First Corinthians 7:17-24
Just As You Are Before God
1. At the very beginning of chapter seven, here is a section in which Paul is answering specific questions given by the church at Corinth just as it said in the text that "if I may speak in regard to the things you have written to me about." If we guess from the contents of his response, it seems there were some people in the church at Corinth who thought that the sex life of a married couple was not compatible with faith and that sexual intercourse was categorically rejected. More so, it seems that some were thinking that married life itself was incompatible with faith and that one must divorce. They are believed to have been connected with a fanatical asceticism. Paul gave a reply with a lot of common sense against that. What he said was, "Do not refuse one another," (verse five), "Let not the wife depart from her husband. ... And, let not the husband depart from his wife, " (verses ten and eleven), "In cases where a believer has an unbelieving wife, and his wife wants to keep living together, he must not divorce her. Or if a woman has an unbelieving husband, and her husband wants to keep living together, she must not divorce him," (verses twelve and thirteen). That is to say, excluding the case where the partner has gone off for some reason, he says they should stay in the current state as they are.
2. Today's passage is a continuation from that. He will go back to his talk on marriage again later (from verses twenty-five on), but he diverges momentarily from that topic. Here Paul is speaking general principles from a broader perspective. Please look at verse seventeen. "Please walk in response to the portion which was variously given you by the Lord and according to the various social positions you had when the Lord called you. This is what I am commanding in all the churches," (verse seventeen).
The Issue Of Being Circumcised Or Not
3. To begin, as a concrete example, Paul takes up the issue of whether or not to be circumcised. "As the circumcised are called, one shouldn't try to undo the marks of circumcision. As the uncircumcised are called, one shouldn't try to be circumcised," (verse eighteen).
4. The Gentiles as non Jews, that is, those who have not received circumcision as a Jew, tried to become Jews in receiving circumcision when they became Christians -- this precedent can be found in other biblical passages. For example, it is in Acts chapter fifteen. There we have the circumstances of the first apostolic conference described. The conference was held to discuss the issues in circumcision. Because when they dealt with whether some Gentile Christians were wanting to receive circumcision, the Jewish Christian teachers who had come from the Jews were telling them that "According to the custom of Moses, unless you receive circumcision, you cannot be saved," (Acts 15:1).
5. For sure, the one [we know] as Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. The ones who talked about and hoped for the Christ, that is, the messiah, were Jews. When Gentiles became Christians the gospel which they were told had certainly been based on the words of the scriptures which Jews had inherited and passed on down. All the apostles were Jews, who had received circumcision according to the tradition of Moses. Thus, it wasn't unusual for Gentile Christians if they were motivated by "Unless you receive circumcision, you can not be saved" and thought that being uncircumcised and being a Christian were incompatible. But here Paul says, "As the uncircumcised are called, one shouldn't try to be circumcised."
6. In reverse, when Jews became Christians, we can't find in other passages of scripture examples of them trying to undo the marks of circumcision. But, as we see in the reference Paul is making that there were people like that. The majority of the believers in the church of Corinth must have been Gentiles. In most of the churches that Paul helped pioneer, it was the same way like that. When we look at the Book Of Acts, it was the Jews instead who stubbornly denied the gospel and had taken protesting activities. In the early work at Corinth, since the Jews were harshly resistant and even abusive, Paul finally couldn't help but swear them off with "Your blood fall all your own heads. I am not responsible. From here on out, I am going to the Gentiles," (Acts 18:6). In this environment, Jewish Christians with faith were ashamed of their being a Jew, it wasn't unusual for them if they wanted to become the same as Gentiles. But, here Paul says, "As the circumcised are called, one shouldn't try to undo the marks of circumcision."
7. Why is this? Because the fact that they "are Christians" now has decisive importance. For that reason, here Paul repeats one of his words. Did you notice it? It is the word "to be called." Paul has already made frequent use of this word since the beginning of this epistle. In the address of this epistle it is written with "To those who are called and sanctified," (1:2). And it is also written (1:9), "God is a faithful one. By this God you are invited (called) children of God into a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ."
