Paul addresses the question of whether the promised return of the Lord implies that Christians should abandon ordinary daily life, including work.
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on . . . let those who buy [be] as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29–31)
Apparently some believers neglected family duties and ceased working, in the same way you might neglect to sweep the floor before moving to a new house. Paul had previously dealt with this situation in the church in Thessalonica and given unambiguous instructions.
Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:10–12)
Paul’s logic will be easier to understand if we recognize that verse 29 does not indicate merely that “the time is short” in the sense that Jesus’ second coming is almost here. Paul uses a verb here that describes how an object is pushed together (synestalmenos), so that it becomes shorter or smaller as a whole. “Time has been compressed” might be a better translation, as suggested by the NASB rendering, or “Time has been shortened.” What Paul apparently means is that since Christ has come, the end of the vast expanse of time has at last become visible. “The future outcome of this world has become crystal clear,” writes scholar David E. Garland. Verse 31 explains that “the present form of this world is passing away.” The “present form” has the sense of “the way things are” in our fallen world of damaged social and economic relationships. Paul wants his readers to understand that Christ’s coming has already effected a change in the very fabric of life. The values and aspirations that are simply taken for granted in the present way of doing things are no longer operative for believers.
The proper response to the compression of time is not to cease working but to work differently. The old attitudes toward everyday life and its affairs must be replaced. This brings us back to the paradoxical statements in 1 Corinthians 7:29–31. We should buy, yet be as though we have no possessions. We should deal with the world as though not dealing with the world as we know it. That is, we may make use of the things this world has to offer, but we shouldn’t accept the world’s values and principles when they get in the way of God’s kingdom. The things we buy, we should employ for the good of others instead of holding tightly to them. When we bargain in the market, we should seek the good of the person from whom we buy, not just our own interests. In other words, Paul is calling believers to “a radically new understanding of their relationship to the world.
Our old attitude is that we work to make life more comfortable and satisfying for ourselves and those close to us. We seek to gather things into our possession that we think will bring us status, security, and advantage over others. We compartmentalize worship of our gods first, then attention to our marriage second, then work third, and then civic engagement fourth, if we have any time and energy left. The new attitude is that we work to benefit ourselves, those close to us, and all those for whom Jesus worked and died. We seek to release the things in our possession for use where they will make the world more as God desires it. We integrate our lives of worship, family, work, and society and seek to invest in—rather than shuffle around—physical, intellectual, cultural, moral, and spiritual capital. In this we emulate the forefather of the people of God, Abraham, to whom God said, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).
David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 329.
Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 336.