1 Corinthians 7:29-31
This is not a popular text for `preaching, but was chosen by the crafters of the lectionary because it fits nicely with the Gospel lesson, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15).
It is always helpful to understand the context of a scripture. In this instance, it is critical. To understand 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, we must understand the rest of the chapter.
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
In chapters 1-6, Paul dealt with problems brought to his attention by people from Corinth. Now, in chapter 7, he begins to address “the things about which you wrote to me” (7:1).
First, he addresses a slogan of these Corinthian Christians, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1). This slogan is an expression of asceticism—self-denial as a spiritual discipline.
We need to keep in mind that Corinth is a Greek city and these Corinthian Christians have been influenced by Greek philosophy, which tends toward dualism. Dualism sees the physical (such as the human body) as intrinsically evil and the spiritual (such as the soul) as good. The slogan, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” is consistent with Greek dualism—but at odds with the Judaism and Christianity, which see the whole person—indivisible body and soul. Corinthian Christians probably felt comfortable quoting this slogan to Paul, because Paul was unmarried and had expressed his preference for that state (as he does in this chapter, in verse 8).
In chapter 15, Paul will deal with another expression of dualism. Some Corinthian Christians said that “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12)—a belief consistent with Greek dualism but not with the Christian faith. In that chapter, Paul will emphasize strongly the bodily resurrection of Christ—and the Christian hope of bodily resurrection “at the last trumpet” (15:52).
In 7:1-24, Paul seeks to reorient these Corinthian Christians—to draw them away from an ascetic focus (emphasizing self-denial) to an eschatological focus (emphasizing the Second Coming of Christ). In the process, he answers a series of questions about marriage and divorce:
• Should a married couple refrain from conjugal relations? Paul answers, “Don’t deprive one another” (7:5).
• Should the unmarried remain that way? Preferably! (7:8-9).
• Should Christians who are married to unbelievers divorce their spouses? No! (7:10-16).
• Should men who have been circumcised try to reverse the procedure? (How would one do that?) Should men who have not been circumcised seek circumcision? Paul answers “Let each man stay in that calling in which he was called” (7:20).
• Should slaves seek freedom? Paul answers “Brothers, let each man, in whatever condition he was called, stay in that condition with God” (7:24).
The key to understanding Paul’s advice on these matters is found in our scripture text for this week. “The time is short” (7:29a). “For the mode of this world passes away” (7:31b). Paul is looking for the Second Coming of Christ, which he believes to be imminent. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t allow themselves to be distracted by lesser concerns. They should maintain a steady state, insofar as possible—not marrying—not divorcing—not being circumcised—not seeking freedom from slavery. His counsel reflects his belief that the Second Coming is just around the corner.
The question, then, is what this text has to do with us. After waiting two thousand years for Christ to come, we are less likely to believe that he will come in the next few months or years (although, hopefully, we have not lost hope that he will, indeed, come again).
What this text calls us to do is to maintain an eschatological (end of time) perspective— to appreciate the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new era—to remember that, as Christians, we live with one foot in this world and the other foot in the kingdom of God. An old Southern gospel song captures the mood, if not especially elegantly:
“This world is not my home; I just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
If we can maintain that kind of eschatological perspective, it will buy us a great deal of freedom. We can carry on with normal lives—marrying, working, raising children, and planning for retirement—but without succumbing to the kind of preoccupation with material things that always threatens to ensnare us.
It is difficult to live in a world that celebrates sex, money, and power as ultimate values without being affected by that perspective. However, events occasionally intrude on our lives and force us to think more deeply. When the doctor says “cancer”—or when we learn that our child has been in a bad accident—or when a spouse dies—suddenly the things that seemed so important a few minutes earlier fade into the background. In the crisis, we quickly reorient ourselves to that which is truly important.
This text calls us to live that kind of refocused life as a matter of course.
1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31. THE TIME IS SHORT
29But I say this, brothers: the time (Greek: kairos) is short, that from now on, both those who have wives may be as though they had none; 30and those who weep, as though they didn’t weep; and those who rejoice, as though they didn’t rejoice; and those who buy, as though they didn’t possess; 31and those who use the world, as not using it to the fullest. For the mode of this world passes away.
“But I say this, brothers: the time (kairos) is short“ (v. 29a). While some scholars question the meaning of “the appointed time has grown short” (it could mean that the days of our lives are numbered), verse 31b makes it clear that Paul is talking eschatologically here. He is pointing toward the Second Coming of Christ.
The Greeks have two words for time—chronos and kairos. Chronos has to do with chronological time—minutes, hours, days, etc. When we say that we will do something at a particular time, we are using chronos time. Kairos, on the other hand, has to do with crucial time or a decisive moment—a pivotal point in history. When we talk about “missing the boat,” (by which we mean missing the opportunity of a lifetime), we are talking about kairos time. When we say, “Now is the time to act!” we are talking about a decisive moment in history—kairos time. The fact that Paul uses kairos rather than chronos in this verse constitutes additional evidence that he intends to point, in these verses, toward the Second Coming of Christ.
While Jesus made it clear that no one knows when he will come again (Matthew 24:36), his death and resurrection ushered in a new age where it is appropriate for Christians to live as an eschatological people—a people whose vision extends to the ushering in of the kingdom of God in all its fullness—a people who live in anticipation of what will be instead of being mired in what is.
“that from now on, both those who have wives may be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they didn’t weep; and those who rejoice, as though they didn’t rejoice; and those who buy, as though they didn’t possess; and those who use the world, as not using it to the fullest“ (vv. 29b-31a). These are five examples of the ways that an eschatological people live differently from the rest of the people, but we must be careful lest we misinterpret Paul at this point. In the earlier verses of this chapter, he has encouraged the Corinthian Christians to carry on with the normal activities of life, including non-celibate marriage (vv. 1-5).
Rather than contradicting what he has already said about marriage, Paul is saying that “marriage and the other aspects of normal life (weeping, rejoicing, buying, consuming) must be viewed from the vantage point of the kingdom of God, the importance of which transcends all other commitments and ties” (Nash, 219).
“For the mode of this world passes away“ (v. 31b). As noted above, this phrase confirms the eschatological focus of this passage. This world is temporary, so it deserves only secondary attention. The kingdom of God—already a reality, but awaiting full revelation, is what really counts.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan