Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Concerning the things whereof ye wroteunto me.—Some members of the Church having written to St. Paul to ask his counsel on matters concerning which there existed a difference of opinion at Corinth, the Apostle now proceeds to answer these inquiries, and his reply occupies the remainder of the Epistle (to 1Corinthians 16:4). The subjects concerning which the Corinthians sought for St. Paul’s opinion are treated of in the following order:
I. MARRIAGE, 1 Corinthians 7.
III. THE ATTIRE OF WOMEN IN PUBLIC WORSHIP, 1Corinthians 11:2-16.
IV. THE LORD’S SUPPER, 1Corinthians 11:17-34.
VI. THE DOCTRINE OF THE RESURRECTION, 1Corinthians 15:1-58.
VII. THE COLLECTION FOR THE POOR IN JUDÆA, 1Corinthians 16:1-4
In the consideration of each of these subjects various collateral matters are introduced, and the great principles which guided the Apostle, and which ever should guide the Church and individuals, are set forth. Many of the subjects were of purely local and temporary interest. The particular combination of circumstances which for the moment rendered them important has ceased to exist, and can never arise again; but the principles on which the Apostle based his arguments, and which he enunciates as the ground of his decisions, are eternal. To apply the injunctions of the Apostle in these chapters with a rigid and unyielding literalism to the Church in all ages, is to violate those very principles which guided St. Paul in enunciating them, and to exalt the dead and death-bearing letter at the sacrifice of the living and life-giving spirit of the apostolic teaching. As we proceed with our examination of St. Paul’s reply to the Corinthians’ letter we shall have little real difficulty in distinguishing between those practical injunctions which were of local and temporary application, and the wider and larger truths which are of universal and lasting obligation; for the Apostle himself is always careful to point out when a command is based upon some particular necessity of the day, and when it arises from some unchanging Christian principle.
The first subject concerning which the Corinthians sought advice was MARRIAGE. From the opening words of St. Paul’s reply, “It is good for a man not to marry” (such is the force of the word rendered “touch,” Genesis 20:6; Proverbs 6:29), it would seem that those who wrote for the Apostle’s advice were inclined to regard celibacy as preferable to the married state: so much so, indeed, that they had scruples as to whether even those who had been married should not separate (1Corinthians 7:3-5). We may, therefore, conclude that it was probably from the Pauline party that the inquiry came. It would be improbable that those who exalted some other teacher would have written to St. Paul to ask his guidance upon matters of controversy; and the tone of the Apostle’s replies on such questions as marriage, and the meats offered to idols (from which we can conjecture the line taken in the letter addressed to him), leads to the same conclusion. It would be natural for the Pauline party unduly to exaggerate the importance of celibacy and to undervalue matrimony. St. Paul’s own example, and his strong preference for the unmarried state, would have easily come to be regarded by his followers as matters of moral import, and not of merely temporary advantage and personal predilection. It is likely, also, as we know from other religious controversies, that the opposition of the Petrine party would drive the Pauline party into more extreme views. They would quote the example of their leader as a married man in opposition to the conduct of St. Paul (1Corinthians 9:5, and Matthew 8:14).
Good for a man.—We must not, on the one hand, force this statement into meaning that it is merely expedient, nor must we, on the other, attach to it so great a moral import as to imply that the opposite is morally wrong (as St. Jerome, “ergo est malum tangere”). The English word “good,” in its most general sense, accurately conveys the meaning. It is laid down as a proposition that it is in St. Paul’s opinion a good thing to remain unmarried. But that general proposition is immediately limited in its application by what follows. St. Chrysostom paraphrases this and the following verse thus: “For if thou inquire what is the excellent and greatly superior course, it is better not to have any connection whatever with a woman; but if, what is safe and helpful to thine own infirmity, be connected by marriage.”
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.(2) To avoid fornication.—Better, because of the (prevalent) fornication. This was so general in Corinth, and so little regarded as sin. that the unmarried were liable to be led into it.
It may at first sight appear as if the Apostle thus put marriage upon very low and merely utilitarian ground: but we must remember that he is here writing with a definite and limited aim, and does not enter into a general discussion of the subject. St. Paul gives a reason why those who wrote to him should marry, and the force of the argument does not extend beyond the immediate object in view. St. Paul’s view of the higher aspects of matrimony are fully set forth when he treats of that subject generally (2Corinthians 11:2; Romans 7:4; Ephesians 5:25-32).
Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.(3) Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence.—Rather, Let the husband render unto the wife her due—such being the reading of the better MSS. In this verse the Apostle answers the scruples of those who already were married and who doubted whether they should continue so.
