As Christians, we want to spend our lives being effective for God. We want to love him and love those around us. In our passage today, in verse 19 Paul summarise this as keeping the commandments of God.
Sometimes I find myself thinking that if my situation was different, I could be so much more effective for God. I imagine you have found yourself thinking that too. Paul tells us in our passage today that whatever situation we find ourself in we can be effective for God, without changing our situation. So the next time you find yourself thinking 'if only my situation was different, then I could be so much effective for God' ask yourself this question: 'how can I keep the commandments of God right here, right now, in the situation he has placed me?'
In Corinth, some people were thinking that if only their situation was different, they could be so much more effective for God. Paul brings up one specific example, where some in the church were married to spouses that were not Christians. For some of them, they wished they were married to Christians, or possibly just back to being single. They thought if they divorced their spouse, who wasn't a Christian, then they could really get on with being effective for God.
We can think like this as well can't we, that if only my situation was different, then I could really be effective for God.
Paul says to the Corinthians, and he says to us, "whatever your condition, you can be effective for God."
1. Whatever Your Condition, Remain There (v.17, v.20, v.24)
1 Corinthians 7.17
"Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches."
1 Corinthians 7.20
"Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called."
1 Corinthians 7.24
"So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God."
Three verses, Paul is repeating himself. It's his main point for this short section that he develops it with two illustrations. Before we look at the two illustrations, let's look at these three verses, which are very similar.
"Called" here means conversion. Apart from Paul referring to his calling to be an apostle (1 Cor 1.1), "called" always means conversion. That's the call we all receive from God. This is how he wanted us to read this passage as we see in 1 Corinthians 1:9 "…were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
Have you answered the call? Has God called you into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord? If so, whatever your condition, situation, remain there.
Church in Corinth, if you are married to a spouse who is not a Christian, remain there. That's the first section of 1 Corinthians 7.
In the previous passage, Paul says, as long as we are not in an immoral relationship or situation, we should remain there. If you are not a Christian and you become a Christian and your spouse does not, this is not an immoral relationship.
The thinking behind this situation is a bit like this. My situation is less than ideal, it is hard for me to be effective for God in this situation. Let me change my situation, so then I can be effective for God.
Paul says, that in your present situation you can be effective for God.
All of our lives are on a spectrum. Difficult to easy. We are either being effective or not effective for God. Paul is saying the Corinthians are primarily concerned with making their life easier, changing their life condition, and Paul says this is not the correct thing to do. They should instead remain in their present life condition and be effective for God there.
Paul illustrates his main point with two illustrations, one on circumcision and one on being a servant.
a. Keeping the Commandments of God (v.18-19)
As with every other New Testament letter, there was a great controversy in the early church about whether or not Christians needed to follow the Old Testament law. Did Christians need to become Jewish and specifically, did the men need to get circumcised?
Using our illustration again, Paul is saying, just like it does not make you more effective to move from being uncircumcised to being circumcised, if you are serving God it doesn't matter. Paul elsewhere speaks at length about this, but it did sometimes make life easier for Christians to Jewish, to get circumcised. But Paul warns against this. Pauls point here is clear.
What matters, is not whether you are circumcised or not, but whether, verse19b, you keep the commandments of God.
It's another way of saying, were you called? If you were, the thing that matters is keeping the commandments of God. That's how you can be effective for God, not some physical operation. Whatever condition your life is when God calls you, that is where you are to remain on the spectrum. Remain and be effective.
What does "keeping the commandments of God" mean? We could go in ten different directions here. But the main thing is obvious, keeping the commandments is being effective. Not being effective is not keeping the commandments of God. Not keeping the commandments of God, would just want us to focus on moving to the right, making our lives easier.
But what are the commandments of God within 1 Corinthians? What is Paul wanting to communicate to the Corinthian church in this letter? I think 1 Corinthians 8.1 gives us the answer. Paul wants the Corinthian church to be a humbling loving church and not a boastful proud church. This fits with the wider biblical understanding that all of the law can be summarised as loving God and loving our neighbour, which Jesus commends in the Gospels.
"Keeping the commandments of God" is ultimately what it means to be more effective for God.
b. And serve God (v.21-23)
Second illustration. Servants. That's another huge topic that Paul brings up.
