To Marry or Not to Marry? — Part Two
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To Marry or Not to Marry? — Part Two

Whether married or single, a Christian’s highest priority should be the Lord and His work. In this message, we’re reminded that the responsibilities and privileges of marriage involve unique demands and distractions that are not the concerns of the unmarried. Alistair Begg assures us that even though singleness is a sensible option, it is not necessarily a higher calling. We are called to be content and serve God wholeheartedly in whatever role He gives us.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 3

Marriage and Singleness 1 Corinthians 7:1–40 Series ID: 14603

We Two Are One

A Study on God’s Plan for Marriage Selected Scriptures Series ID: 21401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we’re grateful for the privilege you’ve given us to sing your praise and to be reminded in these words of song that when the perspective of eternity casts light upon our pathway, things are different. And we pray that as we look to your Holy Word tonight, that the perspective of eternity may dawn upon our souls afresh as it relates to the most practical of questions concerning singleness and marriage and family. Teach us, Lord, so that we might know ourselves to be under the instruction of the Word of God and that we might see Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Let me invite you to take your Bible, and we’ll turn to 1 Corinthians 7 once again. It’s starting to sound like a very familiar introduction, is it not? I never bargained for all that 1 Corinthians 7 would do to us and for us and in us, and certainly I haven’t lost track of 5 and 6 either, and I’m sure you haven’t. Tremendous power in God’s Word. It’s a great privilege to just be able to teach it consecutively, as we try to do.

Our concern last time, in verses 25–40, we began to look at under the heading “To Marry or Not to Marry?” If you’re here tonight without the benefit of the study of last time, then our title simply remains the same; we would put a “2” after it. And last time we noted that the context of his teaching was in light of the fact that, as he says in verse 26, there was a “present crisis”; as he then went on to point out in verse 29, “The time is short”; and then, in verse 31: “This world in its present form is passing away.”

We then went on from the context to the concern of his teaching to see that his concern was that they might be protected, that they might be provided for, and that they might live in the right way in devotion, as verse 35 points out: “I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

We then said that when we get to grips with the context of the teaching and the concern of the teaching, then we’re in a better position to be able to understand the content of the teaching. And we suggested that verses 29–31 were at the heart of this and looked together at the fact that when we realize that crisis and the brevity of time and the passing world, it will change the way that we look at all these things that he mentions here. We dealt with them in reverse order: the way in which we’ll deal with culture, with possessions, with happiness, with death, and with relationships. And we were working, as it were, from the bottom of the page to the top. And we left it last time without considering the second sentence in verse 29—at least the first part of it—which is where we begin our study tonight.

An eternal perspective changes the way we view relationships. It is because of that that he is able to say, “From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none.” Now, those of us who are alert will find ourselves immediately referring to the fifth verse, which we studied some weeks ago now, where we were reminded of the mutual obligation that exists within the framework of marriage: that there is to be no depravation of one another, especially in the physical realm. And so it clearly cannot be that Paul is contradicting himself in a matter of some twenty-four verses, nor can it be that he is contradicting himself at all. So when he says, “From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none,” he is not setting aside the instruction he has already given. What he is saying is this: marriage should not reduce the believer’s obligation to the Lord and the Lord’s work. Let me say it again, because I believe this is the principle: marriage should not reduce the believer’s obligation to the Lord and the Lord’s work.

The responsibilities of marriage and, right along with them, the responsibilities and privileges of family—and I think we’re justified in absorbing that within this heading—these responsibilities are no excuse whatsoever for slackness when it comes to the things of Christ and his kingdom. In other words, we cannot allow our relationships with one another—whatever those relationships, however prized they might be—to be a ground for removing ourselves from the realm of obligation to the Lord and his work. When we do that, we invert the priorities which God has given us. And I hope you won’t misunderstand me when I say that I think that largely that is the predicament of the church in our day: that we have, in fact, inverted the priorities which God has given us, and that is one of the reasons that we find ourselves as we are.

Marriage should not reduce the believer’s obligation to the Lord and the Lord’s work.

And what I mean by that is this: it is customary to hear people state their personal priorities as follows. You may want to write these down, because there is a more than even chance that this is how you would state your priorities. They go like this: God, family, the Lord’s work or the church, daily employment, leisure, and so on. I want to suggest to you tonight that number two and number three are in the wrong order—that true biblical priorities should read “God,” and then “God’s work,” and then “family.” Because it is not possible to separate the Lord from the Lord’s work. What does it mean to be devoted to the Lord in abstract? How would we ever explain to somebody what devotion to the Lord is, unless that devotion is expressed in a commitment to the Lord’s work?

