Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 21, 2024

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Commentary

My family of origin frowned on few things more strongly than time-wasting. We were generally discouraged from doing frivolous things. My family of origin didn’t even waste our vacation time. We almost always either vacationed with an extended family member or visited at least one extended family member while on vacation.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul is also against time-wasting. After all, he’s very conscious of time’s brevity. In verse 29 he insists, “the time [kairos]* is short [synestalmenos].” What’s more, the apostle adds in verse 31, “this world [kosmou toutou] in its present form [schema] is passing away [paragei].”

Scholars have figuratively spilled almost bottomless bottles of ink trying to answer the two questions that arise out of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. Just what does Paul mean when he insists that “the time is short” (29)? And what does it mean that “The world in its present form is passing away” (31)?

With the help of the Holy Spirit, people who preach on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will have to prayerfully decide how much time to spend exploring with their hearers answers to those difficult questions. Those who wish to spend time exploring those answers will benefit from, among other works, my colleagues’ excellent earlier commentaries (Stan Mast, 2015, and Scott Hoezee, 2018) on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.

Or, after succinctly offering some answers to those questions, preachers might more carefully explore with our hearers just how those answers impact Jesus’ friends’ lives. We might, as the biblical scholar Melanie Howard suggests, think with our hearers about how Paul invites the Corinthians “to pursue a radical reorganization of their priorities and perceptions of the current reality”. We might, in other words, help our hearers to think about 1 Corinthians 7’s categorical rejection of time-wasting.

In verses 29b-31a the apostle describes the kinds of things that dominate people’s lives or people often prioritize. The Message paraphrases those priorities as including “marriage, grief [and] joy”, as well as the “daily routines of shopping.” The apostle seems, in other words, to be speaking into Corinth’s Christians’ ordinary experiences and routines.

But what does he say about those fairy routine emotions and activities? Paul doesn’t call Corinth’s Christians not to waste time our limited time by experiencing emotions like grief or joy or refrain from marrying, buying and using things. After all, while he’s at least arguably ambivalent about marrying and marriage, he spends most of 1 Corinthians 7 offering advice about them.

What’s more, in Romans 12:15 the apostle invites his readers to “rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn.” On top of that, while he uses the words agorazontes (“buying”) and chromenoi (“using”) only in this passage, he never rejects the participation in commerce that they entail.

So to what kind of good use of their limited time is Paul summoning the Christians in Corinth? It’s to the keeping of our often dominant attitudes and behaviors in the right perspective. Paul summons God’s adopted sons and daughters to keep in their proper place the attitudes and activities that we often give such a prominent place in our hearts and lives.

Paul, quite simply, invites Jesus’ friends to have a kingdom-shaped view of even the most routine activities like marrying, buying and selling. What’s more, while he clearly believes that joy and grief have their proper place in the lives of God’s adopted sons and daughters, the apostle also tightly constrains their place.

Paul summarizes that kingdom perspective with the phrase hos me (“as if … not”). He, in fact, uses it five times in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s three verses. The apostle summons Christians to wisely use our limited time by living as if we have no more time left.

Preachers will want to prayerfully listen for how much time the Spirit is prompting us to spend addressing marriage, joy, grief and daily commerce. But since not all of our hearers are married, rejoicing or grieving, we might choose to focus our preaching on the “buying” (30) and “using [of] things” (31).

There is a danger, of course, in focusing on buying and using. After all, neither is Paul’s main emphasis in 1 Corinthians 7. But there’s also a benefit of focusing on buying and using things. They apply to nearly every human being. Preachers might even want to mention both that danger and benefit.

To what kind of kingdom perspective on buying and using things, then, does Paul summon Jesus’ followers who live on “borrowed time”? “Buy [agorazontes],” says the apostle, “as if it weren’t ours to keep [katachontes],” (30b), and “use the things of the world [ton kosmou], as if not engrossed in [katachromenoi] them” (31a).

Preachers might note a couple of things about these summons. Since “the time is short,” we won’t get to keep the things we buy for very long. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds Jesus’ friends that no matter what exactly that time is and just how short it is, the “things of the world” have a very short shelf-life.

What’s more, whatever we buy and/or use easily assumes an outsized role in our lives. They sometimes absorb large chunks of our loyalty, attention and time. That’s a reason The Message’s paraphrase of Paul’s call in verses 30-31 is so insightful: “Don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple … Even in your ordinary things – your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you.”

On top of all that, preachers do well to note Paul’s emphasis on things and actions rather than people. We might even argue that the apostle’s radically counter-cultural constraint on buying and using frees Jesus’ friends to use our limited time and energy to more fully love God and our neighbor. In fact, preachers might explore how our loosening of our grip on things and their acquisition allows us to use those things not for the enhancement of our well-being, but for God’s glory and our neighbors’ wellness.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


1 Corinthians 7 explores the implications of Paul’s insistence that “the time is short” and “this world in its present form is passing away.” He implies that Jesus’ followers should invest themselves in people and things that are “built to last.”

So preachers might consider quoting the Grateful Dead’s “Built to Last’s” lyrics. In verse 1 they sing, “There are times that you can beckon/ There are times when you must call/ You can shake a ton of reckoning/ But you can’t shake it all/ There are times when I can help you out/ And times that you must fall/ There are times when you must live in doubt/ And I can’t help at all.”

In its chorus Grateful Dead then sings, “Three blue stars rise on the hill/ Say no more, now, just be still/ All these trials, soon be past/ Look for something built to last [italics added].”


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