The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.(4) Of her own body.—Bengel notices that these words, “She has not power of her own body,” form an elegant paradox, bringing out the equal rights of both.
Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.(5) Except it be . . . that ye may give yourselves—i.e., that ye may have leisure. Any such separation should be temporary, and with consent of both parties. Even then it must not be from mere caprice, but for some religious purpose, such as a special season of prayer. (See Exodus 19:15; 1Samuel 21:4.) The alteration in the Greek text of the word “give” into the present tense, so as to make the word “prayer” refer to daily devotions, and not to special and exceptional seasons, and the interpolation of the word “fasting”—not found in the older MSS.—are a striking example of how the ascetic tendencies of a particular ecclesiastical school of thought led to their “amending” the sacred text so as to make it be in harmony with their own views, instead of reverently regarding it as that by which those very views should be corrected.
And come together again.—Better (as in the best MSS.), and be together again. This is still an explanation of the purpose of the separation, not to be a lasting one, but that we may again return to the state of union. The text here bears further traces of having been altered so as to make it seem that the Apostle meant that the return to matrimonial life should be only to a temporary union, and not to a continuous state of life. The proper reading implies the latter, the word “be” being used as in Acts 2:44.
For your incontinency.—Better, because of your incontinency; the reference being, as in 1Corinthians 7:2, to the moral condition surrounding them, and to the influence to which a man thus separated would be subject. The Corinthian Christians are here solemnly reminded that this sin, as all sin, is from Satan—because the Corinthians at large did not regard it as sin at all, but even mingled sensuality with worship.
But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.(6) But I speak this by permission.—Better, Now I say this as a permission, and not as a command. As the passage is given in our English version, it might seem as if the Apostle implied that he had no actual command, but only a permission to write this, which is not at all his meaning. What he does say is, that the foregoing instructions are not to be considered as absolute commands from him, but as general permissive instruction, to be applied by each individual according to circumstances.
It has been much discussed as to what part of the previous passage the word “this” refers. It is perhaps best to take it as referring to the leading thought of the whole passage, which is that marriage is allowable, expressed especially in 1Corinthians 7:2.
For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.(7) For I would that all men were even as I myself.—Better, I wish rather that all men were as I myself. These words do not mean that the Apostle wished that every one was unmarried, but that every one had the same grace of continence which he himself was endowed with, so that they might without risk of sin remain unmarried (see 1Corinthians 7:26). Yet, he adds, there are many gifts, and God has given to each man his own gift, so that, though you may not have the particular gift of continence which I have, you have some other. One has one kind of gift; another has another kind.
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.(8) I say therefore.—Better, Now what I say is, . . . Widows are here joined with those who have not been married, otherwise discussion might have arisen as to whether the Apostle had intended his advice for them also. It has been curiously conjectured (by Luther amongst others), from the passage where St. Paul recommends widows to “abide even as I.” that the Apostle was himself a widower. This, however, requires the word “unmarried” to be restricted to widowers, which is quite inadmissible; and even if such were admissible, the deduction from it that St. Paul was a widower could scarcely be considered logical. The almost universal tradition of the early Church was that St. Paul was never married, and unless we can imagine his having been married, and his wife dead before the stoning of St. Stephen which is scarcely possible (Acts 7:58), the truth of that tradition is evident. (See Philippians 4:3.) “Even as I;” that is, unmarried.
But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.(9) It is better . . .—Because to be influenced with unlawful desire is a sin, and to marry is no sin.
And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:(10) And unto the married . . .—The Apostle has concluded his instruction to the unmarried and widows, and in 1Corinthians 7:10-11 gives his advice to those married persons who had been troubled with doubts as to whether they ought (if marriage were undesirable) to continue in that state.
I command, yet not I, but the Lord.—The contrast which is commenced here, and again brought out in 1Corinthians 7:12, is not between commands given by St. Paul as an inspired Apostle, and St. Paul as a private individual. In 1Corinthians 14:37 the Apostle expressly claims that all his commands as an Apostle should be regarded as “the commandments of the Lord,” and in 1Thessalonians 4:15 the Apostle speaks of that knowledge into which he was guided by the Holy Spirit as given “by the word of the Lord.” St. Paul must not therefore be regarded as here claiming for some of his instructions apostolic authority, and not claiming it for others. The real point of the contrast is between a subject on which our Lord Himself while on earth gave direct verbal instruction, and another subject on which He now gives His commands through His Apostle St. Paul. Christ had given directions regarding divorce (Matthew 5:31; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12), and the Apostle here has only to reiterate what the Lord had already commanded.
