Singleness: Securing Undivided Devotion to the Lord
Topic: Singleness Passage: Isaiah 56:3–56:8, Matthew 19:21, 1 Corinthians 7
Series: Glorifying God in Marriage & Singleness (Part 4)
So far we’ve spent three weeks in a marriage series, and I’m concluding it with a message on singleness. Just because the message will be tailored for our singles doesn’t mean the rest of you should check out. We are one body in Christ, and in order to love one another well, there are things we need to know about each other whatever place God has us.
Just as the marriage sermons had implications for singles, you’ll see that the Bible’s vision for singleness has implications for married folks. For example, we need a biblical perspective on singleness to keep from saying really dumb things that don’t reflect the truth of the gospel and that often make single people feel inferior. We need a biblical perspective on singleness to know how to pray for and care for and instruct our brothers and sisters who happen to be single. We need to hear their struggles, so we can show compassion and give encouragement through the challenges they face.
And one more thing, not only did we all come into this world single, but many of us will leave this world single. Marriage isn’t forever. Some of us will lose our spouse before we go to be with the Lord. If that happens to be you one day, I hope that this message prepares you to spend those days not married to the glory of Christ.
We’ll be looking at several passages today, starting with Isaiah 56. And I want to look at five truths about singleness on which we can keep building as a church.
Truth #1: Singleness is affirmed by Scripture’s storyline
Truth number one, singleness is affirmed by the Scripture’s storyline.[i] That may not sound like a big assertion. But when you compare it with the teachings of other monotheistic religions the assertion becomes more striking.
For instance, Judaism doesn’t look favorably upon celibacy, especially for men, since God has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply.[ii] Islam goes further and condemns the single life. Their prophet Muhammad is recorded saying, “The most low [in status] among your dead are the singles.”[iii] Mormonism states that “spiritual maturity and exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom require marriage.”[iv]
But the message of Christianity is far different—or at least it should be—and I want to show you one of the key reasons why, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.[v] The greatest blessings in life don’t come through marriage and physical offspring, but through Jesus Christ the one Offspring and our all-satisfying union with him.
Look with me at Isaiah 56:3-5. It says, “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.’”
Now, in order to grasp the glory of this passage and the promise it holds out for singles—and really all of us—we have to see the context. Throughout Israel’s history, marriage and physical offspring were crucial aspects to the covenants. Marriage and offspring are emphasized since Genesis 2. Having physical offspring also becomes center stage in God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen 15:5; 35:12). You feel tension in the storyline whenever a wife is barren (Gen 11:30). You’re heart breaks because you know that God’s blessings and promises are tied to Israel having offspring.
The emphasis on marriage and having physical offspring then get reinforced under the Mosaic covenant, to the degree that marrying and having children was the way to maintain inheritance in the land and to perpetuate your name (cf. Exod 32:13; Num 27:1-11). That’s why you get laws concerning Levirate marriage—marrying your brother’s wife if he dies in order to perpetuate his name in the land (Deut 25:5-10). It was worse than death itself to lose your name; it was a curse to have your name blotted out, discontinued (cf. Deut 25:6 with 29:20).
You can see the implication for a eunuch, who couldn’t have any offspring. He lived with a curse. There were also laws that excluded eunuchs from God’s assembly—Deuteronomy 23:1-8. So not only can they not perpetuate their name, but they were accustomed to being outcasts. No inheritance, no name, no community.
Isaiah 39:7 says that some folks in Israel, in particular Hezekiah’s offspring—Babylon was going to take them away and force them to become eunuchs in the king’s palace. You can imagine the curse that would weigh upon them as they serve those who took away their inheritance, their name, their community by making them eunuchs. The exile was for their own sin, of course. Israel broke the covenant without repentance, and so they had to endure the curses of that covenant.
It’s within this context that God speaks blessing to the eunuch—the one who is not married and who does not have children: “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.”
So they get God as their inheritance, they get community within his walls, they get a name that’s better than sons and daughters and won’t ever be cut off—which, if you look back to 55:13, was another way of saying that God would share his state in glory with these eunuchs.[vi] Moreover, he says, “let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’” In other words, even the eunuch would bear fruit; he would have offspring. What?! A eunuch? That’s impossible for a eunuch to have offspring.
