In verse 25 Paul picks up once again the subject of singleness. He says that regarding virgins (unfortunately rendered “betrothed” in some translations) he has no express command, though he does have a trustworthy (even inspired!) opinion. (Theodoret notes that Christ actually said not everyone could accept the condition of celibacy, which meant that Paul’s advice here could not be considered law; p. 187.) Paul’s opinion is: “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released [echoing what he said previously]. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a [virgin] marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (7:26-28).
What does Paul mean by “present distress”? Some think that it refers to some immediate crisis, like a famine, in the locale of Corinth (Winter cited in Garland, 324). But this is unlikely in light of Paul’s fuller explanation (“This is what I mean… [v. 29]) which concludes with the statement “the present form of this world is passing away” (7:31). The present distress is the last days that stretch from the ascension of Christ to His return.
Paul’s opening words of his explanation (7:29-31) are quite shocking. They may perhaps be best understood by working backward from 7:31. The KJV translates this verse, “And they that use the world, as not abusing it.” The ESV translates “those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it,” but it is probably better translated, “and those who use the world as though they did not make full use of it” ([H]CSB, NASB). In other words, because this world is passing away don’t make the world the full focus of your attention. Note the end of 7:30, “those who buy as though they had no goods.” Paul admits people are going to buy, but don’t let their goods consume your attention. The first part of v. 30: “Those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing.” Paul is not commanding the absolute cessation of weeping or rejoicing. Garland notes, “He himself weeps (Rom 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4; Phil. 2:25-30; 3:18) and rejoices (1 Cor. 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:4-10; Phil. 1:12-19; 4:10)” (Garland, 329-30). Paul’s point is that these are not ultimate. Don’t weep as if that’s all there is. Don’t rejoice as if that’s all there is. Don’t buy as if that is the end all. Don’t use the world as if it’s all that mattered. And the married should not live as though marriage is ultimate. It’s not. These are the last days. In the eternal state, marriage will not continue (Mark 12:25).
So Paul says to the married, live as though you had no spouse—in a certain sense. Certainly not as a celibate; Paul commands the contrary earlier in the chapter. Furthermore, Paul is certainly not encouraging couples to ignore their spouse’s needs. He assumes that the spouses will be concerned about one another (7:33). But Paul is telling the married that they should not view their marriage as ultimate. The ultimate should be service to the Lord since the end times are now.
In 7:32-35 Paul expands on why he encourages people to remain single. Though the married are to live in some ways as though they were not married because of the last days, Paul realizes that by its very nature, married people won’t be able to be as undivided in their service to the Lord. Married people are concerned how to please their spouse—and it is pleasing to the Lord that they are. But Paul recommends the single life for undivided service to God.
This should be kept in context. Paul begins the section by saying that his comments here are not commands from God, though they are trustworthy opinion (7:25). And as he concludes this section, he notes that he is not seeking to “lay any restraint” on his hearers (7:35). They may marry without sin (7:28).