Living Eschatologically

One passage of Scripture that has been formative for my understanding of life in this present world is 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:

29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and 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 goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

In context, Paul has been treating the issue of marriage at length.  Although there is some controversy about the precise situation he is addressing in the present section, I think he is giving counsel to those who are engaged to be married, but who are considering withdrawing from the engagement in light of their recent conversion to Christ.  He tells those in such a situation that they would do well not to marry, but they would not sin by marrying.  Then he gives his rationale for such a stance: those who marry will incur trouble in this life.

But in the span of these three verses he pulls back to give us a larger perspective, not just on marriage but on life itself.  In view of the present distress, namely, the distress of an old world passing away as a new one comes into being, we who belong to the new age and yet continue to live in the old must live in it and yet not live in it at the same time.  We who have wives must live as though we had none.  When tragedy strikes, we must mourn, and yet not mourn.  When something wonderful happens for us, we must rejoice and yet not rejoice.  When we go to the store to buy something, we must buy it, and yet live as if we do not really own it.  Whenever we have dealings with the world, we must live as though we have no dealings with the world.

Paul is not engaging in some kind of self-contradictory nonsense here.  He is saying that everything we do in this life–from marriage to sorrows to joys to commerce–must be done with the understanding that the present age is already passing away.  Christ has already been raised from the dead, and that means the end has already begun.  The firstfruits of the final harvest have already been gathered in (see Paul discuss this later in chapter 15 of the same letter).  That means everything we do in this life, and everything that happens to us in this life, is only provisional.  We await the fullness of the coming age, which is an age of permanence when we can rejoice as those who do rejoice.  But until that day comes, everything in our day-to-day lives is transient.

So if you have fallen on hard times, remember to mourn as one who does not mourn.  Mourn in such a way that demonstrates your recognition that these difficulties are only temporary.  If you have been the beneficiary of good fortune lately, remember to rejoice as one who does not rejoice.  Rejoice in such a way that demonstrates your recognition that your present good fortune is only temporary, and your eternal hope lies elsewhere.  Hold loosely to your possessions.  They’re not really yours anyway.  The day will come when you will die or Christ will return, and in light of that reality the notion of “ownership” takes on a whole new meaning.  Even your marriage, the most sacred and intimate of all human relationships, is not an eternal bond.  Love your wife, yes.  Seek her interests above your own.  Imitate the self-giving love of Christ for her good.  But do not make her a rival to Christ.  Someday, when death tears you away from her, Christ will be there waiting to receive you.  And that is where your greatest hope must be.

We live in a society obsessed with the American dream.  Whether it is framed in terms of material wealth, fame, achievement, or ever-expanding influence, we all crave the riches and accolades of a world whose days are numbered.  The clock is already ticking on the things into which we invest our greatest hopes.  Yet all the while the tomb that once held the body of Jesus of Nazareth lies empty.  Now that is something to obsess about.

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