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Monday, June 30, 2008

1 Cor. 13 A Song of God's Love

The Excellent Way

And now I will show you the most excellent way.

What does Paul mean by "way"? The Greek word hodos is the usual word for "road, path." It is the word used in Jesus' famous claim "I am the way, the truth, and the life." It is the word used to designate the earliest Christians in Acts ("follower[s] of the Way"). But here Paul seems to use the "more/most excellent way" in contrast to the selfish way in which some of the Corinthian believers were exercising their spiritual gifts as status markers. And indeed in the verses 1-3 that follow, he shows that the "way" described as "not having love" nullifies the value of any of these gifts.

1 If I speak in the languages of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Paul puts all of this in the first person: "If I …" He doesn't embarrass his readers by saying "If you speak in the languages of men and angels, but don't have love." This is Paul's pastoral style. He doesn't wish to offend or turn them off. They are well aware that Paul himself possessed and exercised on appropriate occasions all of these gifts. If they see that he views them as valueless if not exercised completely in a loving service to others, they will surely make the connection to themselves.

Paul lists five Spirit-given abilities ("gifts") that believers might have: tongues, prophecy, faith, sacrificial giving, and martyrdom. He does not say that they are valueless: only that they have no usefulness and accomplish nothing for God if they are not used in love.

We have been introduced to "tongues" in the previous chapter, and will read more about this gift in ch. 14. It is a matter of debate whether when he says "languages … of angels", he is exercising hyperbole, or recognizes that some with supernatural gifts really were speaking in angels' language. In the Bible angels deliver God's messages to humans, but use the humans' own language. It is reasonable to believe that angels could have a means of communicating their thoughts to each other that is different from any human language, even if this channel of communication doesn't use sound waves like human speech does. But could such a "language" really be uttered using human vocal mechanism? We will find out some day. But for the present we must leave the question unresolved.

Although Paul uses three words in v. 2—prophecy, understanding of mysteries, knowledge—I am subsuming them under one heading, "knowledge of God." In New Testament times, prophecy included the occasional ability to foresee events in the future (like Agabus in Acts, who predicted the famine in Palestine), and the ability to give Spirit-inspired explanations of Scripture and Spirit-inspired guidance on ethical issues. Paul himself exercised this gift. Paul also claims to have received from God the ability to explain divine truths that were previously hidden ("mysteries").

"Faith", as the following words "so as to be able to move mountains" shows, has to do with the ability to ask in faith and receive from God remarkable requests. The famous George Muller of Bristol, England, in the 19th century was a man of great power in prayer. Through the answers to his prayers, he built five large orphan houses, housed over 10,000 orphans, a third of whom came to love the LORD, received almost 7 1/2 million dollars, over 50,000 specific answers to prayer spread over several branches of his ministry, including the support of hundreds of missionaries, Christian publishing and distribution, and supporting educational and religious schools for all ages. I believe that Paul too had that gift.

Church history has seen many individuals down through the centuries who were able to keep virtually nothing that they earned, to give sacrificially, and to trust God to provide their basic needs. This is a remarkable gift, which brings much glory to God. Paul himself was able to live at times on virtually nothing, without asking others for help, and depending solely on God in prayer. He writes that "I know how to live on nothing or abundantly—I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength".

The most precious gift that one can give is one's life. This is the measure of the love of Jesus, that he gave his life for us. Christian martyrs are the most highly admired of all believers. In Paul's day many of his converts gave up their lives rather than recant their faith in the risen Jesus. And eventually, so also did Paul.

Yet none of these remarkable services is of any value unless it is rendered in Christian love. The Greek word translated "love" here—and as "charity" in the old King James version, derived from the Latin word charitas—is agapē. Listen as Paul describes this uniquely Christian kind of love:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Agapē is never used of romantic or sexual love. It isn't a "love" that takes. It means self-sacrificing and self-giving love, love that puts the interests of others ahead of self. It seeks no return. Those who are driven by it do not love in order to be loved. It takes no heed of whether or not its objects are "worthy." It is the very same love that moved God the Father to send his Son to Earth for us. It is the very same love that drove Jesus to the cross for us.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some things are ephemeral, fleeting, passing fancies, trends—others endure forever. tongues, prophecies and special divine revelations had their place in the opening century of the Christian faith. Without them the Church could never have begun. But they had their usefulness and have ceased. Paul seems here to distinguish prophecy, tongues and special divine knowledge from three modes of ministry that "remain"—faith, hope and love.

"Faith" is more than believing in the gospel for salvation, as Paul indicated above. It is the engine that drives prayer. And prayer will continue until the Lord returns.

"Hope" is the engine that drives service, that keeps us praying, witnessing, and serving others without discouragement in the midst of a world and a society that rejects God and lives contentedly without any thought of Him.

And "love"—agapē love—is the glue that both keeps us united as believers and impassions our service to others.

All of these three are of greater value than prophecy, tongues or special knowledge of divine truths. It is better to be a prayer warrior than to be a professor of theology who isn't. It is better to be encouraged and driven to service by the expectation of Jesus' return (i.e., "hope") than to be able to speak every language, ancient and modern, in the whole world, and not have that hope.