Let not the wife depart from her husband.—Better, Let her not be separated. The account of our Lord’s words given here differs in two respects from the record given of them by St. Matthew (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9), where the reference is, first and more prominently, to the man putting away his wife—not, as here, to the wife separating herself from her husband—and the exception made, “except it be because of fornication,” is here omitted. The fact that St. Paul only knew from others what our Lord had said, and that the Evangelists wrote what they had heard themselves, would not sufficiently account for this difference; for surely these very Evangelists, or others who like them had heard the Lord’s words, would have been St. Paul’s informants. The reason of the variety in the two accounts is to be found, not in inaccurate knowledge on St. Paul’s part, which we have no reason to suppose, but in the particular circumstances to which the Apostle was applying the teaching of Christ; and this verbal difference is an instructive indication to us of how the Apostles understood that even in the case of the Lord Himself it was the living spirit of His teaching, and not its merely verbal form, which was of abiding and universal obligation. There was no necessity here to introduce the one exceptional cause of divorce which Christ had allowed, for the subject under consideration is a separation voluntarily made, and not as the result of sin on the part of either husband or wife; so the mention here of that ground of exception would have been inapplicable, and have tended only to confuse.
The other point of difference—viz., the mention here of the woman more prominently as separating from the husband—does not in any way affect the principle of the teaching, and indeed our Lord probably did put the case in both ways. (See Mark 10:12.) It may be also that in the letter to which St. Paul was replying the doubt had been suggested by women, who were—as their sex is often still—more anxiously scrupulous about details of what they conceived to be religious duty; and the question having been asked concerning a woman’s duty, the Apostle answers it accordingly, and adds the same instruction for the husband (1Corinthians 7:11).
But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.(11) But and if she depart.—Better, but if she have actually separated. These words, from “but” to “husband,” are a parenthesis, and the concluding words, “and let not the husband put away his wife,” are the completion of the Lord’s command given in 1Corinthians 7:10. The Apostle, in case such a separation should already have taken place, anticipates the difficult question which might then arise by parenthetically remarking that in such a case the woman must not marry again, but ought to be reunited to her former husband.
But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.(12) But to the rest.—Up to this point the writer has alluded only to Christians; he has spoken of the duties of unmarried persons, of widows, and of those already married. There still remains one class of marriages concerning which differences of opinion existed—viz., mixed marriages. In a church like Corinth there would have been, no doubt, many cases where one of the partners was a heathen and the other a Christian, arising from the subsequent conversion of only one of the married couple. This subject is treated of in 1Corinthians 7:12-16. The words are emphatically, “If any man have already a wife,” &c. The case of a Christian marrying a heathen is not alluded to. In 2Corinthians 6:14, the marriage of a Christian to a heathen is forbidden.
Speak I, not the Lord.—The Apostle has no word of Christ’s to quote on this point, it being one which did not arise during our Lord’s life. (See Note on 1Corinthians 7:10.)
It is to be noticed that the Apostle, in giving his own apostolic instruction on this point, does not use the word “command,” which he applied to our Lord’s teaching, but the less authoritative “speak.”
A wife that believeth not.—That is, a heathen. In some modern religious circles this whole passage has been used (as also 2Corinthians 6:14) as if by “unbeliever” St. Paul meant a careless Christian, or one who, in modern phraseology, was not “converted.” The Apostle is referring under this designation to heathens, and the only case to which his teaching could now or ever apply would be when two heathens had been married, and subsequently only one had embraced the Christian faith. It is to be noticed that both here and in 1Corinthians 7:13 the being “pleased to dwell” is put only in reference to the partner who is a heathen, for the Apostle takes for granted that after the instructions he here gives to the Christian partner, no such desire for separation will arise on the part of a Christian.
And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.(13) Let her not leave him.—Better, let her not put him away; the Greek being the same as is applied to the husband in 1Corinthians 7:12. Under Roman law—and St. Paul was writing to those who were under such law—the wife, as well as the husband, was permitted to obtain a divorce. It is therefore probable that St. Paul uses the stronger term here in reference to the woman’s action in the matter, instead of repeating the same word as in 1Corinthians 7:10. Some have suggested that the reason St. Paul applies this word to the action of the woman in the matter is that, in the case under consideration, the fact of the wife being a Christian inverts, in St. Paul’s opinion, the natural order, and makes her the superior. This is wholly inadmissible, and quite contrary to St. Paul’s view of the absolute superiority of the " husband. (See 1Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22; 1Timothy 2:11.)
