Single in Christ
A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters
I will start and end with my main point and in the middle cover a wide terrain of Scripture to support it. My main point is that God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children, and he calls you to display, by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness, the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage and childrearing. The truths, namely,
That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ; that relationships in Christ are more permanent and more precious than relationships in families (and, of course, it is wonderful when relationships in families are also relationships in Christ; but we know that is often not the case);
that marriage is temporary and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church — the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face;
that faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.
To say the main point more briefly: God promises spectacular blessings to those of you who remain single in Christ, and he gives you an extraordinary calling for your life. To be single in Christ is, therefore, not a falling short of God’s best, but a path of Christ-exalting, covenant-keeping obedience that many are called to walk.
Better Blessings Than Sons and Daughters
Now let’s step back and look at the Scriptures. And here let me give credit to Barry Danylak for his research on this issue and his very helpful paper, “A Biblical-Theological Perspective on Singleness.” Let’s start in the middle of the Bible at Isaiah 56:4–7:
“No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.”
Thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs [those who cannot procreate but turn their lives into a unique service instead of marriage] 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 bless obedient eunuchs with blessings that are better than sons and daughters. In other words, God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children.
The Bigger Picture in Redemptive History
But to see this more clearly we need to get the bigger picture. In the created order that God put in place before sin was in the world, and in the covenantal order that God put in place with the Jewish people from Abraham to the coming of Christ, “God is primarily building his covenant people through the mechanism of procreation” (Danylak, 9.). God was focusing his covenant-keeping faithfulness mainly on an ethnic people. Therefore, being married and having offspring was of paramount importance for one’s name and one’s inheritance and for the preservation of God’s covenant people.
So in Genesis 1:28, the first thing God says to Adam and Eve is, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” And in the account of Genesis 2:18, when woman was not yet created, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
Abraham and Isaac
And when Abraham was chosen as the father of God’s people, God took him out and showed him the stars and said, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). And when Abraham could not have a son because of Sarah’s barrenness, Abraham said, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” But God answered, “No . . . Sarah your wife shall bear you a son.” In other words, the physical offspring mattered. And it would come in God’s way.
God reaffirms the same to Isaac in Genesis 26:3: “I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to 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 crucial for the covenant.
David and Saul
These offspring are crucial not only for the preservation of the covenant but also because a person’s name would end without children. So Saul asks David to swear that he will not cut off his offspring for the sake of his name. First Samuel 24:21: “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.”
Levirate Marriage and Ruth
Remember the whole elaborate system of Levirate marriage — that is, the marriage of a man to his deceased brother’s wife so that the name of the deceased brother would not be lost. The rule was that the first son born would bear the dead brother’s name. Deuteronomy 25:6: “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 for the perpetuation of the name through physical seed.
The most famous instance of this is when Boaz agreed to marry Ruth to preserve the name of Elimelech her father-in-law and Mahlon her husband. Boaz said, “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 his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day” (Ruth 4:10).
So you can see how crucial marriage and offspring and the preservation of a name and an inheritance were in Israel. No wonder that Jephthah’s daughter asked for two months not to bewail her impending death but that she was never married. Judges 11:37–38a: “She said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.’ So he said, ‘Go.’”
Isaiah’s Prophecy: “He Shall See His Offspring”
All of this is the background that makes Isaiah 56:5 shine like the sun to eunuchs and others without marriage and children: “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.” So without marriage and without children. these covenant-keeping eunuchs get a name and a memorial better than sons and daughters.
Where did this amazing promise come from? What’s the basis of it and what is it pointing toward? Turn back to Isaiah 53. This is the great prophecy of the sufferings of Christ who “was wounded for our transgressions [and] . . . crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). In this chapter, we sometimes overlook these words in verse 10: “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; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”
“Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever.”
He shall see his offspring. Here is a great prophecy: when the Messiah dies as an “offering for guilt” and rises again to “prolong his days,” he will by that great saving act produce many children: He will “see his offspring.” In other words, the new people of God formed by the Messiah will not be formed by physical procreation but by the atoning death of Christ.
Which is why the next chapter (Isaiah 54) begins, “‘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,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 54:1). And this is also why our text (Isaiah 56:5) says that unmarried covenant-keeping people will have “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters . . . [and] an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” In the true people of God formed by Jesus Christ, monuments, names, offspring, and inheritances do not arise through marriage and procreation.