Yet, if you have to rank these, says Paul, the winner hands down is LOVE. For "God is love, and everyone who loves knows God" (1 John 4). If you truly believe in Jesus, you will have to reflect God's own nature, which is love.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Monday, June 23, 2008

1 Cor. 12 The Gifts of the Spirit

Spiritual Gifts

Already, at the beginning of his letter, Paul has expressed his pleasure that God has so richly endowed this local church with persons having spiritual gifts (1:4-7). In other ways as well, he has indicated earlier in this letter his eventual intention to develop that subject. Now he does so. Can gifts from God be a source of trouble in the Church? Perhaps not the gifts themselves, but how they are used. Paul's major emphasis in this letter, as indeed in all his teaching, is that all coming together and interacting of believers—what Paul calls "fellowship" (Greek koinonia)—should produce mutual encouragement and spiritual growth. For this, which he subsumes under the single word "love" (Greek agapē), Paul will devote many words in chapter 13. This is "the most excellent way" (12:31).

1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
In the pagan world phenomena not unlike the more sensational gifts of the Holy Spirit—prophecy and speaking divine thoughts in unintelligible language—existed. And each manifestation was attributed to a particular god or goddess, usually Apollo of Delphi. Because of these believers' earlier association with pagan worship, which often involved such "messages from the gods," Paul wishes to impress upon them that it is not a trivial matter whether or not such "messages" received in Christian gatherings honored Jesus and conformed to both OT Scripture and the authentic traditions of what Jesus taught and did. It is impossible to claim that the Holy Spirit inspired one to curse Jesus.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Lest the new and relatively untaught believers in Corinth imagine that different manifestations in their midst had different sources, Paul makes it clear that one God, the God of Jesus, "works all of them in all men." Paul will return to this thought, as it implies that persons having a particularly sensational gift should not consider what they do superior to what humbler and less conspicuous believers do with their gifts.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
What are the gifts of the Spirit? Paul lists several here:
  1. message of wisdom,
  2. message of knowledge,
  3. faith,
  4. gifts of healing,
  5. miraculous powers,
  6. prophecy,
  7. distinguishing between spirits,
  8. speaking in exotic languages,
  9. interpretation of those languages
This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Elsewhere in his letters Paul includes others that are very practical, like "helps" and "hospitality." The ones he lists here probably were ones that the Corinthian assembly claimed to have. This list can be compressed into three categories of gifts: (1) speech in the gatherings that is inspired or prompted by the Holy Spirit (1, 2, 6, and 8) together with the supernatural ability to evaluate and "interpret" these utterances (7 and 9); (2) ability to perform miracles (3, 4, and 5), including healing—Paul's use of the plural "gifts" implies different kinds of healings—and probably exorcisms are to be included in either 3 or 5, as Paul himself exorcised demons in both Asia Minor (Ephesus) and Greece (Philippi). Prophecy (6), as we sometimes see it exercised in the Book of Acts, could be predictive and therefore of "one time" usefulness, or didactic—in which case others in the assembly (taught in the Scriptures) had to be able to evaluate the teaching (7)—or exhortative (words of encouragement and challenge). The gift of prophecy in the NT should not be confused with the giving of new revelations such as Paul received from the ascended Jesus.
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
These words of Paul would, of course, be true and relevant, no matter what subject he was addressing. But remember that here the immediate context is the exercise of the spiritual gifts that the Corinthian believers had—or thought they had.

If there are two themes that best characterize the unique message of Paul, they are (1) that the total number of believers in Jesus throughout the world are one mystical body of which Christ is the Head, so that each believer is "in Christ," and (2) the Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) indwells every believer. Much of the rest of Paul's teaching can be derived from these two premises.
21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
If each believer is part of the Body of Christ, Paul reasons, then they are like the various "members" of the human body, some more conspicuous and seemingly more important, others hidden by clothing and thought to be less valued. Yet no human body can function unless all members are well, healthy and working together. The lesson is that all believers must value each other and each other's efforts to serve Christ within the local congregation. There can be no pride or discrimination. And no boasting.
27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
And now I will show you the most excellent way
It would appear at first glance from these verses that some members and their gifts were in fact more important than others ("first… second … third… then"). But only in the sense of a working and efficient allotment of responsibility. I say that, because I agree with many NT scholars who believe that Paul uses the word "apostles" (Greek apostoloi) here in the sense of "missionaries," not in the sense of The Twelve, whose leadership position is made clear in the opening chapters of Acts. If this is so, then it is entirely possible that all of these mentioned gifted persons functioned in Corinth: Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, and Paul's associates, were all missionary "apostles." Local persons as well as visitors could temporarily function as "prophets" (see my remarks above). Paul's rhetorical question "Do all …?" is intended to stress the fact that these abilities are allotted by God to various members, and that no one person, having them all, is self-sufficient and needs no one else.

All of what he has said now leads up to the conclusion that we believers need each other, just as we need God Himself. Christian growth can, of course, emerge from solitary study and prayer. But the normal way is by interaction with other believers, by "church", if you will. And since, as Paul reminded these people in chapter 11, "coming together" can be not for the better but "for the worse," we need to prepare ourselves spiritually by private prayer before we go to Christian meetings, asking God to purge our minds of selfish ambition and an unloving attitude, so that our "coming together" will be for the best!

