Summary: We like to think about what life would be like if only our conditions changed. What we need to be thinking about is how to live well with the conditions already given.
What would you change about your condition if you could? You know that if you changed, then you would be able to get closer to God and to serve him better. Would it be your job? Getting out of school? Perhaps you would like to change your very body – be taller or shorter, heavier or thinner, healthier perhaps. Perhaps if you could be married or single again or married to someone else. If only your condition in life would change, then you could do something worthwhile. That premise is what our text addresses today.
Let’s review. There are those who are married questioning if they should remain married. Now that they are Christians living in the new age of the Spirit, should they not put away what remains of the old life? If married, they could at least refrain from vulgar sexual relations. No, no, says Paul. Those are appropriate relations in marriage. What, then, about those who have lost their spouses? Should they seek marriage? One may marry, but it is good to remain single. If the single life is so good, what about ending a marriage? No, marriage is not to be broken. But what if one’s spouse is an unbeliever? Surely, then it would be okay to separate. No, try keep together for the sake of the spouse and the children. So, hold on to an unequally yoked marriage at all costs? No, not at all costs. If the spouse leaves, don’t go through undue measures to hold onto him or her.
What is it then that Paul thinks is most important? He seems ambivalent. Is it better to be married or single? Should one hold on to a marriage or let it go? Are sexual relations good to desire or not? What do you want, Paul? He wants each Christian to contentedly lead the life given: Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
Paul then gives a couple of “for instances.” Before we look at them, let’s get clear about the first sentence, because both the ESV and the NIV can lead to a misunderstanding. Paul is saying that each person should lead the life that the Lord (i.e. Christ) has assigned and in which God has called him into salvation. Each person should live out his calling as a Christian in whatever circumstance God has placed him. By “calling,” therefore, Paul means conversion, becoming a Christian.
Do you understand the issue? There is a sense in which we can speak of God calling us to live under certain conditions. We can be “called” to be married or single, “called” to live in a particular city or country. But in this passage and epistle, Paul means being called to salvation. Thus, in 1:2 he addresses the Corinth believers as those called to be saints, i.e. Christians. Later in verse 9 he notes that they were called into the fellowship of… Jesus Christ. In verse 24, he identifies Christian believers as those who are called.
I take time with clarifying this to sharpen the focus on the lesson, which is this: it is our status in belonging to Jesus Christ that identifies who we are and which gives purpose to our lives. Let’s follow Paul’s teaching.
18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
The matter of circumcision does not appear to be a big issue in Corinth, but it was in many other churches. The letter to the Galatians was written because of this very matter. Some Jewish-Christian teachers (the Judaizers) taught that to be saved, Gentiles must essentially become Jews by obeying the regulations of the Law. You can see their reasoning. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah come to save his people, which by definition were the Jews. Paul writes a scathing letter condemning such an idea. The very fact that he seems unemotional about the practice in this letter indicates the practice was not being promoted. Anyhow, circumcised or not, what matters for any Christian is to be obeying God’s commandments to love him and one’s neighbor. To put it another way, a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter (Romans 2:29).
Therefore, 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. He should not feel compelled to get circumcised or reverse his condition. It is not the condition that affects his calling to be a Christian; rather, it is his calling as a Christian that affects how he lives as a circumcised or uncircumcised individual.