1 Corinthians 7:17-24
August 16, 2020
Prayer for Illumination:
Teach us your ways, O Lord, and lead us on a level path. Teach us, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then we will keep them to the end. Give us understanding, and we will keep your law and obey it with all our hearts. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
This morning we are returning to our series in 1 Corinthians. The church in Corinth was plagued with issues. The church in Corinth was divided into various factions; there were groups within the congregation that followed Paul, others followed Apollos, others followed Peter, and some of the super spiritual believers followed Jesus. They were divided over who they should let be their pastor and teach them.
There were ethical issues. Some believers were suing one another. One man was having an open affair with his stepmom. There were serious ethical issues in the congregation.
There were lifestyle issues. Should they marry or shouldn’t they? Are those who are unmarried less valuable than those who are married? Can believers eat meat or should they refrain since most butchers were associated with one of the pagan temples? There were some serious lifestyle issues.
There were issues in worship. People were speaking randomly during the service. Some were making themselves out to be more important because of the gifts God gave them, and so they looked down on others who didn’t have their gifts. They had issues in worship; worship services were chaotic, people just speaking whenever they felt like it. They had theological issues. They denied the resurrection of the body. This congregation was dysfunctional. And so Paul writes to them. He writes a letter to them calling them to maturity.
Paul has addressed factions, calling them to be united in Christ. He has addressed the ethical issues, calling them to practice discipline and be gracious to one another. Beginning with chapter 7, Paul has begun addressing lifestyle issues. He has addressed issues of marital intimacy and divorce. In this section, Paul addresses the issue of calling. Following Christ has implications for all of life. It has implications for our relationships and our work; things we often refer to as calling.
Typically, we view calling in one of two ways. We either over-spiritualize calling or we under-spiritualize it. We over-spiritualize calling when we think that the only work that matters is ministry. It’s a common view, especially in Roman Catholicism. An over-spiritualized view of calling downplays any calling that is not explicitly tied to ministry.
The other way of thinking about calling is to under-spiritualize it. We under-spiritualize calling when we try to find the perfect calling; that every individual has a perfect niche calling and unless that person has found that calling that person will be completely and utterly miserable.
Paul doesn’t give an over-spiritualized view of calling; nor does he give an under-spiritualized view of calling. Paul affirms the inherent value in the ordinary callings of marriage, work, and social status. Paul makes clear that the call of Christ is the calling our lives are built upon.
Calling That Matters
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
Paul says that each person is to lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him. In Greek, it literally says, “Let each one walk”. Walk is a biblical way of speaking of how one lives their life. The best example is found in Genesis 5. In Genesis 5, we’re told about Enoch. Here is what is written about Enoch, “When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:21-24). Moses tells us that Enoch lived a life that was devoted to God.
We have a similar expression in English. We might say, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” The sentiment behind the expression is, “You know all the right things to say, but do you know how to live your life in a way that reflects the words you’ve spoken?” Paul is making clear that everyone is to live their life as God has assigned; they are walk in such a way that reflects God.
Paul continues saying “each as God has called”. Calling has two senses. The first sense of calling is the call of God to the believer to salvation. This is the foundation of the Christian life and identity. Pastor Stephen Um says, “This is where believers are intended to derive their identity, fulfillment, security, comfort, and hope”. The second sense of calling is the ordinary call to live life. “Though there are elements of enjoyment, excellence, and contribution to the common good, this secondary call is not designed to function as a source of identity, fulfillment, or security.”
Here in verse 17, Paul means the second sense. The other seven times he uses the word “call” in this passage it refers to first sense of call; it refers to the call of God to the believer to salvation. But here Paul uses calling in the second sense; that we are called to live lives where we marry, work, and engage in our community.
As we will see in the next few verses, the fact that God has called believers to salvation in Christ is the foundation for our identity and lives; the call to salvation secures our identity and allows the call to engage in ordinary life far easier.
It is incredibly easy to make our vocations, our families, or our social standing our foundation. And when we do that, when we find our identity in our vocations or family or social standing, we mix up the primary calling in our lives with the secondary calling. By building our identity on our family or our vocation we either over-spiritualize them or under-spiritualize them. Typically, our culture encourages us to under-spiritualize our secondary calling. We often feel the need to have the perfect spouse, the perfect job, or the perfect social standing. It’s the idea of keeping up with the Joneses.
If we find our identity in our families or vocation, we’ll never be satisfied. We’ll constantly be looking for the perfect spouse. We’ll constantly be looking to make our kids the perfect children. We’ll be looking for the perfect job in the perfect city.
There is no perfect husband or perfect wife. There is no perfect kid. There is no perfect job. And if we find our identity in our secondary calling then we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We will never be satisfied. We will constantly be looking for a better spouse or a better job. And that will tempt us to want to leave.
Sadly, Christians have been tempted to separate from the world. The most obvious example is the Amish. They have completely left life in the world and formed a separate society. While they’re an extreme example, sometimes those of us who are conservative feel this need to leave the call we’ve experienced. We feel this need to leave society and form our own Christian “society”. It is an all too common experience that many Christians – especially on the conservative side – tend to separate from the world; many Christians feel as though they need to leave callings that are not completely Christian in all aspects.
That is not what the Bible says; that’s not what Paul says here. Instead Paul says, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches”. We are to live the lives God has assigned to each us; live each as God has called. How does this play out in our lives?