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Thursday, June 19, 2008

1 Cor. 11:17ff The Lord's Supper

Today's text (NLT):

Order at the Lord's Supper

If there is one rite of Christianity that is intended to illustrate the unity of all Christians, it is the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist). Yet, ironically, because of a difference in belief as to the meaning of the phrase "this is my body" large portions of the Christian movement cannot partake of this meal together. Such is the sad situation in today's world. Paul saw something equally distressing in Corinth. But this divisive behavior had nothing to do with the nature of the bread and wine. It had to do with a failure to appreciate the unity of the family of God, Christ's body, and allowing the existing social differences to interfere with celebrating the unity of all believers.

Paul has commended the Corinthian church in some areas. But he cannot and will not on this point.

17-19
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
When believers in Jesus come together for worship, learning and sharing, it is a time of great spiritual growth. Each have their own gifts and contributions to make to the others. And just being together as a family with those you love is a joy.

But that's if attitudes are right and love rules. When attitudes are wrong and love does not rule, the very times of assembling that are designed to help us grow can have the exact opposite effect! That was what Paul was worried about here.

But what does Paul mean by "for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized"? We shall try to answer that question once we have seen from the text below what the problem was.

20-22
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
The heart of the problem was that, when the believers in Corinth gathered to celebrate the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist), they had a kind of "church supper", called an agapē ("love [dinner]") leading up to it. And it appears that instead of sharing a common food supply, symbolizing their unity‚ the social elite and the rich ate better food, and left the poor marginalized and disgraced. The extremes are vividly portrayed when Paul says that some go hungry, while others not only eat well but get drunk on the best wines!

The background to this behavior is found in the social clubs of Corinth. There it was routine for the social elite to be served the best food, and for the lower classes to be given inferior food. This was accepted behavior. But it was totally out of place in the setting of the Lord's Supper, where all believers—regardless of their social status in Corinth—were equal in the sight of the Lord.

23-26
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
Paul begins his objections to this behavior by citing a tradition of the Lord Jesus' own behavior. It is one of the few examples in Paul's letters where he shows knowledge of an event in the earthly life of Jesus. And his way of introducing it—"I received from the Lord"—suggests that he did not learn this from those who had been followers of Jesus, but by a direct revelation from Jesus. It does match, however, what we know also from the gospel accounts.

And although the words attributed to Jesus here make no mention of his blood being shed for the remission of our sins, the final words—"you proclaim the Lord's death"—show that the ceremony of eating of the bread and drinking of the wine is intended to make his death known as the source of life for believers.

27-32
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
How does a person partake of this meal "in an unworthy manner"? Paul's answer is: "By failing to discern the Lord's Jesus' body. What is the body? Not the elements of the bread and wine, but the actual persons present who constitute the true Body of Christ. By failing to see that all believers present are one body and of equal value to Christ, the elite upper crust were dishonoring Christ at the very moment in which they were supposed to be "remembering" him!

33-34

33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another‚ 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home‚ so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Monday, June 16, 2008

1 Cor. 11:1-16 Propriety in Worship (1)

Today's text:
1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, [a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own [b] head, because of the angels.
11
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Footnotes:

  1. Or of the wife is her husband
  2. Or have a sign of authority on her
Some of you readers—but I suspect fewer every year—remember when it was the custom in American Protestant churches (I had no familiarity as a boy with Catholic ones) for women to wear hats in church. In part, this was because women tended to wear hats whenever they dressed up. But it was also due in large measure to the traditional understanding of St. Paul's words in the first half of this chapter. Today there are two essentially different approaches to understanding these words of Paul's:
  • that he was giving permanent and universal rules revealed to him by God for dress during worship, completely independent of a local culture's traditions, or
  • that he was giving advice directed to a particular local situation, which was contingent on both the locale and the time period, even if that advice was built upon principles taken from both (OT) scripture and "nature".
Followers of the first school of thought would insist that even today, in any cultural situation, women ought to have their heads covered during worship, much as conservative (or "observant") Jewish men today must wear the black beanie when worshiping or studying Torah.

Followers of the second school do not insist upon this rule. Woman may worship with heads either covered or uncovered. But both sexes should dress in a way that is modest and respectful—even if informal—and that encourages other worshipers around them to focus upon God and think pure and edifying thoughts.

As you know, in this day in which Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and adherents of other religions mingle freely with us, and "sensitivity" sessions are given in places of work to employees— dress requirements are everywhere important, not just among Jews and Christians. Dress is one of the ways that humans identify themselves with or distinguish themselves from others. Hippies loudly proclaim their liberation, but it is by their own dress—which is extremely uniform!—that they identify themselves with others who reject "bourgeois" and "uptight" citizens. So as we consider just what Paul is advising here, let us not unthinkingly reject all dress codes or norms. Let us rather think about what "message" the types of dress he refers to might have sent to those in Corinth—believers or not—who observed them.

Notice that Paul begins by a qualified word or praise for the Corinthian believers: "I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you" (v. 2). They were in fact doing some things quite well. They were observing several traditions that Paul passed along to them to regulate their behavior—both private behavior and corporate [church] behavior. Some Christians bristle at the very thought of traditions governing behavior. Such modern believers are not unlike some of the Corinthians in Paul's churches. Christ has set us "free" from the "traditions of men" which tend to obscure or pervert the clear meanings of OT scripture and of the principles of biblical ethics. Just as Jesus excoriated the Pharisees and scribes for "making void the Word of God by your traditions" (Mark 7:5-13), these people wanted nothing to do with "human traditions".

