So quick review. Let’s follow Paul’s argument – circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, dressing in our Sunday best is nothing and dressing down is nothing, but keeping God’s commandments is everything. Obeying God where you are is what counts. Paul is radically God-oriented. Everything, everything falls before the priority of God.
Culture and religious practice are nothing, ultimately. However, this doesn’t mean we throw culture and religious practice out the window altogether. In fact, there are times when Paul is sensitive to culture in cases where the salvation of others is involved. An example of this is Timothy versus Titus.
Paul had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16. Yet, Paul absolutely refuses to let Titus be circumcised in the book of Galatians. Is this a double standard?
To make sense of this, we have to recognize that these two are vastly different situations. In Galatians, the truth of the gospel was at stake. I don’t want to get into all the details, but suffice it to say that Paul strongly opposed Titus being circumcised because the false teachers there were distorting the gospel and saying that you need to be circumcised in order to be saved. The gospel of free grace plus circumcision. The gospel of free grace plus works. The gospel plus anything is no longer the gospel.
It was a totally different situation for Timothy in Acts 16. Timothy had a Jewish mother who brought him up as a Jew. But his Greek father had not allowed Titus to be circumcised. So Timothy was a half-Jew. No false teachers were pushing for Timothy’s circumcision, nor was there an issue of the gospel message being distorted as was the case in Galatians. Rather the reason Paul had Timothy circumcised was because Timothy was ministering in places where many non-believing Jews lived. So Timothy’s circumcision was not motivated by pressure from within the church but by a missionary strategy to save souls. That was the motivation behind Paul’s recommendation to Timothy to get circumcised. In other words, Paul didn’t want Timothy’s uncircumcision to be a stumbling block for Jews being saved. This is a cultural consideration related to missions.
In addition, Paul is not against all cultural adaptations because of his own statement in 1 Corinthians 9 that he himself becomes all things to all men that he might save some.
Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 9:19-23. It’s an amazing passage.
1 Cor 9
19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make 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 men 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.
This is the power of the gospel. Paul is totally free. He is not bound by his culture, he is not bound to any tradition, he is not bound to any one person, BUT… for the sake of the gospel and out of his love for people and out of his desire to see them saved, he will voluntarily bind himself. To the Jew, he became a Jew. He adopted Jewish customs for the sake of the Jews he was ministering to. He even had Timothy circumcised. To the weak, he became weak. This is what happens in a believer’s life. You can take the focus off of yourself and look to the needs of another. Because your needs, your fundamental needs regarding significance, regarding your guilt and shame, regarding purpose, because your needs have been fully met in Christ, therefore, you have the roominess of heart to have someone else’s salvation in mind. And this shift in perspective causes you to limit yourself and constrain yourself for the sake of the other because you want to reach common ground and you want to remove unnecessary obstacles that could hinder someone from receiving Christ.
What Paul was doing was showing that obedience to the commands of God is so much more important than any cultural or vocational distinctive. In other words, don’t make such a big deal out of whether or not you are circumcised, don’t make a big deal about your religious preferences. But instead make obedience to God a big deal. Make the gospel a big deal. Make the salvation of others a big deal.
Paul is saying, don’t stress out and don’t boast about your culture because it is of little importance to God compared to whether or not you are devoting yourself, soul and mind and body, to obeying his commandments.
What commandments are we to obey? The Great Commandment. That’s what we talked about at the beginning of the year. Love God and love your neighbor. The core of God’s commandments revolve around love.
Culture is no big deal. Religious practices are no big deal. Obeying God’s commandments, specifically obeying his commandment to love, is a big deal.
Then Paul turns in verses 21–23 to apply his principle to vocation, specifically the issue of whether one is a slave or a freedman.
Were you a slave when called? No big deal. The point is: when you are called into the fellowship of Christ, you gain a new set of radically different priorities; so much so that if you are a slave, it should not cause you to stress out. Were you a slave when called? No big deal. Do you have a menial job? No big deal. Is it a job that is not esteemed as highly as other professions? No big deal. This is the same point he was making with cultural and religious differences earlier: Are you uncircumcised? No big deal. Are you circumcised? No big deal.
