Text: 1 Cor. 7:29-31
But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.
For those who keep up with politics, the past few weeks have been depressing and even a little scary. I’ve had at least three people joke that they now feel called to be missionaries in a foreign country—far, far away. More soberly, I have had many more people ask me “What are we going to do?” Imagine what it would be like if an irrational ego-maniac who disregards basic morality were to get control over the world’s largest military power.
What if I told you that that was exactly the way things were in the 1st century when the Christian church was just beginning? Nero Caesar took control over the Roman Empire in AD 54, just a year or two after 1st Corinthians was written. Nero is considered to be one of the most evil political leaders of history. Only a few years into his reign he had his mother executed. After the city of Rome caught on fire, Nero blamed the Christians for starting it and began a massive persecution of the church. Early church historians say that Nero would tie Christians to stakes and set them on fire.
And yet, amazingly, the leaders of the early Christian church did not call for a popular uprising or revolution. The New Testament commands us to submit to civil magistrates, and the Apostle Paul teaches us to continue to live and act in the world, even though we know that it is hostile towards us. Here in 1 Cor. 7:29-31 he gives classic advice on how Christians can continue to live and do business in the world while also remaining detached from it on a spiritual level. You have probably heard this described as being “in” the world but not “of” the world. Paul says that we should marry as if we were not married, we should weep as if we did not weep, we should rejoice as if we didn’t rejoice, we should buy as if we did not possess, and we should use the things of the world as if we did not use them. In short, we should live as if we are not.
To understand Paul’s teaching here, we need to understand that Paul believes that this world has been definitely changed by Christ already and that the future is already decided. It’s only a matter of time. So we will begin by looking at what Paul means when he says “The time is short.” Then we will explain the expression “the present shape of this world is passing away.” Finally we will conclude with Paul’s instruction to live as if we are not.
The Time is Short
For the past month or so we have been in 1 Cor. 7, and we have been discussing Paul’s reasons for counseling people to either remain single or get married. We have talked about why he counsels some people to do one thing and other people to do the other, but this section gives us his overall philosophy of living in the world. He believes that marriage and singleness are both relativized because of what Christ’s work means for human history. Here in these verses he goes on to counsel a sort of careful detachment from everything in the world because, as he says in vs. 29, “the time is short.”
What does “the time is short” mean? There are a few different points of view. The most common reads this as a prediction of the end or the world. It’s like Paul is saying, “The end is nigh!” This is probably the prima facia reading for most people, but there are some big problems with it. For one, Paul writes about the end times in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and he says that people shouldn’t quit their jobs or stop getting married because they are waiting on Jesus to come back. It would make no sense for him to then encourage some people to remain single because the end is near. There’s also another problem which is very simple. The end of the world did not occur in the Corinthians’ lifetime. We are living almost 2,000 years later, and we are reading Paul’s advice to them, trying to understand it. If we believe that Paul was guarded from error, then he was not teaching that Jesus was going to come back anytime “soon” for the Corinthians.
John Calvin reads this verse in a different way. He takes it as a very earthy statement that “time” is always fleeting. All things are constantly passing away. Our lives are nearer to death each day. The grass withers and the flower fades. Therefore we shouldn’t fix our hearts on the things of this world. This is certainly a Biblical teaching. It reminds us of Ecclesiastes, as well as the teachings of our Lord Himself. It also appears in the book of James, and Paul teaches it in other places too. But the grammar of 1 Cor. 7:29 does not work with this reading.
Verse 29 literally reads this way, “the time is having been shortened.” It’s a passive participle that is understood as a participle of cause. That’s why many English translations say “because the time is short.” If this participle expresses causation, then it would mean that something has happened, something has changed, to bring about this “time is short” situation. It is not simply “the way things are.” The time has been shortened because of God’s redemptive plan. “In the fullness of time, God sent His son…” (Gal. 4:4). The messiah is here and all things have been made new. In former days God winked at the indiscretion of the nations, “but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). This also connects with vs. 31, “the present shape of this world is passing away.” We will say more about that verse in just a moment.
One commentator explains this by connecting it with the “calling” from verse 23, and listen to what he had to say about it:
[Calling] indicates the particular transformation that every juridical status and worldly condition undergoes because of, and only because of, its relation to the messianic event. It is therefore not a matter of eschatological indifference, but of change, almost an internal shifting of each and every single worldly condition by virtue of being ‘called.’ (Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, pg. 22)
What this means is that Jesus Christ has thoroughly rocked the whole world. Everything is different now, and Christians have to relate to the world differently. We know that it is not as it seems to non-believers, and we know that its future fate has already been accomplished in God’s eyes. We are living in “in-between” time, so to speak, as what has already been accomplished has not yet been fully enacted, but the truth of the matter is still the same, and we have been told about it through the Gospel. “The time has been made short” means that human history has been wrapped up in Jesus Christ and the end of history has been plopped down in the presence through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are living resurrection lives now, and we treat every moment as a point in time in the reign of the messiah.
