While it is inaccurate to say that the context of words and actions is everything – because some words speak for themselves and certain actions stand alone – context is nonetheless important because it helps us to understand the exact circumstances in which specific words are spoken or written, and makes sense of individual situations that are characterised by particular behaviours.
Occasionally, a context can be read into words and actions. Some people argue that this is applicable to several of Saint Paul’s writings. For example, they suggest that Paul wrote to the Corinthians in a certain way because he believed that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent: “Brothers [and sisters], our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for.”
These are strange word, at least according to some commentators. But Paul did not end his advice there. Instead, he continued: “Those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about; those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it. I say this because the world as we know it is passing away.”
Initially, it might seem that Paul was being pessimistic. Certainly, in the early apostolic era the first Christians most likely assumed that the Second Coming was imminent, possibly within a generation. But they soon began to realise that it was not going to happen so quickly.
Saint Paul felt compelled to exhort the Corinthians to get their priorities right. He wanted them to be prepared for death and for the Last Day. That is clear from the urgency of his words. Basically, Paul was doing what every authentic Christian preacher has always been doing. He was reminding his congregation that human time is limited and quite short.
Quoting Paul’s words to the Corinthians and recalling Saint Peter’s words that “with the Lord a thousand years is just like one day, and one day like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8), preachers have emphasised the crucial importance of getting our priorities right, using the time we have on this earth well and profitably for our salvation, so that we will be prepared not just for our own death and resurrection but also for the Second Coming.
Paul was not against marriage or mourning. Neither was he against people enjoying themselves or having possessions. But he earnestly wished that people would not be so pre-occupied and distracted by the things of this life that they would miss the various opportunities given in this life to gain access to eternal life. And he was, of course, correct to advise people not to become engrossed in this passing life.
There is a well-known saying: Live every day as if it is your last, and one day you are bound to be right! Putting this into practice may suggest that we must curtail our freedom to be happy. But that is not the case. To live in true freedom means to live in God’s grace. If we misuse our freedom by choosing thoughts, words and deeds that contravene God’s commandments, then we will not be happy.
In a sense, then, it does not matter whether Saint Paul believed that the Second Coming was imminent because it is always imminent. Human time is limited and, therefore, the urgent writings of Paul always apply to each and every individual, as long as the earth lasts.
Recommended reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-3