Somehow we have become convinced that happiness, contentment in life, must be somewhere other than where we are and “in” something different than what we are presently experiencing. For those who struggle financially, we believe that if we could just climb another rung on the financial ladder then we would be happier than we are right now. For those of us who are single, if we could only find Prince Charming or Cinderella, then we would be happier than we are right now. For those of us who feel stuck in what we consider a dead end job, if we could just find something different then we could find happiness and contentment at last. The truth is that none of these things, nor any other “thing” or scenario we can imagine, will bring us anything more than what we are presently experiencing.
A young girl, a first-generation American, wanted to achieve the American dream and make her family proud. She graduated from high school, got into a great college, and then went to law school at a prestigious Catholic University. She rose through the ranks and began to make more money than she ever dreamed she would make in her life. She fell in love, got married, and had two kids. She and her husband bought a beautiful home in the exclusive Chevy Chase neighborhood, just 6 miles from the White House, where Washington’s most powerful power brokers and lobbyists live. She’s got it all and yet she said,
To a lot of people, it looks like I’m living the American dream, but at times I feel like I’m living a lie. Reaching all these benchmarks has sometimes felt anticlimactic. People would be surprised to know that, because I always look cheerful and very put together. But the pressure to deliver on high expectations gets to be exhausting. …It’s always this feeling of: What’s next for me?” (Stacey Colino, Bethesda Magazine)
“What’s next? There’s got to be something more!” That’s the thought that runs through our minds and so we set our sights on what we think that “something more” is so we can finally find contentment and satisfaction.
I was reading about Heath Ledger this past week. Heath died from an accidental overdose of six different prescription drugs in his New York City apartment on January 22, 2008. He was only 28 years old, but he had experienced so much success–he was a movie star! Heath Ledger’s friend, Matt Alamo, said, “He wanted fame–and then when he got it, he didn’t want it.” That statement has now been forever etched in my mind. Isn’t that true of all of us? We think we know what we want, what will make us happy, what will bring us contentment in life, but when we get it, whatever “it” is, the new wears off in no time and we are ready to let “it” go and move on to something else. We aren’t the first people to ever suffer from the disillusionment of discontent.
We’re back in 1 Corinthians this morning. We’re going to take a look at the rest of the chapter, verses 17-40, but because we have limited time we’ll focus our study on verses 17-24. Let’s read these verses together.
17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you– although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24 NIV)
There is a repeated theme that Paul lays out for the brothers and sisters in Corinth and you can find it in verses 17, 20, and 24. In verse 17, Paul writes, “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.” And in verse 20 we read, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” And finally, in verse 24, “each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” Did you notice the point Paul is trying to drive home to the people of Corinth? It’s the same message he wants us to learn this morning. The message is this: God has you right where He wants you. Now, there are no doubt places where we might find ourselves when we become a follower of Jesus that are not conducive to growing in our relationship with the Lord. If you are a drug dealer, human trafficker, mafia hitman, or porn star then Paul would highly recommend that you get out of those situations as soon as possible.
In Corinth there were people who were arguing that being married or married to an unbeliever was not conducive to their spiritual growth. We covered that in our last lesson on 1 Corinthians 7. Remember what Paul told them? He said remain where you are, stay as you are. Someone argued, “But I’m married to an unbeliever! We don’t share the same spiritual convictions. We can’t pray together, go to worship together, read God’s Word together. This marriage is hindering my spiritual growth!” Paul said, “As long as your unbelieving husband or wife is willing to stay married to you, then stay married to them. As a follower of Jesus, you have no idea how God might be using you in the life of your mate and your children.”
There is an interesting word that appears over and over again throughout our Scripture for this morning. It is the word, “kaleo” and it means “to call, to invite, or to appoint.” It is what God did for me before I knew Him. He called me to Himself, into a relationship with Himself through Jesus my Savior and Lord. It is the same process that takes place in the life of every person who has become a follower of Jesus–you have been called by God to become a follower of Jesus. And some of you have answered that call with a “Yes!” This Greek word appears once in verse 17, twice in verse 18, once in verse 20, once in verse 21, twice in verse 22, and once in verse 24. I would say that it is an important word for you and me to understand.
In our Scripture from our last study of 1 Corinthians we saw how Paul encouraged the people to remain as they were: “Were you married when God called you? Then stay that way. Were you single when God called you? Then stay that way. That is unless your desire for sexual intimacy is distracting you from serving the Lord. If that is the case, then get married and then stay that way.” In our Scripture for today, Paul broadens the principle and applies it to the social realm of the lives of the people in Corinth. This Scripture has great application for you and me. Let me bullet point these these applications for us:
- The Jewish believers shouldn’t seek to get rid of their jewishness and act like Gentiles (v. 18).