It’s just as impossible as the barren woman who has offspring in Isaiah 54:1-4—“For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married.” What?! How can a eunuch and a barren woman have offspring? How can this be possible? How is it that those who were once cut off from the Lord’s assembly would now be welcomed? How is it that those who once could have no name would now be given an everlasting name? How is it that those who once could have no children would now be given so many children, even more children than the one who is married—enough children to possess the nations, Isaiah 54:3 says? How?
God makes it happen through his Suffering Servant—enter the gospel. Isaiah 53 tells us of the Suffering Servant, whom we know is Jesus Christ. And I want to draw your attention to three significant things about the Servant. One, he died for our sins. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” He dies as a sacrifice in our place, bearing the punishment we deserved.
Secondly, notice that he was cut off. Isaiah 53:8, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered [it], for he was cut off out of the land of the living [Think! Just like the eunuch was cut off and the foreigner was cut off and just like we would have been cut off], stricken for the transgression of my people?” He was cut off so that we might enter in to fellowship with God.
But thirdly, and get this, the result of becoming that substitute and being cut off was that he would produce many offspring. Look at Isaiah 53:10, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring…” That’s strange? This Servant has no offspring when he dies.[vii] With the New Testament we know that Jesus had no offspring when he died. He wasn’t married. How can he “see his offspring” if he’s not married and has no children?
The point is that his death creates spiritual offspring (cf. John 12:24). He sees his offspring in that God raises Jesus from the dead to secure all the offspring for whom he died as they trust in his atoning sacrifice. God’s people wouldn’t be marked anymore by a physical connection to Israel; they’re marked by a spiritual connection to Christ, the true Israel.
Christ is the true offspring of the woman, the true offspring of Abraham, the true offspring of Israel. And since that true offspring has come, God’s people would no longer expand through marriage and procreation but through martyrdom and proclamation, proclamation of Jesus’ atoning death to the nations.
The eunuchs in Isaiah 56 are one example of Christ’s spiritual offspring. Meaning this: regardless of whether you’re married or single, in Christ you get God’s name and God’s inheritance and God’s community. In other words, the Christian’s significance and identity is not bound up with being married and having children; it’s bound up with being in Christ.
That doesn’t diminish the blessing of marriage and children; but it gives it a proper context and keeps us from elevating it to a place it doesn’t belong. Being somebody isn’t attached to marriage and children; Isaiah says it’s attached to choosing the things that please God and holding fast to his covenant. In our case it would be following Jesus and holding fast to Jesus. That’s where true significance is, in Christ. Getting married, having children—they add nothing to all we have already in Christ.
All of this comes to fruition in the New Testament. In Acts 8, who is it that Philip witnesses to? An Ethiopian eunuch. And what does he preach to this eunuch? He preaches Jesus from Isaiah 53, the guy is born again, and he baptizes him. Can you imagine what the eunuch thought once he made it to Isaiah 56, and read God’s promises for him? What are marriage and children when you have God?
Comparatively speaking—we’ll get to some of the challenges of singleness in a minute. But Wow! Fellowship with God! A name that is better than sons and daughters! The possibility of having numerous spiritual offspring as I tell others about Jesus! It’s beautiful! It’s life transforming. The blessings gained in Christ—no matter if married or single—trump everything else in life.
In his book Redeeming Singleness, Barry Danylak writes,
Christian singleness lived in its fullest expression is a powerful testimony to the gospel…[it] is a testimony to the supreme sufficiency of Christ for all things, testifying that through Christ life is fully blessed even without marriage and children.”[viii]
We married people need to be reminded of that; and I’m thankful that our singles serve in ways that remind us of that—that we don’t need marriage and children to be fully blessed in Christ.
Something else in the New Testament is that both Jesus and Paul affirm singleness. No human displayed God’s image more perfectly than Jesus, and Jesus was single.[ix] Moreover, Jesus says this in Matthew 19:12, that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” That doesn’t mean they emasculated themselves; it means they’ve chosen not to marry to devote themselves more fully to the interests of the kingdom.
Not everyone can do this; Jesus says, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt 19:12; cf. Matt 19:11). That’s not disparaging singleness; Jesus praises singleness when people use it for the sake of the kingdom. So Jesus is affirming that choosing not to marry for the sake of kingdom purposes is okay. It’s okay because the kingdom doesn’t spread by making babies, it spreads by making disciples. The most significant family to be a part of is not the one that comes through marriage and procreation, but the one that comes by spiritual rebirth.
