A Guiding Principle for Service
W. E. Vine, Bath
All quotations are from the Revised Version
One of the characteristics of the writing of the apostle Paul which strikes the reader is the way in which he passes from particular instances to broad principles. In the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, for example, where, in dealing with the subject of marriage, he is replying to questions concerning the giving away of marriageable daughters, he turns for a moment from the special subject to make a statement of general application: 'But this I say, brethren, the time is shortened, that henceforth both those that have wives may be as though they had none; and those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and those that buy, as though they possessed not; and those that use the world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away', 1 Cor. 7. 29-31. Two corrections in the Revised Version translation of verse 29 are important. First, the apostle states that the time is shortened, not merely that it is short; second, what follows is given for a purpose. That is to say, the time is shortened in order that Christians may take a wise view of their circumstances here below. For the believer the shortened time has in view the return of the Lord and our conduct in the light of that great event. This is the guiding principle for all who would serve and it involves three things.
1. Earnest Expectancy
God gives two views of the present dispensation: one in regard to the unsaved, the other in regard to the saints. For the unsaved the period is lengthened, for God is longsuffering, 'not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, 2 Pet. 3. 9. For the saints the period is shortened and this fact should govern their lives. The apostle has been charged with a mistaken notion in thus regarding the return of the Lord as near at hand, whereas this age has lasted for nearly two milleniums and the Lord's second advent, which terminates it, has not yet taken place. The mistake lies with those that make the charge. Under the inspiration of God, Paul was writing for others than for the saints of his own day. His message was intended for those of each generation throughout this age. The purpose of God was that the expectation of the Lord's return should characterize Christians at all times. The attitude of the church of the Thessalonians should have been that of the saints from their day to ours. They 'turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven', 1 Thess. 1. 9-10. For them the time was short; their serving was characterized by expectancy; their expectancy was compatible only with whole-hearted service. Expectation of the return of the Lord was the constant altitude of the apostle himself, as is evidenced throughout his epistle to Titus. Though chronologically his last but one, he still teaches the same tiling. We are to look for 'the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ', Tit. 2. 13.
The message for the saints in Corinth, then, is a message for us all. The providential extension of the age to its present limits docs not weaken the apostle's argument. The Word of God is not to be interpreted by historical facts; facts of history are to be observed in the light of Scripture. Again, we must not miss the meaning of the passage by supposing, when Paul says that those that have wives are to be as those that have none, that his words are directed towards a lower view of the marital relationship than is given elsewhere in the teaching of the New Testament. Nor, when he says 'those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not', is he inculcating a stoical view of sorrow and joy. The records of his own tears and rejoicing are a repudiation of that. What he does teach is that the Christian is never to abandon himself to the interests of this life. Nothing earthly is to be paramount in our lives. Sorrow and joy are not to engross our minds to the detriment of our devotion to Christ and our expectation of His return. Deep and real as are our joys and sorrows, they are to be tempered by the power of that hope. Mere earthly interests pale into insignificance in the light of His coming and all that it means. Everything is to be carried on by the believer as one who has had notice to quit. Could we conceive an Israelite, aware of the impending exodus of the nation from Egypt, entering into partnership with an Egyptian? Here also is an incentive to-
2. Diligent Activity The prospect of our speedy removal from this scene is calculated to keep alive within us a due sense of disengagedness with regard to the affairs of this life. That does not mean a lack of diligence in the conduct of our business. Some of the saints at Thessalonica became forgetful of that; and hence the exhortation of the apostle that they were to do their own business and work with their own hands, that they might walk honestly toward them that were without. The hope of the Lord's return was to be not only a comfort in sorrow, but a counter-action against indolence. There is a use of this world which is quite consistent with our relations to the other. The danger lies in the abuse, or, as the margin reads, in using it to the full. There is an abuse which consists of an over-use. The real value of all our actions is determined by our attitude to Christ; if we are not to be 'slothful in business', it is because we are to be 'serving the Lord'. To the saints at Corinth the apostle puts it as their main purpose, that they 'may attend upon the Lord without distraction'. Let all our occupations centre in Christ, and we shall live as those for whom the next tiling is His appearing; serving the living God we shall wait for His Son from heaven. He who estimates at their true value the things which are not seen, the eternal things, will keep himself from entanglement in the tilings that are seen, that arc temporal. He who realizes that 'the time is shortened', and that the 'fashion of this world passeth away', will use this world only as he may thereby serve the Lord and wait for His return. A loose hold on the things of this life enables us to lay hold on eternal life. At the same time, laying hold on eternal life makes us 'rich in good works, . . . ready to distribute, willing to communicate', I Tim. 6. 18. The attachment to Christ which produces detachment from the world enables us to live in it as He did, who went about doing good. It will also produce -
3. A Sense of Urgency
The teaching inculcated by the apostle stood in marked contrast to the general notions of that time. To the man of the world there was nothing beyond this life. His great resource was to throw himself into such pleasure or business as the world offered. If earth's joys were obtainable they were voluptuously pursued; if sorrow came its blow was irremediable and led to hopeless despair. That was where materialism drove society then. Is it not where materialism is driving men today? The New Testament was written during one of the darkest periods of ancient history. Politically and morally things were at the lowest ebb. Disaster followed disaster, kindling gloomy forebodings; there seemed no end to the misery. There was a general apprehension that a crisis was approaching. The message that was needed for the Lord's people was just that which the apostle gives; 'the fashion of this world', he says, 'passeth away'. The phrase used is that of the change of scene in a drama, where, while one scene is going on another is being prepared. It was in view of another scene that the lives of the saints were to be lived. The Lord's return was so important and engrossing that it forbad their being absorbed in the transient events of the time.
That is just how it is today; indeed, there is a striking parallel between the circumstances of those times and the condition of things that prevails in the world today. Great changes and stresses are taking place all around us, but these have apparently left the masses unmoved. There is, however, a general expectation of some impending crisis. How applicable, therefore, are the words of the apostle to us! How needful that we should heed his exhortations, and view the things of this life in the light of the near return of the Lord! To say that, as the saints in days gone by have been mistaken in their expectations of the nearness of His coming, so we are likely to be mistaken now, is tantamount to saying, 'My Lord delayeth His coming'. Rather let us realize that the time of our redemption draweth nigh, and lift up our heads in joyful anticipation of the great event. Let the return of our Lord be such a reality that it will regulate our views, direct our energies, mould our lives, and move us to a true sense of urgency. Then, in the apprehension of the shortness of time for service and of the eternal rewards for faithfulness, we shall make the best use of our talents and opportunities, and spend and be spent for the glory of our Redeemer.