Summary: The reordering of our priorities in the face of an impending crisis.
A SHORTENED TIME, A PASSING WORLD
This is one of Paul’s ‘I say, not the Lord’ passages (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:25), meaning that he is not here directly quoting a word from Jesus.
Not that his comments are uninspired, as some contend. The Apostle goes on to qualify himself, without meaning to cast a doubt on it: ‘and I think I also have the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 7:40).
Paul is addressing ‘the present distress’ (1 Corinthians 7:26). When he wrote this (around 51 A.D.) there was a severe shortage of grain around the Greek world, mentioned also by other writers of the time, and in inscriptions uncovered by archaeologists. Grain was the staple food of the region.
“The time is straitened” (1 Corinthians 7:29) speaks of a season environed with trials, restricted by poverty.
Translated like this, it reminds us of ‘the strait gate’ which we must strive to enter (Matthew 7:13-14).
It may also speak of a shortness of time: “the time is shortened.” This could imply, ‘the famine won’t last for ever.’ But it also reminds us of how furious the devil is, because he knows that his time is shortened (cf. Revelation 12:12).
However, the word used for time speaks of a set time, rather than just the passage of time. The events that would eventually lead to the evangelisation of the world, and to the end of the age, had already been set in motion (cf. Matthew 24:14). The time of Jesus’ return was, even then, drawing ever nearer.
It also opens out the possibilities into our own era: for, surely, we are closer than ever before to the return of Jesus. In that case, perhaps it is a wake-up call, like that of Romans 13:11-12, for ‘now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed’.
Indeed, at the other end of today’s short reading we have: “the scheme of this world passes away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Another Apostle warns, ‘the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of the Lord abides forever’ (1 John 2:17).
And another, ‘the end of all things is at hand’ (1 Peter 4:7).
The string of verbs in the centre of today’s passage are not necessarily exhortations, but the grammar would allow a reading of,
“Since the time is shortened: those who have wives will be as those who have not; those who are weeping as those who are not weeping; those who are rejoicing as those who are not rejoicing; those who buy as those not possessing (what they bought); those who are using this world as those who are not using it to the full” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
Things will not always be as they are. There will inevitably be circumstances when Paul’s instruction, ‘remain as you are’ (1 Corinthians 7:20) will be evidenced, as a matter of fact rather than of enforced obligation, by an equalising of the various statuses mentioned in the centre of our present passage.
The early Christians were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6).
Even legitimate things in the order of this world pale into insignificance with the inbreaking of the holy. Our new priority is ‘the kingdom of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33).
As for the kingdom of this world, it will be dissolved: ‘the earth and the works that are in it’ will be ‘laid bare’ (cf. 2 Peter 3:10).
How then should we live?
Perhaps the implication for the congregation of God’s people, in any generation, is that we should hold the things of this world with a loose hand.
‘And so much the more as the Day draws near’ (Hebrews 10:25).