Some of the Christian servants were tempted to become free. It would be tempting to think, wouldn't it, how can I be effective as a servant?! I must get out of this situation! Paul says it doesn't really make a lot of difference to you being effective for God or not, because you will end up being a servant of Christ. Better off just serving God in the situation where you are.
Paul doesn't say you should never ever change your situation, that would be a bit ridiculous. Verse 21, if you are a servant, it's good to get out of that situation says Paul. ESV makes a better translation of this verse. But his main point is still supported by this illustration of being a servant. We are to serve Christ in whatever condition we find ourselves.
What really matters, verse 23, is whether we have been bought by Christ or not, whether we have answered the call or not.
Some of you may be exploring Christianity this morning, you are very welcome to join us.
I hope you can see what Paul is saying. It doesn't matter what situation you are in or not when you are called, when you become a Christian. Whatever situation you are in at the moment, the biggest issue is answering God's call. If you do decide to answer the call, then I hope you can see Paul's instructions of what it means to live an effective life for God.
I hope we can all see clearly what Paul is saying to the Corinthian church. Whatever condition we are in, we need to remain there and be effective for God. Not just prioritise on making our life easier.
Now hopefully having convinced you, let's see a few different scenarios how it might play out for us.
- Position 1
You are serving God and living an obedient life in a difficult life condition. You should hear God say to you through Paul's letter to the Corinthians, well done, you are being a good and faithful servant. You should be encouraged. If you need prayer or support, let your Bible group know.
- Position 2
Another example of someone serving God and living an obedient life, but in an easy life condition. You should be encouraged that you are being obedient and we all pray that when difficulties come you remain obedient.
- Position 3
Not serving God in a difficult life condition. This is primarily to whom Paul was writing at this point in the letter. Paul's main message, if you are in this situation, is to remain where you are and to keep serving God.
- Position 4
Not serving God in an easy life condition. Maybe you did have a difficult life condition. Maybe you moved from Position 3 to position 4 rather than to position 1. Paul wants us all to repent and answer God's call. That's how we can be effective for God.
Maybe you are somewhere else on the chart. Maybe life is super hard. Maybe life is super easy. But to effectively serve God, we need to be above the line.
What trajectory is our life heading in? Is it horizontal, trying to make life easier and more comfortable? Or is it vertical, trying to be more effective for God?
At this point in the sermon, I want to remind us, what I think is one of the biggest reasons for writing to the Corinthian church, not to be proud. There's a Chinese idiom that says "we should learn from the fallen cart in front.". We should learn from where their carts fell. But if we are truly honest with ourselves, we don't learn and continually fall. We focus on making life easier.
In the Mandarin Fellowship, we are trying to use a weekly confession that communicates effectively in Mandarin. Here's a taste of what we say at the moment. We confess our sins by apologising to God for causing him to lose face, we apologise for being embarrassing children. Being proud is an embarrassment to God our Father and we need to repent of that. We cannot be effective in our own strength.
It's only Jesus that has never caused his father to lose face, that has never been an embarrassment. Jesus was the only one who could live an obedient life and serve God fully.
The wonderful news of Christianity is that we can repent of our sins, trust Jesus afresh and we become children that God the father can be proud of, children that honour him. Not because of our own doing, but because of what Jesus did when he bought us at a price at the cross (v.23).
Verse 24 ends with two fantastic words "with God." Whatever our situation, whatever our life condition, wherever we are in our relationship with God, we need to remain there with God.
Specifically for those who are in a difficult life situation right now, God is with you, he is with us. For those of us who have an easy life situation now, it's a huge comfort to know that God will be with us, even when things get hard. We are with God.
Imagine with me for a moment, would you? Imagine if we really understood what Paul was saying to the Corinthians and then to us what that would do for us here at JPC. We would all want to make sure we obey God's commands, so we could be effective, wouldn't we?
Those of us in position 1, would want to keep serving God where we are. Those of us in position 2, would be grateful to God and would be prepared if God decided to make life more difficult. Those of us in position 3, wouldn't want to work hard to move to position 4, but we would serve God where we are and move to position 1. Those of us in position 4 would want to start being effective for God and hopefully move to position 2. What a wonderful vision Paul has for the Corinthian church, and what a wonderful vision for us as well. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we give thanks that your word is living and active. We give thanks that you want us to live an obedient life and to serve you. Please help us to live an obedient life and serve you where you have called us, so we can be truly effective, in Jesus name we pray. Amen.