1 Corinthians 7:17–24 - Contentment & Calling

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Introduction

Opening Illustration: Thanksgiving & Black Friday

Few ideas are elusive to the modern Christian, as contentment. We live in a society and in a time that has been designed to force discontentment on you. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of a culture saturated in discontenment is that we have managed sandwich the holiday called Thanksgiving, a day when we are to look to God and just hold our hands out and thank him for his bounty in our lives. We have sandwiched Thanksgiving between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two days all about getting the best deals on produces and services that you don’t really need. In fact as we head into Advent and into Christmas, all of the marketing will be aimed at developing in you a sense that you’re not really content. But what would make you content is this product, or this service. Christians, when we’re not intentional, can be suckered as much as the Pagan next door into a very discontented life, always desiring something we don’t have, always aspiring to circumstances different than what God has assigned.

Personal

If you will permit yourself to be honest, I suppose that you, like me, have areas of your life where you are not content. What causes discontentment in you? Are there unmet desires that seem to never quite go away? Are there aspirations, things you want to achieve, that are always just around the coner? When you envision your future, are there significant changes in your current circumstances that you hope if only those could be satisifed, then you might be able to rest, and just be content.

Context

Contentment is the theme that we wrestle through today. Paul is continuing his primary theme from earlier the chapter. If you recall, Paul has been writing about marriage, divorce, singleness, and sexuality. One of the primary ideas of Paul’s argument from earlier in this chapter has been that we shouldn’t seek out to change our circumstances. In other words, he has previously told the married—don’t try to change your circumstances and become divorced and think that is God’s design. Likewise to the unmarried—Don’t think getting married is somehow more holy a calling or high a calling. What the Apostle does in these few short verses is he strenghtens that idea by getting outside of the context of marriage to show that the principle is much more broadly a principle that applies to all areas of the Christian life.
Big Idea: Ground contentment in your calling, not you circumstances.
1 Corinthians 7:17-24 “17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”

Move 1: The Rule—Lead the Life God Has Assigned You (17)

Paul begins with a rule of life for the Christian, a doctrine that ought to guide the heart and mind of every follower of Christ.
1 Corinthians 7:17 “17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”

Lead the Life

First, the phrase “lead the life” can be rendered “walk in this way.” He is suggesting that all of life, everywhere you go, every activity you find yourself participating in, all of it will be blanketed through a single lens. Walk in this way. Lead your family in this way. Buy the goods you need in this way. Relate to others in this way. Desire in this way. Navigate hardships in this way. Navigate your careers in this way. Love your spouse in this way. When he says “lead the life,” it is a reference to every part of our life, nothing is off limits.

The Lord Has Assigned

What is the way we are to lead our life? It is according what God has assigned us? Wherever you find yourself is where God has assigned you. As we’ve alread seen, Paul is not saying that the Christian life is static and unchanging, frozen in time. Paul is rooting this entire passage in the sovereignty of God. We do not discuss and study God’s sovereignty quite to the degree we ought, and that is a failure of our day. Perhaps we don’t relfect deeply enough on God’s sovereignty because it fights up against our modern sense of individualism. But this verse teaches that God has assigned you your circumstances. Your life is not an accident. Paul’s point is that if you find yourself driven by a desire to change your circumstances, that drive may in fact be fighting against our sovereign God. It is God you are discontent with not your circumstances.

In Which You were Called (8x)

In fact, Paul goes further by saying, “to which you have been called.” That langauge of being “called” is repeated eight times in these seven verses. What is a calling? A calling is directive from God for how one ought to live in a certain sphere of their life. One of the callings on my life is to preach the gospel. Each of us have various callings on our life, but Paul uses the word here to connote your life’s circumstances—Wherever you find yourself, God put you there. Part of a Christian’s attitude, whole perspective, is learning that we must let God be God. One of the ways that we learn to let God be God and worship God as God, is by learning the art of contentment in all circumstances.

Paul’s First Example, Circumcision (18-20)

Out of that general rule, the Apostle then uses two examples to make his point, circumcision & slavery. He begins with circumcision,
1 Corinthians 7:18-20 “18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”

Establish Circumcision and What It Meant

In our day, the cultural significance of circumcision is a bit lost, but in order to this passage we have to get into the mind of a person in the first century Church. Circumcision of the men was a primary symbol of ethnic Judaism. It separated Jews from non-Jews, Jews from Gentiles. The word that is used in verse 18 for “uncircumcised” is actually historically a bit of a derogatory term used by Jews to describe non-Jews. So for example David, when he fought against Goliath said,
1 Samuel 17:26 “26 ...who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?””
This identity marker would have elevated in their context because of the culture of bath houses and that sports and competition were typically done in the nude. Which meant that, this wasn’t necessarily a private matter. New person comes to the Church, within a few weeks, you’re going to know.