- The Gentiles shouldn’t dismiss their culture and try to act like Jews (v. 18).
- Those who are slaves shouldn’t worry about their current condition and shirk their responsibilities (vs. 21).
- Those who are free should not become a slave to any person (vs. 21, 23).
- Those who are engaged shouldn’t break off their engagements (vs. 27).
- Those who are single shouldn’t try to get married (v. 27).
It’s not that these situations can’t or won’t change. You’ve lived long enough to know that change is inevitable, change is going to happen, but if you think you will find contentment in the changes you bring about because of your discontentment then you will be disappointed. Our contentment is found in a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus, not in some supposed idyllic situation that we try and convince ourselves is out there, somewhere. Paul knew the kind of contentment he was teaching to the church in Corinth and to us this morning. Paul wrote to the people in Philippi,
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV)
“I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” Can you say that this morning? It is my hope that by the time we leave here you will have the tools and the understanding to begin to believe and live out this truth.
I want us to focus on two different areas that Paul highlights which can be the source of much of our discontentment in life. Both of the examples Paul highlights have to do with the social status of those in the church at Corinth. Paul writes,
18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:18-20 NIV)
Now, I’m sure as I was reading these verses you were wondering, “How does this have anything to do with social status? This is not the mark of success I was thinking about!” Whenever we study God’s Word we must keep in mind the context and history of the time in which the Scripture was written.
For the Jew, circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God gave to Abraham as a reminder of God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants. The Jews saw the uncircumcised as those who were outsiders when it came to God’s people. They were people cut off from the blessings of God. Let me explain for those who are totally unfamiliar with the connection between God and circumcision for the Jews.
As I said, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision as a reminder of the covenant God “cut” with him, or made with him. I want to be sensitive, but when you stop to think about it, circumcision was a genius idea of God. God made promises to His people, important promises that would guide and undergird them to this very day. Yet, we people are prone to forget. How can I say this? How about, Abraham and his male descendants wouldn’t forget, they would be reminded multiple times every day, and as they got older they would be reminded even through the night, of the sign of God’s covenant promise. Also, we write sticky notes, love notes, give necklaces, rings, and other items to remind those we love of our promises, but they get lost or broken don’t they? Let’s just say that God’s symbol of His love and promise to Abraham and his descendants wouldn’t ever be lost.
What was given to the Jewish people as a symbol of God’s love became a symbol of self-righteousness and superiority for many of the Jews. It was such a problem in Galatia that converts to Jesus were being taught by some misguided individuals that if they weren’t circumcised after having come to Jesus then they weren’t really God’s people. Paul wrote to the people of Galatia and said,
15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15 NIVO)
But remember, when Paul wrote to the people of Corinth it was not a Jewish city with Jewish culture. Corinth was a Gentile city and the Gentiles saw circumcision as barbaric. Leon Morris writes in his commentary on this Scripture,
But for many of the Gentiles circumcision was a matter of scorn; it was the mark of a despised people. They saw it as a sign of enlightenment when a Jewish youth, by undergoing a surgical operation, tried to efface the marks of his circumcision in order to take his place in the wider world of Hellenistic culture (Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians. pg. 112).
Men today don’t walk around and wonder about one another, but in the first century men didn’t have to wonder–there was much more nudity in public bathhouses, gymnasiums, and in competitive games. For example, in the Isthmian Games, named after the Isthmus of Corinth, all of the competitors, except for the chariot races, competed in the nude. I’m so glad that’s not the way it is at my pool at the YMCA! Jewish athletes living in Corinth would oftentimes undergo a surgical procedure to hide their jewishness. And some Gentiles who converted to Christianity were told that to be a true member of the people you needed to undergo circumcision, just like what some of the believers in Galatia were being told. Paul would have none of it! He said however you were when you came to know Jesus–stay that way. In verse 19, Paul writes,
19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. (1 Corinthians 7:19 NIV)
Paul wants the people to know that externals are not important. It is what is happening inside of us that truly matters. That’s a message that is desperately needed in our day isn’t it?! What is happening inside of us? In our hearts? Are we focused on getting our picture on the society page of the Sunday paper? Having the people of our city know our names? Racking up another achievement to add to our impressive resume? Or, are we focused on growing in our walk with the Lord? Are we focused on serving Him and those He places in our paths with the gifts He has given us? Are we focused on using the finances He has blessed us with to build His Kingdom and share His Good News instead of building our own kingdom and making a name for ourselves? Paul said, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”
Keeping God’s commands. Being faithful to what God has called us to be and faithful to do what He has given us to do–that is what is most important. We love to compare ourselves to others don’t we? This comparison trap can happen to anyone: Young and old, rich and poor, those who have PhD’s and those who have GED’s, as well as people in every culture and from every ethnic background. Why do we love to compare ourselves to others?
