Recently I have been teaching the book of First Corinthians in our adult Bible class at church. The seventh chapter contains Paul’s responses to various questions raised by the Corinthians regarding marriage, divorce, remarriage, and celibacy. Paul’s general recommendation is that in view of a crisis the Corinthians were facing – something he calls “the present distress” (v. 26) – that it is better to remain unmarried if a person is able to live in celibacy. But he also assures the Corinthians that if a person is not blessed with this capacity that marriage is not a sin.
In the midst of this chapter, Paul issues a shocking set of instructions:
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 7:29-31).
I say “shocking” because, taken at face value, each of these admonitions contradicts things Paul says in other places. Marriage is good (1 Timothy 4:3-5), rejoicing and weeping with each other are mutual obligations (Romans 12:15),and honest business dealings are part of providing for one’s family (1 Timothy 5:8). So if these commands are not to be taken literally, what do they mean?
Paul cues us in by the phrases at the beginning and end of this passage. “The appointed time has grown very short” (“the time has been shortened” NASB), and “the present form of this world is passing away.” What does Paul mean by these statements? Did Paul believe that the end was about to take place? No. As Richard Oster points out,
Even though the time was short, Paul continued to talk to the Corinthians about his own future plans to visit them (4:19; 11:34; 16:5-8) and the need for them to make and execute plans for a donation to aid in relief work among churches in Judea (1 Cor 16:1-4; cf. 2 Cor 8-9), plans whose consummation was two or three years in the future (1 Corinthians p. 180).
What then does Paul mean when he says that “the time has been shortened”? In the framework of the Old Testament, history had an objective – the coming of the Messiah and the restitution of all things. When the Messiah came, the evils and injustices of this age would be made right in the age to come, and even death itself would be undone by the resurrection from the dead. But in a surprising twist, God did not send the Messiah at the end of history but in the middle of history, and – even more astonishing – permitted the Messiah to suffer and die, and then raised him from the dead.
What this means is that the blessings of the age to come have broken into the present age. Christ’s death and resurrection mean that God has already inaugurated the restitution of all things, though this will not be final until the second coming. Notice Paul’s description of this process in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
So the coming of the Messiah has launched the age to come. His resurrection in time is the firstfruits, the downpayment, of the general resurrection at the end of time. And what this means in practical terms is that we live in the tension of the blessings of the age to come that are already available, while looking forward to the final consummation of all things that has not yet occurred (theologians like to call this the already/not yet – theologians are very creative!).
Turning our attention back to 7:29-31, when Paul says that the “time has been shortened,” he is not making a quantitative statement about time (“there isn’t much time left”), but rather, he is making a qualitative statement about time (“we live in a new era”). In other words, the coming of Christ should have a profound effect on how we look at time, and how we prioritize our lives in view of this new reality. “Paul is not concerned about the duration of time…but the character of the time. He is talking not about how little time is left but about how Christ’s death and resurrection have changed how Christians should look at the time that is left” (David Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians, pp. 328-329).
Similarly, when Paul says that “the present form of the world is passing away” in 7:31, what he means is that the coming of Christ has set in motion the events that will reach their climax in the new heaven and earth, meaning that the present world’s days are numbered. The things of this world are therefore temporary.
To put it all together, what Paul is saying in 7:29-31 is that Christians must evaluate all worldy concerns in light of the new age in which we live and the final destiny that awaits us as God’s people. So we feel sorrow and joy, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We work to make money, but as those who know life is a vapor and what matters most is the will of God (James 4:13-16). And – most especially relevant to 1 Corinthians 7 – we marry (or remain single), knowing that as great a blessing as marriage is, eternity will be a greater glory, in which “in the resurrection [we] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
Someone might imagine that prioritizing God’s kingdom and our future glory over marriage would make husbands and wives less loving and responsive to each other. But the opposite is the case. When we look at marriage as the pinnacle of all of human experience, we place a burden on our spouse that they are unable to bear. There’s an old Bryan Adams song called Heaven (!) that says:
And baby, you’re all that I want
When you’re lyin’ here in my arms
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
We’re in heaven
And love is all that I need
And I found it there in your heart
It isn’t too hard to see
We’re in heaven
Sounds great – until his lover makes a mistake, or fails to satisfy some need! By looking at his lover as someone who can do only what God can do – provide the eternally satisfying love of heaven – the person in this song is placing crushing and unreasonable expectations on a mere mortal, and no relationship can withstand that kind of pressure.
But when we look at marriage as the means to an even greater end, eternity with God, then we do not hold our spouse to unreasonable and superhuman expectations. Instead, we realize that we are here to serve and glorify God, that marriage is a wonderful context in which to learn what Christlikeness is all about, but that there is a greater reality that awaits us and that we can help one another reach.
Several years ago one of our members here where I preach was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Normally, this is a grave diagnosis – most people don’t survive but a couple of years. Upon learning this, John and his family adopted the motto, “We shall be grateful for the gift of time.” Whatever quantity of time John would have left, it would be reshaped by the quality of gratitude. As it turns out, John lived almost 15 years, years filled with thanksgiving. What Paul is saying here in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 is that we must look at the affairs of this world – especially marriage – in light of the qualities of the new age. And paradoxically, living with a view toward the world to come will make us better husbands and wives in the here and now. That is the blessing of marriage from here to eternity.