Back when I was at university, my friend and I booked flights to Bolivia to go and climb some of the big peaks out there. And once the flights were booked, we knew we needed to be prepared for those weeks in the mountains. We needed to do a lot of research and talk to people who'd been out there before. We had to work out food and equipment for our time there. We had to be physically prepared. I was actually living in a flat on the 15th floor of a Spanish apartment block at the time and I decided that I wouldn't use the lift for three months even if I had shopping – so I got to know the staircase very well! And I probably gave a few Spaniards the impression that English people are nuts!
But my friend and I knew that it was going to be worth it when we got to stand on some incredible summits. And just like an upcoming exam or big deadline, the expedition was on our mind every day in the run-up to it. And it affected many of our daily decisions.
And whilst our passage today is about marriage and singleness, Paul's main thrust in these chapters is that, like an expedition, Jesus' return should be what dominates our thinking. If we've really understood it, then it'll be our focus in life and it'll affect our decision-making in every area of life. So that's my first point:
1. Live in Light of Christ's Return
Let's have a look at this in the passage – starting by reminding ourselves of what we looked at last time. Just before today's passage, in verses 17-24, Paul says we shouldn't obsess over our status, but instead we should serve Jesus wholeheartedly in our current state.
So rather than our priority being to climb the career ladder or improve our social status or to get married and have kids, or even to free ourselves from slavery (as Paul mentions) – what matters more than anything is serving Jesus wholeheartedly where we are.
And Paul gives us two reasons why…
The first one is that when we become a Christian, our identity changes. We become a follower of Jesus and part of God's family. That's our new identity. It's there in verse 22. Paul writes:
"For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord."
A bit of a mouthful. But what Paul's saying is that for those who were servants or slaves, that's not their primary identity any more – their identity is that they are free in Jesus. That's who they are more than anything else! And so for us, if we're Christians, our identity isn't Rachel the doctor, or Chris the cleaner, or Dave in debt, or Camilla from the aristocratic family. No, the gospel breaks down those barriers. It says, your identity now is being a follower of Jesus. You're part of God's family. That's who you are – so live it out.
And Paul's second reason why we're to serve Jesus wholeheartedly is this – as followers of Jesus, we need to live in light of the fact that he is coming back. Paul says in verse 31 "the present form of this world is passing away." And verse 29 "the appointed time has grown very short".
Now I don't think that means Paul was expecting Jesus to come back that week – most of the content of this letter is about dealing with everyday things, as if Paul is expecting life to go on. But what he means is: after Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus went back to heaven, and the next big event – the thing that should always be on our mind as Christians – is Jesus' return. And when he does return, this world as we know it is going to pass away. So, it's foolish not to invest in things which will last beyond this life.
And the more we understand our new identity and the more we grasp the future that awaits us – the more we'll get that serving Jesus is our number one priority.
And therefore, in these chapters, Paul walks us through different aspects of life, and he says, "how can we best serve Jesus in each of these areas?" And today in chapter 7, we get to the big question of marriage. In light of Jesus' return, should we marry? Or should we stay single? And how should we think about these states?
Now don't switch off if you're not a young single man or woman. This is relevant for all of us. Both because, as God's family, we need to be helping one follow Jesus in each of these areas. And also because we never know when our situation might change. So what does Paul say? Well firstly, he says:
2. Singleness Is Good, and Has Advantages
Take a look at verse 25. Paul says
"Now concerning the betrothed I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy."
The word betrothed translates the Greek word for virgins. So Paul's speaking to the unmarried. And the first thing that's obvious throughout this passage, is that in God's eyes, singleness means celibacy, no sex, because the place for sex is within marriage – which the Bible makes clear is a life-long commitment.
And the second thing that's clear straight away is that Paul's not trying to constrain us to being single or married as Christians. If the right person comes along, then we're free to choose either option. Paul says "I have no command from the Lord" on this. And verse 28 he says, "if you do marry, you have not sinned". And verse 35, "I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you".
But, Paul does goes on to say, that singleness has certain advantages. Which is pretty counter-cultural really isn't it? In fact, it's counter-cultural against nearly every culture. In Hollywood films, the fairy tale ending is nearly always getting together with someone isn't it?
