October 11, 1992
Both marriage and singleness are gifts from God with their own distinct advantages, challenges, and responsibilities. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gave practical instruction regarding the duties of husbands and wives. Alistair Begg encourages married couples to be fully committed to God while remaining fully devoted to their spouse’s needs. A God-centered marriage is a beautiful testimony of His grace.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn again to 1 Corinthians 7. Shall we bow in a moment of prayer?
Speak, Lord, in the stillness
While [we] wait on thee;
Hushed [our] heart[s] to listen,
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In chapters 5 and 6, Paul has addressed matters which were uppermost in his mind. And now, as he comes to chapter 7, he tells us that he’s going to tackle some of the issues over which there had been specific questions. As you read the totality of the letter, you discover in chapter 16 a number of individuals who were perhaps the bearers of a letter to Paul, which contained a number of the questions that he felt duty bound to address in writing this letter to the church in Corinth.
The first of the matters which he chooses to tackle is not a surprise to us. Indeed, it really follows directly from what he’s been addressing. He’s been considering the whole matter of sexuality and the place of purity in the Christian life. And so, since there had been some questions regarding marriage and regarding the single state, he determines that as he endeavors to address the concerns that had been sent to him, he would begin with this matter of marriage.
The more I’ve studied my Bible in these days, the more I have come to the conclusion—no staggering conclusion, nevertheless important—that for people who seem to believe that the Bible is somehow remote from everyday living, presumably that’s because they’ve never read the Bible, or, if they’ve read it, they’ve never understood it. Because as we go through the issues of our lives and as we continue to keep the Bible as an open book in front of us, we discover that it is intensely practical and that, indeed, before us this evening are some of the most practical and necessary and straightforward verses that Paul ever wrote in all the letters that he penned.
The situation in Corinth was, as we’ve said many times, not dissimilar to the situation in Cleveland. Marriages were in trouble, in deep trouble. There was incredible chaos which surrounded the whole nature of marriage and the place of singleness. There were essentially four kinds of marriages in the Corinthian context. I’m not going to take time to expand upon them. Simply to say that there was… And there were Greek names for these. I won’t bore you with them; they’re trivialities.
But there was what was referred to as tent companionship—living together in a tent—and this was slave marriage. And the owner of the slaves could interfere in the marriage at any time: take the wife of the tent companionship and sell her to somebody else, take her as his own wife, take the husband and sell him to somebody else. And since many Christians were slaves, many of them were living with this as a context for marriage. There was, along with that, essentially what we would refer to today as a kind of common law marriage, whereby once a couple had lived together for a year, they were regarded then as actually being married. There were also arranged marriages, where fathers would sell their daughters into marriage for whatever reason. And then there was the kind of standard pattern of marriage, which has stood the test of time and which is largely the great-great-great-grandfather, if you like, of the marriage ceremony which still we would use today.
But the very fact that there was all of this disparity as it related to marriage and singleness was such that it wasn’t surprising that the people were concerned as to what might be done and what should be done. And some within the church at Corinth were clearly advocating singleness as the only way to be. The only way to deal with this, some people were saying, is to remain single and celibate, not purely from practical reasons but also for spiritual reasons. And it was this spiritual overtone which made it so difficult. Because individuals were saying, “The only way to live as a proper Christian is to live singly. If you are a single person and have become a Christian,” they would say, “make sure that you remain single. Because if you are a Christian, you must have nothing to do with physical things, and you must refuse to marry altogether.” So we had this kind of great plug for celibacy going around and at the same time this untold chaos surrounding the whole matter of sexuality.
So Paul says bravely, “Now for the matters you wrote about.” “Let me get down to it, and let me begin with an observation.” If you’re taking notes, that’s the first heading: one word, observation. What is his observation? It is in one sentence: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” This is his observation.
Now the phrase “not to touch a woman” was a euphemism, a common Jewish expression for physical union within marriage—hence the NIV translation, “It is good for a man not to marry.” It obviously would not be taken in a wooden way: that it is good for a man never to touch a woman, never to hug his sister, never to shake hands with the lady down the street, never to pat somebody on the back. That is not what it is saying! What he is saying is, “It is actually good for a man not to get married.”