Now, I want to recognize along with you tonight that there have been abuses and there remain abuses towards family living that have been directly related to a commitment to the Lord’s work, or so we’re told. And people have said that they have abused their family because of their commitment to the Lord. However, I want to suggest that on the basis of God’s Word, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not an either-or situation. And the fact that people have abused their families because of their commitment to the Lord’s work is hardly sufficient grounds for justifying the new abuse, which is the deification of marriage and the deification of family and the denigration of the Lord’s work.

Now, this is a hard thing to teach tonight in a society that is consumed by “focus on the family,” in a society that has spent millions of dollars scrambling for an understanding of family values. And I hope that you won’t knee jerk in your reaction too quickly, because I’d like you to try and think this through with me. Clearly, the Bible is not suggesting the denigration of family or of marriage or of our spouses. It can never do that. There is no question but that the Bible gives pride of place to all of those relationships within the framework that God has intended. But this has got to mean something: “From now on those who have wives should live as if they don’t have wives.” What does that mean, don’t come home? What does that mean, sleep in separate rooms? What does that mean, speak once a year? No, it doesn’t mean that. It can’t mean that! Don’t you think that what Paul is providing here by way of instruction is right in line with what Jesus taught on a number of occasions? And let me give to you Luke 14:26. Luke 14:26 reads as follows: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

Now, that is a quote from Jesus himself. That is radical instruction, that is Jesus’ instruction, and that, I believe, is key to what Paul is saying here. When eternity’s values begin to shine upon the pathway of our lives, it changes everything—in much the same way that that song by Andrew Lloyd Weber, “Love, love changes everything: how you live and how you die.”[1] And what Paul is saying is eternity changes everything: how you live, and how you die, and how you deal with the whole question of relationships, not least of all within the context of marriage and of family.

Think with me tonight, for a moment, how the cause of the gospel is impacted negatively as a result of our unwillingness to take Jesus at his word and to put himself and his work before our families. Remember that you can never, ever put anything in order that God says to put in order and discover that it is detrimental to your family. Okay? If you obey God rather than obey your father and mother, because your father and mother demand that you engage in ancestor worship, then God will take care of your relationship with your father and your mother because you are be obeying the great commandment, which is to love him with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.[2] God will always take care of those things when we get the order correct.

Think of how many families tonight, because of a commitment to family, deprive their family of the opportunity of worship and instruction on the Lord’s Day. Think of how many people absent themselves from worship amongst the people of God and the opportunity to be instructed from the Word of God because of a commitment to family. That is their decision to make. But think how those same families will rearrange the time of breakfast and the time of dinner on every other day of the week in order to accommodate music lessons, ensemble singing groups, swim meets, and basketball practices. And ask yourself this question: Is there not some correlation between these two things? Think it out. You’re sensible people.

When Paul says here that we need to have eternity shine onto our family life and specifically onto our relationship with our wives, what he’s saying is this: “Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 22:30: ‘At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.’ It will not always be this way. And eternity’s going to be a very long time in relationship to the time that we enjoy right now. If, however, we live completely earthbound in terms of culture and death and possessions and relationships, then we will live in the exact same way as lives the world. But whenever this shines in upon us, it will begin to change the way we’re thinking.”

Now, Paul is not teaching the neglect of our spouses. I can’t overstress that. But he is showing how an eternal perspective will radically change when we spend time together and how we spend that time together. Since our children will live in eternity, either in heaven or in hell, surely it is a priority to bring them under the instruction of the Word of God, which may shine their pathway to heaven, rather than to sit having a “family time” that may lead them on the road to hell. Our children are able to determine what priorities are for us. We don’t need to write them on a blackboard; we just need to live. The way in which we guide our wives is going to be an indication to them of what we regard as very important: “Honey, I don’t want you to miss that class. You know how much you like your painting. You know how much you love the music. You know how much you enjoy those people.” And that’s fine! But does she find the same commitment when it comes to the things of Christ, to her becoming a godly woman who’s going to live as a single for all of eternity?

Listen to John Calvin:

All the things which make for the enriching of this present life are sacred gifts of God, but we spoil them by our misuse of them. If we want to know the reason why, it is because we are always entertaining the delusion that we will go on for ever in this world. The result is that the very things which ought to be of assistance to us in our pilgrimage through life, become [the] chains which bind us.[3]

So God gave you a wife to be an assistance to you through life. If you begin to worship your wife and worship your time with your wife, then that may be the very chain which harnesses and deprives you of usefulness in the kingdom of God.