I love the story John tells about Jesus’ discussion after His resurrection with Simon Peter. You can find the story in John 21. Jesus told Peter that when he was young he dressed himself and did whatever he wanted to do and went wherever he wanted to go, but the day was coming when others would stretch out his hands, dress him, and take him where he would not want to go. John tells us that Jesus was letting Peter know the manner in which he would be killed, he would be crucified, one day. Peter looked around and saw John. Let’s pick up the story at that point, in John 21:21-22.
21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22 ESV)
Peter was not to concern himself with what Jesus wanted for John or for anyone else for that matter…and the same is true for you and me. Don’t look up at those you think have it better than you and feel sorry for yourself. Don’t look down on those you think have it worse than you or are not as socially situated as you because that will lead to pride and arrogance. And don’t look around in comparing yourself to anyone. Set your heart and mind on following Jesus and being faithful to His call upon your life.
Let’s take a look at the next example Paul lays out for the people of Corinth. If you will turn to verses 21-23 with me. Let’s read them together.
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you– although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. (1 Corinthians 7:21-23 NIV)
Much has been written about the difference between slavery of the first century and the slavery that we are familiar with that took place here in the United States. There are some differences, but don’t let that lead you to believe that slavery in the first century was preferred over freedom. David Garland writes,
Slaves were not legally persons, and consequently they had no legal or human rights and were classified as things and tallied as living pieces of property. Aristotle categorizes a slave as a living tool… Slaves were not legally permitted to marry. Since they lacked human worth in the world’s eyes, they could easily anguish that they also lacked worth before God (Garland, David. 1 Corinthians. pg. 307-308).
Paul recognized that slavery was harsh and difficult and that is why he writes, “…if you can gain your freedom, do so.” Freedom is preferred and if you can gain your freedom then by all means, do so, but if not, then don’t let your status as a slave trouble you.
There is no doubt that in our day there will be people who will hear Paul say, “…don’t let your present condition as a slave trouble you…” and immediately they will dismiss Paul, the Bible, and God as well. Paul’s goal was not to change the Roman Empire or to bring about civil revolution, but to change the hearts of men and women. Paul believed that whatever we are going through, whatever station in life we find ourselves in, God wants to use us for His glory and to declare the Good News of Jesus. You and I need to remember that Paul was not a professor sitting in the halls of academia and teaching lessons, he lived them out each and every day of his life.
Do you know there is a section of the New Testament called the “Prison Epistles?” They are four letters–Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians–written about 61 A.D. while Paul was in prison in Rome. Paul told those who were slaves not to let their situation “trouble them.” Was he troubled by his imprisonment? What was he doing while he was sitting in that lonely prison cell? Well, we can gain great insight into the answer to that question by reading one of the letters he wrote from that prison cell. Turn with me to Philippians 1:12-14 and let’s read together.
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14 NIV)
Paul wasn’t troubled by his chains. He said his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel. Don’t you know that jailer got an earful of Jesus? He couldn’t wait until his shift was over! The lesson we can learn from what Paul wrote to the people in Philippi is exactly what he is teaching the people of Corinth and what he is teaching us–God has you right where He wants you. God has a purpose for the place where He has planted us. Chuck Swindoll has written.
The practical truth is that God has called people from all pay grades, social strata, lifestyles, careers, cultures, and situations in order to create a community of diversity and harmony, not sameness and monotony. As we believers exercise contentment and remain in the circumstances in which we were called, we continue to be salt and light in our own communities. We continue to exercise an influence on our unsaved friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances (Swindoll, Chuck. 1 & 2 Corinthians. pg. 118).
We do our kids a great disservice when we teach them that what is most important in life is achieving, accumulating, and accomplishing great things. This past week, in the Bible study I teach some of our tennis kids, we were talking about those who were “less than.” We read Scripture about Moses who, when God called him to go to Pharaoh said, “Lord, I’m not good with words. I’m probably not your guy.” God told Moses, “I’ll go with you.” We read about Gideon and how he answered God’s call with “Lord, I’m from the least important tribe and I’m the least in my tribe.” God said, “I’ll go with you.” And He did! The world looks for the biggest and best, but God uses the least likely who are willing to set their hearts and minds on following Him.
I pray that this morning you’ve been encouraged. I pray that those of you who have questioned your station in life will recognize that the Lord has you right where He wants you. I pray that those of you who have been looking for more, something better, more fulfilling and satisfying will recognize that God has you right where He wants you. Don’t allow the world to determine your worth, set your heart and mind on following Jesus and Him alone. For those of you who have never made the decision to follow Jesus–won’t you do that this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
May 16, 2021
1 Corinthians 7:17-40