Now, it is important that we understand that when he says that it is good for a man not to marry, that he is not saying it is bad, therefore, for a man to marry. That is the first and foremost mistake that is made in trying to tackle these verses. Someone says, “It says that it’s good for a man not to marry. Therefore, if it’s good for a man not to marry, it’s obviously bad for a man to marry.” No! Wrong! He’s simply saying that it’s good for a man not to marry. Never make the Bible say more than it says. That’s all he says: it’s good for a man not to marry.
Why? Because there are obvious advantages in the kingdom of God to being single. The unmarried are able to serve God without the cares and responsibilities which marriage brings. And I don’t think it is possible for us to understand this observation here in verse 1 except in the light of verse 32, to which we will come years from now, probably. Verse 32: “I would like you,” he says, “to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.” Verse 32 is the key to understanding this phrase, his observation in verse 1. And it’s a very, very important point, and it needs to be underscored, especially at a time when singleness is embraced and even exalted, but certainly not on account of the concerns of the kingdom, which is Paul’s great issue here.
Perhaps it would be helpful for you, as it was for me, to think of this analogy which John Calvin used in an earlier generation. He said, for example, if we were to say it would be good for a man not to eat or drink or sleep—which, under certain circumstances, we could say, “It would be good not to do this.” It’d be good not to eat or drink or sleep, in certain contexts. This, says Calvin, would not be a dismissal of these things; rather, a recognition that whatever time is given to them means less time can be given to spiritual things. “Therefore, since there are many hindrances in married life, which interfere with a man’s freedom, it would be good, for that reason, not to be involved in marriage.”
Now, we must always interpret Scripture with Scripture. First Corinthians 7:1 says this. Genesis 2:18 says that when God created man, he looked at the circumstances, and he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make [him] a helper suitable [to] him.” So God ordains creation, and he says, “It is not good for a man to be alone. Therefore, I’ll give him a wife.” Paul says in 1 Corinthian 7, “It is good for a man not to get married.”
Now, once again, we need to understand context. For the Jew, marriage was absolutely crucial. They didn’t see marriage simply in terms of the ideal state, but they saw singleness as disobedience. Because, after all, God had said, “Be fruitful, and multiply.” “Populate the earth.” “Therefore,” said the Jew, “if you don’t get married and go about the business that God intended, you’re actually being disobedient.” So there were some who were confused on that point.
The gentiles, perhaps because of the kind of sexual chaos out of which they’d been coming, they were coming at it from the other angle. They were coming to regard celibacy or singleness as the only really godly way to live life. And they were saying, “This is the only way you can live.” The Jewish background was saying, “You can’t live that way. If you live that way, you’re disobedient.” And so Paul says, “I want you to know that it is good for a man not to marry. It’s not more spiritual to be married or to be unmarried, but it’s okay if you don’t get married. Indeed, there are some distinct advantages to the single state.” Now, some of the Jewish people wouldn’t have liked to hear that, but they needed to hear that.
That’s his observation. Then comes the qualification as he goes into verse 2: “But since,” he says, “there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” And there is some suggestion here that he is refuting any notions of polygamy, whereby you could have one and then have another one. He’s saying, “No, you just get one, and she’s your own, or he’s your own. And you stick with that.”
Now, as with verse 1, it’s very important that we understand what’s being said in the wider context of Paul’s instruction. Is this all that Paul ever said about marriage? Because if it was, and if this was all that the Bible taught concerning marriage, it provides for us a rather low view of it, wouldn’t you say? “The only reason to get married is because of sexual problems that may hinder you if you remain unmarried. Therefore, it would be far better, because there’s so much immorality around, to go ahead and get married.” No! We need to recognize that when Paul wrote in the Ephesian letter, in Ephesians chapter 5, he expressed very clearly his understanding of marriage. I just want to turn you to it. I’m not going to expound it. But let me remind you that in Ephesians 5:22 and following, he expresses his high and clear view of marriage.
