There are advantages in being single in certain situations just as there are advantages in being married in other situations. One who is engaged may have questions in light of that which has been said, particularly if that individual finds himself/herself in circumstances that might fall under the heading "present distress."
God also has a word for the engaged in times of distress; those who are engaged, despite the advantage of being single, should follow through with their commitment to marry.
Moreover, God has a word for the released from marriage in times of distress; those who are released for whatever the reason, should take advantage of that release.
In v. 27, Paul asks and answers two questions. "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife." We take Paul to be referring to a man betrothed to be married for at least four reasons. First, the immediate context suggests that Paul is still speaking to virgin men (v. 25-26). Second, unless he was predisposed to being an ascetic, one would hardly imagine a married man being a virgin, though, this practice became popular in the Christian church in the second and third centuries, possibly as a misinterpretation and/or misapplication of this text. Third, Paul has already addressed issues concerning commitment to marriage vs. divorce and/or separation. Fourth, the historical context suggests such an interpretation. Marriages were frequently arranged with long betrothal periods, that is, men were bound to women by way of arrangement for some time in many cases. In light of Paul's comments in vv. 17-24, no doubt some in the church had questions regarding their betrothal status. Paul's advice here is extremely practical; don't seek to change your status. If you are betrothed, then do not seek to break your commitment. If you are not betrothed, do not seek to be such. In times of distress, application may be made to those who are engaged or even courting.
The second thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles will be spared from troubles related to marriage. In v. 28, Paul reveals his personal preference that persons remain single if they are able. At the same time, he does not condemn marriage. God has ordained that happy estate as holy. Thus, Paul says, "but if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet, such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you." Paul is simply concerned with the difficulties that arise in marriage that may prove to be extremely difficult in view of the present distress. Moreover, he desires to spare the Corinthians from unnecessary heart-ache. If part of the distress to which Paul refers happens to be persecution, one's worry and trouble are only compounded if a loved one is the object of that persecution. To see a spouse hurt or killed is indeed an issue of deep distress. One would be better off to remain single. But, if he chooses to marry, he has not sinned.
The third thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles are disconnected from the cares of this world. In vv. 29-31, Paul gives a general admonition as to how believers should view their circumstances and the world in which they live. His point in these three verses is singular: Christians should not cling too tightly to this world. He says, "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; 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; 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." Three parts of Paul's thought may be highlighted here.
First, he says the time has been shortened. He refers to the brevity of this life and the fact that in times of distress, the life that is already brief may be even more brief through martyrdom. Of course, application may be made to those whose lives are shortened due to illness as illness is the result of living in a world corrupted by sin. We are to live with a primary focus on the Lord God.
Second, because this life is brief, those who have wives should not get too attached to them. That does not mean that we should not be devoted to our wives or love them as Christ loved the church. Nor does it mean we don't grieve if harm befalls them. Scripture does not contradict Scripture. Rather, it means that we cannot be devastated by the brevity of this life. That may mean losing a spouse for one reason or another. Of course, Paul is simply and generally illustrating the point that as Christians, we are simply passing through this world. It is not our home. We must be devoted to our wives on the one hand, but, on the other, we must serve the Lord first and be aware of the fact that life is short. Therefore, some Christians may want to think twice before marrying. We are to live with a knowledge that this life is fleeting.
Paul's point in regard to weeping, rejoicing, buying, and using the world is the same as above. Mourning and rejoicing over things in this life are temporary. The materials we accumulate will burn up one day. We should live to God's glory with our focus on Him being content in all circumstances. We should not get too reliant upon the things of this world. Our reliance should be upon Christ. We are to live with recognition that we are merely sojourners.
Third, the world itself is passing away. We are to live with a sense that the world is temporary. Moreover, those relationships we establish in marriage, will lose their distinctiveness in eternity as those in Christ will be brothers and sisters. Those who put great hope in drawing comfort from sharing a marriage type of relationship with their spouses for eternity deceive themselves and dishonor the Lord at the same time. Our joy is in Christ both now and forever. Do we derive joy from our spouses? Certainly! Will we know our believing spouses in eternity? Definitely! But, from whence will our satisfaction come? Christ!
The fourth thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles are free from concerns that go with marriage. In v. 32, Paul simply reiterates his concern. "but I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about he things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord." In one sense, those who are married have greater and/or more concerns than those who are single. They are not able, nor are thy permitted by the Lord, to fail in their responsibilities toward their spouses. Those who are married please the Lord by being good spouses. They seek the Lord in that regard. Yet, in another sense, one who is single may have a singular devotion to the Lord that a married person may not have. Paul, without affirming an ascetic position, nevertheless, desires that persons be free to maintain singular devotion to the Lord without the encumbrances that naturally and providentially come by way of marriage.
In v. 33, Paul simply states what is implied in v. 32. "But one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife." Paul here does not imply that a man who is concerned as to how he may please his wife is in sin. In other places he is admonished to be concerned of such. The phrase "things of the world" in this context does not refer to that which is sinful. It refers to those things which pertain to this life. They are wholesome and good. Yet, they are passing away. Paul's point is that husbands must be concerned about how to please their wives. Only those who are single can be free of those commands and indeed encumbrances.
The fifth thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles are not undivided in their interests and commitment. By way of summary, Those who are married are committed to the Lord, and rightly so. Those who are married are committed to their spouses, and rightly so. Those who are single are committed to the Lord only, and rightly so. In v. 34, Paul explains his point. "And his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband."
First, he explains that the husband has divided interests in that part of his godly focus is upon his wife. He is not free to spend indiscriminate time in the service of the Lord outside of the context of his family.
Second, Paul makes the same point in regard to women and repeats the same language he used of the husband.
Third, here we also see a distinction between the unmarried and the virgin (never married, it goes without saying, never involved in sexual relations).
Fourth, one phrase is added, "that she may be holy both in body and spirit." Paul does not mean that one who is married and therefore has sexual relations is somehow less pure than the virgin or the unmarried. The word holy literally means set apart. It can refer to that which is dedicated to the Lord, that which is set apart by the Lord, the righteousness that comes from the Lord, etc. Context determines the exact usage of the word. In this context, we may translate, "that she may be devoted singularly to the Lord without the encumbrances of marriage. She may give her body and spirit to the Lord in an undivided sense. If she is married, she must also give her body and spirit to her husband."
The sixth thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles can maintain a singular devotion to the Lord. Back in v. 32, we learned that singles may have a devotion to the Lord that is well-pleasing. Here we learn that their devotion to the Lord is undistracted.
In v. 35, Paul repeats by way of summation and conclusion. "I say this for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord." Paul loved the Corinthians. He wanted them to have an easier time in this difficult and brief life. He did not seek to restrain the Corinthians from things which would give them joy. He did not impose a command upon them. He simply desired to call Christians to follow through with their commitments and, at the same time, make commitments with the careful and due process of prayer and reflection upon the Lord and the circumstances of this life. He wanted as many as possible to maintain a single and undistracted (albeit a godly distraction), devotion to the Lord.
[Part V Tomorrow]
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