Questions about Calling
Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)
Corinthian culture was very upwardly mobile. The culture was a lot like ours. It had access to two seaports so there was always business to be done. And some in the church were concerned about this upward mobility. They were concerned about changing external aspects hoping that would allow them to find a perfect job or improve their social standing. They were changing aspects of their lives because they had made their secondary calling their identity.
Paul first addresses the issue of circumcision. For the Jews, circumcision was an important sign of Jewish identity. Some Jewish-Christians tried to make circumcision the foundation for God’s calling to salvation. Paul addressed that issue in his letter to the Galatians and the elders of Church addressed it in Acts 15.
While some were seeking to find their identity in circumcision, some were trying to erase the marks of their circumcision. There are records of Jews disfiguring themselves to cover or hide the fact that they’ve received circumcision. Gentiles found circumcision to be a barbaric practice. They even mocked the Jews for practicing circumcision. Some Jews wanting to advance socially were attempting to remove the mark of their circumcision.
Paul then gives another example of how the Corinthians had mixed up their secondary calling and their primary calling. He talks about slavery and freedom. Slavery in the ancient world was different from the slavery practiced here in America. We practiced race-based, chattel slavery. We knew who was a slave because they were black. They were born a slave and typically they died a slave. Their children and grandchildren were slaves. Slaves in America were forced to work the hardest, most menial, and the most demeaning jobs.
Slavery in the ancient world was very different than the form of slavery practiced here in America. Slaves didn’t typically work the hardest, most menial or demeaning jobs. Often they would be teachers, house managers, or accountants. You couldn’t tell if someone was a slave based on their race or ethnicity. People would sell themselves into slavery to pay off a debt, so slavery spanned every race and ethnic group. More often than not, someone would earn their freedom before their death. Slavery in the ancient world was much closer to what we would call indentured servitude.
Paul’s point in all of this is that the calling of God to salvation is what defines us. It doesn’t matter if we received circumcision or we weren’t circumcised. What matters is that God has called that person to salvation in Christ. It doesn’t matter if someone is a slave or if someone is free. What matters is the calling to salvation in Christ.
So what does this mean for us? Commentator C.K. Barrett says, “A man is not called … to a new occupation: [rather] his old occupation is given a new significance”. Our vocations, our families, our marriages, and our children are given a new significance because our identity if firmly placed in Christ. We are freed up to love our husband or our wife, even though they’re imperfect. We can accept that sin has affected them and if they’re a Christian, we know that God is slowly sanctifying them molding them into the image of Christ. If they’re not a Christian, we can stay in the marriage and love them, praying that God will bring them to faith through our daily witness.
Finding our identity in Christ frees us up in our vocations. The job we’re working may not be perfect. But it is a job. And work is God glorifying. He is the one who designed work. Work was instituted before the Fall. When we realize that the call to salvation is what our identities are built around, we don’t need the perfect, niche job. We can work knowing that it is the instrument by which God does his work in the world.
In the Middle Ages, they often viewed ordinary work as not God honoring. During the Reformation, Luther reclaimed the biblical truth that ordinary work is God honoring. In his treatise “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved”, Luther says that God milks cows through milkmaids. He makes explicit what Paul implies here in this passage; all work, even the most menial work, is God honoring. And because our identity is found in calling to salvation in Christ, we can mop and sow knowing that our work is the instrument by which God does his work in the world.
While the calling to salvation in Christ enables us to work well, it also means we are not sedentary about work. Paul says, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity”. There will be times when we have the opportunity to change vocation. And we can take it. We can avail ourselves to the opportunity and take the change in vocation.
Many of you know that before I accepted the call to pastor this congregation, I was a barista at Starbucks. When I first started working there, I struggled. I felt this internal call to pastor but I wasn’t pastoring; I was making coffee. I was trying to find my identity in my secondary calling, my job. When I eventually realized the call to salvation was the foundation for my identity, I was freed up to be a better barista. The call of salvation in Christ put all of my secondary call of work into place. But then eventually, you extended a call to be your pastor. I was free to take that opportunity because my identity wasn’t found in my vocation.
The Power of Calling
Paul has told us about the calling that matters and he has answered questions concerning our calling. Now he will tell us the power of calling.
For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Paul says that for those who are slaves in society are actually free in Christ. Likewise those who are free in society are slaves of Christ. Pastor Stephen Um says, “The Christian is free from enslavement to the social status quo in order to be a bondservant of Christ. Now we need to remain where are and to be faithful. Christ diffuses the tension between identity and vocation”.
In 2 Kings, we’re told about a Syrian general named Naaman. Naaman had a severe case of leprosy. The King of Syria had heard about Elisha, a prophet in Israel, who did amazing miracles. So he sent Naaman to Elisha to be healed. Elisha told Naaman to dunk himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be healed. Naaman does as he is told and he is instantly cured of his leprosy.
He returns to Elisha and tells him that he is willing to pay a huge sum to this miracle. Elisha politely refuses. We’re not told this but it seems as though Naaman was converted. It seems that he became a believer in the one true God. He says, “In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter” (2 Kings 5:18).
Naaman doesn’t quit his job. He doesn’t leave the calling that God has given him. His vocation and his life have been reframed. The calling that was foundational to how he lived his life was the call to salvation in God.
That power of the calling to salvation in Christ Jesus reframes entire lives. It is our identity. With our identity found in the calling to salvation in Christ, it doesn’t matter what vocational or marital calling we find ourselves in. We can lead the life that God has assigned to us and truly flourish there.
 Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians (Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 135.
 Ibid, 135.
 Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians (Georgia: Tolle Lege, 2013), 184.
 C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (California: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968), 170.
 Um, 139.