So what is he doing in 7:2? He is not giving the reason as to why marriage has been instituted, but he is describing a necessary course of action for certain people who need it. This is not an explanation of the substance of marriage: to prevent immorality. It is something far grander than that. “But,” he says, “in this Corinthian context, while it’s okay to remain single, many of you can’t remain single because of the lifestyle out of which you’ve come. And therefore, because of the climate in which you find yourself, just be practical about things,” he’s saying, “and recognize that you ought to take a wife or you ought to take a husband.”
Keep in mind always that he is dealing with a specific question in light of an actual historical situation. He’s dealing with the express context of 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. And we know how devastating that has been, even in our study of it.
Now, we just need to recognize—and I’m not going to expound this, this evening—that the Bible tells us that marriage is for all kinds of things.
First of all, the Bible tells us that marriage is for procreation. You read this in Genesis chapter 1. God ordained marriage. He determined that it would be this way. And in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’” Okay? So in other words, part of the purpose of marriage was for procreation.
Part of the purpose of marriage was also for pleasure within marriage, not least of all within the whole realm of sexual fulfillment. Proverbs chapter 5 talks about delighting in the wife of one’s youth. The book of Song of Solomon expresses in graphic terms the whole nature of physical union between a man and his wife.
So, marriage is ordained for procreation. It’s ordained for pleasure. It is ordained also for partnership. Genesis 2:18, the verse to which I’ve already referred: “[And] the Lord God said, ‘It[’s] not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” Marriage has been ordained also as a picture of Christ and the church—Ephesians chapter 5. And marriage has been ordained in order to maintain purity in a world that is putrefying.
So his observation is then developed in this qualification. And what he wants them to understand is that celibacy has peculiar dangers. To try and live the single life, if that is not what is intended, presents real challenges.
Calvin addresses this at the time of the Reformation, speaking of the situation regarding clergy who were told that they could not marry. Just think about the last twelve or twenty-four months in relation to many of the things that you have seen and read concerning unmarried clergy. And while their celibate life does not excuse their behavior, it does at least give indication to us of the fact that what Paul is saying here is really very practical.
Let me quote Calvin again to you. He says, “A third error”—I won’t deal with the first two—but “a third error developed from” this notion of celibacy. He says, “The ministers of the Church were forbidden to marry, for marriage did not seem to be a way of life in keeping with the holiness of their order. God punished the presumption of those who despised marriage and made rash vows of everlasting continency”—or celibacy, or singleness, or sexual purity in singleness. He punished them “first by the secret fires of lust, and then with horrible and filthy practices.” This is Calvin writing in his generation!
But because ministers of the Church were debarred from lawful marriage, the result of this arbitrariness has been that the Church has been deprived of many good and faithful ministers; for honest and wise men would not put themselves in a trap. At last, after a long period of time, lusts, which until then had been repressed, gave off their stench. It was not enough that those, in whose case it was a capital offence to have a wife, maintained mistresses, otherwise prostitutes, with impunity, but no home was safe because of the lustfulness of the priests. Even that was put in the shade, for unnatural and outrageous things came into the open, things which it is better to bury in everlasting oblivion, than ever to mention even by way of example.
In other words, he says, as Paul says, since the pressure of the world in which we live—and this is not the reason for marriage, but this is a recognition of where we live our life—since we live our lives in this environment, he says, it is better and it is important that men should have wives and wives should have husbands. Because the sexual temptations of singleness are so unbelievably strong, and they have a legitimate outlet in marriage.
Now, again, context is everything. Remember, these people were expressing their sexual urges anywhere they wanted with anyone they wanted. Some people were saying to them, “The only way you can live is in a married state.” Paul says, “No, don’t say that. It’s good for a man not to get married. But because of the environment, recognize this: a man should take his wife, and a wife should take her own husband.”
So, we have his observation in verse 1. We have the qualification in verse 2. And then he deals with this obligation in verse 3—the obligations which are unique to the marital status: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.”