8. A called and sanctified person is, you can also say, a person who belongs to God, or that they are called and let into a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. If this is really so, then shouldn't we think about how we are living by not all the time trying to change external situations and trying to become someone else, putting down ourselves as we are now, but live as persons who have been allowed into a relationship with Christ as called people, as God's, in whatever state we may be placed right this moment? Therefore, Paul says, "The important thing is not the issue of whether one is circumcised or not, but the keeping of God's commandments," (verse nineteen). That is, we are to be obedient to God. It is an obedience that comes by faith. We are to live in obedience to God as persons who have taken part in the death of Christ and who have taken part in the life of Christ.
The Issue Of Slaves And The Free
9. Next, Paul takes up the issue of slaves and free persons. "Please remain in the various stations you were in when you were called. Even though you were a slave when you were called, you should not pay attention to that. If a person could become free, please do so however," (verses twenty and twenty-one).
10. In the church at Corinth, it looks like there were more than a few persons in the status of a slave. Of course, there were free men and women there, too. But, for Paul it wasn't any problem at all that in the community there were both persons of slave status and free. Neither was it a problem if a slave were to come into a position of freedom nor if they didn't. It's because, and I may be repeating myself but, for Paul the fact that they are persons who have been called and allowed into a relationship with Christ was decisively important.
11. Thus, Paul is seeking to make both the free and the slave aware of this fact and so he says to them, "What I'm saying is because the slave called by the Lord is a person made free by the Lord. Likewise, the free man called by the Lord is a slave of Christ. In his paying a ransom you have been bought. You should not be slaves of man," (verses twenty-two and twenty-three).
12. In order to redeem us from sin, Christ shed his precious blood and poured out his life. That is the ransom which the Lord paid in order to buy us back. We became Christ's, who paid the price. So then, the important thing is to live as Christ's and not changing the external situations or putting down our state we are in now. In whatever state or position we are given, we are to live in service to Christ.
13. Even in Ephesians, to those disciples Paul wrote as follows. "Slaves, obey your masters in the flesh with fear and sincerity as you do to Christ. Do not serve only on the outward appearance or so as to flatter, but as slaves of Christ practice the will of God from the heart and serve joyfully as you do the Lord and not as to men," (Ephesians 6:5-6). When a person serves Christ like a slave of Christ, he or she is no longer a slave. We shouldn't be slaves of men or women.
14. But then, we should probably touch upon one other thing here. Because this exhortation from Paul will rightly bring up the doubts of "Isn't he giving approval to an evil oppressive structure that is legally supported, that is found in the system of slavery?" Doesn't Paul's exhortation just lead to an emasculated people who resign themselves to the sinful conditions of the world?
15. As Paul gives answers here to their letter, we mustn't keep in our minds that he is talking of all aspects related to slaves or the free. We must see it as his speaking with an awareness of the imminent end-times. However, as we muse over this, we should in no wise think that what the Bible is saying here is a teaching that would suggest an affirmation towards then current [slave] conditions.
16. Please think give this some thought. The earliest Christians did not try to overthrow the governmental structures of evil authorities with military might. As you well know, they were not terrorists nor were they plotting any revolutions. Yet still, they were persecuted. Why was that? Because they were a threat to the ruling authorities. Temporal authority is not always evil. But, whenever there is evil in governmental structures, when people exist who live and thoroughly serve Christ alone and with all sincerity, it is scary to the rulers. When the people who live like that are spreading in numbers, it is bad for the bad in this world.
17. If the church debates the evil in the world today and it turns to the world shouting out loud, or even if it makes its statements public, if there is no daily life in each Christian of loving Christ and service to Christ and if there is no true devotion and obedience, then [the church] is no different from a lonely howling dog in the distance. Modern people, nor the devil, cannot give the church the time of day to that.
18. Even for the world at this period in time, the truly important thing looks small at first. It is that Christians are to live and serve Christ as called persons. We are to actually live in that way. When we think this, the next words will press in upon us as a Word that has immeasurable weight no matter what situation we are in. "In his paying a ransom you have been bought. You should not be slaves of man. Brothers, in still the same status as when you were variously called, please remain before God," (verses twenty-three and twenty-four).