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.(14) The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife.—Any scruple which a Christian might have felt as to whether matrimonial union with an unbeliever would be defiling is here removed, and the purity of the former teaching justified. In contrast to that other union in which the connection is defiling (1Corinthians 6:16), the purity of the believing partner in this union, being a lawful one, as it were, entirely overweighs the impurity of the unbeliever, it being not a moral, but a kind of ceremonial impurity. The children of such marriages were considered to be Christian children; and the fruit being holy, so must we regard as holy the tree from which it springs. It must be remembered that the “sanctification” and “holiness” here spoken of is not that inward sanctification which springs from the action of the Holy Spirit in the individual heart, but that consecration which arises from being in the body of Christ, which is the Christian Church (Romans 9:16.)
But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.(15) But if the unbelieving depart.—Supposing, however, the desire for separation arises from the unbelieving partner, how is the Christian partner to act? If the married life, for example, be made intolerable by the unbeliever urging the believer to join in such religious acts as conscience cannot approve, the Apostle’s previous commands for continued union do not hold good: a brother or a sister, in such cases, is not bound to insist upon the continuation of the union. “Let the unbeliever, if he so desire, depart.”
This permission is in no way contrary to our Lord’s permission of divorce on only one ground, for the Apostle has carefully reminded his readers that our Lord’s command does not apply to the case of a marriage between a believer and a heathen. In ouch cases we have no command from Him.
A brother or a sister.—That is, a Christian. In such cases, when the unbelieving partner wishes to depart, let him or her do so. The Christian partner is not, under such circumstances, bound by the marriage to continue together. Their doing so might destroy that very peace in which (not “to peace” as in the English) God has called us.
For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?(16) For what knowest thou, O wife . . .?—This verse has been very generally regarded as a kind of modification of the previous one, as if the Apostle suggested that it might be advisable not to let the unbelieving partner depart from the marriage union when he so desired, in any case where there was even a chance of the believing partner effecting his or her conversion. The true meaning of the passage is, however, precisely the opposite. The Apostle declares that the remote contingency of the unbeliever’s conversion is too vague a matter for which to risk the peace which is so essential an element in the Christian life. If the unbelieving partner will depart, do not let any thought as to the possible influence you may exercise over his religious convictions—about which you cannot know anything, but only at most vaguely speculate—cause you to insist upon his remaining.
Some historical results, arising from the view that this is a suggestion of the good which may result from such union being continued, are interestingly alluded to by Stanley in his note on this passage:—“This passage, thus interpreted, probably had a direct influence on the marriage of Clotilda with Clovis, and Bertha with Ethelbert, and consequently on the subsequent conversion of the two great kingdoms of France and England to the Christian faith.”
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.(17) But as God hath distributed . . .—Regarding 1Corinthians 7:16 as a kind of parenthesis, these words follow on from 1Corinthians 7:15 as a general principle to be ever borne in mind, as limiting in practice the very broad liberty which the Apostle has given regarding separation in cases of mixed marriages. It is to be noticed that in 1Corinthians 7:15 the unbelieving partner is the only one who is spoken of as taking an active part in the separation; the believer is, merely for the sake of peace, to acquiesce in it; he is never to cause or promote a separation, for he is to be guided by the great principle that we are to continue to walk in those social and political relations by which we were bound when God called us. Christianity does not destroy them, but purifies and exalts them, and thus makes them more binding on us than before. According as the Lord has divided to each man his portion in life, and as God has called each man, so in that condition let him continue to walk as a Christian. Let him not try to change it for another. The words “God” and “Lord” have been transposed by later copyists. The order in the English version is different from that in the older MSS. It is important to preserve the accurate reading here, for it speaks of Christ—“the Lord”—as the one who allots to men their natural condition in life, while “God” calls them from heathenism to the Christian faith.
And so ordain I in all churches.—This principle was of universal application, and the Apostle lays it down authoritatively for all Churches. The I is emphatic, as the writer speaks with apostolic authority. It is noticeable that in some few later MSS. there is an attempt to weaken its force by the substitution of “I teach” for “I appoint or direct.” (See 1Corinthians 16:1.)
Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.(18) Is any man called being circumcised?—Better, Was any one called having been circumcised? The previous general rule is now illustrated by, and applied to, two conditions of life—CIRCUMCISION (1Corinthians 7:18-20) and SLAVERY (1Corinthians 7:20-24). If any man was converted after having been circumcised, he was not, as some over-zealous Christians might have been anxious to do, to remove every trace of his external connection with Judaism (Galatians 5:2).
Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.(19) Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing.—Often those who regard some ceremony as unimportant magnify the very disregard of it into a necessary virtue. The Apostle carefully guards against that by expressing the nothingness of both circumcision and uncircumcision (Romans 2:25; Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15). The circumcision of Timothy, and the refusal to circumcise Titus by St. Paul himself, are illustrations at once of the application of the truth here enforced, and of the Apostle’s scrupulous adherence to the principles of his own teaching. To have refused to circumcise Timothy would have attached some value to non-circumcision. To have circumcised Titus would have attached some value to circumcision. (See Acts 16:3; Galatians 2:3.)
But the keeping of the commandments of God is everything, understood. The teaching here is, practically, “To obey is better than sacrifice.”
Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.(20) Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.—This is an emphatic repetition of the principle on which the previous practical instruction is based. “Calling” must not here be regarded in the modern sense of profession or condition in life; it is nowhere so used in the New Testament, but always signifies God’s calling of us. (See Romans 11:29; Ephesians 1:18.) Continue to be Christians of the kind which God’s call to Christianity made you. If you were circumcised—and so God’s call into the Christian Church made you a circumcised Christian—continue so; don’t do anything which would seem to imply that some other change in addition to your “call” was necessary to complete your admission to the Church.
Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.(21) Art thou called being a servant?—Better, Were you called while a slave? Do not let that make you anxious. The fact of your being in slavery does not affect the reality of completeness of your conversion; and so you need have no anxiety to try and escape from servitude. In this and the following three verses the subject of SLAVERY is treated of as the second illustration of the general principle laid down in 1Corinthians 7:17—viz., that a man’s conversion to Christianity should not lead him to change his national or social condition.
But if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.—These words may seem to imply that if a slave could obtain his liberty he was to avail himself of the opportunity to do so. Such an interpretation, however, is entirely at variance with the whole drift of the argument, which is, that he is not to seek such a change. What the Apostle does say is, that (so far from letting the servitude be a cause of distress to you) if you can even be free, prefer to use it, i.e., your condition as a converted slave. It, as well as any other position in life, can be used to God’s glory. Such an interpretation is most in accordance with the construction of the sentence in the original Greek; and it is in perfect harmony, not only with the rest of this passage, but with all St. Paul’s teaching and his universal practice on this subject.
It may be well here briefly to notice the attitude which the Apostle of the Gentiles maintains towards the great question of SLAVERY. While there were many points in which ancient slavery under the Greek and Roman Governments was similar to what has existed in modern days, there were also some striking points of difference. The slaves at such a place as Corinth would have been under Roman law, but many of its harsher provisions would doubtless have been practically modified by the traditional leniency of Greek servitude and by general usage. Although a master could sell his slave, punish him, and even put him to death, if he did so unjustly he would himself be liable to certain penalties. The power which a master could exercise over his slave was not so evidently objectionable in an age when parents had almost similar power over their children. Amongst the class called slaves were to be found, not only the commonest class who performed menial offices, but also literary men, doctors, midwives, and artificers, who were constantly employed in work suited to their ability and acquirements. Still, the fact remains that the master could sell his slave as he could sell any other species of property; and such a state of things was calculated greatly to degrade both those who trafficked and those who were trafficked in, and was contrary to those Christian principles which taught the brotherhood of men, and exalted every living soul into the high dignity of having direct communion with its Father.
How, then, are we to account for St. Paul, with his vivid realisation of the brotherhood of men in Christ, and his righteous intolerance of intolerance, never having condemned this servile system, and having here insisted on the duty of a converted slave to remain in servitude; or for his having on one occasion sent back a Christian slave to his Christian master without asking for his freedom, although he counted him his master’s “brother”? (See Ep. to Philemon.)
One point which would certainly have weighed with the Apostle in considering this question was his own belief in the near approach of the end of this dispensation. If all existing relations would be overthrown in a few years, even such a relation as was involved in slavery would not be of so great importance as if it had been regarded as a permanent institution.
But there were other grave considerations, of a more positive and imperative nature. If one single word from Christian teaching could have been quoted at Rome as tending to excite the slaves to revolt, it would have set the Roman Power in direct and active hostility to the new faith. Had St. Paul’s teaching led (as it probably would, had he urged the cessation of servitude) to a rising of the slaves—that rising and the Christian Church, which would have been identified with it, would have been crushed together. Rome would not have tolerated a repetition of those servile wars which had, twice in the previous century, deluged Sicily with blood.
Nor would the danger of preaching the abolition of servitude have been confined to that arising from external violence on the part of the Roman Government; it would have been pregnant with danger to the purity of the Church itself. Many might have been led, from wrong motives, to join a communion which would have aided them in securing their social and political freedom.
In these considerations we may find, I think, ample reasons for the position of non-interference which the Apostle maintains in regard to slavery. If men then say that Christianity approved of slavery, we would point them to the fact that it is Christianity that has abolished it. Under a particular and exceptional condition of circumstances, which cannot again arise, St. Paul, for wise reasons, did not interfere with it. To have done so would have been worse than useless. But he taught fearlessly those imperishable principles which led in after ages to its extinction. The object of Christianity—and this St. Paul over and over again insisted on—was not to overturn and destroy existing political and social institutions, but to leaven them with new principles. He did not propose to abolish slavery, but to Christianise it; and when slavery is Christianised it must cease to exist. Christianised slavery is liberty.
For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant.(22) For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, . . .—Better, For he that was converted as a slave is Christ’s freedman; and, similarly, the one who was converted as a freeman is Christ’s slave. Therefore, no one need trouble himself as to his mere earthly servitude or freedom. If he be a slave, let him be cheered by remembering that he is a freedman belonging to Christ; and if he be a freeman, let him not despise the state of the one in servitude, realising that he himself is Christ’s slave. A “freedman,” as distinct from a “freeman,” was one who had been in bondage but was now free.
Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.(23) Ye are bought with a price . . .—Better, You were bought with a price therefore become not slaves of men. This carries on the idea of freedmen of the previous verse. With a great price—even the blood of Christ—they have been purchased by Him as freedmen: therefore, do not become slaves of men—do not yield to their views by seeking to change the condition of your calling.
Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.(24) Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called.—Better, was called. Here we have an earnest reiteration of the principle underlying the previous instruction, Let the converted man abide, as regards his social or political state, as he was; in doing so, he will be with God. They were brought near to God by their conversion, whether free or slave; let them so remain.
Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.(25) Wow concerning virgins . . .—A new subject is here introduced—viz., the duty of parents regarding their young unmarried daughters. Ought they to give them in marriage? The answer occupies to 1Corinthians 7:38. On this subject the Apostle states that he has no actual command from Christ. It was a point to which our Lord had not directly alluded in His teaching, and so the Apostle gives his opinion as one who has obtained mercy to be a faithful instructor. The contrast here is not between Paul inspired by the Lord and Paul not inspired, but, as in 1Corinthians 7:12, between Paul quoting the words of Christ and Paul himself instructing as an inspired Apostle.
I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.(26) I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress.—Better, I think then that it is good because of the impending distress—that it is good for a person to be so—i.e., to continue in the state in which he is, married or unmarried, as the case may be.
The construction of this sentence is strikingly characteristic of a writing which has been taken down from dictation. The speaker commences the sentence, and afterwards commences it over again: “I think it is good,” &c., and then, “I say I think it is good.”
From this verse to the end of 1Corinthians 7:35 the Apostle deals again with the general question of marriage, introducing a new element of consideration—“the impending distress”; and at 1Corinthians 7:36 he returns to the immediate subject with which he had started in 1Corinthians 7:25, viz., duty of parents regarding their young unmarried daughters. The “impending distress” is that foretold by Christ, Matthew 24:8 et seq. The Apostle regarded the coming of Christ as no distant event, and in the calamities already threatening the Church, such as the famine in the time of Claudius (Acts 11:28), and in the gathering persecutions, he heard the first mutterings of the storm which should burst upon the world before the sign of the Son of Man should appear in the heavens.
It is good for a man.—It is most important to remember how much stress St. Paul lays upon this point as the ground of his preference for celibacy. As the reason for the preference has ceased to exist, so the advice, so far as it springs from that cause, is no longer of binding obligation (see 1Corinthians 7:29-31).
Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.(27) Art thou bound unto a wife?—This is an explanation and re-assertion of the previous words “so to be.” Being “loosed from a wife” does not mean a separation after marriage, but simply “unmarried.”
But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you.(28) But and if thou marry.—Better, If, however, thou hast married. The teaching here is not for some who will, after this advice, persist in marrying, but the reference is still to those who are actually married, and a further and clearer statement to them that the question is not one of sin, but merely of desirability.
If a virgin marry.—In the original it is emphatically “If the virgin have married.” It is possible that in the letter from Corinth some particular case was referred to in which a Christian parent had scruples as to allowing his daughter to marry, and while dealing, in reply, with the subject generally, the Apostle refers immediately here to the particular case which had given rise to the inquiry. He says that if she have married she will have committed no sin; but that she and those who, like her, have married, will have troubles in the flesh, i.e., earthly troubles. It is not a spiritual question.