Now, you’ve got to understand something here. What was happening was this: Some of these people had married as unbelievers. One of them became a Christian and got the crazy notion in their heads that the way to be a proper Christian was to be celibate. So not only do they come to faith in Jesus Christ; not only do they go bonkers, as far as the marriage partner is concerned, in going totally off the deep end in a religious realm; but even worse, they now move into a separate bedroom, and they turn the new bedroom into a shrine, and they start to say, “The celibate life is the only life for the Christian.” And some of them were perpetuating this mythology and were gathering around them more and more people in the church to embrace such a view.
So Paul says, “Listen, I’ve got to tell you something very important. You are married. There is no place for celibacy in marriage. You didn’t get married to live as a single. You’re not supposed to be married as a single.” And the problem with our culture today is singles who are married physically without being married and people who are married without being involved physically.
Now, notice that the emphasis is not upon rights, but it’s upon responsibilities. It’s upon duties. Each one owes duties to the other, and Paul says, “I want you to pay what you owe.” I want you to notice that neither here nor in verse 4 does he stress the duty of either partner at the expense of the other, but he puts them exactly on a level. Where this stuff came about Paul being misogynist I really don’t know, because he’s very straightforward here. The ground is level as it relates to this. Husband or wife, wife or husband, it’s the same deal. You’ve got duties, and he says, “I want you to fulfill your duties to your marriage partner.” Incidentally, the tense of the verb is the present continuous tense, making it clear that this duty is a habitual duty and not a spasmodic duty.
Now, one of the things I’ve asked God to help me with here in this is not to come at it at such a level that people are going, “I’m not sure I can make any application of this,” but not, on the other hand, to begin to make application of it that would demean the very Word itself. Those of you who are husband and wife, work it out for yourself. You have a duty to fulfill. The duty is a habitual duty; it is not a spasmodic duty. Would I define habitual for you? No, I would not. Would I define spasmodic? No, I would not. That’s your problem. But understand what the verse says: physical intimacy in marriage is not only sacred, but it is proper, and it is obligatory. It is obligatory. It’s not simply a privilege, it’s not simply a pleasure, but it is a responsibility.
You say, “Well, I haven’t seen that in a movie. I haven’t read that in a book.” Well, you’ve read it in one book right now, and I’m telling you straight: it’s a responsibility. And the responsibility is on the part of each partner to give sexual satisfaction to the other. That’s our duty! Paul says, “I want you to pay your duty in the marriage framework. Don’t start this nonsense about celibacy, as if you were some super-Christian.”
Now this explanation follows in verse 4. I hope this is as straightforward to you as it is to me. Maybe we’ll have a question-and-answer time, if I keep going as fast as this. Verse 4: “The wife’s body,” he says, “does not belong to her alone.” It does belong to her alone, “but also to her husband.” Notice that little word. He doesn’t say, “The wife’s body does not belong to her, but it belongs to her husband.” You notice that? It says, “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband.” And “in the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.”
In other words, by the marriage vow, we did something irrevocably dramatic and life changing for all time: we gave up the exclusive right to ourselves. One plus one equals one in marriage. We are now only partially what we are alone, and the reality of what we are is ultimately only expressed in our twoness—a twoness which is by definition oneness. Therefore, it is not that the husband is able to dictate to his wife and say, “You don’t own your body, I do, now let’s get dealing with this,” nor vice versa. Because the wife has a responsibility for her body under God, but not alone anymore. She did as long as she was single. But now that she’s married, it’s changed. As for the man, the selfsame thing.
Now, the very practical implications of this are many. Let me quote to you somebody else. It’s always easier to quote; then I can’t get blamed for the quote. Prior… (Well, I can get blamed for quoting it, but not for creating it.) This is Prior. He says, “At the practical level this is a very challenging word to all Christian couples. Many reasons are given for withholding what is due to the other: tiredness, resentment, disinterest, boredom, etc. For Corinthian husbands, so wedded to their own rights, this very earthy instruction must have been something of a body-blow.” And it is something of a body blow to all husbands, whether they live in Corinth or in Cleveland.