But first of all, we are not sure that by "traditions" Paul here does not mean (or at least 'include') scripture! After all, in the opening verses of 1 Cor. 15, he refers to the very essential points of the gospel as being "handed down" as "tradition". But secondly, just as Jesus commented upon—and therefore interpreted—certain passages of the Torah, thus creating his own tradition, so these additions to Old Testament scripture together with similar interpretations made by the apostles, including Paul, became a part of a body of recognized authoritative "tradition" in the earliest Church. And these "traditions" were circulated along with others about what Jesus had done and taught. The latter were eventually codified in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Likewise some of the apostolic "traditions" that circulated alongside these were eventually incorporated in NT books, such as Paul's other letters, or the letters of Peter, James, John, and the Hebrews.

Traditions that are not today a part of Holy Scripture cannot enjoy the same authority. They are the opinions of good and sincere men, but not the Word of God. Such church traditions, including dogmatic theology, traditional liturgy, and even hymn texts, must always be tested against the teachings of Scripture. Any theological thinking—no matter how appealing or plausible—that does not agree with the Bible is wrong and should not be believed or taught or incorporated into worship services.

But now let's go back to Paul's "traditions". He doesn't specify which ones the Corinthians were following that he commended them for. But since right away he criticizes them for not following some that had to do with behavior in corporate worship, it is very possible that the things they were doing right were also in this realm. So what were these believers doing that Paul disapproved of? Apparently, some of the women believers were worshiping with uncovered heads, and some of the men believers with covered ones.

Why was this wrong? What in Paul's day was meant by a woman not covering her head in worship? Here we are helped by archaeological artifacts. To be specific, scenes of pagan worship on reliefs carved in stone.

A quote from one commentary helps to orient us in a general way:
Women’s hair was a common object of lust in antiquity, and in much of the eastern Mediterranean women were expected to cover their hair. To fail to cover their hair was thought to provoke male lust as a bathing suit is thought to provoke it in some cultures today. Head covering prevailed in Jewish Palestine (where it extended even to a face veil) and elsewhere, but upper-class women eager to show off their fashionable hairstyles did not practice it. Thus Paul must address a clash of culture in the church between upper-class fashion and lower-class concern that sexual propriety is being violated. (That Greeks bared their heads for worship and Romans covered them might also be significant, given the dual affiliation of Corinth as a Greek and Roman city. But because this custom was not divided along gender lines, it is probably irrelevant here.)
Even the most "liberated" Modern Americans—especially the "Politically Correct" ones—should be able to relate to this, since they bend over backwards to respect the "modesty" rules of Muslim or Middle Eastern women, while mocking similar scruples held by native-born conservative Christian women! Obviously, there is something essentially arbitrary about deciding that a particular part of a woman's body is "unfairly" seductive to a modest man. It used to be just legs or bust lines. But in today's world of Muslim immigrants we see firsthand that even hair and neck should be modestly veiled.

But now let's return to Paul's reasoning and his recommendations. As he did in the case of the issue of eating food offered to idols, so here too Paul acknowledges that certain basic truths of the gospel indicate that there is full equality among believers in Jesus, whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman. Such distinctions do not affect how God values a person. Although that is the case, there is no reason why a believing slave needs to enjoy the same privileges as a believing free man; he can continue to exist socially on a different level, knowing that before God he is on the same level as the free man. Similarly, although in Christ men and women believers are equal, they can and should continue to behave according to accepted gender roles. Being equal in Christ does not require that all believers enjoy identical social or administrative status. If respectable society expected a woman to dress in a certain way, and men in another, those boundaries should continue to be observed by believers, unless something about that dress inherently contradicts their moral character. Western missionaries during the 18th and 19th centuries were often offended by native traditions of nudity or semi-nudity, and attempted to impose western dress on converts. All that this accomplished was to drive a wedge between the new believers and their non-believing neighbors, so as to inhibit their ability to witness. The conventions of dress grow out of considerations that are often very subtle and difficult for outsiders to understand. Judgments about making changes should be undertaken with great care and patience and very reluctantly.

But Paul does not stop with the argument that "this is what decent people in your community expect". Rather he argues from a kind of theological basis. At the center of the argument is the account of the creation of humans in Genesis 2-3. The first woman Eve was created from a part of Adam's body (1 Cor. 11:8). Hence, she was in a sense derivative from the first man. Paul reasons that this symbolically suggests that within a marriage, in God's plan the man should be the leader (or "head"). In today's world, unlike the ancient world, married women often find employment outside the home and thus (more obviously—since it can be argued that even before this their housework constituted an essential and major part of the family's support) they share equally in the task of providing for the family financially. But in earlier times the man was traditionally the "Provider", and the woman the bearer of children and their teacher and nurturer. In the family circle the husband-father had God-given authority, and the woman's head cover was a sign of her husband's "authority" (verse 10).

