is.

That the meaning of "virgins" in 1 Corinthians 7:25 includes both sexes is implicit in the specific mention of "men" here. As Macknight said, "Paul declared, beginning with the case of the male virgin, that it was good in the present distress to remain unmarried."(F50) Here again, as in verse 1, "good" denotes not what was commanded but what was advisable.

Verse 27

Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.

The present distress … mentioned in the previous verse looms ominously in the background of these remarks. History has not revealed the nature of the awful persecution inflicted upon the Christians at this particular point, but it should be remembered that both Jewish and Gentile enemies of the faith would have seized any opportunity to exterminate, if possible, the Christian religion. The situation at Corinth was probably a local outburst of the persecutions which became more general at a later date. In any case, it may not be denied that some terrible onslaught against the faith of Christ was under way in Corinth at this very time. It was simply no favorable time for any man to be seeking to alter his marital status.

Verse 28

But shouldest thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Yet such shall have tribulation in the flesh: and I would spare you.

Regardless of the practical wisdom against it, Paul still allowed that marriage was honorable and that those entering such a state did not sin.

If a virgin marry … This refers to virgin daughters, making it clear that BOTH sexes are in view here, men having been mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:26.

Tribulation in the flesh … is a reference to the sufferings and deprivations invariably associated with persecutions in the first century. Such tribulations would be far more severe upon the married than upon the unmarried.

Verses 29-30

But this I say, brethren, the time is shortened, that henceforth both those that have wives may be as though they had none; and those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice as though they rejoiced not; and those that buy as though they possessed not.

This affectionate warning was given in the light of the transience of life, man’s span upon the earth being indeed "shortened" as compared with the longevity of the patriarchs. All earthly pursuits should be made and all obligations and conditions considered in the light of the tragic fact that "Upon my day of life the night is falling!"

"Let us not for one moment think that this principle was evolved by Paul from a mistaken belief that the Second Advent was close at hand."(F51) There is not the slightest hint in this passage of Christ’s second coming, except in the general sense of its being always proper for Christians to live as expecting it and being prepared for it. The time of Christ’s return was one point upon which Jesus declared that the apostles could not be informed; and it was the only point upon which they were not informed. It is a weariness to read the carpings of the exegetes always prating about how the apostles and the early church were mistaken about this. All of them with even elementary knowledge of what Jesus taught knew that the time of the Second Coming had not been revealed, not even to the Son of God (Matthew 24:36); and the various apostolic exhortations with respect to "expecting" it were given in the light of that knowledge. Instead of a conceited glorying in their so-called "mistake" on such exhortations, it would be far better for Christians today to take the same attitude as the apostles and pray, "Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 21:20), such words having exactly the same meaning for us as they had for the apostles who uttered them, and in neither case being any kind of "mistake"!

Verse 31

And those that use the world, as not using it to the full: for the fashion of this world passeth away.

This really belongs with the two previous verses, being a part of the same exhortation to prudence in view of the transcience of earthly existence and the swift changes that accompany our mortality.

Verse 32

But I would have you to be free from cares. He that is unmarried is careful for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord.

This was the basis of Paul’s recommendation of the single status for those whose self-restraint made it possible, the unencumbered being able more wholeheartedly to serve the interests of true religion than those pressed down with cares and obligations.

Verse 33

But he that is married is careful for the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and is divided.

Paul did not condemn man’s efforts in the secular sphere, but was pointing out the preemption of time and efforts required in the support of a wife and family, such a division of the Christian’s energies being inherent in such a thing as marriage. All of this was said as persuasion to induce any who could to avoid marriage during that "present distress."

Verse 34

So also the woman that is unmarried and the virgin is careful for the things of the Lord, that he may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married is careful for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

This verse properly begins with "is divided," which was included with verse 33 above. The teaching here is the same as there, except that it would appear that Paul, in the word "unmarried," included widows along with virgin daughters as subjects of the same advice. However, Macknight very probably has the true meaning in his rendition of this verse thus:

There is difference also between a wife and a virgin: the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit: but she that is married careth for things of the world, how she may please her husband.(F52)

Also, note that the antecedent of the masculine pronoun here is "virgin."

Verse 35

And this I say for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is seemly, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.

Paul’s personal preference for celibacy on the part of persons who were capable of it, and in certain circumstances, for more complete dedication, has always appealed to some in every age; and it is not right to depreciate such behavior. Shore pointed out that England’s Queen Elizabeth I was one who made exactly the choice Paul recommended in these verses, although for a different purpose, and yet a high purpose.

Elizabeth I declared that England was her husband and all Englishmen her children, and that she desired no higher character or fairer remembrance of her to be transmitted to posterity than this inscription engraved upon her tombstone: "Here lies Elizabeth, who lived and died a maiden queen.(F53)

Verses 36-37

But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter, if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry.

The RSV has butchered this text in the most deplorable and high-handed mistranslation of it that could possibly be imagined.