It is sadly vital to add to this fourth verse, in our currently increasingly perverted culture, that verse 4 gives no basis to violate our marriage partner’s walk with Christ in purity and in wholeness on account of the fact that we now own a 50-percent share in their body.
Now, in case you don’t understand what I mean by that, let me tell you that it is not uncommon for young couples to come to me and say, “You know, when we get married, we’re going to be married, and I’ve heard some counselor say that it can be a good idea in your marriage to watch kind of pornographic movies. They’ll help you. Do you think that we should read certain kind of literature?” No! A thousand times no! Why? Because to do that would be to violate Philippians 4:8: “Whatsoever things are pure, and whatsoever things are holy, and whatsoever things are lovely, and whatsoever things are of good report, you think about those things, Mr. X, and you think about those things, Mrs. X.” And when you come together with one another, you continue to think about those things.
Marriage does not create some kind of vacuum-like cocoon whereby “anything goes.” Anything does not go! We have no right to violate the parameters that God has established for purity in our lifestyle just because we got a 50-percent share in the body of somebody that has determined that they will live the rest of their lives with us. So if any of us are tempted to use verse 4 as leverage over our spouse to bring them into submission to something that we’ve decided is right, we’d better be very, very careful. “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.” The two has now become one, and as one under Christ, they must still fulfill the divine mandates for purity in lifestyle.
Sadly, so much Christian counseling has so absorbed so much of the trash of the secular world that it’s very, very difficult to tell whether you’re at a Christian counselor or a non-Christian counselor when it comes to many issues in the whole question of marital sanctity. If you want chapter and verse for that, fine; I’ll talk with you afterwards.
Then we go to verse 5. It just gets better and better, you know? Okay? Observation is “It’s okay, it’s good to be single.” Qualification: “There’s a lot of stuff going on. You’d be better to be married. Once you get married, you’ve got an obligation. I want to explain why you have the obligation.” And then he says, “Because you have the obligation, I want to give you no basis for deprivation.” Verse 5: “Do not deprive each other.” Okay?
This is a command. The verse opens with a command. Sexual expression within marriage is not an option or an extra. It’s not something that can be offered by one spouse to the other as a kind of feather in the hat, as it were: “Well, you’ve been very good, so therefore, that’s fine. You’ve been good, so, well, that’s good.” Or, “You’ve been bad, so therefore, that’s…” No, that’s not what it is. There is to be no deprivation. Sexual fulfillment within marriage is at the very heart of what God intends, because it expresses the bond which is to permanently exist between a husband and a wife. God’s plan for marriage included neither divorce nor celibacy. Okay?
Genesis chapter 1. It’s an interesting question; I haven’t fully thought it out, and I probably shouldn’t say this. But do you think there would’ve been singleness without the fall of man in Genesis 3? God’s plan, as he made man and woman, was neither for divorce nor for celibacy. But he qualifies himself once again: “Do not deprive each other.” Do not use the physical union within marriage as a means, as a tool for providing encouragement or punishment or whatever it might be. “If there is going to be a cessation of your relationship with one another,” he says, “I want to tell you how it happens.” First of all, it happens “by mutual consent.” One does not inform the other. Both agree. Two, it happens for a limited time. Three, it happens for an express purpose, and that is to “devote yourselves to prayer.”
Now, just as I speak, I think of that verse in 1 Peter, which I sure hope I can find, having now mentioned it. Oh yeah! First Peter 3:7: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner[s] and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” I’ve been thinking a lot about it this week, and I found it phenomenally challenging.
But here’s what I think: I think that God recognizes that there is a special power in the prayers of a married couple—so special and so productive that he believes that married couples might come to the conviction that in the same way that we might remove ourselves from the realm of eating for a day or three or a week in order to give ourselves devotedly to seeking God’s face for something, so, he says, in the rush of life, with so much that is going on, with so much that would come in to deprive us of the opportunity of prayer, he says there may well be times when by mutual consent—as you think, perhaps, as you think of your children and you say, “Lord God, what will ever become of our children?”—then “let us get on our knees beside the bed, as it were”—this is dangerous; this is moving more into the realm of application—“let us get on our knees beside the bed rather than get in the bed,” by mutual consent, for a limited time, and for an express purpose.