And so I wonder how we think about singleness in the church? Or how we think about it if we're single? I guess that's going to vary significantly depending on whether we're young or old, divorced, or a widow or widower. Some have contentment, some really struggle – although I think that can often be the same in marriage too.
And it's fair to say that the Church has swung between exalting celibacy and singleness (like monks and nuns or insisting that ministers stay single) in the past, to the present day where we're more likely to laud the family and marriage in church. And so it's vital that we listen to God's word and allow it to shape our thinking in this area.
So how can singleness have advantages? Have a look at verse 32.
"I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord."
The priority for all of us, in light of an eternity with Jesus, is our devotion to the Lord. That's what Paul wants for the Corinthians more than anything else. And singleness means that in many ways, it's easier to be undivided in that devotion to the Lord. Now if you think Paul is down on marriage, just go away and read Ephesians 5 where he gives a glorious picture of marriage and the way that it points to the church's relationship with Jesus. No he's not down on marriage, he's just realistic about it. Marriage brings additional troubles and concerns. He's not saying single people have good concerns and married people have bad concerns. No, loving your spouse and your children is a spiritual duty. It's a right concern, but rightly, your interests are divided.
And marriage has its ups and downs. When a marriage struggles it can be all-consuming. Or our spouse might become ill and need a huge amount of care. Ken told me about a guy he knows who was doing great gospel work with students, and his wife developed a long-term illness and he had to step down from doing that work to care for her. And rightly so.
Now none of this is to say that singleness doesn't have its own troubles. And speaking as a married man, it's not complaining about marriage either. Paul's just being realistic. Single people are, in general, more able to devote themselves to the Lord. We are greatly blessed by so many of the single folks here at St Joseph's who serve us so faithfully. And there are many fantastic single Christians over the years who've been a huge blessing to the church – Paul himself, John Stott – who had a global ministry and couldn't have done that much travelling and writing if he had a family.
So, singleness is good, and it has advantages. But what about marriage then? Should we marry? Well take a look at verse 36. Paul says:
"If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin."
That's my third point:
3. Marriage Is Good. It's No Sin.
There's not a holy option and an unholy option here. And God is not going to tell us whether to get married or not. But Paul does say here that if a Christian is struggling and failing in the area of sexual purity, the wise thing to do (as well as battling for self-control) is to seek marriage, or to move quickly and purposefully towards marriage if you're already going out with someone. And if the idea of that makes you think "I can't do that, I couldn't possibly marry them" – then the relationship isn't going anywhere, and you need to get out. And if you think, well I couldn't possibly get married because it's just so expensive and so much to organize – it doesn't need to be. Ken has personally said to me that he is happy to give up his Saturday afternoon for a couple who want to get married and say vows to one another right here – just with a couple of witnesses. You can always have a party for it at a later date.
But do go into it with your eyes open. Paul reminds us in verse 39 that marriage is for life. That's one of the great things about it, it provides security and it helps us to love one another through the ups and the downs. But it also means we need to be careful about who we marry. And if we're asking the question 'who should I marry?', the Bible gives two clear answers:
- Firstly, they should be of the opposite sex. If you're new to church that might come as a surprise, or even a shock. But let me say, to those who experience feelings towards the same sex, you are just as welcome in this church as anyone else. The world around us says you're different, but the Bible actually says we're all the same – every one of us has turned our backs on God, and all of us need to turn back to his open arms of love. And if we genuinely do that, we'll find amazing forgiveness and joy, and we'll want to live in a way which pleases God which, for all of us, will mean living in a radically different way.
- And the second answer to the question 'who should I marry?' is that they should be a Christian. It's there in verse 39. Paul says:
"A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord."
So a widow is free to remarry, but only someone who is 'in the Lord'. A Christian. And surely that must apply to those who aren't widows as well. The whole thrust of this passage is that we're to be undivided in our devotion to the Lord. That's got to be at the top of our priority list in light of Jesus' return. And so, given that marriage and family already make it more difficult to be undivided in that devotion, how much harder is it going to be if we're married to someone who doesn't share that commitment. And how much easier is it going to be if we're with someone who wants to work together as a team to put Christ first.