But Paul hastens to say in verses 11-12, that other considerations show that both sexes are dependent upon each other. For as the first woman was "born" from the first man, so in all subsequent generations the children (including all the males) are born from a woman mother. Thus Adam named his wife Eve (Hebrew ḥavva), because she would be "the mother of all living beings." Paul says this in order to acknowledge that the rules he suggests for Corinth, while having a certain support from the creation account, must not be generalized so as to devalue women. In fact, in this very context he refers to women "praying and prophesying" in public.

So what in summary is Paul saying? He wishes the believers not to go to extremes in seeking to demonstrate their freedom and equality, but—as in the case of the food offered to idols—to be willing to give up privileges in order not to offend others, and in order to maintain a kind of public order that is respectable to the wider world. These are good considerations even today. In all this discussion, Paul does not command—he advises and reasons with his converts. And he urges them not to be "contentious" (v. 16). I would assume that this refers to persons holding either of the opposing views. Neither should be contentious. But Paul reminds them that there is no different custom observed by any of the local congregations he is familiar with (v. 16). So they should seek to conform to the general custom of all other churches.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Thursday, June 12, 2008

1 Cor. 10 "But Don't I Have the Right …?"

Warnings From Israel's History
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food [the manna] 4 and drank the same spiritual drink [water from the rock]; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry." 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
The transition from the last chapter to this one is Paul's fear expressed in v. 27 that even he—if he isn't careful about the way he lives—might lose out on the prize of Christ's "well done, good and faithful servant" at the end of his life. What? Even Paul? Yes, even Paul!

"But," the Corinthian readers might object, "God never leaves anyone behind whom he has saved!" "Oh?" Paul replies. "How about in the Wilderness Wanderings?" The deserts between Egypt and the Promised Land were the burial grounds of a whole generation of Israelites, who never reached the Promised Land (v. 5). Why? Because, in spite of all the miraculous acts of God to save them out of Egypt, they refused to take seriously their responsibility to live according to the principle of faith and the terms of covenant living laid down at Mt. Sinai. And because of their disobedience "God was displeased with them."

The Greek phrase rendered "was displeased with" is a very strong one in biblical language. It is tantamount to "rejected". It is the opposite of "chose". Paul wants his converts to know that God who graciously chose them in Christ does not tolerate insincere allegiances. That was what the behavior of the Israelites in the desert showed: an insincere or casual allegiance. Read the gospel accounts of Jesus' own ministry and his words to his disciples. He was not interested in lukewarm disciples who just wanted a new experience. Being a believer in Jesus is serious business.

"But Paul! It's hard to resist the temptations all around us here in Corinth," someone says. Paul has an answer: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it" (v. 13). We all like to think our temptations are much more difficult than those faced by others. But Paul assures us, "You really are no different from your brothers and sisters around the world. We all face 'irresistible' temptations. But they aren't really—not when Jesus, who underwent every conceivable one during his lifetime, is with us and in us to give power to overcome!" And just as God limited Satan's actions against Job, so he keeps our tempters from using anything beyond our ability to resist. Furthermore, there will always be a way to escape, if we are willing to look for it. The problem is that most of us in such situations are looking for an excuse to succumb, not for a way to escape!

Isn't this why we pray in the "Lord's Prayer": "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One"? Those words do not mean we can always avoid temptations. But by God's help we can let him deliver us, and quite possibly by using the "way of escape".

We like to think in macho terms of overcoming the devil: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7) But much of the time the best advice is "Flee temptations; pursue righteousness" (1Cor 6:18; 10:14; 1Tim 6:11; 2Tim 2:22) We all know circumstances in which we are particularly vulnerable to temptations. We should flee those circumstances—avoid them at all costs. One of those places, Paul suggests to the Corinthians, is a banquet in a pagan temple to which you may be invited!

Idol Feasts and the Lord's Supper
14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. 18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Much of the ethical choices we Christians are forced to make can be made on the basis of good common sense, combined of course with facts about our salvation. That is why Paul stresses here that he relies on his readers being "sensible people" (v. 15). Paul here avoids using the Greek word sophos "wise", which had the undesirable connotation of the proud "wisdom" the Corinthian elite were claiming. Instead he uses the everyday "blue collar" term for someone who has his wits about him and uses his head: phronimos. It is a term Jesus also liked to use of disciples who knew how to think in down-to-earth ways about the consequences of actions.

"Just think for a minute!" Paul says. "What does eating the Eucharist imply about our relationship to Jesus? Doesn't it mean we belong to him and are part of his mystical Body? And how about the banquets in pagan temples that your rich friends invite you to? What does eating that sacrificial food imply? Do you not see the contradiction here? Who do you belong to? At whose table should you eat? So flee idolatry in all its forms!"

The Believer's Freedom
23 "I have the right to do anything," you say—but not everything is beneficial. "I have the right to do anything"—but not everything is constructive. 24
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person's conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another's conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

We've been down this road before, haven't we? "I have the right …!" Is this what Christians should be saying to God? Or to the Word of God, the Bible? Is this what we have come to in this "age of protest"? What if Jesus had insisted on his rights in the Garden of Gethsemane, or in Pilate's judgment hall, or at the Cross itself? For as he reminded Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”” (Matthew 26:53-54 NIV) In the light of Jesus' self-denying actions to save us from our sins, this objection by the Corinthians sounds so tawdry!

