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1 Corinthians 7:17-24 is a complex passage which uses ‘circumcision’ as a metaphor for matters pertaining to relationships.
The explanation for this section of Holy Scripture will be shared in a verse-by-verse style format to assist in providing correct context.
Before continuing, a reader is highly encouraged to read the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 7 on its own. From this they will note that the entire chapter is addressing men and women and the topic of singleness (unmarried), being ‘betrothed’ [‘maiden/virgin’ (G3933)], being widowed, and marriage itself.
Yes, a person will find that the entire chapter both above and below verses 17 to 24, is addressing relationships, and it is this which also assists in determining correct context for this passage.
Verse By Verse Explanation
17 But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.
[meaning; whether single or married, at the time of one believing ‘in Christ’, when the L-RD G-d has called that person to believe, let him walk, let him remain as is – married or single – provided they do not have desire, otherwise a single person may get married (1 Cor 7:9).
This is referencing passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, and 7:26-28 which are just above and below this passage]
18 Is any man called being circumcised?
[meaning; at the time of believing ‘in Christ’, is this man/women ‘single‘?]
let him not become uncircumcised.
[meaning; if single at the time of believing, do not seek to be ‘married‘ – that is, if you do not burn with desire]
Is any called in uncircumcision?
[meaning; Is this person married at the time of believing]
let him not be circumcised.
[meaning; do not seek divorce if you’re married]
19 Circumcision [meaning; being ‘single’] is nothing,
and uncircumcision [being ‘married’] is nothing,
but the keeping of the commandments of God.
[meaning; whether single or married, be sure to keep G-d’s good commandments (see Revelation 22:14 KJV ), and faith ‘in’ God’s risen Son (Isaiah 28:16, John 3:15, 14:1, Revelation 14:12, Matthew 19:17, 19:21)]
20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.
[meaning; stay the same as you were when called; single, or married.
For example, has this believer been given the ‘gift’ over their ‘passion’ (ref. 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 ESV)? If so, this is known as being made ‘eunuchs’ – spiritually speaking (Matthew 19:12, Isaiah 56:3-5)]
21 Art thou called being a servant?
[meaning; are you married to an unbeliever? (referencing 1 Corinthians 7:12, which is just above this passage)]
care not for it: [meaning do not seek divorce (referencing 1 Corinthians 7:12-14)]
but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.
[meaning; you are not enslaved – you may separate (referencing 1 Corinthians 7:15, which is also just above this passage); however, you may not get a divorce on any other grounds other than sexual immorality (see Matthew 5:31-32) for clarification and correct interpretation of Torah Law, and the matter of divorce]
22 For he that is called in the Lord, [meaning; a believer ’in Christ’ who is thus referred to as ‘born again’ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17, John 3:3, 3:6, John 3:15)]
being a servant, [meaning; one who is entrusted with the ministry/sharing of the message of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-21)]
is the Lord’s freeman: [meaning; this person is a son of the L-RD G-d Almighty (Romans 8:14, Revelation 21:7), not under the law (Galatians 5:18), though is still obligated (as all are) to uphold the law (Romans 3:31 ESV)]
likewise also he that is called, [‘…called…’ ‘in Christ’ (in Messiah)]
being free, [meaning; being free from ‘slavery’ to sin, a highly spiritual concept (see Romans 8:2-4, Ezekiel 36:26-28)]
is Christ’s servant. [Such a believer serves the L-RD G-d Almighty (ref. Acts 24:14), and His righteous servant – His Son; the risen King Messiah (Christ). (Colossians 3:24)]
23 Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.
[‘do not seek marriage if you are single when called and have no burning desire to do so, O born again believer’ (ref. 1 Corinthians 7:8)]
24 Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.
[meaning; If at the time of believing ‘in Christ’ you are single, remain single – or, if you are married remain married.
If betrothed [usually a maiden/virgin (G3933)], remain betrothed [a maiden/virgin (G3933)] (ref. 1 Corinthians 7:25-26).
Walk with God in that relationship status, walk humbly in that state and abide.]
– 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 KJV [with explanation in brackets, in blue].
This concludes the verse by verse explanation for the passage of 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.
It demonstrates how the words ‘circumcision’ and ‘uncircumcised’ are being used as a metaphor for being married and single.
Further Support For The Interpretation
Further support regarding this interpretation, can be found from the account in Exodus 19:10-15, where the men were to prepare for the third day – back when the famous Ten Commandments were given;
And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
Exodus 10:15 ESV
The instruction given to the men, was to stay away from women during this time to be purified and found in a ritually clean state (i.e. being free of ‘seminal emissions’, and observing Niddah laws; not coming in contact with menstruation or women menstruating etc.).
Abstaining from contact with the opposite gender was thus required in an effort to be ritually clean when the Ten commandments were received.
With this, circumcision is regarded as a clean state to be in (it is a positive commandment after all), and the metaphor of ‘circumcision’ thus can be seen to draw context from both the instruction at the receiving of the Ten Commandments account, and the positive commandment of circumcision i.e.;
‘being away from women at Mount Sinai = ritually clean.
The commandment of circumcision is positive = clean.
Thus Circumcision (clean) is likened to singleness (ritually clean) – and as per the Brit Chadasha (New Testament), uncircumcision is therefore an unclean state and associated with sin (the opposite of circumcision);
‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh,…’
(Colossians 2:13 NIV)
And so with regard to the metaphor in 1 Cor 7:17-24; Being ‘uncircumcised’ (unclean) is likened to marriage (i.e. at Mount Sinai, being near a woman would make one ritually unclean).
Some further points with regard to 1 Corinthians 7 follow;
To Marry Or Not To Marry?
Before concluding this explanation of Holy Scripture, it must be clarified (to an extent) that marriage is not forbidden, even for those who are ‘betrothed’ [young ‘maiden[s]/virgin[s]’ (G3933)] at the time of believing;
‘25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy….
28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned,…’
(1 Corinthians 7:25, 7:28 ESV)
[kindly also see 1 Cor 7:36-38 which comments on those betrothed]
In addition to single (unmarried), betrothed, and married people – the chapter gives mention to widows;
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.
1 Corinthians 7:8-9 ESV
With this explanation, Holy Scripture does give a big exhortation to a believer who is single – whilst the ‘married’ believer will do well;
So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
1 Corinthians 7:38 ESV
Spiritually, those who remain single have been given a ‘gift’ of ‘self-control’ over their ‘passion’ (ref. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 ESV);
‘I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God…’
(1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV)
To which Isaiah says of single ‘eunuchs’;
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
Isaiah 56:4-5 ESV
Hence the Gospel being in agreement, when it says;
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others–and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Matthew 19:12 NIV
May the Holy G-d bless you, beyond maximum believing in His risen Son the Lord Jesus Christ (Adonai Yehoshua HaMoshiach). Omayn (Amen).