Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Although 21st-century Christians live as though they have a key to life, 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 has a cautious suggestion.
The hope of Christian life whether single or married is not anchored in the present but Paul reminds Christians in Corinth that life is short-lived — that is, temporal and evaporating. In some way, this passage is a clarion call to Christians to be mindful of the parousia or the second coming of Jesus to which all hope is fixed. The Gospel message of these two verses have their foundations in the eschatological message Paul has in 1 Corinthians 6-7, whose summary culminates in these words, “I mean brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (1 Corinthians 7:29).
The second coming of Jesus gives poignancy to the message of this passage. A careful spiritual, theological, and faith formation is called for, especially among Christians who are constantly focused on sexual gratification whether married or single. The central message Paul has in this passage is that the call of God on people’s lives should be the governing axiom. All peoples, nations, male and female are called to a life of service and that should be the main focus of our life in these borrowed times.
While many Christians choose to settle and find comfortable locations in life, Paul’s wisdom in the entire passage invites us to discern two crucial insights. First Corinthian Christians, and consequently us in the 21st century are called to anchor our hope and trust in God whose assurance of salvation was manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In some poignant words, human beings are not authors of their salvation nor does their married status have an ounce of salvation but we depend on the mercy and justice of God — whose mission is to rescue all humanity.
Whether, married or single, the second theological insight is that our Christian identities are not determined by society or marriage affiliations but that our true identities are firmly grounded in Jesus Christ. Thus, grace beckons us to live graciously in the midst of cultural pressures to marry and in the storms of our changing hormones. It is crucial for readers to see how Paul has a balanced view of our divine giftedness and how we should celebrate the diversity of gifts in the body of Christ as we await the second coming of Jesus. If these are divine gifts, the implications are that, Christians are called to gracefully use these gifts not for self-gratification but rather in service to God (1 Corinthians 7:7).
The theological and economical language of Paul, especially in verses 1 Corinthians 7:29a are noteworthy. First, the apocalyptic sense of the message is clear in that Paul invites Christians to live with a sense of heightened expectation of the coming of Jesus. Thus, one’s way of life must be shaped and informed by an ever-present awareness of the coming of Jesus, and possibly the end of life here on earth.
Second, Christians are called to a life of spiritual investment instead of financial investment. Discipleship is a life of investing time, resources, talents, and energy in the building of God’s Kingdom, of which our final retirement homes are not earthly structures but heavenly ones. While marriage is a blessing, those in it must always be aware that there is another alternative worldview (1 Corinthians 13:10) and they are called to live a life of significance and purpose in ways that opens them to be ministered by others as well. Whether married or single, Christian life boils down to one thing — ministry. Human longing or yearning for eternal life is not found in marriage context or social structures, but it is firmly found in our walk with Jesus Christ.
The passage asks us to imagine our context in relation to our faith in Jesus Christ. Eschatologically, we are challenged not to detach ourselves from the things of this world but to find a healthy balance that continues to energize us in our discipleship. Thus, marriage and being single have a place in God’s ministry. Paul has all these practices in perspective because he sees them through the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
However, Paul’s favorable perspective is clear — the proclamation of the gospel of which he thought celibacy is the best practice because one is freed to focus full attention on evangelizing God’s word.
When all is said and done, Paul’s teaching in this passage is to invite the Church to constantly rethink theologically about issues of sex, marriage, and divorce as they are the most divisive topics in both ancient and postmodern Church.