Last Sunday we looked at marriage in the big story of the Bible. And what we saw is that the big story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is really about marriage—or rather, is about one particular marriage, the marriage between Christ and His people. And we saw that human marriage is just a temporary picture of that great reality. When we get to the New Creation, we won’t need human marriage anymore than you need a baseball card at a baseball game. The picture becomes unnecessary when you’re living in the real thing.
Last week we also spoke about some of the implications of this view for us today. We live in this time of already-but-not-yet, when human marriage hasn’t yet been abolished, and when it still can be a good thing. And so those of you who are married were challenged to make your marriage about the mission. And one of the big ways we do that is by obeying Ephesians 5:22-33 so that our marriages reflect the gospel.
We ended last week by reflecting on the fact that, because human marriage is not ultimate or permanent, and we know that it’s on its way out, it makes sense that it should not be the most important thing in our life. We shouldn’t build all of our life, all of our hopes and dreams, on it.
Today we’re really just going to pick up where we left off and see how this big-picture view of marriage applies to those who are not married. Today, we’re talking about singleness.
And in some ways my message this morning is very simple: that passage we just read from 1 Corinthiansis 7 is in your Bible. It’s God’s word. Deal with it!
But of course I need to say more than that. And so we’re going to begin by going back and revisiting some of the big moments in the Bible’s story and and reflect on how singleness fits in to this whole thing.
Singleness Prior to the New Covenant
You’ll remember that the storyline of the Bible is built on the covenants, beginning with Adam and Eve and moving through Noah and Abraham and Israel and David. And as we read the Bible it’s clear that being married was the normal, default position for adults within those covenants. Everyone was supposed to grow up and get married.
But marriage was more than just normal. It was required. God told Adam and Noah to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). God promised Abraham many offspring (Genesis 17:6), and fertility was one of the blessings He promised to Israel (Deuteronomy 7:13). And in all of this you had the promise of an offspring who would come and crush the serpent and bless the nations and rule the world. And so getting married and having children was absolutely crucial if you were going to be blessed by God and play a part of His redemptive plan.
That’s why there’s that story in Judges about Jephthah’s daughter, who went out and mourned for two months when she realized she’d never be married. And it says that afterwards, the young women would go lament for her for four days every year (Judges 11:37–40). Not being married was a really big deal.
We’re going to pick up on some of these themes next week when we talk about family, but the idea here is that marriage was absolutely necessary in each of these covenants. To be single was essentially to be cursed.
Singleness in the New Covenant
And that’s why Isaiah chapter 56 comes as such a surprise. Let me read these words for you from Isaiah 56:3-5:
“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’” (Isaiah 56:3–5).
A eunuch was a man who had been rendered physically incapable of having children. And that meant he could play no part in fulfilling God’s covenant promises. There’s a law in Deuteronomy that even would have barred him from gathering with God’s people in worship (Deuteronomy 23:1). And he would have had no children to bear his name after him. When he died, no-one would remember him. Talk about a sad life.
But here in Isaiah 56, God is promising something totally new and totally different. He is promising that to the eunuchs who obey Him and are faithful to His covenant, He will give them a monument and a name within His house not just as good as children, but better then children, because it is an everlasting name that will never be cut off.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this passage comes in a larger section of Isaiah that is pointing towards the coming of Jesus and His work in the New Covenant. It comes just three chapters after Isaiah 53, which speaks of the Suffering Servant. And it’s in this context, looking to the New Covenant, that God promises an eternal reward better than children to these men who previously had no hope of anything like that.
Isaiah is pointing us towards a day when being married and bearing children will not be the most important things for us. Isaiah is pointing us towards a day when the unmarried and childless will be able to be just as honoured, and even more honoured, then the married and fruitful.
And these promises came into fulfillment with the coming of Christ. There’s so much I want to say right here about the bearing of children in the New Covenant, but it’s going to have to wait until next week. But what we can say now is that with the coming of Christ, the days in which we need to be married and bear children are behind us. In Christ, being single now stands alongside of being married as a good way to spend our life and be useful to our master.
And we see this in the New Testament in a number of ways. The first one is obvious: Jesus was a single man. I think we often blow past this one too easily. We think, “of course Jesus was single.” But we can’t forget how radical this is.
Do you remember our study in 1 John? Jesus wasn’t just a disembodied spirit. He really came in the flesh—He was really, fully, a man. He “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And He was never married.
This makes Christianity very unique among other religions. We worship a single man.
And next to Jesus, arguably the most influential person in the founding of Christianity was the apostle Paul. And guess what? He, too, was single. And we can’t just say, “well of course he was single.” Because other Apostles were married (1 Corinthians 9:5). But the man whom God used in those early decades to plant the most churches and write most of the New Testament was a single man.
Are you beginning to see how affirming of singleness the New Covenant is? And we haven’t even gotten to our main text this morning.
But let’s do that now. Our passage comes in a chapter in which Paul has been answering some very specific questions about marriage and relationships. In the beginning of the chapter, he actually had to defend marriage against some people in the Corinthian church who thought that everybody should be single. And if you read the first nine verses, you’ll hear Paul saying that marriage is not inherently bad and can be a good thing for some people.