Yet Paul is remarkably kind to them in his recommendation. He merely stresses that they should think in terms of what effect their behavior might have on others, and to do what is most beneficial to all concerned. Verses 31 and 32 are a beautiful and well-phrased summary of the principle that ought to guide the life of every believer in Jesus: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble [in their faith or commitment], whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

If we take anything thought away from today's reading, let it be this. As Jesus did not seek to please himself, but always sought what was best for others, so should we.

ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner

Monday, June 09, 2008

1 Cor. 9 Paul and His "Rights"

"Don't muzzle the ox who treads out the grain" (Deut. 25:4))
(Image courtesy of http://www.wcg.org/lit/images)

Is Paul Not Also Free?

Reading between the lines here (vv. 3-5), it seems that Paul (also Barnabas) was the target of criticism by some Christians in Corinth for accepting financial support from them.
1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don't we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Peter? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who don't have the right not to work for a living?

7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when farmers plow and thresh, they should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?

But we chose not to use this right [when we were with you]. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

13 Don't you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord [Jesus] has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

This shows just how difficult it was for Paul to avoid unjust criticism from his flock. For we know that others thought his working for a living as a tent-maker was "unseemly" and betokened a kind of low-class vulgarity unsuitable for an apostle! Paul was able to follow either path, depending on what he sensed was best for his witness with a particular group (Phil. 4:10-15).

Paul takes up the argument here that he has rights as an apostle of Jesus that he may claim or choose not to claim. He first points out (vv. 3-6) that his critics grant the right to financial and other support to others who are apostles: why not also to Paul?

He then appeals to a principle found in the Old Testament laws of Moses (vv. 7-12), quoting Deut. 25:4 (in v. 9). Oxen when threshing were to be allowed to eat the grain at their feet while they pulled the threshing sledge. Paul rightly observes that this principle was not given just for the benefit of oxen, but applies to other workers as well, not the least to apostles of Jesus!

As if that were not enough proof, Paul then cites the example of the priests in the temple, who are allowed to eat parts of the sacrifices offered. When he then says (v. 14) that "the Lord has commanded", he means Jesus and probably has in mind Jesus' words "the laborer is worthy of his wages" (see Luke 10:7) in connection with his sending out his apostles to preach in Galilean villages.

Paul's Use and Non-use of His Freedom
15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not misuse my rights as a preacher of the gospel. 19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
In vv. 19-23 Paul bares his soul to us and reveals the real motive for choosing either to use or not use his privileges as an apostle: he wants to win as many people to Christ as he can. What a wonderful example he is to us all! What is more important to y ou and me: using our "rights" and privileges, or winning someone to faith in Jesus? No contest!
The Need for Self-Discipline
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Here's another thought! Paul sees his life and service for Christ as a race in one of the Greek games. He wants to ddo his best: he wants to win for Jesus! Winning a footrace requires determined and demanding training—and self-discipline. It means giving up lots of things for the sake of the one big goal: winning the race.

We shouldn't press the details of his metaphor here: Paul is not suggesting that he is competing with other apostles or other Christians. He isn't wishing to beat any other Christians out! No, the race metaphor only serves to bring out the points I have just explained—nothing more.

How is it with you? Are you worried about what you are entitled to do, while remaining a Christian? Have you become spiritually "flabby" from lack of spiritual discipline? Do you find yourself clumsy and uncomfortable in witnessing to others because of your own lax lifestyle? It isn't too late to make some changes—today!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

1 Cor. 8 How Do You Model Jesus' Love?

Today's text can be read here: 1 Cor. 8.

1-3 Introduction

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that "We all possess knowledge." But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.

At the very outset of his long discussion Paul states his principle: It is good to have a biblically enlightened view of the issue and to be free from superstitions. but even more important is that this enlightened view be tempered by considerations for others who do not yet have this understanding. In other words, words that he will use later in chapter 13,

Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

The "knowledge" these Corinthians boasted of possessing was not exclusively Christian belief, nor even Jewish belief. Many pagans who walked the streets of Corinth, although for social reasons they went through the outward forms of traditional polytheistic piety, did not believe in the so-called "gods" that were worshiped in the temples of the city. The images of these deities were part of their urban life and as such were valued for patriotic reasons. So when the Corinthian "geniuses" boasted of their knowledge, they were boasting of nothing special. Their pride in superior knowledge was—as Paul puts it here—being "puffed up".

Yet there were others in the Christian communities of the city who for a wide variety of reasons could not rid themselves of the belief that these other "gods" existed, even if only in the form of demons. They would not wish to have anything to do with the temples or any food that had once been placed upon the temple's altar and dedicated to the "gods". For the "enlightened" Christians to do so as a form of demonstrating their "freedom" could disturb and perhaps mislead these simpler souls. That would not be Christian love. It would not "build them up" in the faith.

So there are several issues to be considered beyond the "reality" that there is only one God. Do my actions only puff me up with pride at my freedom, or do they build up the faith of others (v. 1)? And secondly, is what I do done out of genuine love for God—and by extension, for those whom God loves? If not, then my "knowledge" is not real. I do not yet know as I "ought to know" (v. 2). And if there is no love in me for those whom God loves, I must ask myself if God really "knows" me (v.3)—in the sense of the word as used by Jesus in his parable of those rejected at the Last Judgment with these words from the Savior: "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:21-23).

