Bible treehuggercomThe 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 7:25-28

The Unmarried and the Widowed

25 Now concerning[a] the betrothed,[b] I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present[c] distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman[d] marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s instruction not to worry about one’s social status with regard to Christianity. The verses before that said that Christian men should not worry about whether they are circumcised.

In today’s verses, Paul says that we should not worry whether we are married.

In other words, the Lord knows our status in life and loves us just the way we are.

The word ‘betrothed’ in verses 25 and 28 does not mean ‘engaged to be married’. It means ‘virgin women’, as illustrated by the same verses from the King James Version:

25 Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.

26 I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.

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

28 But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to questions that people from that congregation asked him. Marriage was one of them.

John MacArthur explains why (emphases mine):

The Corinthians were asking questions, according to verse 1 of chapter 7, “Concerning the things about which you wrote,” Paul is replying to direct questions they were asking. And the question he’s answering here is should they get married; is it better to be single, to serve God with a devoted heart and a single mind, or is it necessary to get married like the Jewish traditionalists were saying, in order to fulfill the will of God?

The Jews said you had to be married or you would violate God’s command to replenish the earth. And the Gentiles, coming out of a philosophical asceticism would say it’s better to be single, and you can devote yourself totally to God. Paul is saying both are good. Some have the gift of singleness, and if they do, that’s good. Some do not have the gift of singleness, and it’s better for them to marry, and that’s good, too.

In verse 25, Paul says that Jesus said nothing about virgins. Paul goes on to say that, in his considered judgement — one that ‘by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy’ — it is better to remain in the state in which one is (verse 26).

Paul mentions ‘distress’ (verse 26), which Matthew Henry says means persecution:

Christians, at the first planting of their religion, were grievously persecuted. Their enemies were very bitter against them, and treated them very cruelly. They were continually liable to be tossed and hurried by persecution. This being the then state of things, he did not think it so advisable for Christians that were single to change conditions. The married state would bring more care and cumber along with it (1 Corinthians 15:33, 1 Corinthians 15:34), and would therefore make persecution more terrible, and render them less able to bear it. Note, Christians, in regulating their conduct, should not barely consider what is lawful in itself, but what may be expedient for them.

Similarly, Paul said that the Corinthians who were married should not seek to separate from their spouses nor should those without spouses feel an obligation to get married (verse 27).

Paul went on to say that getting married is not sinful, although being married brings problems of its own (verse 28).

Personally, I do not find being married troublesome, but some married people do have problems and wish they were single again.

However, looking at this with regard to the Corinthians, the dangers of persecution would be magnified in a family situation.

MacArthur explains, looking at Paul’s own experiences preaching the Good News:

Now, Paul is speaking of the violence and the distress and the pain and the suffering that can come to anyone who confesses Christ. “It is difficult to be a Christian,” Paul is saying, “and it is especially difficult to be a married Christian because of the distress and the violence of the system.”

Now, Paul had had many experiences that would help us to understand this. Paul would go into a town, and they would beat him. He would go into another town, and they would stone him. He would go into another town, and they would give him stripes with a whip. He would go into another town, and they would put him in jail. On and on and on through the man’s life, there was pain and suffering, pain and suffering.

Now, can you imagine the intensity with which that problem would be magnified if the apostle Paul had had a dear wife at home and a group of little apostles running around the house? Well, that would have been much more complicated, and everything that Paul endured, he would have had in the back of his mind, “But if it happens to me, then who takes care of my wife? And who takes care of my children? And how can I keep doing this while my wife sits home in fear and the constant edge of heartbreak, and my children in fear that their father will never return? I must be home, taking care of them, and nurturing them, and raising them; that’s my primary obligation.”

Do you see, in the violence of the world in which Paul lived, marriage was a terrible encumbrance to somebody who was a Christian, at least in the sense of the ministry that he had. The Corinthian Christians could well remember what the Corinthian Jews had tried to do to Paul the very time he came to their city.

Now, Paul is saying because of the – notice this – the present or the immediate violence, Paul is anticipating something here. There is a violence that is going to come when the wholesale pagan persecution breaks out, and Paul could see it coming. He knew that a girl married, a guy married and raising children, might suffer the heartbreaking losses that can only come to those who have a family when the persecution broke out. He knew from his own life, as I said, that it was good that no wife and no children needed to weep and live with broken, fearful hearts every time he went somewhere. Hard times were coming to the Church, and Paul was aware of it. Change in the pagan attitude toward Christians was in the wind.

The Roman emperors were not entirely well disposed towards either Judaism or Christianity. Jews had to leave Rome for a time and go into exile. Under Nero, life for Christians was brutal and horrifying:

Nero refined cruelty upon cruelty and continued all manner and style of persecution. He had some Christians sown up in the skins of wild beasts, and then turned over to dogs to be torn into pieces. Others he dressed in garments that were made stiff with wax. He fixed those people to trees and then lit them like candles to light his garden. This occurred throughout the early centuries of the Roman Empire. Erastus, according to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, was one of those martyred in the first persecution, and Erastus was the chamberlain or the treasurer of the city of Corinth. What that tells us is that the persecution of Nero extended to Corinth and took the life of one of the men named in the Bible, one of the Christians of Corinth.

Now, Paul knew that this was coming to Corinthians. He could see it on the horizon. And in view of this, he says, “My advice is if you have the gift, stay single.” And, people, keep in mind that all of this advice is only to those who have the gift. Because to force somebody to be single who doesn’t have the gift is to force them to burn with desire all this life, and that isn’t accomplishing anything. But if you have the gift, he is saying, that’s the basic supposition of all of this. Don’t get married because of the pressure that is coming, the pressure of the system against the believer.

On a related note, MacArthur gave this sermon in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial. Given that we are now in 2021, he summarised a book about the year 2000:

There is an interesting book entitled The Year 2000, written by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener. And in it, this is what they predict for the year 2000. It sounds like they’ve been reading Matthew 24, except they’re not Christians. This is what they predict: invasion and war, civil strife and revolution, famine, disease, persecution by despotism – that is by dictatorship – national disasters, and a depression or economic stagnation, etcetera.

Plus ça change … The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember all those things happening around the world in 1976, too. Every year, a lay person sounds the death knell online: ‘This is it, folks. The Lord is coming. This is what Revelation talked about. We’re in those final days’. Clearly, we’re progressing towards the end of the world, but it seems as if we still have a long way to go. There are days when I hope I am wrong.

Anyway, MacArthur mentioned the book because:

Those are the predictions of those people who look at the world analytically. And that’s precisely what Matthew 24 says. It’s a rough world. And being married only complicates it greatly because of the problem of caring for your wife and husband and caring for your children.

Paul has much more to say on marriage. For now, the next few verses that follow were read this year — 2021 — on the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B):

29 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, 30 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, 31 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.

What Paul means is that we should not get too attached to our spouses, material things or the world in general. At some point, we may lose some or all of them. Therefore, throughout our lives, we should have Christ as our primary focus, because this world is but transitory for us. Our eternity is with Him, forever and ever. Amen.

That said, in closing, I hope that all who celebrated had a very happy St Valentine’s Day. Love is a beautiful thing, one of life’s great pleasures — and a gift from God.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 7:32-35