Truth #2: Singleness is a gift from God
Paul also affirms singleness in that he calls it a gift from God, which leads us to truth number two: singleness is a gift from God. Look with me at 1 Corinthians 7:7. Paul is answering specific questions about marriage and singleness. As you read chapter 7 you find all kinds of single people;[x] and Paul sees their singleness as something very positive for the church and her mission. So he says in verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am [i.e., single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind [i.e., singleness] and one of another [i.e., marriage].”
So right there we see it: singleness alongside marriage is a gift from God. And let’s be careful here: by using the word “gift,” he’s not being super-spiritual and saying that you have some sort of special ability to remain permanently single. He’s saying to consider the single state you’re currently in as something good from God and to be stewarded well for the edification of the church and the advance of the gospel.
That’s the kind of gift he has in mind, whether it’s marriage or singleness. That’s why we have any gift from God. They’re to be stewarded well for the church’s good and the gospel’s advance. That may be a difficult truth to embrace for many singles, but is it one you’re working to embrace? If not, then you’re in danger of squandering one of God’s gifts to you right now and one of God’s gifts to us as a church.
Elisabeth Elliot once wrote,
If you are single today, the portion assigned to you for today is singleness. It is God’s gift. Singleness ought not to be viewed as a problem, nor marriage as a right. God in his wisdom and love grants either as a gift. An unmarried person has the gift of singleness, not to be confused with the gift of celibacy. When we speak of the “gift of celibacy,” we usually refer to one who is bound by vows not to marry. If you are not so bound, what may be your portion tomorrow is not your business today. Today’s business is trust in the living God who precisely measures out, day by day, each one’s portion.[xi]
Her words reflect well what Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 7:17, “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” In her book Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye, Carolyn McCulley asks a good question. In place of the question, “Why aren’t you married yet?” we should ask, “What is God doing with and through my singleness?”
Truth #3: Singleness has great benefits for gospel work
This attitude of being good stewards of whatever gift we have connects to truth number three: singleness has great benefits for gospel work. The clearest expression of this third truth comes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. It says, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but [and this is the key] to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Paul is a realist. Marriage and children require a lot of attention, time, energy, money, and so forth all focused on just a few people very often. A person who is single can use many of the same resources, but some of their freedom and flexibility enables them to minister to a much larger group of people. Singles certainly share some of the same responsibilities we do—personal care and rest, long work days, service to the church, ministry to relatives. Paul’s point is simply to help take advantage of the opportunities singleness affords that marriage often does not.
As he puts it, “to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” Paul doesn’t want them paralyzed by self-pity but inspired by the Lord’s mission. The picture here is one who sits beside the King ready for his service.[xii] Some of the freedoms that come with being single shouldn’t mean more freedom to goof off and just do your own thing, but more freedom to serve and do what Christ wants.
I had a friend in seminary from Botswana. His name was Jack. Jack was single, in his late-thirties-early-forties at the time, but Jack also wanted to be married. There were two things Jack prayed for often: one, that Jesus would return for his bride; two, that Jack would one day wake up to his own bride. The Lord eventually answered the second prayer for Jack. But one thing I remember about Jack—every waking moment of his single life was wholly devoted to Christ in prayer, in study, in work, in evangelism, in making disciples, in loving his church, in helping the poor. Jack wasn’t over-invested—he knew how to rest; he called it “paying the debt” on Saturday mornings. But Jack sat at the feet of the King ready to serve.
The culture we live in often gives the impression that life really begins only after you get married, or only after you’re in a romantic relationship. There’s this assumption that “Once you reach our ‘life-stage,’ then you can start living for real…” Boloney! That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Paul is saying that it doesn’t matter what state you’re in—your greatest concern is undivided devotion to the Lord, because his kingdom isn’t passing away like the present world (cf. 1 Cor 7:31).
This is what we observe in the New Testament. Paul has a mission for the widows to pray and show hospitality and care for the afflicted (1 Tim 5:5, 10). He has churches for Timothy to disciple and elders to raise up. Paul himself takes advantage of the flexibility afforded him and stewards it well for Christ. And you know what’s so amazing about Paul’s undivided devotion to the Lord. The Lord uses it to give Paul many, many offspring. Listen to the way he talks about them…
- 1 Corinthians 4:15, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel;”
- Galatians 4:19, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you;”
- 1 Thessalonians 2:7, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children;”
- 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, “like a father we exhorted you…walk in a manner worthy of God.”
Fatherhood, motherhood can still be learned from a brother or a sister without physical children. Paul is single, but he has lots of children because of God’s grace working through his undivided devotion to the Lord. His business isn’t orchestrating everything in life to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right, his chief business is Christ. That’s where he finds his meaning and significance in life.