But I spare you.—This might, at first sight, seem to imply that he does not desire to harass them by any detail of their troubles just referred to; but the true meaning, however, is that the Apostle states his desire in giving this advice is to spare them their troubles. Matrimony will involve you in earthly troubles when the expected distress comes: therefore, in advising you to remain unmarried, my desire is to spare you them.
But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none;(29) But this I say, brethren.—This does not introduce a reiteration of what he has said already, but commences a solemn and affectionate warning, urging on them earnestly that, whether they applied or did not apply the principle to marriage, still that it is true, and of vast importance in regulating all life,—that men should live as ever expecting the return of the Lord. Let us not for one moment think that this principle was evolved by St. Paul from a mistaken belief that the Second Advent was close at hand. This principle of life was taught by Christ Himself. He warned men against living carelessly because they thought “the Lord delayeth His coming.” They were to be ever on the watch, as servants for the unexpected return of their master—as guests for the coming of the bridegroom. It was not the opinion that Christ would soon come which led St. Paul to hold and teach this principle of Christian life. Perhaps it was his intense realisation of this eternal truth which the Lord had taught, his assimilation of it as part of his very being, from which the conviction arose that the Advent was not only in theory always, but, as a matter of fact, then near at hand. Hope and belief mysteriously mingled together in one longing unity of feeling.
It may be asked, if the Apostles were mistaken on this point, may they not have been mistaken about other things also? The best answer to such a question, perhaps, is that this was just the one point on which our Lord had said they should not be informed, and it is the one point on which they were not informed. “Times and seasons” were to be excluded from their knowledge (Acts 1:6).
The time is short: it remaineth . . .—Better, The time that remains is shortened, so that both they that have wives, &c. (the Greek word for “remain” (to loipon) is used frequently by St. Paul in a sort of adverbial way, 2Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 6:10; Philippians 4:8). The words “so that” do not introduce a series of apostolic exhortations based upon and growing out of the previous statement regarding the brevity of the remaining time, but they express what was God’s intention in thus making the time short. St. Paul regards everything as having its place and purpose in the divine economy. If the time were long (and the teaching applies equally—for the principle is the same—to the brevity of life), then, indeed, men might live as having “much goods laid up for many years” (Luke 12:19); but the time of life is short, that each may keep himself from being the slave of the external conditions and relationships of life. Such is the force of the series of striking contrasts with which the Apostle now illustrates the habit of life which God intended to follow from the shortening of the time.
And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.(31) Not abusing it.—We can scarcely find a better word in English than “abusing” by which to render the Greek of this passage. But this word implies, in modern language, an abuse arising from misuse, and not, as in the original here, an abuse arising from over-much use. All the things mentioned in this series by the Apostle are right things; and the warning is against being in bondage to those things which are in themselves right and good, and not against any criminal use of them. Though they are not wrong in themselves, we are not to become slaves of them; we are to renounce them, “so as not to follow nor be led by them.”
For the fashion of this world passeth away.—Better, for the outward form of this world is passing away (the word translated “fashion” occurs only here and in Philippians 2:8). The allusion is not a merely general reference to the ephemeral nature of things temporal, but arises from the Apostle’s conviction that the last days were already commencing, when the outward temporal form of things was being superseded (Romans 8:19; Revelation 21:1). The word “for” does not introduce a reason for the immediately preceding injunction, but carries us back to the previous statement in 1Corinthians 7:29 : “the time is short,” the intervening series of illustrative exhortations being parenthetical.
But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:(32) But I would have you.—These words seem to take up again the form of expression in 1Corinthians 7:28. I would spare you trouble; I also wish to have you free from anxious care. That is my reason for so advising you. And here the Apostle returns to the subject immediately under consideration, and shows here what he has been saying bears upon it. This element of anxious care must be borne in mind in considering the desirability or otherwise of marriage.