Do Not Seek Uncircumcision

He’s writing against discontentment. He says, “If you were circumcised, let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision.” This was actually something Jews who were trying to become unjewish would do, it was called epispasm. It involved painfully hanging weights in order to stretch out skin. Apparently some of the ethnic Jews in the Chuch were so bothered and discontent with their own circumcision that they would seek to mutilate their bodies to better fit in, in public places? Why would they do that…? Anti-semitism is nothing new, and these ethnic Jews are in this new community that doesn’t require circumcision any more, and they’re saying, “I don’t want to be left behind because of my ethnicity, or my story.” They’re tempted to be discontent with God’s calling on their life, and so they’re coveting other’s people’s calling.

Do Not Seek Circumcision

But then he looks to the other side, to the Gentiles. Paul says to them, “if you were uncircumcised when you were called, don’t get circumcised.” They too were tempted to find their identity primarily by looking across the aisle at others in the room. The Gentiles were tempted to think that since the Jews had the promises, and the prophecies, and Christ himself was Jewish, that certainly that was a higher calling. So they were seeking adult circumcision to fit in. They were tempted to be discontent with God’s calling on their life, and so they’re coveting other’s people’s calling.

Neither Circumcision Nor Uncircumcision Counts for Anything

What does Paul say to this. He reinforces his point
1 Corinthians 7:19-20 “19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
All the ways that we measured ourselves, compared ourselves, ranked ourselves with one another are laid down at the door in the Church. Your ethnicity and cultural background is a huge piece of who you are, but its not your primary identity any more. Here’s what counts, following the law of God.

The Law: The 10th Commandment

This is a critical verse and we must linger here to reflect. They were so busy trying to change their circumstances. So busy trying to move things around in their life to staisfy inner longings, they had lost sight of what it means to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to keep his commandments. The heart of discontentment is breaking the 10th commandment which tells us not to covet. Covetousness is pervasive. It seeps into our very being. In fact I would go so far as to say this entire section of scripture is a short exposition on the 10th commandment. If you want to know what it means to keep the 10th commandment, it means to be so content with what God has assigned you that you would not even desire someone else’s circumstances. The Westminster Confession says it this way:
Q. 148. What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate, envying, and grieving at the good of our neighbour, together with all inordinate motions and affections to any thing that is his.

Move 3: Paul’s Second Example, Slavery (21-23)

Paul then makes the same exact point with another example, slavery. Since we have not discussed the topic of slavery in quite a while, a bit of background is important. It is difficult for us to imagine this, but not that long ago in world history, slavery was as common and expected as something like our Prison System today. Many of us could not imagine a society operating without a functioning prison system. In the same, the world did not have a category of a slaveless society. It was in fact Christians, reading their Bibles who eventually paved the way for the world slave trades to be brought to an end, men like William Wilberforce and John Newton who fought for these changes. Slaves in those days, in general had much more freedom than we tend to think of slaves having. So the Corinthian Church would have a number of members who were slave owners, or slaves themselves. So Paul uses this as an example to make his point. We read,
1 Corinthians 7:21-23 “21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.”

Slavery Was Socio-Economic Status

Just as circumcision was a way to to compare ethnic status, slavery was a way to compare socio-economic status. And so you have both slaves and freemen and women in the Church, once again thinking in terms of horizontal relationships. He writes to the slave who is tempted to be discontent in their slavery and he asks what is driving their discontentment? They’re looking across the hall at others in the Church, and the freedom they have, and their tempte to forget that each of us has a calling from God. This is a hard word, because slaves had tough lives in those days. This pushes on our categories of calling & freedom. Are you telling me that Paul is telling slaves in the 1st century to not worry about their circumstances. Well… yes.

To the Freedman

The Apostle does say in verse 21 that if they can get their freedom, then go ahead and get it. But his point is to not consume ourselves with desiring a different life circumstance than what God has assigned, even slavery. And then, so as not keep the score even, he looks to the freedmen in the room, and says—before you get to confident in your “freed status” in society, remember that you are a slave of Christ. In other words—You and that slave in the corner, have a whole lot in common.

The Gospel Crushes Every Divider Between Men

This language is startling, and we all need to reflect on it this morning. Paul has used circumcision and slavery to make an overwhelming point. These two institutions were two of the greatest ways men divided themselves in the ancient world, it was essentially race and money. Sound familiar? Paul’s point is that the Church is a new community, built on a new identity. Where every person, no matter your background, your color, your previous religious experience, your degrees earnes, your digits in your bank account enters in the exact same way, on our knees before a holy God. There is no other way in. Rich and poor alike. Scarred and tattooed and the rule follower alike. Black and white alike. You come in on your knees and you receive the free gift of life, a new life, that shatters your old identity. You are declared a holy saint, a son and daughter of the King. Comparing this new identity to your old identity is like comparing a flashlight to a supernova. This is the gospel. This is your new identity. Find contentment in your calling and let God work out your circumstances.