But what if we want to get married, and we never meet that person? Well it's clear that Paul is saying – marriage is good, but it's not necessary. It's not essential. That's deeply counter-cultural. I wonder how often you've heard others say, or said yourself, something like 'aren't you married yet?'. Or 'my daughter's married – she's sorted.' But what does it really mean to be sorted?
When Jesus was on earth, a women shouted to him from the crowd, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth". And Jesus replied, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." Marriage or childbearing isn't necessary to receive God's blessing. Jesus, the most complete and perfect human who ever lived, was single. And the Bible also tells us that earthly marriages won't exist in heaven. Instead, we'll be married to Christ – in a way which we can't fully understand, but which will be totally glorious. And there'll be no more tears or pain, and greater intimacy than we can imagine.
For those who are single and want to be married, at the times when it's really hard, it's so important to keep that perspective. I know you might be thinking that's easy for me to say as a married man. But Vaughan Roberts, a single minister in Oxford in his 50s, points to three things to keep in mind:
- Keep a gospel perspective. Don't believe that you're all alone. Your identity isn't being a single person, it's the fact you're in Christ. You're dearly loved. One day you'll meet him face to face. And none of these earthly marriages will exist.
- Make the most of the advantages to serve Christ. Just because you're single now, doesn't mean you'll be single for life. Marriage may come. And you need to trust God with that. Don't adopt the attitude of 'I have to get married'. The preacher J John said that having that attitude is like being the Titanic looking for an iceberg. Marriage won't complete you. And if you idolize marriage you'll either be so picky that no one will ever be good enough, or you won't be picky enough – and so you won't be willing to say no when it's not the right person.
- Embrace intimacy. You might be single, but you're not meant to be alone. No, sex doesn't mean no intimacy. And invest in deep friendships. I'm encouraged by what I see of that here at St Joseph's, but we need to keep doing it and get better at it.
But it's not just down to those who are single.
At one point in Jesus' ministry, someone comes to him and says "your mum and brothers are outside". And Jesus replies to them "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" He points to his disciples and says, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
You see, as Christians, our primary family is our Christian family. Our church family. Earthly marriage, and physical families aren't going to last for eternity – but our Christian family will.
And whether we're single or married, if we're going to live out what God's called us to, we need one another! We need to be family together – rather than retreating into our cosy physical family unit and pulling up the drawbridge.
Single Christian author Sam Allberry talks of a family who gave him the key for their house, and without being grandiose about it, they said: "you're part of the family now, you can come and go as you like". He said it meant to a huge amount to him to be able to just go and do normal life with them or help with the kids' bath-time.
And it's a blessing both ways. I love it when I hear of single people helping families in a tough week by doing the school run. Or knowing that it can be difficult for parents to get out in the evening, offering to come and cook a meal at their house rather than inviting them over. And parents can't be everything their kids need – so it's good to have other people in the house and other Christians for kids to talk to. I love it when I see families welcoming singles into their family like an honourary uncle or auntie. And I love it when I see singles making the most of the gospel advantages – serving in children's groups or spiritually nurturing others. I heard of an old lady who died, and it was said at her funeral "she never had any children of her own, but she nurtured many spiritual children. She was a mother to many." We need to be church family together, so closely that we "mourn with those who mourn" and "rejoice with those who rejoice". Wouldn't it be great if that were true of St Joseph's?
Not so that we can be all smug about how great we are at being family together. But because, it's together as church family that we're going to be most able to focus on Jesus and live in light of his return – like that focus that we have for an exam or an expedition. Because whether we're single or married we need Jesus. We need his forgiveness where we've failed in the area of sexuality or in the area of contentment. We need his love when we feel on our own. And whether we're single or married, we need him to save us and satisfy our longings for something that can only be found in him. We're looking forward to that day when Jesus returns, when there'll be no more pain and no more mourning. The church as the bride will be united with Christ her husband. And we'll meet him face to face.