The Schema of This World is Passing Away
At the end of this section, Paul says one more important thing, “the present shape of this world is passing away” (vs. 31). That verse gets translated a number of ways, and I have been using my own translation there. Some translations say that the “form” of this world is passing away. Others say the “fashion” of this world is passing away. The Greek word is “schema,” a word that we sometimes still use today. A “schematic” diagram is a sort of blueprint that removes details so you can see key components of a machine. You could translate it as “figure.” And so what Paul is saying is that the schema or figure of this world is passing away.
Paul is not saying that the world itself is passing away. He’s not even saying that the “essence” or “reality” or the world is passing away. He is saying that the way that this world “operates” is passing away. It has been fundamentally changed through the work of Christ, and we Christians are living during the transformation. The world is being remade from the inside out.
What’s really interesting is that a variation of the same word “schema” appears again in verse 35. That verse says, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” The term “good order” comes from the same Greek word schema, and so you can see the kind of thing that Paul is talking about. He is contrasting the “order” or the world with the “good order” of the Christian life. He is telling us to stop living in the world according to the order of the world and to begin living in it according to the order of Christ.
The very same idea shows up in Romans 13, and it makes clear what Paul is telling us to do:
Do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Rom. 13:11-14)
The “way of the world” has been defeated by Jesus Christ, and so those who serve Him must live properly, in accordance with lives of holiness.
Live As If You’re Not
Since Jesus has changed everything, the order of this world is in the process of passing away. Therefore we should live differently. We know that this world, as it currently exists, is in the process of being replaced. Therefore we do not fall in love with it and model our lives after it. But how do we continue to live in it, even while we know that we have to remain distant? Paul tells us how in vs. 29-31:
…those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it.
What does this mean?
As has been made clear in previous weeks, it doesn’t mean that married people should go get divorced. And so it also doesn’t mean that people should stop crying or rejoicing or buying. Paul’s point is that they will continue to do all of those things but that they should do them as if they weren’t doing them. This is a way to say that they should do all of those things without letting those things capture their hearts. Don’t let those things come “first” in your thoughts, but make them all second to your love of Christ and desire to serve him.
Some have used the term “detachment” to explain this. You should do all of these things in life—get married, cry, rejoice, work, buy, etc.—but you shouldn’t be attached to any of them. They are all temporary and fleeting. Keep your thoughts fixed on eternity.
I think this is true but it needs to be explained carefully. This doesn’t simply mean that “your heart’s not in it.” You don’t need to keep your commitments but only in the sense that you show up. You really should love your spouse in delight in him or her. You really should rejoice with those who rejoice mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15) and tell them they are blessed (Matt. 5:4). What this means is that none of these things are first in your heart. They don’t have your ultimate allegiance, and you are not defined by them. Your identity is immovably found in Christ.
The Bible teaches that when we subordinate things to Jesus, He blesses both us and the things we submit to him. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). If we put our love and pursuit of Christ before our love of our spouse or our family, then Christ will actually allow us to love them better and deeper and truer. There will be a net gain, and not a net loss. And He will also allow us to love them without anxiety, so that we will not be fragile and always falling into worry or despair when afflictions come. He will allow us to love them with a strong and enduring love that lasts. Spiritual detachment will eventually bring us closer together, so long as we are being united in Jesus.
Spiritual detachment also does not mean that we don’t care about the world. It means that we can care about the world without fear or anxiety. We can care in the right way, in desiring to see its salvation, without being overcome by the bad news of the day or living in fear. This sort of spiritual detachment gives us courage and boldness to confront the world for Christ. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, it’s precisely because we are “not at home” in this world that we can preach Christ while being mocked and oppressed:
Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Heb. 13:13-16)
And so, when you hear bad news form the world, don’t be troubled. Jesus has got the world right where He wants it. The time is short. The world order is passing away. Donald Trump is not king. Jesus is. Barack Obama is not king. Jesus is. While Satan falsely lays claim to the title “Lord of this world,” we know that Jesus Christ is the true Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth, and we know that God is putting all His enemies beneath His feet. Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ has been raised from the dead. The way of this world is passing away and every knee shall bow.
Since we have no continuing city on this earth, we are able to go outside the camp and bear the reproach of Christ. We are able to suffer and to be disappointed sometimes without ever being dismayed. We can praise God, giving Him thanks, and we can walk properly doing good and sharing with one another. As the way of the world crumbles before us, we can walk in the way of Christ.
Let us pray.