Now, in seventeen years of pastoral ministry, I have listened enough to have got gray hair—and it hasn’t as yet come, but there’s always tomorrow—I have listened enough times to a a baldy head or gray hair, to husbands and wives tell me about sexual deprivation. I have yet, in seventeen years of pastoral ministry, to ever encounter a couple who ever told me, “The reason this is going on is because of 1 Corinthians 7:5. It’s by mutual consent, it’s for a limited time, and it’s for an express purpose.” That is the only way that it can ever happen. That is the only allowable time that you can shut down your sexual urges within marriage. Do you understand that?
It is not uncommon for me, for us, to hear people come and say, “We have had no physical relationship with one another for seven months, nine months, twelve months, eighteen months.” For what reason? Because of 1 Corinthians 7:5? No. They didn’t even know 1 Corinthians 7:5 was in the Bible.
So it is a clear violation of the Bible. What’re we going to do? Well, first of all, we’re going to obey the Bible. “Oh, but I don’t feel like it.” I don’t care whether you feel like it or not. Since when did this become a glandular condition? That’s Hollywood. “I’m just trying to get the feeling again.” That’s Hollywood! The Bible says you do it because you’re supposed to!
“Well, that doesn’t sound very romantic!”
“No, it doesn’t. But that’s what it says.”
“Oh, goodness me! I was waiting for something to happen.”
“Yeah, obviously you were. And it obviously didn’t happen, right?”
“No, it didn’t happen.”
Well, if you keep waiting, you’re going to be an old lady, or you’re going to be an old man. So let me give you some practical advice: do not do this except for these reasons. You decide together, for a limited time, for an express purpose. And when you finish, “come together again [fast] so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” To ensure that neither we nor our marriage partners fall into temptation, we must resume relationships immediately.
Now, let me ask you a question: Is this practical? Is this helpful? Is this down where we live our lives? There’s nothing airy-fairy about this. This is no pious claptrap. This is absolutely dead-on. This is the Bible. I’m excited! We don’t have to apologize to the world. They have made sex a disaster. They have no answers. We do! Then as Christian people, for the love of the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, would we not then be a shining example to a sex-crazed, distorted world and not come with the same jolly notions that the whole world is coming to counsel us with all the time? Why? Why would we ever believe that that was possible? Because the Holy Spirit lives within our lives! Because we’re no longer what we were before we came to faith in Jesus Christ. Whether single or married, we’re made absolutely new.
Now, we’ve got about one more to go—two, actually. We move to verse 6, and he moves to his expectation. He says, “I say this not as a command but as a concession.” What does he mean by that? It’s a rhetorical question: “I say this as a concession, not as a command.” Kenneth Taylor, in the Living Bible, helpfully paraphrases it in this way: “I [am] not saying you must marry, but you certainly may if you wish.” Okay? So he is not telling single people that they have to get married. He’s telling them they may get married if they would like to, and they mustn’t listen to the people who tell them that the only spiritual way to live your life is to live it in singleness. He has been laying down in these five or six verses the duties of all who are married, but he does not lay it down as a duty that all should be married. Okay? These are the duties of those once married, but it is not a duty to be married. Because what he might wish to be the case and what he expects to be the case are obviously two different things.
The point that he was making is simply this: that marriage is the God-ordained institution for relationships between a man and a woman. That’s what the Bible says from beginning to end. For relationships between a man and a woman, apart from fraternal relationships within the family of brothers and sisters, physical relationships, anything that approaches that, God has ordained that marriage is the place for that.
So the writer to the Hebrews says that marriage is honorable and the marriage bed is undefiled. It is perfectly fine. Incidentally, some people use that saying, “The marriage bed is undefiled,” to come up with the same nonsense that I mentioned earlier. So I might as well just hit it again and put with it suspenders and belt as well. And that is that they say, “Since the marriage bed is undefiled, what that means is you can do anything you want in the marriage bed.” No, you can’t. You can only do within your marriage bed what fits the propriety and the parameters of a physically pure life before Christ as an individual and as a married couple. The only way the marriage bed is undefiled is if undefiled activity takes place within the marriage bed.