4-6 The "Enlightened" View of Idols


So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that "An idol is nothing at all in the world" and that "There is no God but one." 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Paul wants the "enlightened" party to know that he shares their enlightened view—hence, his use here of "we". In the earlier parts of the Old Testament the beings worshiped by the pagan polytheists are called "gods". But in the latest parts—just before and long after the return from the Babylonian captivity—they are called "idols", because by this time the Jews could not bring themselves to use the term "god" for these so-called deities. This language is now reflected in the words of Paul. Only the Holy Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) was deserving of the word "God". All other pretenders were merely "idols" and "so-called gods" (Greek legomenoi theoi).

But even if Paul can agree with the slogans of these Corinthians free-thinkers—notice how their words are put in quotation marks in the translation I have given here—it is important to notice what he does not go on to say. He does not say that therefore it is okay to offend others by a reckless exercise of "Christian freedom", eating at banquets in pagan temples.

7-8 But Not Everyone Knows This

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

It is always a good idea to pay attention to the word "but"! There are two of them here, beginning both verse 7 and verse 8. The first reminds us that we do not live to ourselves, free to ignore how our actions affect others—for good or ill. Paul will elaborate this in verses 9-13. Christians belong to one body, which has many members. Christian love, which reaches out to anyone, believer or non-believer—is especially strong for fellow members of the Body of Christ. I cannot act in a way that hurts or weakens a fellow believer and still claim to be showing the love of Jesus. And without that love flowing through me, I am not assured that I even belong to Him.

The second "but" (v. 8) reminds us that neither religious scruples about diet nor the flaunting of those scruples in itself brings us closer to God. It is rather the presence of intentional love for others in our actions that brings us closer to God, and the absence of that love that removes us from Him. The big question should not be: "Am I free do do such a thing?" but rather "Will doing this help my brother or sister?"

9-13 Consideration for Other Believers

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol's temple, won't they be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Are believers then "free"? The "exercise of your rights" (v. 9) seems to suggest so. But what Paul goes on to say, both here and in the next chapter, suggests that a believer's "rights" are always to be sacrificed for the good of others. As so often in his letters, Paul not only uses himself as a model, but either explicitly or implicitly holds up Jesus to us as the perfect model. Jesus gave up all his rights in order to save us from our sins. It should be our joy to do likewise for the sake of those he came to save.

Today in the United States and most parts of Europe there is no exact counterpart to the specific situation that confronted these Corinthian believers. But the principle remains. Whatever action on your part or mine that gives the impression to others that we disregard the commands of Jesus should be avoided. And positively, we should live each moment of each day knowing that not only are the "eyes of the Lord" upon us, but the eyes of many other believers who may admire us and look to our lifestyle as a model for their own.

Monday, June 02, 2008

1 Cor. 7:25-40 Living in the 'Present Crisis'

Today's text can be read here: 1 Cor. 7:25-40.

It is certainly true, as Alan Johnson writes in his commentary, that "It is no exaggeration to call this passage one of the most difficult to interpret in all of Paul's letters ." One reason is the uncertainty of what Paul means by the terms "virgins"—engaged women (NRSV's "fiancée") or unmarried daughters or even celibate males—and "the present crisis" (v. 26)—a temporary local condition (famine or persecution), or the immediate expectation of the return of Jesus, or simply Paul's view that the entire present age of Kingdom discipleship constituted a "present crisis".

I will not bother you with repeating all the technical arguments for each view. My own view is that the NRSV is right that "virgins" here refers to engaged women, and that the issue was whether—as part of putting discipleship first—engaged couples should forego plans for marriage.

Paul seems to argue on several bases. At the outset (v. 25) he admits that he has heard of no reliable tradition of a teaching of Jesus on the subject (NIV "I have no command from the Lord"), so that what he is about to say is his own opinion. but he adds that this opinion should not be taken lightly, since he is one who by the mercy of Jesus has shown himself faithful (or trustworthy, Greek pistos). Alan Johnson thinks that by the latter phrase he means that he has shown himself faithful in exercising the gift of celibacy that Jesus conferred upon him (vv. 7-8). In other words, he is one who has proven by his own life that such a gift is real and workable. But the older view, represented in the following quote by Wayne Meeks, seems more likely:
Elsewhere, too, Paul can claim to speak directly the will of God, giving his "opinion, as one given mercy by the Lord to be faithful" (1 Cor. 7:25), for "I think that I also have the Spirit of God" (7:40). He is careful, though, to distinguish such statements from "commands of the Lord" that he knows by tradition (7:10, 12, 25).
"Faithful" (Greek pistos) here, then, has its more general meaning of "one whose word or advice can be trusted". Paul is not referring to his example of successful celibacy, but to his record of reliable teaching and preaching. His teaching and advice have always proven right in the past. He argues that the "present crisis" (v. 26) makes it necessary to cancel the normal rights of citizen-soldiers in the army of Jesus. Where do I get such a metaphor? In verses 29-31 Paul alludes to the important passage in the law of Moses, which granted exemptions from military service in the "holy wars" of God (Deut. 20:5-9):
Then the tribal officials will say to the troops: If any of you have built a new house, but haven't yet moved in, you may go home. It isn't right for you to die in battle and for somebody else to live in your new house. If any of you have planted a vineyard but haven't had your first grape harvest, you may go home. It isn't right for you to die in battle and for somebody else to enjoy your grapes. If any of you are engaged to be married, you may go back home and get married. It isn't right for you to die in battle and for somebody else to marry the woman you are engaged to. Finally, if any of you are afraid, you may go home. We don't want you to discourage the other soldiers. When the officials are finished giving these orders, they will appoint officers to be in command of the army (CEV version).
Notice how some of Paul's examples match some in this OT text: engagement to marry, new harvest/possession. In normal times all of these situations constituted legitimate exemptions from service in God's army. And the Deuteronomy passage with its final call for soldiers who were afraid to go home lest their fear demoralize the other troops suggests that soldiers newly married and separated now from the new bride might be distracted from their fighting roles. Paul's mention of "those who mourn" refers to the exemption in other passages of the law of Moses based upon the need to bury a close relative. This exemption was used as an excuse from Jesus' call to discipleship in Luke 9:59-65
59 [Jesus] said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
60 Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
61 Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."
62 Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
For Jesus the call to discipleship imposed emergency rules that trumped normal privileges and social conventions. In a sense, then, there was a "command of the Lord [Jesus]", but Paul was unaware of it!