Truth #4: Singleness has many challenges
Truth number four: singleness has many challenges. The last three truths are glorious and good to embrace…but they’re hard to live, especially when facing challenges within and challenges without. I want to mention a few challenges that some singles face, though not all, and hopefully point a way forward as we walk together as a church and seek to understand and serve one another.
Brothers and sisters who are single sometimes face the challenge of loneliness. Genesis 2:18 says, “It’s not good for man to be alone.” God created us to be relational beings. In singleness, there are natural created desires for relationship that often go unmet. And it’s appropriate for us to recognize that challenge and pray for our brothers and sisters who are single.
At the same time, married people can experience loneliness—perhaps their spouse is gone a lot; perhaps their spouse is around but distant; perhaps one spouse is chronically ill and not able to do much with the other. Whatever factors are involved, it’s possible to be married and lonely too. On this side of the Fall, we have to say that marriage isn’t the ultimate solution for loneliness.
The real solution lies elsewhere in something deeper and longer lasting. The real solution is found in union with Christ. Paul knew what it was like to be lonely, and even worse abandoned by others. But he took courage in that the Lord still stood by him. 2 Timothy 4:17 says, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
It’s often the case that loneliness leads to self-pity; and where self-pity rules the day we become blind to opportunities to love others. What would you be thinking about, sitting in prison for the gospel as a single person? Can’t you imagine at least some thoughts of loneliness, some thoughts of, “I’m not going to get married like I wanted to; I’m never going to have children sitting in here?” Christ stood by Paul not only as his true companion, but to help Paul fulfill his calling to make disciples of his prison mates.
Christ will be the same for us. He is the truest companion. He knows us more intimately than any husband or wife ever could. He never leaves us or forsakes us. He is always there—even in the darkest and loneliest desserts.
Being united to Christ also means that God unites us to each other. Both singles and married people find companionship in Christ together. Ephesians 2:19 says that “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We’re family in the truest sense.
That means we must treat each other like family. We must reach out and come alongside each other and show hospitality. We need to open our homes to one another—married inviting singles over and singles inviting married over. Some is already happening; keep it going. We should work toward building spiritual friendships in Christ with different kinds of people, and not just the people who’re like us. We were made and saved for this. That doesn’t mean the challenge of loneliness won’t return. But it does mean that Christ has made provision for it in giving us himself and giving us one another.
Being treated like second best
Singles also face the challenge of being treated like second best. People often say insensitive things like, “Why aren’t you married?” or “Hey, I bet you’d really be happy if you got together with so and so…”—as if true happiness is found only in marriage. Tim Keller identifies more of these dumb statements:
As soon as you’re satisfied with God alone, he’ll bring someone special into your life”—as though God’s blessings are ever earned by our contentment. “You’re too picky”—as though God is frustrated by our fickle whims and needs broader parameters in which to work. “As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work”—as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part. “Before you can marry someone wonderful, the Lord has to make you someone wonderful”—as though God grants marriage as a second blessing to the satisfactorily sanctified. Beneath these statements is the premise that single life is a state of deprivation for people who are not yet fully formed enough for marriage.[xiii]
Church, we must remember what we’ve seen today from the Scriptures—that singleness is not second to marriage. They’re both gifts from God; and singleness is even woven into the fabric of the Bible’s storyline. It has a very positive place in the kingdom. We also need to be quick to listen, as James says, to our single brothers and sisters when they are hurting and lonely and feeling excluded. We are one body in Christ and how dare one member say to another, “I have no need of you.” What would you change if a single person wrote you a note like this?
I don’t feel like I fit in at church. This is much better than it was, but it still bothers me. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to get to know the moms and the families. I can’t do playdates. I feel weird inviting families over. I assume they won’t want to come, and what would I do with the kids?!…Even the other day I was conflicted about the family outings and playdates group. I want to know when stuff like that is going on. But will people think I’m weird if I join the group. Would they want me?
That’s a real note. We need to listen when singles speak to us like this. It may not be that we’re intentionally avoiding others, but simply not thinking of them carefully enough. Let’s work toward changing this and being mindful of one another. As one of the pastors here, I am so thankful for the singles we do have. I’m thankful for your presence and your various skills and your friendship. My own family and this whole church is healthier and stronger because of your commitment and contributions.