The longing of Paul’s heart in all of this is to see men and women, irrespective of their married state, given over to the service of God without distraction—the kind of thing that you find in Hebrews chapter 11, where it says of Abraham, describing him in verse 8, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance…” “Later receive as his inheritance.” This is not instant gratification, folks. This is not “What do I get and when do I get it?” This is “Go, Abraham,” and he went in obedience. He “obeyed,” and he “went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Why? “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”[4] The prospect of a heavenly city so changed his view of his earthly pilgrimage that he was prepared to leave his country, his family, and everything that represented security to him.

And Jesus said, “Come follow me,” and the man said, “I have married a wife.” And Jesus said, “Come follow me,” and the man said, “I have bought a field.” [5] And Jesus said, “Come follow me,” and the man said, “I must first bury my father.”[6] And do you remember Jesus’ answer to all three statements? He probably would not have been invited onto many Christian talk shows to expound his theology: “Let the dead bury their … dead.”[7] How hard, how unfeeling, how unfamily-like, how eternal a perspective. In a moment, any one of us may be called from time into eternity, and our pilgrimage is over. That’s why this is so important.

Now, in verses 25–28, he provides a recommendation. He says, “This is what I want you to do. Although Jesus has provided no direct instruction on this,” he says—and when Paul says that, we need to realize that his words are no less divine and authoritative, because, as David has read for us tonight, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”[8] He says in verse 25: “Now about virgins,” or single people, “I don’t have a direct, express quote from Jesus, but I’m giving you a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I have a recommendation for you.”

And this is where we come directly to his use of this phrase “Because of the present crisis…” He says, “I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.” “If you’ve never been married, if you are a virgin, then I think that singleness,” he says, “makes good sense. However,” verse 27, “if you are married, I don’t suggest that you get divorced. And if you are unmarried”—presumably someone who has previously been divorced or their spouse has died—he says, “I don’t think that you should look for a wife.”

Now, in relation to the whole issue of singleness, as we saw last time, his instruction makes good sense. Because, as he says at the end of verse 28, “those who marry will face many troubles in this life.” So he says, “If you’re single, it’s my best judgment that you just remain as you are.” It is one thing to face persecution and the possibility of death as a single person, quite another to face it as a married person. Because a married person who has children and a spouse is going to face persecution and death with a whole ton more considerations: “Who will care for my wife?” or “Who will deal with my husband? Who will look after my children? What will I do?” And he says, “In light of the present crisis, I think it’s good for you just to remain as you are.” Because “children sweeten labours,” as one has said, “but they make misfortunes more bitter.”[9]

Well—and this has been the recurring question that I’ve received—is Paul once again upholding celibacy? No, he is not. And there is no basis here for the Roman Catholic Church to do what it has done. Paul is not suggesting for a moment that celibacy is something that is more spiritual, but rather, he is saying that in the light of the context, celibacy, he believes, is more sensible. And there’s all the difference in the world between those two things. And he says, “However, if marriage takes place, it’s not sin”—verse 27—but rather, when high seas are raging, it’s no time to change ships. So he says, “We’re in a time of great crisis. I think it’s better that you just hold fire and stay exactly as you are.”

Then verses 29–31 come, which we tried to unfold last time, and in that we have an exposition of the principle. And now we go to verses 32–34, where he gives us an illustration. His concern is that they would be spared trouble (verse 28) and that they would “be free from concern” (verse 32). “I would like you,” he says, “to be free from concern.”

It is the objective of heaven that unmarried people would be hopelessly devoted to Christ.

Now, again, we have to understand that his great ideal and the longing of his heart is to see men and women serving the Lord without distraction. Singleness is not holier, but from Paul’s perspective here, it has practical advantages, and those who have been given the gift of singleness, à la verse 7, will enjoy fewer distractions, and they will have more freedom in serving the Lord. In contrast, he says, the married man or woman has an inevitable twofold concern. And we alluded to this last time. Verse 33: “But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.” And same thing again in verse 34: “But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.” And this distraction is a real distraction.

I think the little that I travel, I understand why it is that God gave to someone like John Stott the gift of singleness. Because, for example, in this past week, as I left, I was no sooner out the door than I was thinking about coming back. And all the time that I was gone, between the responsibilities that I faced, there was always the underlying concern for my wife and for my children, inevitably so and all the time—and even in the midst of proclamation, or even in the midst of doing things. Given the gift of singleness, those concerns do not arise. Certainly, there are others. There must be. But they are not those. And that’s exactly what he’s pointing out here.

Lightfoot says, “A man who is a hero in himself becomes a coward when he thinks of his widowed wife and his orphaned children.”[10] Despite the great mystique that I’ve created around my enjoyment of flying, I want you to know that when I was a young man and single, flying never cost me a thought. Maybe I was just so dumb I didn’t realize much, but it never concerned me. And it’s only in these last years that it has ever been a concern to me, and I think it is because of this: that while a man may be “a hero in himself,” he “becomes a coward when he thinks of his widowed wife and his orphaned children.” And you men know that. You know the burden that you carry. And so do you ladies, when you see the ham-fisted efforts of your husband as he endeavors to help you in a number of your projects, and you imagine being taken out of that context and him being left with your children. You cry out to God that he would save you a little longer, if for no other reason than to preserve your family from that incredible potential chaos.

Now, in contrast—in contrast—both the divorcee and the virgin have, because of fewer family demands, the opportunity to be more fully devoted to the Lord’s work. And that’s what he’s saying here: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.” Oh, is he? Is he? Is this the credo for singles’ ministry? Is this what we see in singles’ ministry? A whole group of unmarried men and women who have an all-consuming concern for the Lord’s affairs and how they might give themselves to the Lord and to his work?

I believe there is an implicit challenge in this phraseology, an implicit challenge to the single community to discover the vital God-given role they can and should be playing in the purposes of God—a unique role, a role that is directly related to the time at your disposal, to the resources entrusted to you, to the gifts that God has given you. And you have been placed at this point in time, and as heaven’s perspective dawns upon your life, it is the objective of heaven that these single people, unmarried people, would be hopelessly devoted to Christ. But actually, it doesn’t say that. Isn’t this interesting? It says, “An unmarried man is concerned” not about the Lord but “about the Lord’s affairs.” This actually helps my thesis that I began earlier on: that you can’t divorce the Lord from his affairs.

See, what does it mean to be devoted to the Lord without being devoted to the Lord’s affairs? “The unmarried man is devoted to the Lord’s affairs,” to the Lord’s work. It must surely be an amazing sight from the portholes of heaven to see singles preoccupied with roller skating and dating and commiserating about their apparently sorry lot in life. Singles, you have a strategic role in the kingdom of God. Surely, at a time like this, it would be from a population of single people that God might raise up stalwarts in our day. Because after all, most of us who have married have already set up our little shrine to our family, and to that we continually run. And you watch us as we continually talk about family, family, family, family, and you wonder, “Do these people have nothing else to talk about except their family? Wouldn’t we expect them to talk about the Lord and his affairs?” Well, of course we would, if they were committed first to the Lord and to his affairs. But if we were committed first to our family and we’re squeezing the Lord into our week, then that may be the preoccupation of our speaking. And, of course, it is in many cases. So, singles, give us a lead. Strike out for Christ. Take initiative. Be zealous. Be imaginative. Let us hear from you. Let us hear your heart as you think about the great cause of world evangelization. Let us hear from you as you think these issues out. We are thankful for the unique and gifted people that God has given us in this church.

Now, in verse 35, he explains his motivation, as we’ve previously noted. He says, “I[’m] saying this for your own good.” “I don’t want to restrict you, put a big noose around your neck. But,” he says, “I want you to live in a right way. I want you to live in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

He then rounds out the chapter by providing application to widows, in verses 39–40, which we dealt with in a previous study, and to engaged couples, in verses 36–37.

Now, you need to know that verse 36–37 are beset with difficulties. That is why many of you will have two versions in your Bible. You will have the two verses written in the paragraph text in front of you, and then you will have the verses 36–38 as a footnote in your Bible. And if you take time to read the two translations, you will notice that they are not exactly what you would call syncretized.

I want to assure you that I’ve done the study on this. Okay? Therefore, I’m prepared to engage in dialogue concerning it. My best judgment has been that to try and give you the ramblings of my study in relationship to these verses would probably be counterproductive. So therefore, I’ve had to reach a conclusion, and my conclusion is the one I share with you. To help me reach my conclusion, I was reading J. B. Phillips, found that Phillips’s paraphrase of verses 36–37 was in accord with the NIV translation. So let me read verses 36–37 as Phillips paraphrases it:

If any man feels he is not behaving honourably towards the woman he loves, especially as she is beginning to lose her first youth and the emotional strain is considerable, let him do what his heart tells him to do—let them be married, there[’s] no sin in that. Yet for the man of steadfast purpose who is able to bear the strain and has his own desires well under control, if he decides not to marry the young woman, he too will be doing the right thing. Both of them are right, one in marrying and the other in refraining from marriage, but the latter has chosen the better of two right courses.

