1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 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 possessions, 31 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.
Jesus is on his way! The end is near! As Larry Norman sang decades back, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” I came of age in the 1970s when everyone in my Christian circles was sure that the end was near. Larry Norman sang about the “Six O’clock News” and Barry McGuire turned his antiwar protest song “Eve of Destruction” into an apocalyptic message. We were sure that Jesus was going to return any minute. How did we know this, well we read Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth. He made it seem as if all the signs were there. These purveyors of apocalyptic messages weren’t the first Christians to offer such visions of the times. It seems as if every generation has its apocalyptic preachers. Going back a bit to the early nineteenth century, we can point to William Miller’s message. He thought he could pinpoint the actual date of Jesus’ return by unlocking the code he believed was to be found in books like Daniel and Revelation. Of course, he was wrong in his calculations and his followers went away disappointed. But he attracted a lot of attention, even among leaders of my own denomination. We can trace such visions all the way back to the first century. So, here we have Paul telling the Corinthian church that getting married, having children, planning for the future might be futile since the time was short and “the present form of this world is passing away.”
Over time the expectation that the end was near began to ebb and Christians began to settle in for the duration. It’s not that they gave up the expectation that Jesus might return in glory; they just began to realize that the Day of the Lord might be a bit delayed. So, you might as well prepare for the long haul, even if the times might be short. We just know the timing of this event. There is value in heeding the apocalyptic/eschatological messaging of Paul. It keeps us on our toes so we don’t get complacent.
Unfortunately, not everyone interprets such directives in the same way. It appears that some of these newly converted Gentile Christians had embraced disembodied spiritual practices, which led to problematic sexual issues. Since the body is irrelevant, anything goes. Thus, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, and there is more to come in the chapters that follow. Paul writes these words as part of his effort to explain how one lives faithfully in such times. In suggesting that the form of this world is passing away, Paul understood that to mean living into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5).
Paul’s time was a bit off. Jesus didn’t return in his lifetime. As we know, Jesus still hasn’t returned (and may not return in the way Paul envisioned). Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking continues to make itself felt within the Christian community. Sometimes that can be helpful and healthy and other times not so helpful. On the positive side, the season of Advent invites us to hear again each year the call to be prepared and stay awake to what God is up to in the world. Unfortunately, apocalyptic thinking can lead to a form of hypervigilance that has dangerous political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences. We are living at a moment in time when many Christians have bought into conspiracy theories that undermine democracy and endanger one’s neighbors. As an older example of susceptibility to conspiracy theories, I’ll point back to the 1970s and 1980s when UPC codes were first introduced. These now-ubiquitous icons that allow us to scan our groceries and other merchandise were portrayed in books and magazines as the mark of the beast. We were told that before too long we would have them emblazoned on our foreheads and hands so that the anti-Christ could keep track of us. So far that hasn’t happened, but these kinds of theories continue to flare up. Now the theories relate to stealing elections by cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats who control the Deep State. Apparently only Donald Trump can save us from these dark forces. Then there are the warnings being issued about the COVID vaccine. In this case, it is being suggested that tracking devices will be injected so that the deep state/anti-Christ can keep track of us (just a reminder since most of us carry smartphones with GPS, we’re already being tracked!). It’s this susceptibility to conspiracy theories that have led Christians to share false information about the presidential election and even join in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
As we ponder this brief reading from 1 Corinthians 7, perhaps it lends itself to having an important conversation about eschatology and apocalyptic messages found in Scripture and Christian history. We can have a conversation about the way we envision the emerging future and our role in it. We can consider Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God/Realm of God. What might the passing away of the form of this world look like? What role do we play in all of this? If Jesus inaugurated the realm with his baptism, what role does the cross and resurrection play in all of this? If we take seriously the message of the Book of Revelation, which envisions a new heaven and a new earth, what does that have to do with the present? If, as Paul believed, the form of this world is passing away, even if that passing away is taking longer than he expected, what should we expect the future to look like?
Perhaps one way to read this passage is to hear it as a call to resist the worldly regime that opposes the realm of God. Might we hear this as an expression of the new creation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5? If so, we might hear this as a call to living out that vision in the world. Might this speak of a different set of values from the one the world that is passing away sets before us? As we ponder this message of Paul concerning the passing of ages, it’s important to remember that he was still living in the old age and was influenced by it. We see this in his views on slavery and gender roles. Paul wasn’t a progressive Christian thinker in the modern sense. Charles Campbell writes that Paul’s “own theology remains to some degree captive to the old age ‘cosmos’. On the other hand, one should not interpret Paul’s words in a static, moralistic way in order to reify any hierarchical status quo” [1 Corinthians, p. 133]. To be faithful to Paul’s message concerning Christ doesn’t mean we embrace first-century social structures. So, Campbell continues:
“Interruptions and tensions abound, even within Paul’s assumptions about the male-female hierarchy. In the midst of the old age, Paul gives us glimpses of the new creation. The old age nevertheless continues to exercise its influence, and even Paul remains captive to some of its perspectives and priorities. Paul’s own concession that he is often not speaking a command from the Lord, as well as the disruptive qualifications that punctuate his argument highlight his own recognition of the dynamic, contextual character of theology between the ages. At the turn of the ages, as we seek to do theology in the Spirit, we celebrate the glimpses of the new, even as we remain humble about the ways in which theology itself may remain captive to the old. We keep moving and struggling to resist the old-age hierarchies that are passing away.” [1
Corinthians, pp. 133-134].
We still experience the penultimate reality. The realm of God has broken into this world, but we still live in the old creation. We see this in all the “isms” of our day, from racism to sexism and more. Thus, there is no place for complacency, even if the time is not as short as Paul envisioned!