Single in Christ
Single in Christ
Today's scripture passage comes from Isaiah 56:1-7:
Thus says the Lord: "Keep justice and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come and my deliverance will be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this—and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil." Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people." And let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 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. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and holds fast my covenant, these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."
Let's pray together. Father, I pray that the worldview that tries to fit biblical pieces in but is shaped by unbiblical assumptions would be changed, so that marriage and singleness are seen to be what they are in the radical alteration of things that Jesus has brought. This is something that I can't make happen, but you, by your Spirit through your Word, can. And so I ask that you would perform it. Not that a few little nuggets would be fit into a defective paradigm, but rather that the whole system would be blown away and replaced by a biblical understanding of all things, so that the smaller things like marriage and singleness would fit in the way that you have designed in Christ Jesus, in this brief and temporary age in which we live in preparation for eternity. So come and help me to be faithful to your word now, and give ears to hear. I pray through Christ, Amen.
I'm going to start and end with my main point, and in the middle saturate you with many texts so that we have foundation under the beginning by the time we get to the end and say it again. My main point is that God promises those of you who will remain single blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children. And secondly, that by your Christ-exalting devotion in singleness God calls you to display four truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage.
These are the four truths:
- The family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ.
- Relationships in Christ are more permanent and more precious than relationships in families (of course, it is wonderful if relationships in families can be both relationships in families and relationships in Christ, but we know good and well that is not the case for many of us).
- Marriage is temporary and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along, namely, the relationship between Christ and the church (just like a picture is not needed when you're seeing face to face).
- Faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life, and all other relationships get their significance from that faithfulness to Christ. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is ultimate. That's my message. That's my main point. It has many layers, and we now need to see the Bible underneath it, and where all of that comes from. We'll start in the middle of the Bible, then we'll go back to the front of the Bible, and then to the end of the Bible. We'll be all over the Bible in this message, because this message is a biblical theology of singleness.
God blesses single people with spiritual offspring.
"For thus says the Lord to the eunuchs …"—that is, those who cannot procreate and thus devote themselves to some unique service, king, or person—"who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 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." God promises to obedient eunuchs blessings that are better than that of sons and daughters. In other words, God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than being married and having children.
To see that more clearly, we need to go back to the beginning of the Bible and make our way forward. In the created order, before there was any sin in the world, and in the covenantal order between Abraham and the coming of Christ, God is primarily building his covenant people through the mechanism of procreation. In other words, being married and having offspring was of paramount importance because God was focusing his kingdom building effort on an ethnic people—Israel, primarily. So to be married and to have children was the preservation of a name, an inheritance, and a covenant. So in Genesis 1:28 we read, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." In Genesis 2:18 (this is all before the fall), before woman was made, God says to Adam, "It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him." And then, when God chose Abraham as the beginning of that covenant people of Israel, he says to him, "Go out and look at those stars. So shall your offspring be." When Abraham found that he couldn't have children because Sarah was barren, he went and had a child by Hagar and said to the Lord, "Oh that Ishmael might live before you," and God said, "No, but Sarah your wife will have a son." In other words, physical offspring really mattered, and it would come God's way in God's time. God reaffirmed that to Isaac in Genesis 26:3: "I will be with you, and I will bless you. For to you and your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father." Again, physical offspring are seen to be crucial.
The reason these offspring are so crucial is because that's how the covenant is preserved and extended into the future, and because, otherwise, a name would be lost. Remember how Saul pled with David not to wipe out his offspring so that his name would not be erased? First Samuel 24:21 says, "Swear to me, therefore, by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house." And some of you remember the very complex institution of Levirate marriage, where a man is obliged to marry his deceased brother's widow, so that the name of the brother would not be lost in the tribes. The ordination was that the first son born would get the name of the dead brother. Listen to Deuteronomy 25:6: "And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel." That's an amazing provision—is it not?—for the perpetuation of the name through the physical seed of this man's wife and his brother. The most famous illustration of that is with Boaz and Ruth. Boaz marries Ruth so that Elimelech and Mahlon (Ruth's deceased husband) would not lose their name and their inheritance. Listen to these words: "Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among the brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses to this day" (Ruth 4:10).