Even though Paul was apparently unaware of this statement of Jesus', he seems to use a similar reasoning. He turns the logic of the Deuteronomy passage on its ear by arguing here that under the present impending crisis (i.e., the demands of Kingdom discipleship in this age) even a man who has newly married should not let that circumstance distract him from single-minded service to Christ. Those who mourn (v. 30, are recently bereaved) should put that distraction out of their heads. None of these circumstances should become excuses for relaxing one's service in Jesus' army.

Paul gives two reasons for these special demands. The first is represented by v. 31, where he writes: "for the present form [or 'scheme', Greek schēma] of this world is passing away [or 'is transitory']"

Paul gives two reasons for these special demands. The first is represented by v. 31, where he writes: "for the present form [or 'scheme', Greek schēma] of this world is passing away."

The New Testament writers, when referring to the two ages—the present one and the future eternal one— used the terms "age" (Greek aiōn) and "world" (Greek kosmos) interchangeably, both reflecting the meaning inherent in the Hebrew noun ōlam. When we recite the old creeds in church and find the phrase "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen", this is an example of the meaning "age without end", i.e., eternity. It is the way of life that characterizes the present age—not the present physical earth—that he has in mind when he says it is passing away, although it is true that Peter uses the ultimate physical demise and re-creation of the Earth as a similar motivation for holy living in the present age (2 Peter 3:10-12).

It is significant that Paul uses a present tense verb ("is passing away") here. Believers in Jesus during the present age leading up to the return of Jesus are conceived as already enjoying some of the powers and joys of the coming age. This is what Paul means in Ephesians by our living "in the heavenlies". It is also what the author to the Hebrews refers to, when he describes persons who once tasted Christian life and then rejected Christ (Hebrews 6:4-6):
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Social conventions such as marriage, bereavement, buying and selling belong to the present age. In the coming age of the Kingdom there will be no more marriage or death. And in the present age believers in Jesus should be able to live in a way that does not allow the conditions of the present to dominate or hamper their discipleship. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, Paul did not yield to those who advocated asceticism. Real human circumstances in the present life could not and should not be ignored. But believers should seek to have the mindset of the coming age even now in the present.

Obviously, a balance is needed. No one expects a believer not to feel keenly the death of a spouse or a child. It is a matter of degree. Paul wrote elsewhere "you should not grieve [over a loved one's death] like those who have no hope [beyond death]" (1 Thess. 4:13-14). Likewise, no one expects believers not to enjoy marriage or new possessions. But their real joys must always be in a relationship to Christ which far exceeds the joys of human love and earthly comforts.

His second reason is vv. 32-35 (NLT):
I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. 33 But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. 34 His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.
In the Deuteronomy law cited above, in order that soldiers be free from distractions and worries, they were dismissed from duty in the army. In Paul's version, "soldiers" serving in Jesus' "army" are not dismissed, but must seek God's help to live as though these potential distractions do not exist.

And finally, in vv. 36-40, Paul allows for engaged persons who after much prayer are convinced that they do not possess the gift of God to remain single, to go ahead and marry. Personally, Paul thinks they all would be better off if they can remain single. But he concedes that each one has his or her own gift from God in this matter (1 Cor 7:7).

It may be that you are a little confused by this passage. We are accustomed to read authoritative and firm statements in Paul's letters: statements based either upon the teachings of Jesus or upon revelations given to Paul from God. Such passages in Paul teach permanent truths that remain valid for all time and in all circumstances. What we have read here is quite different. Paul has had to answer questions pertaining to circumstances that did not allow such certainty. Like any caring pastor, he was compelled to give some kind of advice that would be helpful to his flock. What he advised them was reasonable and was based upon principles derived from the only "Scripture" that existed at the time: the Old Testament laws. It was wise advice. But it was not intended for all circumstances or all eras of history. Today we must, like Paul, use the Scriptures available to us—both Old and New Testaments—to find and apply principles that honor God and exhibit the love and purity of Christ. This is not an easy task, but it is the path of discipleship.