7:1 Paul responded to several matters about which the Corinthians had written to him (see also 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,12), in addition to what he had heard (1:10-11). The first matter Paul addressed was articulated by the Corinthians as, “It is good for a man not to use a woman for sex.” The Greek text translates literally as, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” An examination of the phrase to touch a woman in ancient Greek literature reveals that it was a sexual euphemism. But contrary to what some interpreters have thought, it is not likely that the statement is advocating celibacy. Rather it is a rejection of men using women for mere sexual gratification. Though Paul agreed with this, he advocated marriage as the proper context for mutual sexual fulfillment (vv. 2-4).
7:2-4 Sexual desires, which can readily lead to sexual immorality, commend frequent sexual union between husband and wife. The phrase have the right in this context refers to sexual relations. Neither has exclusive right over his or her body, but each has a responsibility to meet the sexual needs of the other.
7:5 Paul issues an apostolic ruling: husbands and wives must not deprive one another in marriage, except when mutually agreed upon for the sake of devotion to prayer. Like fasting from food and drink, periods of marital celibacy can hone one’s focus on the one great desire: God himself. But they must come together again to avoid temptation due to lack of self-control.
7:6-7 Paul did think it was good if the Corinthians stayed single as he was—but only if they had the gift to do so.
7:8 Paul speaks here to people in his situation—not currently married—but who do not have his gift.
7:11 The wife who has separated from her husband has two options: remain apart from him, though celibate, or be reconciled to her husband. Completing his reiteration of the Lord’s instructions for marriage, Paul insisted that the husband is not to divorce his wife.
7:12-13 The phrase to the rest is a reference to mixed marriages—a believer married to an unbeliever. Christians were only to marry “in the Lord” (cp. v. 39). The situation Paul addresses here assumes that both spouses were unbelievers when they married but that one of them thereafter converted to Christianity. Since Jesus did not comment on this situation, Paul gave an apostolic ruling: the believing spouse must not divorce the unbelieving spouse. One can easily conceive of the self-sacrifice entailed by this ethic. The passage also assumes that the unbeliever agrees that there are benefits to continuing the marital relationship (is willing to live with him or her).
7:14 A Christian spouse who remains faithful to his or her unbelieving spouse has a “sanctifying effect” on unbelieving family members. Paul is referring not just to the possible future salvation of unbelievers in the household, but to their present protection from pagan values through the influence of the Christian member’s exemplary morals.
7:15-16 Paul gives a qualification to the above ruling: do not hinder a nonbeliever’s desire to separate. Peace in this context refers to being “at peace” if the unbelieving spouse should decide to leave, for in this event the believer has done nothing wrong.
7:17-19 Paul issues a remain-as-you-are edict and illustrates it with a false dilemma facing a Jewish-born male Christian. Such a man had the option to remain circumcised or become uncircumcised (undo his circumcision) by undergoing a painful operation, as some secular-minded Jews did in the first century (Josephus, Ant. 12.241). These things are mere distractions. Paul zeroes in on what really matters: keeping the commands of God as those who belong to him.
7:20-23 Paul again states the remain-as-you-are principle and illustrates it with a choice faced by slaves: willingly to remain a slave or to seek freedom. The apostle did not condemn slaves to a life of permanent slavery. By all means take the opportunity to become free if it presents itself, he said. But on the other hand, the fact of being a slave should not be a concern. His logic is thus: whether a Christian was free or a slave when he came to Christ, he owes lifetime obligations to the same master, Jesus Christ. In Roman parlance, a freedman was an emancipated slave, whereas a free man was one who had never been enslaved.
7:25-27 The focus of this entire discussion (vv. 25-27) is cast from the male perspective since ancient culture gave males primary responsibility for marital decisions. Now about serves as a marker denoting that Paul is now applying the remain-as-you-are principle (vv. 17-24) to the dilemma facing virgins. In this case Paul has no command from the Lord, but that does not lessen the impact of his teaching (i.e., it is good for a man to remain as he is) since his opinion was made faithful by the Lord. “Virgins” in this context refers to betrothed, female virgins (cp. “virgins” for “betrothed wives,” Lk 1:27; 2Co 11:2). Their dilemma was brought about by an unnamed present distress (impending hardship), possibly a famine that called the practicality of marital plans into doubt. Paul’s talk of being bound to or released from a wife in v. 27 can be summarized as follows: (1) The man who was bound by promise to a betrothed virgin (essentially already his wife, given the seriousness of betrothal) was not to seek release from future obligations to consummate the marriage (v. 27a-b), and (2) the man who had already been released from obligation (to a virgin) was not to seek betrothal with another woman (v. 27c-d). In other words, keep your commitments and/or remain as you are.
7:28 Paul does not define trouble in this life. Possibly it refers to the responsibilities and hardships that can attend marriage and childrearing. Improperly handled, these can distract us from devotion to God; see vv. 32-35.
7:29-31 Regardless of a person’s situation, he or she should live for the Lord. Two realities should heighten our emphasis on such a lifestyle of devotion: The time is limited and the world . . . is passing away.
7:32-40 In this section Paul shares his motivation for espousing the remain-as-you-are principle for the unmarried. It comes down to this: the significant change in life status that would result from these choices, particularly during a time of “present distress” (v. 26), could pose a distraction from devotion to the Lord.
7:39-40 Newly widowed women were free to marry in the Lord (i.e., other believers), but Paul reiterates the virtue of the remain-as-you-are principle. Remaining as she is offered the widow the possibility of undistracted devotion to the Lord.