“Hold Lightly to the Things of This World” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
Are you married? Some of you are, some of you aren’t. OK, so let’s broaden the field. How about these questions: Are there times when you mourn? Are there times when you rejoice? Or how about these: Do you ever buy goods? Do you ever have dealings with the world? OK, now I think I’ve got everybody covered. Well, here’s what I want you to do today. Two words: Stop it. That’s it: Stop it. Stop doing those things! Live like you’re not married. Stop mourning. Stop rejoicing. Live like you have no goods. Live like you have no dealings with the world. Just: Stop it. Why? Because the time is short. This world is passing away.
Alright, lest you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain. What I just told you is a somewhat simplified version of today’s Epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians 7. So if you’re going to send me to the funny farm, you’ll have to send St. Paul too. He’s the one who said it. But the reality is, this is God’s word we’re hearing today. And today God is encouraging us to “Hold Lightly to the Things of This World.”
Hold lightly to the things of this world. Listen to our text again. St. Paul writes: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Now let’s take that a piece at a time. First, to you married men: Live as though you have no wife. Now some of you wives are saying to yourselves, “Hey, he already does that!” But that’s not the point. The point is, Paul is saying to both husbands and wives, “Live as though you’re not married.” Huh? That sounds odd, if this is the word of the Lord. Oh, wait, this is coming from Paul, right? Paul, the unmarried guy, the one who doesn’t understand marriage. Right? Wrong. This is coming from the same Paul who writes in Ephesians, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church,” and “let each one of you love his wife as himself.” But here in Corinthians, he says, “Let those who have wives live as though they had none.” What gives? This sounds like two contradictory ideas.
Then there’s this bit about not mourning or rejoicing: “Let those who mourn live as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing.” But again, Paul seems to be contradicting himself. For in Romans he writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Or even right here in 1 Corinthians, a couple chapters later, Paul says about the church, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” But now he’s saying, “Don’t mourn or rejoice at all.”
And then there’s this business about not buying goods or having dealings with the world: “Let those who buy live as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” What are you thinking, Paul? Are you a hippie or something, dropping out of society, living off the grid? No, that can’t be. In fact, Paul himself worked as a tentmaker when he had to support himself. And elsewhere Paul encourages hard work and honest labor by Christians. But here he says, “Live like you have no goods to buy, no dealings to transact with the world.”
So what’s the point? It’s this, in what Paul says both at the start and at the end of this passage. He says in verse 29, “The appointed time has grown very short.” And in verse 31, “the present form of this world is passing away.” You see, we live in a time that is growing shorter and shorter. We live in a world that’s passing away. So don’t get caught up in clinging to the things of this world. They’re not going to last. This world is not going to last. Therefore, keep a light hold on the things of this world. And instead, take a firm hold, keep a firm grasp, on that which will endure for eternity.
Having a sense of the big picture of things will change our perspective. It will change our priorities. It will change how we live in a world that is passing away and in this time that is growing short. That’s the point that Paul is making.
Paul says it in very strong and dramatic terms, in order to make the point. Elsewhere, he can just as easily talk about fulfilling our various vocations in life, about living responsibly–in marriage, in mourning and rejoicing, in our work and our business dealings. But here he’s making a different point. Here he’s giving us the big picture. He’s saying, “Don’t get so caught up in the things of this world, in the affairs of this life, that you lose sight of eternity.”
That is a point we all need to be reminded of. I know I need to hear it. It’s a struggle for me not to get caught up with money and relationships and work and planning for the future. All the things of this life, however good they may be–it’s so easy to let them take over your life. And so you lose sight of the big picture, which is that this life is not going to last. This world is passing away. Set your sights on what will last for eternity, and adjust your life accordingly.
Notice, by the way, that none of the activities Paul mentions here–being married, mourning, rejoicing, buying goods, dealing with the world–none of these things is wrong or sinful in itself. No, these are good and normal activities. But any good gift from God, if it takes the place of God in our lives, becomes an idol. These things become a problem when we get overly caught up with them. When they get in the way of, or squeeze out, our devotion to the Lord, our listening to his word, our following him in faith. It’s like what Jesus said about the seed that fell among thorns: that the cares of the world choke out the word.