Singles also face the challenge of discontentment. Again, that’s not unique to singles, but it’s there for some. Many of you really want to get married. That’s a good desire. Marriage is a gift from the Lord (e.g., Prov 18:22; 1 Tim 4:3). But there’s a way to be discontent with singleness, while remaining content in the Savior.
It’s possible to so want to be married, so want that kind of intimacy now, that you’ll do just about anything to have it. In that case, marriage becomes an idol. And that idol will not lead to joy but to destruction and unhealthy relationships and maybe even bitterness towards the Lord. It’s not wrong to want what is good. The problem comes when we want something so much that it replaces God and distracts us from doing what pleases him. We have to learn with Paul that “in whatever situation I am to be content.” It’s Christ who strengthens us—Philippians 4:11-12. Contentment comes with knowing Christ and cherishing all that he is for you.
And church, we must come alongside our brothers and sisters when they struggle in this way. Pray for them. Affirm their good desires. Don’t heap false guilt on them for wanting marriage. But also remind them again and again of God’s unwavering love being demonstrated in the cross. God shows his love for us, not in that he gives us a husband or a wife or kids or a house and such, but in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And that love never increases or decreases for his elect. He is constant and sufficient. Even if you happen to get married one day, you won’t have any more of Christ than what you have of him right now. We can find rest there and comfort.
I know that’s not all the challenges you brothers and sisters face, but I hope it starts moving us forward as a church to loving and serving together more faithfully.
Truth #5: Singleness (like marriage) will be replaced
Let’s close with one more truth. Truth number five: singleness—like marriage—will be replaced. A few weeks ago we saw that marriage isn’t forever. It too is only a season. We’re all going to die, and we won’t be given in marriage in the age to come (Luke 20:35). All earthly marriages will be replaced with an infinitely greater marriage-union with Christ—for those in Christ. But that future marriage-union of all Christ’s people with Christ himself means that nobody is single in the age to come. Whether we get married in Christ now or we remain single in Christ now, the true Bridegroom is returning for all of us to marry all of us.
And on that glorious day, Revelation 21:4 says this: “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And I can’t help but include in that the tears and pain that some of you experience in remaining single when you want to be married.
None of us know why God chooses to work the way he does in giving marriage to some and not to others. But we’re all certain of this: however difficult or painful our married or single years have been, they will be replaced with a glorious union to Christ beyond our wildest dreams. He’s coming, brothers and sisters.
[i]Especially helpful here is the work by Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).
[ii]Cf. Yeb. vi. 8; Maimonides, “Yad,” Ishut, xv.; Shul?an ‘Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, 1, 13. Celibacy is not necessarily condemned until much later in Rabbinic Judaism, but it was certainly not to be the chosen path, especially for the men.
[iii]Cf. Koran 24:32; 30:21 with the citation of Muhammad’s words at http://en.rafed.net/islamic-articles-v15-1030/ethics/14763-celibacy-and-monasticism-is-forbidden.
[iv]See D&C 131:2-3 found at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/131.2-3?lang=eng#1.
[v]We could also start with the fact that all men and women are created in God’s image—Genesis 1:27. Marriage doesn’t add anything to that dignity; singleness doesn’t take anything away from it (cf. Gen 5:3).
[vi]See the discussion in Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 448, 458.
[vii]The particle ‘et in Isaiah 53:8 could also make “his generation” the direct object of “considered,” thus rendering the passage as follows: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and who has considered his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living…” See discussion in Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 394-95. The meaning would then reflect how, from a human perspective, this one was surely truly cursed since he had no children (i.e., a generation) to succeed him. In this way, Jesus also identifies with those who experience rejection and curse for having no children, etc.
[viii]Danylak, Redeeming Singleness, 215.
[ix]John Piper makes this point in “Forward: For Single Men and Women (and the Rest of Us),” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), xviii-xix.
[x]Single men not bound to a woman (1 Cor 7:27), single men and women who desire to marry but have yet to do so (1 Cor 7:28), single men and women, who perhaps will choose never to marry (1 Cor 7:32, 34), single women who were engaged (1 Cor 7:34), men who desire to marry their fiancée soon (1 Cor 7:36), men who have a measure of self-control that enables them to prolong the engagement (1 Cor 7:37), and finally we see widows (1 Cor 7:38-39).
[xi]Elizabeth Elliot, Quest for Love (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1996), 215.
[xii]Danylak, Redeeming Singleness, 210.
[xiii]Keller, Meaning of Marriage, 196-197.
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