And basically, he ends up where he had begun: “If you want,” he says, “to live a life of undivided devotion to Jesus Christ, there can be no question that since marriage brings with it distractions and difficulties, you will be better served if God gives you the gift of singleness.” And we have to continue to come back to that: if God gives to you that ability that we considered in the opening fifteen verses of the chapter. Without that gift, then we would burn with physical desire, or we would live with an embittered soul. We’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about some disgruntled perspective on life either within marriage or outside of marriage, but that people would be contented within the role that God has given them.

And there are examples of that. Helen Roseveare is an example of that—a gift of singleness and the great book Give Me This Mountain. John Stott, as I’ve mentioned, is an example of that. Richard Lucas, who will come here sometime next year to speak to ministers, is an example of that. The little man that I often quote, T. S. Mooney from Northern Ireland, is an example of that. Eighty-three years of life he lived all as a single man, completely devoted to the Lord and his work, able to give his time unstintingly for fifty years every Sunday afternoon to a boys’ Bible class in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, so much so that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of young men throughout the world today owe their spiritual life to T. S. Mooney, to whom God gave the gift of singleness.

Therefore, those of us who’ve been given the privileges of marriage need to recognize that with the joys come great concerns and responsibilities, and we ought not to be flippant. We ought also to beware, lest the very marriage that God has given us becomes a ball and chain which binds us and restrains us from ever discovering our true usefulness in the kingdom. And those of us who perhaps have been unwilling to accept that the reason that God has sustained us through these years and has not provided for us in marriage is because he has given to us the gift of singleness. The problem is not that he’s given the gift; the problem is that we just want to throw it back at him all the time. Some of us are going to have to get down on our knees and thank God for that gift and offer up our lives to him in undivided devotion, no matter what it means, no matter how apparently lonely, no matter we do not enjoy what we thought would be our lot.

Let me remind you, then: the context of his teaching was because of a present crisis, because the time was short, and because the world was passing. The concern of his teaching was their perfection, their protection, their provision, and their devotion. And the content of his teaching is, I think you would agree, practical and relevant and life changing.

Let us bow together in prayer:

Our gracious God and Father, how we need the ministry of the Spirit of God within our lives, so that your Word may take root within us. As we study these verses, they’re neither easy to comprehend, nor to teach, nor to receive, nor to apply. And so we want to set ourselves free from any sense of human manipulation, anything that is totally earthly, and we want to embrace that which is heavenly and divine. And we ask for discrimination to know the difference between the two.

We pray that you will make us, in whatsoever state we are, therein to be content—whether we live in singleness, anticipating the joy of marriage, or whether we live in singleness, realizing that as day follows day, you are satisfying our longings as no one else could do, and we’re wondering what our lot in life might be. Give to us vivid imaginations, obedient hearts, a great concern for your kingdom.

And within the framework of marriage, Lord, help us to put God first, not to try and invert Matthew 6:33: “Seek … first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all [the other] things [will] be added unto you.”[11] Save us from the kind of behavior that is neglectful because of selfish pride, because we’re driven just by a desire to do things, because we think that the more we do, the more spiritual we might become. And grant that within the context of our fellowship with one another, as we learn from each other, as we see your Word applied in one another’s lives, as we ask questions of those who are older, that we might be raised up to shine as lights in the middle of a society that neither knows how to cope with singleness nor what to do with marriage. Make us, Lord, at this latter part of the twentieth century, in practical terms, “a peculiar people”[12] when it comes to moral purity, marital fidelity, and genuine contentment.

Hear our prayer, O God, and let the cries of our hearts come unto you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Charles Hart and Don Black, “Love Changes Everything” (1989).

[2] See, for instance, Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27.

[3] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 159.

[4] Hebrews 11:8–10 (NIV 1984).

[5] See Luke 14:18–20.

[6] Luke 9:59 (paraphrased).

[7] Luke 9:60 (NIV 1984).

[8] 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV 1984).

[9] “Of Parents and Children,” in The Complete Essays of Francis Bacon (New York: Washington Square, 1963), 19.

[10] J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St Paul, Classic Commentary Library (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 231.

[11] Matthew 6:33 (KJV).

[12] 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.