So you can see how crucial marriage and offspring were to the preservation of name and inheritance and covenant. No wonder Jephthah's daughter asked for two months, not to bewail her impending death, but to bewail her virginity. Let's look at this amazing story: "So she said to her father, 'Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months that I may go up and down on the mountains, weep for my virginity, I and my companions.' And so he said, 'Go.'" That's the background for Isaiah 56:5—to cause your jaw to drop, and for you to stand amazed at this. Thus says the Lord, "The eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me, hold fast to my covenant [these unmarried, these childless ones], 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." Now, where in the world did that come from? And where is that pointing?
It came from Isaiah chapter 53, that glorious prophecy of the Messiah who came to be wounded for our transgressions, to be crushed for our iniquities. But do we ponder verse 10? "It was the will of the Lord to crush him"—this is what God did to Christ on the cross, prophesied 700 years earlier—"He has put him to grief. When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring. He shall prolong his days." Indeed, forever after the resurrection the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. What does that mean, "he shall see his offspring"? Jesus was never married, and the whole point was that he wasn't married, but that he was a dry tree and a eunuch and a single man who lived faithfully to the day of his death. That's the point. This is another kind of offspring.
When Christ died for sinners like you and me, who by grace put our faith in him and are united to him, we become his children and the children of God, and a whole new way of bringing offspring into being takes precedence over the old way. This is why the next chapter in Isaiah begins like this: "Sing, O barren one who did not bear. Break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor. For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married." A whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of growing a family is prophetically coming into being at this point, and will literally come into being at the coming of Jesus. So what does Jesus say when he comes to Nicodemus who just doesn't get it and cannot change his worldview? "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." Jesus is saying: I'm here to make children. I'm here to build a family. I'm here to give birth like you never knew. And the Apostle Paul picks up the strain in Galatians 3: "Know then that it is those who are of faith who are the sons of Abraham, not the physical descendants. In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith."
God's family is better than an earthly family.
In other words, it's not physical descent that makes God's family. The covenant people are the people who are born of God and who have faith in Jesus. Peter picks up the theme as well: "According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead unto an inheritance." So do you want an inheritance? You've got to have the right Father: God. How do you get God as your Father? You have to be born again—"unto an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:3). Jesus, Paul, and Peter are all saying that children are born into God's family and receive the inheritance not by marriage, not by procreation, but by faith and regeneration. This means that single people in Christ have zero disadvantage in bearing children for God, and in many ways they have significant advantages.
Paul was single all his life, or at least, lest we overstate it, he was single all of the life we knew him. He says in 1 Corinthians 9 that he has no wife, but whether he's a widower, we don't know. So Paul throughout all the New Testament documents Paul doesn't have a wife, but he's a father if there ever was one. Talking to his church, he says, "Though you have countless guides in Christ, you have not many fathers. I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). That's a single man talking. I became your father; I'm your father, single and unmarried as I am. Or let him speak for the women: "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children" (1 Thessalonians 2:7). And so it will be said of many single women in Christ: She was a great mother in the church and never married.
Now, take heed and be careful, lest you trivialize what I'm saying and think I'm sentimentalizing singleness to make the single folks feel good in this series on marriage. I could care less about making anybody feel good. I am declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the eternal and primary nature of the church. That's what I'm declaring. I'm declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the primary and eternal nature of the family of God. Hear that. This is not trivial. This is huge. And I fear that we have settled into our land and our culture and idolized the family and marriage. We are here for a vapor's breath, and then we are gone. What happens here is relatively minor compared to what will happen after the resurrection. What I'm saying is no small thing.
God's family is permanent; marriage is temporary.
"In the resurrection," Jesus says, "they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). I am declaring the radical biblical truth that being in a human family is no sign of eternal blessing. Being in God's family means being eternally blessed. Relationships based on family are temporary. Relationships based on union with Christ are eternal. Marriage is a temporary institution and stands for something that lasts forever, namely, our relationship to Jesus Christ—church and bridegroom. "And when his mother and his brothers came to [Jesus] and asked to see him, he said, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers'" (Mark 3:31-34). There's not a much more radical statement in the Bible than that. You want to be the mother of Jesus? Follow him. The mother of God is an obedient Christian. "'Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast at which you nursed,' a woman cried. He turned and said to her, 'Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it'" (Luke 11:27-28). Does this mean anything to you? Does talking like that change your worldview? Jesus looks at that woman and says, "If you keep the Word of God, you'll be my mother." Do not elevate natural processes like procreation and childbearing and marriage to anything bigger than what they are: temporal, physical means of keeping the world going and illustrations of Christ and the church. When Christ comes, these things will fade away.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30). Single person, married person, do you want many mothers? Do you want many children, brothers, sisters, lands, and a place to stay at night? Be a part of the church. Join the family of God. It's a huge calling upon the church. I'm not saying we do it very well, but hear, church, what we're called to be. Hear this. If you leave these things, or if you don't have these things, you will receive a hundred-fold replacement of them in the church—if we're doing our job.