Move Four: Three Applications of Contentment

Over the centuries of Christian history much work and writing has been done on the theme of contentment, especially among the Puritans. Recently I reviewed a sermon by a man named Jeremiah Burroughs with a group of folks titled ‘The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.’ In this sermon Burroughs with great detail works through the condition of our heart and how we fail to live out what Christ has invited us into. It’s a very convicting sermon, but it hits its high point in one particular section when he discusses being content even through trial. Burroughs importantly states that true godly contentment requires both a ‘submitting to’ and a ‘taking pleasure in’ God’s authority.

1 Submitting To God’s Soveriegnty

First, submitting to God’s authroity. To submit to God’s authority is simply to stop fighting against it. This is at first very unnatural for the new Christian, because we are so used to paving our own way, to creating our own path. But the Christian must, through the Spiritual Disciplines, learn to submit to God’s authority. How do we do this. First, we must bring our discontedness to God in prayer. We must bring our whole selves including our worries, fears, and anxieties. But then we must permit him to minister to us. We must linger long enough in prayer and the word that He has an affect on our hearts and minds. I have seen many of you do this. It is often a slow process because our hearts are so hardened in sin. But if you will linger. God often will not change your circumstances, but he will change your heart. Burrough describes the soul that is discontent of a particular affliction saying,
"Will you be above God? Is it not God’s hand, and must your will be regarded more than God’s? O under, under! O thou soul get under, keep under, keep low, keep under God’s feet. You are under God’s feet, and keep under his feet, keep under the authority of God, the majesty of God, the sovereignty of God, the power that God has over you. Keep under, that is to submit. Then the soul can submit to God when it can send itself under the power and authority, and sovereignty, and dominion that God has over it”
Christian, we must learn to submit to God. To put our discontent disquieted, hurried souls, underneath his heel, and find peace in his governance of all things. But there is more than just submitting.

2 Taking Pleasure In God’s Sovereignty

It is entirely possible to simply bite your lip, recognize God’s authority, and to say “God’s will be done” without experiencing Biblical contentment. But true Biblical contentment is far more than biting our lip and begrudingly accepting our lot. It is learning to take pleasure in God’s calling. It is learning how to see, and taste, and feel, and be aware of God in all circumstances and all trials that you will ever face. It is learning to see God’s kind hand of mercy over every moment that we might think otherwise—this does not come naturally. This cannot be pasted on. James says, “Consider it pure joy when you experience trials of various kinds, becaus the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Yes—this is the Christian aim—steadfastness of faith. To become like Christ, who in the garden of Gesthemane sweat blood in turmoil yet cried out, “Not my will but yours be done,” then “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” To take pleasure in our affliction. We must learn to find honey in the rock. Burroughs says that we must learn to say,
“Perhaps some of you may say as David, ‘It is good that I was afflicted’… Not good when you see the good fruit that it has wrought, but when you are afflicted to say, ‘It is good that I am afflicted.’ Whatever the affliction be, yet through the mercy of God my condition is a good condition. It is the top indeed, and the height of this art of contentment to come to this pitch, to be able to say, ‘Well, my condition and afflictions are this and this, and is very grievous and sore; yet, I am through God’s mercy, in a good condition, and the hand of God is good upon me notwithstanding.’
This is Paul’s plea with us today. We must detangle ourselves from the discontented spirit of our age that promises contendness is just around the corner, but always leaves us striving for different circumstances than the one God has placed us in.

3 Learning to Serve Others from Contentment

The Puritans commenting on this tenth commandment would describe the person who covets what they don’t have, as incapable of loving their neighbor as Christ commanded to love. Why? To covet is to place yourself, and your desires at the center of your existence. To covet is to always be seeking more for yourself. But to be content, to cease from coveting, frees you up to prioritize love of your neighbor, serving your neighbor, using your goods and your home and your money to freely bless your neighbor.
Q. 147. What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
A. The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbour, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his
Contentment therefore becomes the single greatest virtue we could have as Christians seeking ot be light and salt in our communities. And it can be found in Christ alone! In Christ alone! Why? Because only in Christ alone does striving cease! In Christ there is nothing you could ever do to earn another ounce of love from God. You are perfectly loved. This kind of love serves as an anchor

Close

Let me close by asking to consider the season that we have before us of Advent. Advent will do one thing to you, if you let it. It will make you discontent. If ever there was a surreal juxtaposition of two oppositing ideas, it is our modern take on the celebration of Advent. The incarnation of the messiah, surrounded by the frenzy of buying. I have seen too many seasons like Advent come and go without any real change in people. Many of us in this room are heading into Advent, and if we’re honest, what we really want is for this Advent to be different, for this Advent to mark us as deeper wtih Christ. To have that kind of Advent where we truly slow down and linger in the things of God, and head into the new year with a sense of ‘God has done something markedly different in me.’ But then if we’re not careful Advent will come and go with nothing like that taking place. No heart change—just a lot of buying. Perhaps God ordained this text and this message for us this year to cause us to slow down, to linger with God, to prioritize our faith. Perhaps God has brought you here today to cause you to do something different, to work out the discontentment in your life through the good hard work of prayer with God. To recognize what God has called you to. Tio ground your contentment in your calling, not your circumstances.
Pray
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