But then he goes on to give the Corinthians some good reasons to consider not marrying and remaining single like he himself was. And that’s what we find in our passage today. So just take that in for a moment. There is a whole section of God’s that suggests reasons for why single people should remain single.
Living a Simpler Life
The first one of these reasons is introduced in verses 25-28. It begins with these words “Now concerning the betrothed.” That word “betrothed” is really interesting, because it literally just means virgins. If you have an ESV Bible, you’ll see a little number beside that word, and at the bottom it will tell you that.
So why does the ESV translate it as “betrothed?” Well, when Paul uses this word down in verses 36-38, it sounds like he’s talking about people who are engaged to be married. But up here, it makes much more sense to understand that he’s just speaking to virgins—in other words, people who have never been married.
And so in verse 26 Paul says to these people that “in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” And yes, that means remaining single. See what he says at the end of verse 27: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” And then he gives the reason for this counsel in the second half of verse 28: “Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”
Here’s what Paul is saying: The single life is a simpler life. It’s freer. Marriage is a lot of work and brings “troubles” with it. And so why would you bring that on yourself?
This sounds so counter-intuitive that many people try to explain it away. Some do that by zeroing in on those two words in verse 26—“present distress.” And they say that there was a particular problem at Corinth, like a famine. And so in that particular situation, marriage wasn’t the best idea. But for the rest of us, these words don’t really apply, and we should all aim for marriage just like they did in the Old Testament.
Now there is a little bit of evidence that there may have been some food shortages in Corinth at that point in history. And so perhaps it makes sense that Paul would encourage them to refrain from marriage in the middle of that specific crisis.
But not all scholars are convinced by that line of reasoning. “This present distress” could just be talking about the pressure that all of us Christians face at this stage of redemptive history.
But even if “this present distress” does refer to a specific issue at Corinth, we should still notice that marriage is something they could live without. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of life. And we should also pay attention to the fact that marriage does bring its own troubles with it. And this becomes especially true if that marriage produces children.
I’ve been at many weddings where someone has said something like “marriage halves your burdens and doubles your joys.” I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s simply not true. This passage advocates the single life as a way to reduce at least some of life’s burdens.
The World is Passing Away
Paul gives us some more reasons to consider singleness in verses 29-31, and we should notice that what he says here has nothing to do with the situation at Corinth. Verse 29: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short.” Verse 31: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” Paul is not talking about a local famine here: he’s reminding them that the Age to Come has broken into our age, and so this present age is on its way out and will disappear entirely when Jesus returns.
And if we know this, then we just can’t keep living life like everybody else. That’s the point of these phrases in verses 29-31, where he says things like “let those who have wives live as though they had none,” “and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Corinthians 7:29–31). We can’t be as invested in all this stuff as everybody else is.
It’s kind of like when you play Monopoly or some other board game. You play hard, and you want to win, but at the same time you recognize that none of it is really real. That money won’t have any value when the game is over. In a few minutes everything goes back in the box and your real life will continue.
And you know what? That’s actually true about what we call our “real life.” The things around us, including our marriages, are so temporary. It’s all just Monopoly money.
If you’re married, this doesn’t give you an excuse to neglect your marriage, but it certainly means you shouldn’t worship your marriage and make it the center of gravity for your heart and life. Your marriage should be a platform for good works instead of a dead-end for your selfishness.
But if you’re not married, and you know that all of this is passing away and you have just a short amount of time to invest in eternity, then should you even consider diverting attention and energy into a temporary relationship like marriage? That is the very good question this passage is pushing us to ask.
A Life of Serving
Finally, Paul introduces us to a third set of reasons for singleness in verse 32: “I want you to be free from anxieties.” And he goes on to say that a married person has divided interests. They want to serve the Lord and serve their spouse, and it’s hard to do both well. Something’s gotta give.
We can look at Paul’s life for proof of this. He was free to fully invest his life in the kingdom because he wasn’t married. He could go anywhere and do anything and had a freedom that someone with a spouse and children simply wouldn’t have had. And Paul is interested in others having that same privilege. Like he says in verse 35, he wants “to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35).
Making the Choice
So what should we do with all of that? It sounds like there’s some good reasons for singleness, but how do you know if that’s the right thing for you or not?
That question comes into focus in verses 36-40, which speak directly to those in the Corinthian church who apparently were already engaged to be married—betrothed. And these people, knowing what they now know, have a decision to make. What should they choose?
Here’s the advice he gives them. In verse 36 he says that if they are not “behaving properly” with each other, or if their “passions are strong”, and if “it has to be,” then they can go ahead and get married. And he adds, “it is no sin.” That’s for all of you married people in the room. It’s ok, you didn’t sin when you got married.
But then verse 37 is the other side of the fiddle. If those engaged people have determined in their heart to remain single, and if they have their desire under control—which doesn’t mean they don’t have any desire, but simply that it’s under control—then they do well to remain single.
And verse 38 is there to sum the whole thing up and absolutely shatter our North American way of seeing things: “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).
Yes, you heard that right. Singleness is to be preferred.