How does that show up in your life? Examine yourself. What is getting in the way of your discipleship? What is taking the place of God in your life? What is taking up your field of vision, so that you lose sight of the big picture, the perspective of eternity? That’s how this text is addressing us today. Take a light hold on the things of this world. At the same time, you can and should fulfill your responsibilities in life. But realize that the things of this world, even the good things–marriage, joys and sorrows, our work life, retirement–all this stuff is not going to last forever. “The appointed time has grown very short.” “The present form of this world is passing away.” We live in a world that is passing away. So don’t become too attached to it.
“The appointed time has grown very short,” Paul says. Well, if it was short then, it’s even shorter now. The “time” he’s talking about is the time left until our Lord Jesus Christ returns. Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead–that, we know. But we don’t know when. No man knows the day or hour. But we do know that he is coming, and it could be any day now. We also don’t know how many days each one of us will have in our own individual lifespan. So the time of this age, and our own time in this life–it’s like a drop in the bucket, compared to the unending days of the age to come. That puts everything into perspective.
This world is passing away. Actually, Paul says, the “present form” of this world is passing away. The world as we know it will take on a new form. It will be transformed when Christ returns. All things will be made new. New heavens and a new earth. But for now we still live and we still groan in the old world, this world subject to death and decay. The present form of this world has been corrupted by sin. Therefore we dare not become too attached to our life in this world. Remember Lot’s wife, who looked back in longing when the fire and brimstone were falling. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” This world is passing away. A new world is coming.
So where do we find our stability, where do we find our security, in a world that is passing away? In one place only: In God. Today we say with the psalmist: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.” Yes, here is the rock that will keep your feet firmly planted. Here is the refuge that will shelter you from the storm: The Lord God Almighty. In him and in his word, you can trust. In him you can live confidently and valiantly in a shaky, insecure world. In him, in the Lord our God, you can venture out into paths unknown, knowing that he will take you by the hand and lead you. He is your security. His word is your promise and your guide. His heaven is your hope everlasting. This, my friends–this will change your perspective in life! “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”
What has God done, what has God promised, to give you such confidence and boldness? Look to Jesus. Listen to him, and you will get your answer. Jesus is saying to you today, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” You see, you can handle the time being short, because the time has been fulfilled! Jesus has fulfilled it. He has filled it full with his grace and salvation. Jesus has done everything you need to face the appointed time. He has taken the judgment for you. By his death on the cross, Jesus suffered the punishment you deserve, so that you no longer need fear that day. The Son of God died for all your sins, all your idolatry, all the ways you let other things take the place of God. You and I earned death by our idolatry; we earned hell and damnation. But God in his great mercy sent Christ to bear that judgment for you.
Therefore turn from your sins and live! Repent and believe the gospel! Here is the gospel of God: You have a Savior who forgives your sins. You have a Redeemer who has risen from the grave and who will return to raise you up also. His eternal life, his perfect righteousness, his abundant joy, he gives you as a free gift. In Christ you have enough security to last a thousand lifetimes! You have a sure and certain hope in Christ Jesus your Savior!
Now you can treat the things of this world with a lighter grip. Oh, hold on to Christ, cling to his cross. Hold on to these with the firm grasp of faith. But those other things–lighten up a bit. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. He cares for you, he clothes you, he feeds you. Most of all, he has provided you with a new life, a clean slate on Judgment Day, and a joyful eternity. So now when Jesus calls you and says, “Follow me,” you are free to leave your nets behind and go where he leads. You are free to let go of the “stuff.” You are free to love others, to forgive them, to serve your neighbor, because you are sure of your standing in Christ. That is security. That is faith. That is freedom. And that is what God gives you.
This is what I mean, brothers: The time is short. But eternity is, well, eternal. This world is passing away. But your hope is built on the word of the Lord, and that will never pass away. So hold lightly to the things of this world. And cling tightly to the things of God.