This is really important for us to consider. Students, how do you conceive of your future vocation? If you think of your future vocation in terms of a calling, which it could be, but if you are wrong and your vocation is not a calling, then you run the risk of elevating your vocation to a level that it was never supposed to occupy. Because remember, Paul uses calling in this passage to mean, our salvation.
College is a time when I see many students excited about their faith and those very same people who said, God, lead my life, my life is yours, a few years later after grad school and getting a PhD, or a few years after working, those very same people who used to be so excited about God now barely attend church. It’s because their vocation became an idol. It began to occupy a place of ultimate significance in their hearts. Calling here refers to salvation and the emphasis is on obeying the commandments of God which are all about love. If obeying God’s commandments to love are the highest priority in your life, then your vocation doesn’t really matter. Pursue whatever job you want provided your heart and your priorities are in the right place.
For those who are already working, you may have worked hard for a couple of decades and you wonder, was it all worth it? All the overtime, the stress, the business trips, the demanding bosses, was it worth it? And you can confuse yourself, maybe I missed my calling. It could be that your restlessness is God-given. He could be calling you to change your vocation. But this passage suggests that many times, changing jobs or changing circumstances is not the answer. It’s a heart problem. You might change jobs, but the problem is, your heart follows you. Sure, the circumstances change, but it’s still the same old you.
Therefore, Paul would argue in 1 Cor 7:20–
1 Cor 7
20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.
The important thing is keeping the commandments of God. But Paul takes it a step further. He deepens our understanding with a second reason. The first reason–remain as you are because obeying the commandments of God is everything. Thus, a person can say to his culture, to her job, no big deal. Another reason a person can say, “No big deal,” even in extreme cases such as being a slave, is this–verse 22–
1 Cor 7
22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman…
And the reason the person who is free can say, “No big deal,” is similar:
1 Cor 7
22 …he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.
This verse is a window into the gospel. We were sinners, objects of wrath. But God out of His love sent Jesus and he died on a cross for our sins. And all who repent and believe, repent and place their faith in Christ, we stand justified in the sight of a Holy God because Jesus’ righteousness, his perfection, his perfect obedience is credited to us. And if this gospel runs in our blood, then we can apply the gospel to our vocation. Paul is saying that in the gospel there is an antidote for despair in menial jobs and an antidote for pride in highly esteemed jobs. He looks to the slave who may feel hopeless and says, in Christ, brother, sister, you are a free man. You were bought with a price. On the outside, you may look chained up, limited, few options, oppressed, forgotten. But on the inside, because of Christ, your chains have been broken. Let no man enslave your soul. Let no job enslave your soul. Don’t let your bitterness over your circumstances enslave your soul. Rejoice in the Lord and hope in him because you are the Lord’s freedman.
Then he looks to the freedman, maybe Paul is even thinking of the other extreme, the slave owner, the ones in power, the ones with the higher paying jobs and he says, do not become proud, for in Christ, you are a slave. You are a slave of Christ. Don’t act like you rule over others. There is one who has authority over you, Jesus Christ, and you must be humble and submissive to him. Often, isn’t it members of this group who are actually enslaved by their jobs? Again, Paul would say, let no job enslave you. Don’t be enslaved by your pride. Don’t be overly impressed because you are respected by others.
Why? Because whether a person is a slave or a freedman, don’t let your vocation be the cause of your despair or your pride. You ought to be able to say, “No big deal.” The doctor or a professor or executive among us should not be proud, and those with less prestigious jobs among us should not despair. Both are freedmen in Christ.
Let’s read v24. I like the ESV version of v24 because it brings out a nuance that the NIV doesn’t–
1 Cor 7 (ESV)
24 So, brothers, in WHATEVER condition each was called, there let him remain WITH God.
WITH God! There’s the crucial phrase. What matters in life and in eternal life is being WITH God. It is about enjoying his presence. What matters is not whether our job is high or low in man’s eyes. What matters is whether we are being encouraged and humbled by the presence of God.
Obeying the commands of God (v 19) and enjoying his presence (v24) are so vastly more important than your culture or job title that you should feel no desire to change either of them. This is the main point that Paul is making. In the case of your vocation, you should not be driven from one by fear or despair, nor tempted by the other by wealth or pride. You should be able to say to your vocation, no big deal. You are not my life. My life is about obeying God and enjoying his presence.