First Corinthians 7--Being Married in Times of Distress, Part 1
Apr 15, 2017
Being married binds together a husband and wife. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:39, “a wife is bound as long as her husband lives.” This is not bondage as such, but it does indicate certain obligations and limitations. Any time a vow is taken, including a marriage vow, people obligate themselves to fulfill the vow. So Paul’s letter deals with various forms of bondage—first the bondage that circumcision and the Old Covenant impose upon men, then the bonds of slavery to men and to Christ, and now finally the bonds of matrimony.
1 Corinthians 7:25, 26 says,
25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. 26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a [single] man to remain as he is.
Here Paul expresses an opinion, not a law. He understood that God had instituted marriage from the beginning, and that there was no law forbidding marriage. His opinion was “in view of the present distress.” The Greek term translated “distress” is anagke, meaning “necessity, imposed either by the external conditions of things or by the duty of law.” The word is used in other literature to mean “calamity, distress, or straits.”
Since Paul made it clear that he was not talking about the constraints of the law, he obviously was referring to external conditions in his day. During times of calamity or persecution, ungodly men often torture believers’ wives and children unless they renounce Christ. So being married can present problems and even great heartaches. Such distressful situations did indeed occur in the early church.
So in regard to the bonds of marriage, Paul gave the same counsel that he gave to those who were considering circumcision and to slaves. Whether married or single, do not seek to change your status. 1 Corinthians 7:27, 28 says,
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned…
Paul addresses those who are married, telling them not to “be released” from the bond of marriage. In other words, if you have become a believer, do not use that as an excuse to divorce an unbelieving spouse. In fact, do not seek divorce at all. But if you are “released from a wife” (i.e., divorced or widowed), “do not seek a wife, but if you should marry, you have not sinned.”
Here Paul was speaking to those who were widowed and divorced. He affirms the right of remarriage, as established in the law (Deuteronomy 24:2 KJV), though he does not recommend it on “in view of the present distress.” That Paul was referring to those previously married, including those who were divorced, is made clear by the fact that he next addresses those who have never been married: “and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned.”
So Paul states categorically that it is not a sin for anyone to marry or to remarry. In fact, he specifically condemns those in the future who would forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3). His counsel to remain single is based fully upon external circumstances.
Signs of Christ’s Coming
In 1 Corinthians 7:28, 29, Paul continues,
28 … Yet such will have trouble [tlipsis, "tribulation"] in this life, and I am trying to spare you. 29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.
It appears that Paul thought that the coming of Christ was drawing near. He and the other apostles were not told the timing of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36; Acts 1:6, 7). They were given only the signs that would precede His coming. Matthew had recorded many of those signs in his gospel, and there is no doubt that Paul had a copy of this. Though some insist that the Gospel of Matthew was written about 85 A.D. by someone other than Matthew, I believe that it was the first gospel written (about 40 A.D.), and that it was the primary gospel used in the Jerusalem church.
In 1 Corinthians 7:29 Paul quoted from Matthew 24:22,
22 And unless those days had been cut short [koloboo, “shortened, abridged”], no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, those days shall be cut short [koloboo].
When Paul says “the time has been shortened,” he uses a different word with a similar meaning (systello, “to draw together, contract, shorten, abridge”). But there is no doubt that he was referring to the “distress” and “tribulation” that was soon to come upon Jerusalem, as Jesus had described in great detail in Matthew 24.
Paul counsels the Corinthian believers not to become attached to things in this world. This is the meaning of Paul’s expression: “from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.” Paul was expecting a soon-coming calamity to befall not only Jerusalem, but also the entire Roman Empire, including the city of Corinth. After all, the return of Christ was to affect the entire world, not just Jerusalem. Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 7:30, 31,
30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
These are all expressions of detachment from the things of the world. Paul was saying that when Christ comes, “the form of this world” was to pass away in favor of something much greater. So he counseled them to treat their possessions in life as temporary things that would soon pass away. The word translated “form” is schema, “external condition, habitus, as comprising everything in a person which strikes the senses, the figure, bearing, discourse, actions, manner of life, etc.”
Paul was expecting great changes to take place in the earth, changes which would also affect the marriage relationship itself—at least, insofar as believers were concerned. His view came from Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 24, and so there is no doubt that Paul fully expected Jerusalem to be destroyed in the near future. Matthew 24:15, 16 specifically applies this time of distress to Judea and to the temple in Jerusalem.
This destruction was to be a time of tribulation (Matthew 24:21, 29) and a time of war (Matthew 24:6, 7), a time of lawlessness (Matthew 24:12) and false messiahs (Matthew 24:24). It was to be comparable to the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37), not only by its lawlessness, but also because of the flood that would deal with this problem (Matthew 24:39).
All of this formed the backdrop for Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians, because it defines “the present distress” that Paul expected shortly. He also understood that those days would come sooner, rather than later, because of the shortening of the days.
Of course, we know now that the war and destruction of Jerusalem and Judea was to occur just a few years later from 66-73 A.D. Paul lived to see the start of this war, for he was not martyred until 67 A.D., as I show in my book, Lessons from Church History, Vol. 1, chapter 23.
Paul also did not know that the destruction of Jerusalem at that time was to be repeated in our time. This time Jeremiah 19:10, 11 will be fulfilled, where the city is broken so completely that it “cannot again be repaired.” It was too soon for him to know that the cursed fig tree was to come to life in 1948 so that it could be destroyed again. Jesus’ words were too obscure to understand in the first century.
But Paul was giving his opinion, based on his understanding of Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem. Certainly, those living in Jerusalem at the time of its destruction might have been wise to remain detached from their possessions, for unless they moved away ahead of time, they were certain to lose most of what they owned.
We know from history, however, that the Jerusalem church did indeed move to Pella across the Jordan River in 68 or 69 A.D. during a lull in the war. Nero died in June of 68 A.D., and Vespasian, the general in charge of the war, had to wait for a new emperor to decide what to do about the situation. Various power struggles ensued until finally, Vespasian himself was proclaimed emperor toward the end of 69 A.D. He then returned to Rome to take the reins of government, leaving his son Titus to finish the war.
By this time the Jerusalem church had evacuated the city, as Eusebius, the fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea tells us in his book, Ecclesiastical History, III, 5. He says that “before the war began… to Pella, those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem.”
The question for us today is how Paul’s counsel might apply in today’s situation. With the coming destruction of Jerusalem again approaching, it appears that believers should again take heed to Jesus’ warning as well as to Paul’s counsel. Those living in Judea (now known as Israel) ought to follow the example of the early church and leave the country while there is still time for an orderly evacuation.
If people decide to stay, thinking that God will save the day at the last minute (as many thought also in the first century), then they should follow Paul’s counsel and remain detached from their possessions and manner of life, most of which will pass away in the conflagration. It will be very important in that day to be led by the Spirit and to remember Jesus’ warning, even as the early church remembered it when they escaped to Pella. Understanding prophecy could well mean the difference between life and death in that day.
Yet above all, we should view this time of tribulation as a sign of Christ’s return, when great changes will take place worldwide and the Kingdom of God replaces the beast systems.
This is part 32 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.