Bible GenevaThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 7:17-19

Live as You Are Called

17 Only let each person lead the life[a] that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

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Last week’s verses were Paul’s guidelines for marriage, including between a Christian and a non-Christian.

We now begin looking at Paul’s advice to Jews and Gentiles who have converted to Christianity. The Jewish men were circumcised. The Gentile men were not.

Paul begins by saying that he has a rule for all the churches: God has called us to a certain place in life and we do not need to worry about that when we become Christians (verse 17). Following Christ is about spiritual renewal and our relationship with Him as individuals.

Matthew Henry’s commentary states (emphases mine):

As the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. Whatever his circumstances or condition was when he was converted to Christianity, let him abide therein, and suit his conversation to it. The rules of Christianity reach every condition. And in every state a man may live so as to be a credit to it. Note, It is the duty of every Christian to suit his behaviour to his condition and the rules of religion, to be content with his lot, and conduct himself in his rank and place as becomes a Christian. The apostle adds that this was a general rule, to be observed at all times and in all places; So ordain I in all churches.

In Paul’s time, the Church was made up of Jews and Gentiles alike. For the men, Paul said that the Jews, ‘already circumcised’, did not need to worry that they were. Similarly, a Gentile man did not need to think he had to become circumcised (verse 18).

God and His Son know our starting points in this life along the Christian journey. What matters is not where we’ve come from but where we are going.

John MacArthur says that Paul brought circumcision into the picture because there were social effects at that time for Jewish men who converted to Christianity:

A Jew comes to Christ; he gets saved. Who would be the most likely person that he then could lead to Christ? Another Jew, right? And somebody in his own family. So, if a Jew comes to Christ, and immediately renounces his Judaism … and totally identify with the Gentile culture, what are his Jewish friends going to say? They’re going to call him a what? Blasphemer, an apostate who isn’t fit for heaven … And he would immediately alienate himself from the harvest field that he is most capable of reaping in. You see?

So, Paul says, “Don’t do that.”

MacArthur contrasts the views then with those of our time, where a more relaxed view about Jewish conversions to Christianity prevails:

They get saved, and they don’t reject their Jewishness. They hold onto their Jewishness, and this gives them accessibility back into the Jewish community, doesn’t it? They have an open door maybe to friends and family when they maintain something of the belief and the love of the Jewish heritage, even though they have seen it fulfilled in Messiah, there’s no reason to assume that they have to deny all of that heritage. To deny it and become a Gentile would alienate them from the harvest field that God would give them the most fruit in.

I think that might be more true in North America than it is in Europe. I’m not sure European Jews converting to Christianity would still be warmly received by their own families and circle of friends. However, I could be mistaken. We have very actively Jewish communities in Britain, especially among the younger generations. I live in one such neighbourhood.

As for the situation with Gentile men converting in Corinth, perhaps Paul saw the possibility that some of the Jewish converts were Judaizers trying to convince the Gentiles to get circumcised: entering the New Covenant through the Old Covenant.

MacArthur says:

Some Gentiles came to Christ. And what would the Jews say? “Oh, it’s so nice that you’ve come to Christ. But listen, if you want to get in on the really great stuff in the kingdom, you got to have this operation.”

In addition, a Gentile man’s circumcision would have alienated him from his family and friends:

The Gentiles looked down on the circumcision and the Jews as a despised people. They really believed that the Jews were a low-class, despised people. Now, to identify with the Jews, then, would have alienated a Gentile from – what? – from all his people. And, you see, then he would have alienated himself from the harvest field that God had designed him to reach. Do you see the point? God says, “Just stay where you are; that’s where I have your for the reason that I have you there, to reach those people. Don’t worry about your social status. It doesn’t matter.”

For those reasons, Paul said that circumcision doesn’t count but obeying God’s commandments through Jesus does (verse 19).

Both the Old and the New Testaments are full of stories of disobedient Jews, all of whom, since Abraham, were circumcised. In the New Testament, the culprits were the Sanhedrin, who, with the help of the Romans, eventually ensured that Jesus died on the Cross. The Sanhedrin perversely hounded our Lord from the beginning of His ministry until the very end.

As Henry points out:

External observances without internal piety are as nothing.

MacArthur says:

The only issue is a moral issue, a spiritual issue, not an external.

The bigger issues — which still resonate today — come in next week’s reading, which is why I selected these verses to discuss separately.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 7:20-24