Marriage is the God-ordained institution for relationships between a man and a woman. “However,” he says, “it is not required. If you’re single,” he says, “that’s good. If you’re married or if you get married, then stay married. And while you’re married, don’t deprive your spouse.” Spirituality is not determined by marital status.
Now he states his own preference. Verse 7: “I wish that all men were as I am.” He tells us in verse 8 that he was “unmarried.” Therefore, he’s saying in verse 7, “I wish that everybody was unmarried like me.”
Now, it is commonly held that Paul was celibate all of his life. Have you ever thought of Paul as having a wife? Most people haven’t. I had to think about this a little bit this week, and I read about it as much as I could, and this is what I found out. Remember, Paul says in Philippians that he was absolutely up to the max in terms of Jewish orthodoxy—that before he came to faith in Christ, he never missed a beat. He was dead-on with what the requirements of the Jewish law were. He was absolutely orthodox. Well, let me tell you that Jewish orthodoxy laid it down that marriage was an obligation. Therefore, if Paul was completely orthodox in his Judaism, and if, as was common at that time, he were to be married around the age of eighteen, then Saul of Tarsus was married once. And furthermore, since he mentions in Acts chapter  that he made a decision regarding the Christians as a member of the Sanhedrin council: you could not be a member of the Sanhedrin council without actually being married! However, he’s not married now. He’s unmarried. So what happened?
Well, in heaven you can run right up to and ask him. Because tonight I can’t tell you the answer. There are two options: one, his wife has died; two, as a result of his Damascus Road experience, his wife left him. You ever thought about that? You ever thought that Paul wrote all the stuff he wrote about marriage and about singleness and about everything else in light of the fact that he himself was the product of a broken marriage? That he had come to faith in Jesus Christ, and when he writes to the Corinthians, as we’re going to see a little bit later on, and he says, “If you come to faith in Jesus Christ and your marriage partner won’t have anything to do with you anymore,” he says, “you better just let him go.” Maybe he wasn’t writing theory. Maybe he was writing history. Maybe he was writing biography. However, it is idle to speculate. And that was a little bit of idle speculation.
What we can say with certainty as we draw this to the close is that Paul would like others to be unmarried. Why is that? Because he expects that if they remain unmarried, then they’ll be just like him. The thing that singleness did for Paul was it clarified his vision. It established his days. He knew exactly what he was about. He had a “This one thing I do” passion about his life. Philippians 3:14, he says, “[This] one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind … I press on,” and so on. And it was very, very clear to Paul that in his single state, he was able to pursue this passion for the evangelization of the world in a way that he could never have done if he had the responsibilities of marriage. So when he says, “I wish that you were all like me,” he doesn’t simply mean “I wish that you were all unmarried” but “I wish that you were unmarried and possessed of the same zeal that I have to see the world won for Jesus Christ.”
Now, it’s very, very important that we understand that, because singleness is held up as an expectation in our day, but seldom is it seen in light of the benefit that accrues for the sake of the kingdom of God. However, having said that, it’s equally clear that his expectation is not that all who are single will remain single nor that those who are married will introduce celibacy into their marriage as if it were an evidence of spirituality.
And the final sentence in verse 7 acknowledges that both singleness and marriage are gifts from God. When he says, “Each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, [and] another … that,” he’s not just talking now about looking forward to 1 Corinthians 12. He’s speaking expressly in terms of married or single. Singleness is a gift; marriage is a gift. We should neither misuse the gifts we’ve been given… So, if we have been given the gift of singleness, we should not abuse it. If we’ve been given the gift of marriage, we should not abuse it. We should not regard singleness as some second-class state. It is, he says, God’s gift to a person. And if it is a gift to the person, then it is important that he or she accepts it and exercises it.
