CHAPTER 7:17-24 MARRIAGE, SINGLENESS, & DEVOTION TO CHRIST: CONCERNING THE FREE AND THE SLAVE Part 3
Paul in the previous section encourages the Corinthians to cling to Christ regardless if they are single, married or divorced. Now, he turns to the theme of being “called” which is a massive theological concept in the Bible:
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.
This text is intriguing and multilayered. Paul here points out that the status in life one occupies is ultimately God’s doing, not theirs. For the believer, the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good Creator uses hardships to make us more like Christ Jesus the master.
How often have we been embittered because we are either: single, married, separated, divorced or widowed? These relationships can be sources of ecstatic joy or valleys of unbearable pain. In this crucible believers are to remember their lot in life (Ps.16) is God’s doing and that He is accomplishing His good pleasure. Thus, Paul starts enumerating the diverse situations in which the Corinthian’s were saved by grace:
18 Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
The term “called” points to the rich history of God’s activity in human affairs. It is principally “word” saturated where God’s pleasure is revealed through saving rebellious souls from His wrath (e.g., the call of Abraham and his descendants) and bringing them into a covenant relationship. Here, God, not the creature, initiates and provides the necessary means for said relationship to be realized.
We really are not alone for behind the activities of man and their progeny neither, fate, chance nor luck obtain, but rather the self-existent God, the author of life is writing our particular stories in ways beyond our understanding. This process does not eliminate the significance of our choices, but adds to the tension of grasping how a Sovereign God operates His divine hidden will through the activities of sinful human beings without doing anything evil. This is a puzzle and Paul brings it up.
The apostle asks if one was a Jew or a Gentile when they were regenerated, converted, saved. Regardless, one is not to try to make a cultural or situational switch (whether Jew or Gentile) but one is to be consumed with God’s eternal holy word. The word of God is to govern how we believers live in this present evil age because it comes from He who upholds all things through the power of His word.
It’s that word or “commandment” that’s to govern our lives in this present evil age because it’s our life—it’s God breathed, it’s the source of all power and the means through which all things were created (Heb.1:1-3). We creatures ultimately come to trust either God’s words or man’s words.
When God said, “Let there be light” it obeyed-He spoke into existence what previously did not obtain (Gen.1). When God said to our dead souls, “come forth” as Jesus did to Lazarus from the tomb, we like him rose from the dead (i.e., we were saved, we were regenerated, we were justified). It’s by God’s eternal word that His enemies are rescued from wrath (Eph.2:1-10), become sons and daughters and are sanctified to become more like Jesus (Rom.8:28-29).
So now that we belong to Christ Jesus because of our calling, we are to live a certain way. There’s a caveat on the term “called” I want to point out: it’s used in contexts where heathens are rescued from God’s wrath (e.g., Abraham’s calling), where prophets are called to give God’s law (e.g., Moses calling) or kings are called to lead God’s people (e.g., King David). In Corinthians, people are “called” to salvation, to service (i.e., through their gifts 1 Cor. 12-14) and also in their social status. Paul says:
“21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.”
To reiterate the term “called” in this context seems clearest to be a person that’s born-again, regenerated, one who is God’s friend, no longer His enemy. Those called have had their greatest need abundantly met—in Christ Jesus (the last Adam) the second person of the Triune Godhead the “called” are part of God’s family no longer under wrath, but under grace.
So, Paul continues and addresses those who have been saved and starts with the “slave”. While much can, has, and will continue to be said about slavery and its nuanced contexts of injustice, cruelty, and final eradication in Christ, the following should be noted:
First, men actually don’t own anything; God owns it all by virtue of being Creator and sustainer of all that exists. Second, mankind is actually the steward of God’s good creation and accountable to Him on how they use it. Third, when man enslaves another image bearer it reveals a thirst and hunger for power and dominion that alone belongs to God and is not ultimately sanctioned by Yahweh.
Fourth, in the ancient world, depending on the circumstances, a slave could either be in charge of a nation’s wealth (e.g., Joseph over Egypt), be enslaved by another nation (e.g., Israel enslaved by Egypt), be enslaved to a creditor where children and wives were sold off at auction never again to be reunited. Slavery came into the world as a result of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden and has been a heinous reality ever since where the strong over power the weaker person, clan, tribe or nation. So, whether one is in a favorable or horrific situation as a slave, Paul is reminding the Corinthian’s that if God “rescued you” (i.e., called you) from His wrath into His favor, then don’t worry about your temporary position as a slave. Imagine the anxiety many of these slaves daily endured and Paul says don’t worry? Is he being heartless? No, Paul continues:
“but if you are able to become free, rather do that”
Paul knows it’s better to be a freed man than to be “owned” by another. In fact, he uses the word “but” to emphasize the “better-ness” of being freed. He now provides the reason:
22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men 24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.”
Paul is accentuating several truths here:
First, bondage which results from our rebellion against God, Christ has come to liberate the captives. The slave to men, is now the freedman in Christ, the freedman, is now the slave of Christ.
Second, the same master that frees us enslaves us. Christ frees us from darkness and evil and enslaves us to his goodness, beauty and truth. Believers are in fact “bound to Christ”.
Third, both free and slave (a temporary condition) are now ransomed by the substitutionary sacrifice of Calvary’s cross (an eternal abode) where the greatest injustice in human history (crucifying the sinless Son of God) was the means to free those enslaved to death.
Fourth, because Christ bought believers out of the slave market, we are no longer to be slaves of men. Contextually, Paul seems to be saying:
Christian, you need to be viewing reality through the lens of Christ’s calling via Calvary’s tree. Because Christ has freed you from God’s wrath, your fortunes have been reversed, your greatest need has been met, thus peace not anxiety is your lot in life. Being free is better than being a slave, therefore don’t become slaves of men.
But how do we become slaves of men? I think it’s when we view and live life contra God’s design. This is a grave matter. A reality with which married, single, divorced, widowed, freed and enslaved have to come to terms. Our condition on this side of eternity is temporal however difficult it may be. Paul wants believers to see Christ as the treasure and joy in life that has no rival, because in reality, that is true.
The grass really is never greener on the other side, but we think it is. Paul is exhorting believers to rest in Christ when they are suffering physical and emotional pain.