Faithfulness to Christ defines our life.
So what shall we say in view of this amazing biblical vision of the secondary and temporary nature of marriage and procreation? What shall we say? We should say what Jesus said, and what Paul said following Jesus: "There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this, receive it" (Matthew 19:12). There is no reason that we should take the phrase "made themselves eunuchs" to refer to any form of physical sterilization. There's no reason to take it that way, any more than we take the words, "if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." But we take both of them very seriously. "If you can receive it, receive it." Some people choose by God's calling a life of devoted singleness in Christ, and to them God promises a name and a memorial better than the name of marriage and children.
Paul picked it up and put it most starkly in 1 Corinthians 7. Most of you single folks have read this and pondered what this means for you. I'll read verses 8, 32-33, and 35: "To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am …. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. The married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife …. I say this to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." Paul speaks about each having his own gift—"one of one kind, one of another kind." In other words, let him who is able to receive it, receive it.
So here we are at the end where we began, with all this Scripture underneath us now, and I will give my main point again. The main point of this message is that God promises those who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children.
Now, if someone should ask, as I did, "How about both? Wouldn't it be better to have both the blessings of marriage and children and the eternal blessings?"There are two answers to that question. One is that you will learn sooner or later, and you may as well learn now, that the blessings of being with Christ in heaven are so far superior to the blessings of being married and raising children that to ask this question, Wouldn't it better to have both? is like asking, "If you're going to give me the ocean, can't I have a thimble as well?" It does lose some of its force. You just need to see heaven. You need to see Christ better than we see him to keep things in proper perspective. That's the first answer. Can I have a thimble with the Pacific Ocean?
The second answer to the question is that both marriage and singleness present us with unique trials and unique opportunities for sanctification. Unique, not the same, different—but both important. There will be unique rewards for each, and which is better will depend not on whether you were married or single, but on how you respond to the circumstance in which you live.
So I say it again: To all singles in Christ who will remain that way long-term, God promises you blessings in the age to come that are better—far better—than the blessings of marriage and children. And that brings some responsibility and calling with it. If you think what I'm saying here is a license to extend adolescence to 25 and 30 and 35 while you play computer games and don't take up your cause for Christ or lay your life down for him with all this time you have, you don't understand anything I've said. I am summoning singles to a radical devotion to Jesus Christ, which means grow up and become a spiritual dad at 25 and, if God wills, be single for the rest of your life. Become a mother of a spiritual family at the age 25. Disciple spiritual children who are born not of going to bed with a guy. The strongest, most Christ-like single is the one who is virgin until death, and may it be so for many. What a glory. What a reward. The world will tell you that it's a waste. The world doesn't know anything. If you're buying into what the world says, then you're gone.
There are four truths that singles can display in this world better than married people. I've spent nine weeks telling married people how to display Christ in the church, and I'm taking one week to say to single people: What are you supposed to display? If Noel and I are supposed to display Christ in the church in our relationship, what's singleness about? It's about these four truths:
- Singleness displays that the family of God grows not by propagation by sexual intercourse, which you avoid and abstain from because you believe in Christ, but it grows by regeneration and faith in Christ, and you give your life to begetting such children.
- Relationships in Christ are more permanent and more precious than the relationships in families, and therefore we'll give our lives to cultivating relationships that last forever. Noel and I won't be married in the kingdom. That's huge in the way single people and married people think about relationships and friendships and covenant bonding with people.
- Marriage is temporary and ultimately gives way to the relationship to which it's been pointing all along: Christ and church.
- Faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life, and all other relationships get their significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is ultimate.
So to him be glory in the Christ-exalting drama of marriage, and to him be glory in the Christ-exalting drama of the single life. Amen.
Used by permission of Desiring God Ministries (www.DesiringGod.org)
For Your Reflection
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John Piper is a theologian, pastor, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.