There are some important variations in the readings of these verses (1Corinthians 7:32-34) in the Greek MSS. The emendations required in the Greek text, from which the Authorised version is translated, are, I think, as follows:—Omit the full-stop after 1Corinthians 7:33, connecting it with 1Corinthians 7:34 by the insertion of the word “and.” Insert “and” in 1Corinthians 7:34 before “a wife,” and the word “unmarried” after a wife.” The whole passage will then stand thus (rendering the Greek verb as it is in 1Corinthians 1:13, “divided,” and, not, as in the English version here, “a difference between”): The unmarried man careth for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But the married man careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and is divided in his interests (i.e., distracted). Also the wife that is unmarried (i.e., a widow, or divorced), and the unmarried virgin (i.e., the maid who is free from any contract of marriage), cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
The whole force of the passage is that married persons have, in the fulfilment of their obligations to each other, an additional interest and concern from which the unmarried are free. It must ever be distinctly borne in mind that this advice was given solely under the impression that the end of all earthly things was impending, and that the great trial and desolation was beginning to darken over the world. The Apostle who wrote these words of warning himself expressly condemns those who applied them as involving general moral obligations, and not as suited merely to temporary requirements (1Timothy 4:1; 1Timothy 4:3). He had himself at this time a strong personal inclination for a celibate life; but still he could enjoy and show a preference for the companionship of those who were evidently otherwise minded—he abode and wrought with Aquila and Priscilla his wife, at Corinth (Acts 18:3). We can still imagine circumstances arising in individual cases to which the principle enforced by the Apostle would apply. A man might feel it his duty to devote his life to some missionary enterprise, in which marriage would hamper his movements and impede his usefulness. Such an exceptional case would hence only establish the general rule. “It may not be out of place to recall” (writes Stanley, in his Exposition of St. Paul’s View of Celibacy) “a celebrated instance of a similarly emphatic preference for celibacy on precisely similar grounds—not of abstract right, but of special expediency—in the well-known speech of our great Protestant Queen, when she declared that England was her husband and all Englishmen her children, and that she desired no higher character or fairer remembrance of her to be transmitted to posterity than this inscription engraved upon her tombstone: ‘Here lies Elizabeth, who lived and died a maiden queen.’”
And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.(35) And this I speak for your own profit.—The reference is to the preceding passage, commencing with 1Corinthians 7:32; and the writer explains that these instructions are given, not to please himself, but for (emphatically) your own advantage; not to entangle you in a noose, and so take away your liberty, but with a view to comeliness (or, honesty, Romans 13:13), and to your waiting upon the Lord without being cumbered with earthly things (as, in Luke 10:40, Martha was “cumbered”).
But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.(36) But if any man think.—Here the writer turns to the duty of parents, and there is a further explanation to such that the previous expressions are not binding commandments, but apostolic advice. If the case arises that a parent thinks he would be acting unfairly towards his unmarried daughter (i.e., exposing her to temptation) by withholding his permission for her marriage, he ought to do as he feels inclined—i.e., let the lover and his daughter marry.
Let him do what he will.—This sentence does not—as it may at first sight in the English appear to do—imply that he may consent or not, and whichever course he adopts he does right. It is implied, in the earlier part of the sentence, that he thinks he ought to give his consent, and therefore that is what he wishes to do. Let him do that which he so wills, says St. Paul, and he need not in doing so fear that he does wrong.
Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.(37) Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart.—The previous verse must not be understood as applying to any other cases than those to which it is strictly limited—viz., those where positive harm is likely to result from the parent withholding his consent. Where no such necessity arises, but the parent has power over his own will (in contrast to the parent whose will must be under the control of the external necessity of the case), and has made this resolution in his heart, the result of which is to keep his daughter with him unmarried, will do well (future tense, see next Note).
So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.(38) So then . . .—Better, So then he that gives his daughter in marriage does well, and (not “but”) he that giveth her not shall do better. It is worth noticing how, in the case of the one who gives his daughter in marriage, we have the present tense “does well”—as if the good he did began and ended there; and, in the other case, the future “shall do” (in 1Corinthians 7:37 also)—the good result of his action continuing while the girl remains with her parent. This passage clearly shows how St. Paul has not been contrasting right and wrong: but comparative degrees of what is expedient.
All throughout this passage the Apostle takes for granted the absolute control of the parent over the child, in accordance with the principles of both Greek and Jewish jurisprudence. Hence, no advice is given to the young maiden herself, but only to her father.
The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.(39, 40) The wife.—The question of the re-marriage of widows is here considered. It was probably a matter in which his opinion had been asked, and, in any case, naturally completes the subject of marriage. The widow may be married again if she desire, but “only in the Lord”—i.e., not to a heathen. She, being a Christian, should marry a Christian.
The words “by the law” are not in the best MSS. The opening sentence, asserting the marriage union to be dissoluble only by death, is to guard against any married woman applying these words to herself, they having reference only to widows.
St. Paul explains that she is happier to continue a widow (her case coming under the same considerations as referred to the unmarried in the previous verses).
I think also that I have the Spirit of God.—This is no expression of doubt as to whether he had the Spirit of God, but an assurance of his confidence that he, as well as other teachers (who, perhaps, boast more about it), had the Spirit of God to guide him in cases where no direct command has been given by Christ.