1 Corinthians 7:20-24 ~ 20131201 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
12/01 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 Remain As You Were Called; Slavery and Contentment Audio available at: http://www.ephraimbible.org/Sermons/20131201_1cor7_20-24.mp3
17 Εἰ μὴ ἑκάστῳ ὡς ἐμέρισεν ὁ κύριος, ἕκαστον ὡς κέκληκεν ὁ θεός, οὕτως περιπατείτω· καὶ οὕτως ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις πάσαις διατάσσομαι. 18 περιτετμημένος τις ἐκλήθη ; μὴ ἐπισπάσθω· ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ κέκληταί τις; μὴ περιτεμνέσθω. 19 ἡ περιτομὴ οὐδέν ἐστιν, καὶ ἡ ἀκροβυστία οὐδέν ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ τήρησις ἐντολῶν θεοῦ. 20 ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω. 21 Δοῦλος ἐκλήθης ; μή σοι μελέτω· ἀλλ’ εἰ καὶ δύνασαι ἐλεύθερος γενέσθαι, μᾶλλον χρῆσαι. 22 ὁ γὰρ ἐν κυρίῳ κληθεὶς δοῦλος ἀπελεύθερος κυρίου ἐστίν· ὁμοίως ὁ ἐλεύθερος κληθεὶς δοῦλός ἐστιν Χριστοῦ. 23 τιμῆς ἠγοράσθητε· μὴ γίνεσθε δοῦλοι ἀνθρώπων. 24 ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ.
1Cor 7 [ESV2011]
7:17 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.
We find in this passage strong encouragement from the apostle to enjoy the status God has given to each one of us in Christ Jesus. These verses give the core principle that Paul applies to the different circumstances he addresses in this chapter: married, widowed, divorced, and single. In verse 17 he states the principle:
Then in verses 18 – 19 he illustrates this principle with the racial issue of circumcision. Jews prided themselves in being God's chosen people. Gentiles were excluded from a relationship with God unless they became Jews. But in Graeco-Roman society being a Jew could be detrimental to social advancement. Paul says that it doesn't matter what your racial background is. God's call cuts across all ethnic barriers. Jesus sent his disciples not only to Jerusalem and Judea, but into Samaria and to the ends of the earth to make disciples. God will bring people from every tribe and language and people and nation to worship around his throne. Racial background has no effect on one's relationship with Jesus. In verse 20, Paul restates his guiding principle.
And in verses 21-23 he applies this principle to the difficult social issue of slavery. Then in verse 24, he repeats the principle again.
Bondservants and Freedmen
In order to better understand this passage, we need to gain a proper understanding about the background of slavery in the Graeco-Roman world that Paul was writing to. Set aside for a moment the American and European ideas of ethnic based slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was an issue of social status. One became a slave by being on the losing side of a battle, by being born to slave parents, or by entering into a contract of slavery, often to pay off a debt. The kidnapping and sale of adults and children as slaves was illegal, but did happen. Slavery was typically not lifelong; slaves were often manumitted (or granted freedom) when they were in their early 30's or after around seven years of service (NIGTC, p.564-5). A former slave who had been released gained the status of 'freedman'. The status of a slave or a freedman depended greatly on whom he served as slave. Slaves were sometimes cruelly abused and mistreated, and sometimes released when they had passed their prime as a way for the owner to escape the obligations of providing for them. But it was a matter of public honor to provide well for the needs of the slave, and to reward loyal service with manumission. Some slaves were menial laborers, but a wealthy patron would often delegate great responsibility to a trusted slave to carry out business and manage affairs in his name, and that slave would be given the respect that was due their patron. When a slave was released, they continued to be indebted to their patron, owing them honor, respect, gifts, and often a set number of days' work per week or month or year (BECNT, p.314-5). Some estimate that about one third of the population of ancient Corinth were slaves, and another third were freedmen. Freedmen took great pride in their patrons. Common tombstone inscriptions have been discovered that read (so-and-so) the freedman of (patron's name).
Circumstances and Attitudes
Paul restates his governing principle of living the life the Lord has assigned and to which God has called in verse 20, and he now applies this principle to slavery and freedom.
Literally verse 20 reads 'remain in the calling in which you were called'. It is not social standing that counts for anything, it is God's call.
This is intentionally an extreme application of the principle, and it helps to clarify what he does and doesn't mean by it. It is one thing to apply 'each one should remain in the calling in which he was called' to circumcision; don't reverse the irreversible. But to say 'if God called you as a slave, remain as a slave' is more difficult to swallow. But he doesn't exactly say that. He doesn't say 'you must remain a slave' Instead he says 'don't worry about it.' He turns our focus from the circumstance to our attitude toward the circumstance. If you are a slave, don't let it concern you. You can be so focused on your circumstance, so controlled by an all-consuming desire to escape your situation, that you become a slave to your desire. You don't have to become a Jew to follow Jesus, and you don't have to become free to follow Jesus. A slave can be just as faithful a follower of Jesus as a free man can. This is radical contentment irrespective of circumstances.