If any man … was used by Paul here for the purpose of including guardians of young women of marriageable age as well as parents; and to make "any man" in this passage refer to any man shacked up in some kind of platonic partnership with a member of the opposite sex is nothing but a shameful rape of this passage. As Foy E. Wallace noted, "They made the virgin daughter in this place the girlfriend of another man to whom the virgin was betrothed, advising him to be free in his behavior."(F54) Wallace caught the spirit of the RSV exactly in his words: "The passage is perverted to allow sexual satisfaction `if his passions are strong,’ and `to do what he will,’ and `he does not sin’ in such pre-marital relations."(F55)

Dummelow affirmed unequivocally that "any man" in the above passage means "any parent or guardian."(F56) There is no way to understand this passage except in the light of the customs of the day, "And the father (or guardian) had control of the arrangements for his daughter’s marriage."(F57) The kind of situation assumed to have been the object of Paul’s remarks (as in the RSV and New English Bible (1961)) was absolutely impossible in the first century. No father or guardian would have allowed such an arrangement (as that supposed) under any threat or circumstance whatever. Therefore, with the utmost confidence, the perversion of this place by some of the new translations and even by the RSV is condemned as being sinful, incorrect, and even blasphemous. It was not some passionate suitor Paul had in mind, but the daughter’s father; because, as F. F. Bruce said, "The word rendered GIVETH IN MARRIAGE twice in 1 Corinthians 7:38 (English Revised Version (1885)) is normally used of a father’s giving his daughter in marriage."(F58) "The then universal custom of Jews, Greeks and Romans (was) that the father or guardian disposed of the daughter’s hand (in marriage)."(F59)

If she be past the flower of her age … and need so requireth … Any denial of marriage to an aging daughter would indeed seem unseemly to a loving parent, who should feel no sense of sin in giving his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Let them marry … This was the injunction to parents and guardians, and it has no reference at all to some passionate suitor shacked up with his girlfriend.

Let him do what he will … he sinneth not … This means allow the parents or guardians in such cases to do what they believe is best; no sin is involved in contracting marriages, despite all that Paul had said about celibacy.

Verse 37

But he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power as touching his own will, and hath determined this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, shall do well.

To keep his own virgin daughter … here is the opposite of "giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage" in the next verse, absolutely requiring the sense in 1 Corinthians 7:37 to be that of not giving her in marriage, making it absolutely certain that the problem of whether or not to give daughters in marriage was the problem Paul was discussing in this passage. The sense of this verse is that a Christian parent or guardian fully determined to withhold his daughter’s hand in marriage might do so without sin, and might even be commended for it.

Verse 38

So then both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage does well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better.

Either solution of the problem on the part of parents and guardians was acceptable; but, as throughout this chapter, due to the present distress, Paul still recommended (although he did not command) not to give the daughter’s hand in marriage.

Verses 39-40

A wife is bound for so long a time as her husband liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is free to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. But she is happier if she abide as she is, after my judgment: and I think that I have the Spirit of God.

This was the sixth question Paul answered in this chapter; and the answer to this one was easy. Yes, widows might indeed marry again, but "only in the Lord." It was never intended that Christians marry unbelievers, as Paul spelled out more fully in 2 Corinthians 6:14 ff. It is a rare and exceptional thing indeed that mixed marriages between Christians and unbelievers can produce anything but sorrow. As Barclay said:

One thing it must be, Paul laid down here; it must be a marriage in the Lord … Long, long ago, Plutarch, the wise old Greek, laid it down that "marriage cannot be happy unless husband and wife are of the same religion.(F60)

I think that I have the Spirit of God … This is not the expression of any uncertainty but the polite insistence of Paul that his words in this chapter and throughout his writings were inspired by God’s Spirit. The judgment of the church through the ages concurs in this. As Wesley said:

Whoever would conclude from this that Paul was not certain he had the Holy Spirit neither understands the true import of the words, nor considers how expressly he lays claim to the Spirit, both in this epistle (1 Corinthians 2:16; 1 Corinthians 14:37) and the other (2 Corinthians 13:3).(F61)

Wesley also thought that the words "I think," as used by Paul here and elsewhere, "ALWAYS imply the fullest and strongest assurance."(F62) Leon Morris, one of the MORE able scholars, also believed this. He wrote:

There is nothing tentative about the authority with which Paul speaks. He has throughout this discussion made it clear when he is quoting Christ and when he is not. Now he gives his firm opinion that in what he says he has the Spirit of God. He is conscious of the divine enablement. What he says is more than the opinion merely of a private individual.(F63)

See the note on 1 Corinthians 7:15:

The view that desertion of a Christian partner by an unbeliever is also presumptive proof of adultery is actually irrelevant to the meaning of this passage. The exception granted by the apostle Paul is grounded upon the fact, not of adultery, but of DESERTION by an unbelieving partner. The authority of this lies in the plenary authority of the blessed apostle, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, making this therefore to be an additional exception given by Christ himself THROUGH the apostle Paul. Any other view of the apostolic writings is absolutely untenable. It is our view that God, through the Holy Spirit, is the author of ALL the New Testament.

Furthermore, we do not believe that any man or any group of men is endowed with authority to set aside or countermand any declaration in the sacred text upon the basis of their interpretations of related passages. What Paul said, STANDS. Let people keep their hands off of it!

Also, there is no conflict between Paul’s word here and Matthew 19:9. There is a covenant relationship there which is NOT in this situation. Paul and Jesus were speaking of two utterly different situations.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-corinthians-7.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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