Take, for example, Helen Roseveare. It is questionable whether Helen Roseveare’s ministry would’ve been of the dimensions that it has been were it not for the fact that God gave to her the gift of singleness. Take, for example, John Stott, probably the most quoted clergyman from this pulpit in the last nine years. John Stott’s ministry is directly related to the fact that God gave him the gift of singleness, for he could never have been closeted away as he was nor written as he’s done nor travel the world as he has if he’d had the responsibilities of marital relationships and children.
Now, I know that some of you want me to go on and discuss the individual who, in a single state, finds themselves enduring it rather than enjoying it. “Don’t tell me,” says the person, “that singleness is a gift from God. I don’t regard it as a gift. I don’t like it. And if this is my birthday present, you can take it back.” Okay, well that’s another discussion, but it’s not within the context of this here. What we have to say is that God sees singleness not as a second-class state, but he gives singleness to certain individuals, and he gives marriage to other individuals. We’ll say more about that in the weeks to come.
Suffice it to say that in these verses, Paul declares the place of both singleness and marriage. Both are evidences of God’s grace to be experienced and sustained purely by the strength which God supplies. I can only but imagine that to live as a single in this world demands that God infuses you with strength to be able to live without violating his commands. I would imagine that that’s your state as a single. I want to tell you that that is exactly my state as married. It is only as God gives strength and grace and wisdom that I can live as a man within the marriage bounds as God intends. There are distinctions in what life means for us in the benefits we enjoy, in the freedoms we experience. Both are gifts from God. I want to learn to be especially sensitive to single people, and I hope that as these weeks pass, we’ll be able to get to some of these issues.
But let me conclude with a word to Mr. and Mrs. X: Mr. and Mrs. X, Satan is a roaring lion. He’s seeking people to devour. By observation and by biblical record, he loves to attack marriages. He loves to quench our prayers. He loves to reduce the joys of sex to his own debased level. Therefore, as we’ve seen so many times before, the Christian life, as it relates to marriage, is not easy, but it is straightforward. And the parameters established in these verses may be difficult to apply, but they are easy to understand. Therefore, in understanding them, let’s ask God for the grace to apply them.
And don’t let’s go away having to sing the sad laments of Karen Carpenter: “Love, look at the two of us, strangers in many ways.” Or was it Reba McEntire, most recently? “The greatest man I never knew,” speaking of her relationship with her husband—the tragic condition of married singles. Married singles. One plus one equals one. So take your wife, take your husband, look into her eyes, and tell her, “Hey, we two are one. Don’t ever, ever forget it.” And no one, not even your kids, are allowed to violate the nature of that relationship.
Father, I pray that out of the intense practicality of your Word, that you will make us students. I certainly can’t get to the heart of all this in this framework, and I pray that it may just create a hunger in the hearts of each one of us to search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, to be like the church of Berea, who examined the Scriptures every day to see if the things that were being told were really true. Lord, give us increasingly that kind of congregation, that we may be men and women of the Word. Come to our marriages, we pray. Come to our singleness. Come to our hearts. Come to our loneliness. Come to our fears. Come to our disinterestedness. Come to us, Lord, we pray. Make us different in this crazy world in which we live, that the world may come to our doors to ask a reason for the transforming power and hope that is within us.
The day’s ended, Lord, almost. The darkness is about to fall. It’s already another day east of us, and others in the Western world follow on behind. We thank you that you derive praise and glory to your name from the lips of men and women throughout every hour of the day, and we thank you immensely for the privilege of being able to end our day in a chorus of praise and worship to you, the living God. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 E. May Grimes, “The Quiet Hour” (1920).
 1 Corinthians 7:1 (NASB).
 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 Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 135.
 Genesis 1:28 (KJV).
 See Proverbs 5:18.
 Calvin, First Epistle, 142.
 David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985), 116.
 Philippians 4:8 (paraphrased).
 Barry Manilow, “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” (1975). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Hebrews 13:4.
 See Philippians 3:4–6.
 1 Corinthians 7:15 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 3:13–14 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Peter 5:8.
 Robb Wilson and Arthur James, “For All We Know” (1971).
 Richard Leigh and Layng Martine Jr., “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (1992).
 See Acts 17:11.
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
Copyright © 2023, 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.