Jesus, Paul, and Peter
So when we come now to the New Testament, Jesus makes clear that his people — the true people of God — will be produced not by physical procreation but by spiritual regeneration. So he says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
And Paul says in Galatians 3 to the Jews and Gentiles alike, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. . . . In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:7, 26). In other words, it is not physical descent from Abraham that makes you part of the covenant people of God but faith in Christ.
And Peter says that our inheritance comes not through marriage and offspring but through the work of Christ and the new birth: “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3–4).
So Jesus and Paul and Peter all say: Children are born into God’s family and receive their inheritance not by marriage and procreation but by faith and regeneration. Which means that single people in Christ have zero disadvantage in bearing children for God, and may in some ways have a great advantage.
The apostle Paul was single in Christ, and he said of his converts, “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul was a great father and never married. And let him speak for single women in Christ in 1 Thessalonians 2:7: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” So it will be said of many single women in Christ: she was a great mother and never married.
A Radical Relational Reordering
Take heed here lest you minimize what I am saying and do not hear how radical it really is. I am not sentimentalizing singleness to make the unmarried feel good. I am declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the eternal and primary nature of the church. Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever.
I am declaring the radical biblical truth that being in a human family is no sign of eternal blessing, but 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, but what it stands for lasts forever. “In the resurrection,” Jesus said, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
And when his own mother and brothers asked to see him, Jesus 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’” (Matthew 12:48–49)! Jesus is turning everything around. Yes, he loved his mother and his brothers. But those are all natural and temporary relationships. He did not come into the world to focus on that. He came into the world to call out a people for his name from all the families into a new family where single people in Christ are full-fledged family members on a par with all others, bearing fruit for God and becoming mothers and fathers of the eternal kind.
“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” a woman cried out to Jesus. And he turned and said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27). The mother of God is the obedient Christian — married or single! Take a deep breath and reorder your world.
“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 for the gospel,” Jesus said, “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 children, mothers, brothers, sisters, lands? Renounce the primacy of your natural relationships and follow Jesus into the fellowship of the people of God.
Let Him Who Is Able to Receive This Receive It
What shall we say then in view this great biblical vision of the secondary and temporary nature of marriage and procreation? We will say what Jesus and Paul said. Jesus said in Matthew 19:12, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and 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.”
We need not take this (“made themselves eunuchs”) to mean any kind of physical sterilization any more than we take Jesus’s words “tear out your right eye” to mean physically blinding ourselves. But it does mean that Jesus approves that some of his followers renounce marriage and sexual activity for the sake of serving Christ’s kingdom. “Let him who is able to receive this receive it.”
That is what Paul chose for himself and what he encouraged others to consider in 1 Corinthians 7. “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 the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife . . . . I say this . . . to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:8, 32–33, 35). In other words, some are called to be “eunuchs” for the kingdom of God. Paul speaks about each having his own gift: “one of one kind, one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7). In other words, “Let him who is able to receive this receive it.”
So now we end where we began with all this Scripture in our mind. God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children.
“Relationships based on union with Christ are eternal.”
If someone asks, wouldn’t it be better to have both? The blessings of marriage and the blessings of heaven? There are two answers to that question. One is that you will find out someday, and better to learn it now, that the blessings of being with Christ in heaven, are so far superior to the blessings of being married and raising children and that asking this question will be like asking: Wouldn’t it be better to have the ocean and the thimble full? And the second answer is that marriage and singleness both present us with unique trials and unique opportunities for our sanctification. There will be unique rewards for each, and which is greater will not depend on whether you were married or single, but on how you responded to each.
So I say it again to all singles in Christ: God promises you blessings in the age to come that are better than the blessings of marriage and children.
Uniquely Displaying the Glories of Christ
And with this promise, there comes a unique calling and a unique responsibility. It is not a calling to extend irresponsible adolescence into your thirties. It is a calling to do what only single men and women in Christ can do in this world, namely, to display by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage. As long as you are single, this is your calling: to so live for Christ as to make it clearer to the world and to the church
That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ;
that relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families;
that marriage is temporary, and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church — the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face;
and that faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.
To him be glory in the Christ-exalting drama of marriage and the Christ-exalting drama of the single life. Amen.