This is not just talk. Paul modeled this radical contentment for us in his own life. He wrote in Philippians:
He wrote these words from a Roman prison, probably chained to Roman guards. He did not pout and whine and complain. He was not consumed with self-pity. Instead he viewed his circumstances as ordained by God and took advantage of his situation for the glory of God and for the advance of the gospel. He writes in the beginning of the letter:
Throughout the Philippian letter Paul is overflowing with joy. Joy is not contingent on circumstances; joy is fruit of the Holy Spirit, who resides in every believer. Paul views his imprisonment not as a hindrance to the gospel, but as brought about by God to advance the gospel throughout the whole Roman guard. His imprisonment has given confidence to many brothers to speak the word more boldly. Paul is content in his God-given circumstances and finds multiple reasons for joy and thanksgiving to his all-wise God. Paul gives us his recipe for contentment in Philippians 4:6.
Or as Peter says it:
Remain as you are. Bring your concerns to God. Be content in whatever circumstance God called you.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
We can easily apply this principle to our situation today. Often when someone becomes a follower of Jesus, they feel a strong inclination to really make their lives count for the Lord. They mistakenly think that the best way to do this is to quit their day job and go into 'full time Christian ministry'. This is right and wrong. They definitely should seek to make their lives count for God and they should go into full time Christian ministry. But that does not require a change of occupation. Paul's advice here is 'remain as you are called'. Don't quit your day job. You are called to be an ambassador for Jesus where ever you are. Are you presently serving someone? Employed by someone? Be faithful to use those relationships for the advance of the gospel and the glory of God. Are you in a position of authority over someone? A business owner or employer? Recognize that you are a slave of Jesus, you belong to Jesus, and he determines how you conduct yourself and how you relate to other people.
Make Use Of...
We could take Paul's principle that 'each one should remain in the condition in which he was called' as an absolute rule in every circumstance. But Paul is not so simplistic. He adds a 'but if' clause; 'but if you can gain your freedom, rather make use...' But he leaves the sentence hanging. Make use of what? This has led to a debate among biblical scholars. Does he mean that if you have the opportunity to become free, you should rather make use of your slavery to the glory of God and remain a slave? Does he mean that if you have the opportunity to become free, you should use your new status as a freedman to bring glory to God? More likely he is allowing for the exception and turning our focus from our circumstances to our calling. If you were called by God as a slave, don't let it concern you, serve your earthly master to the glory of God. If God opens the door to freedom, make use of that freedom for the glory of God.
Upside Down Kingdom
He finds the reason in the gospel, where the calling of God shames the wise and chooses the nothings of this world, where the first will be last and the last first.
The cross of our Lord Jesus turns all social status on its head. If God called you when you were a slave, you become a freedman of the Lord. Still a slave of a human master, the Lord Jesus has become your patron and you enjoy true freedom from the power and consequences of sin, a freedom greater than any earthly liberty. You now owe your primary allegiance to Jesus. You can claim the identity of the King of kings and Lord of lords. If on the other hand God called you when you were free, you have become a slave of Christ. You have come under the control of a Master who has the absolute right to make use of you, your time and talents and resources, as he alone sees fit (Thrall, p.56). So the slave moves up in social status, and the free man moves to the bottom.
Jesus taught his disciples:
The greatest one in God's kingdom is the one who serves others. Jesus, our example, did not come to be served but to sacrifice himself for others.
The God who created the universe became part of his creation in order to serve us by dying in our place. Because of the cross, we who were slaves are set free from sin to live lives that bring glory to God. We who were free are now owned by Jesus.
Paul's instruction to slaves is not to worry about it. If you can become free, use that for the glory of God. More important than your circumstances is your attitude. Your station in life does not define you. Your relation to Christ is what defines you.
He now instructs those who are free.
In that culture, becoming a slave of an affluent and important patron could be a way to climb the ladder of social status. Paul warns them against the foolish wisdom of this world's status seeking hunger. He takes them back to the cross. You were bought with a price. Jesus paid the price for your freedom at the infinite cost of his own precious blood. You are owned by the King of kings. It would be incongruent for a possession of Christ to sell himself into slavery to another master. At the end of chapter 6 in a warning against sexual immorality, he said
Here, in the context of social relationships, he repeats this theological truth. You were bought with a price. You are owned. You belong to Jesus. You must live consistent with your new identity in Christ.
Content in Any Relationship
Paul is saying all this to illustrate his principle governing marriage, divorce, remarriage, and celibacy. His principle is 'remain as you were called'. If you are married, you must not seek to change your status. Enjoy your marriage and use it to bring glory to God. If you are single, divorced, or widowed, take advantage of the freedoms of singleness to bring glory to God. But his illustration of slavery introduces possible exceptions to the principle. You are not required to remain in that state. Interestingly, he parallels marriage with slavery and singleness with freedom. But whatever your situation, don't be concerned about it. More important than your circumstances is your attitude toward those circumstances. Are you bitter, frustrated, depressed, suffering from the greener grass syndrome, wishing to be on the other side of the fence? Or have you learned the secret for contentment in whatever circumstances you find yourself in? In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain, but you are not to remain there alone, in your own strength. You belong to Jesus, you are with God, and in that relationship there is ample strength. The power of the Holy Spirit is at work in you to produce the fruit of joy regardless of outward status or standing, to produce peace and confidence in your identity in Christ as belonging to him. You were bought with a price. You are a bondservant of Christ, a freedman of Christ. You are with God, and that relationship must define you.