Gift of Singleness
Now some of you might have noticed as I’ve walked through this passage that I’ve said nothing about the “gift of singleness.” Maybe you’ve never heard that phrase before, but it’s a popular idea that comes up when people talk about this topic.
The idea is that there is a spiritual gift that of singleness which gives people the special ability to be single. And if you have that gift, then you should be single, but if you don’t, then forget 1 Corinthians 7 was written and go find a spouse.
I don’t believe that this idea is Biblical. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, marriage and singleness themselves are the gift, not some special ability to do either. I’m going to post more on the blog this week about the “gift of singleness,” so you can read it there if you’re interested, but I hope you can already see that the whole way Paul argues in this chapter points us away from seeing the gift of singleness as some special ability, and instead towards seeing singleness itself as a gift. And it’s a gift because it gives the freedom to invest yourself more fully in the good works for which you have been created (Ephesians 2:10).
So let’s sum all of this up: 1 Corinthians 7 tells us that the single life is a unique gift from God, and many Christians should thoughtfully embrace singleness as the best way for them to glorify God in this short life we’ve been given.
There is a good chance that this idea is brand new to you. I know how counter-cultural this is. Haven’t we all been taught, either by word or by example, that adulthood equals marriage? That getting married is what all of the normal grown-ups do? That singleness is a problem to be fixed instead of a gift to be invested?
Isn’t it true that in our church culture, if a couple gets married, even if they just use their marriage to settle down and get comfortable in a materialistic North American lifestyle, they will still be celebrated and looked on as if they’ve arrived way more than the single person who is quietly and busily investing their life and time and talents into the kingdom of God?
I want to suggest this morning that most of us have done with marriage what the Prosperity Gospel has done with money. We’ve taken these Old Testament Scriptures about marriage and children and haphazardly applied them to our lives today without stopping to recognize that we are in the New Covenant, and many things have changed. Our relationship with money and possessions has changed, and so has our relationship with marriage.
It doesn’t help that we live in a culture which worships romantic love. Every song, every movie, every story, assumes that a good and happy life includes being in a relationship with another person. Many of us don’t have many role models of normal, healthy, spiritually fruitful singleness.
Except, you know, there’s Jesus. And the Apostle Paul. So maybe we don’t have an excuse. Maybe we’ve let ourselves be conformed to this world instead of being transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
So what can we do about this? I’m going to end here with some specific encouragements for different groups of people that might be represented among us today.
First of all, parents. You have a huge role here in shaping your children’s expectations concerning marriage. Let me give you an example. Do you know how many times I’ve prayed with my two boys for their future wives?
Why would I do that? I don’t know if my boys are going to best serve God as married or as single men. So why would I pray with them for someone who might not exist, and train them to expect marriage for themselves, and then to feel let down by God if that doesn’t happen?
I certainly talk to my boys about marriage. But I say things like “If God wants you to get married, here’s the kind of husband you should be and the kind of woman you should marry. But God doesn’t give marriage to everybody. The most important thing is that you use your life for Jesus.”
Parents, be careful about your kids’ media intake. Be careful about the way that even innocent movies and stories can reinforce the stereotype that adulthood equals marriage. Point your kids towards a life of service to God, whether that includes marriage or not.
For the Young People
Next, let me talk to you older children and teenagers and college students. I’d guess that most of you hope to be married someday. Some of you will. Maybe some of you shouldn’t. But regardless, can I please encourage you to make the focus of your life something bigger than just getting married?
For some of you, especially you college students, finding a boyfriend or a girlfriend and eventually a husband or a wife is the number one drive in your life right now.
But I’ve talked to enough people who get to their later 20s and 30s and say “I wish I hadn’t been so focused on a relationship in my younger years.” Because whether you get married or not, by the time you get to your later 20s you start to gain perspective and realize that life is so much bigger than a relationship, even a relationship like marriage.
And if everything you’ve heard these last two weeks is true, then the number one question you should be asking is not, “Who should I marry?" but rather, “What part will I play in the great mission of God? How and where can I best use my life to fulfill my mission of good works for the glory of God?
Focus on that, and only ever marry someone if they will help you do that better than you can on your own.
I was single until I was 26. And you heard me share last week how I pursued Aimee and then married her because I knew that I could serve Jesus in my particular ministry with this particular woman more effectively than I could on my own.
But that won’t be true of all of you. Or it might not be true for a number of years. And that’s ok. In fact, it might even be better, in Paul’s words. So put the mission first in your life, and put marriage in its proper place, and use your season of singleness, however long it will last, for God’s glory.
For the Married
For those of you who are married, really listening to 1 Corinthians 7 might make you ask, “Should I have gotten married in the first place?” Perhaps you did pursue marriage because you thought you needed to, and you fell in love, and that was that.
Well, you are married now, and like we read in verse 36, you didn’t sin when you got married. So instead of second-guessing your decision, turn instead to Ephesians 5 and focus on making your marriage about the mission. Live out the gospel, and link arms with your married and single brothers and sisters here in the church, and throw your life into the mission of God.
And please, married people, be aware of those who aren’t married here in our church fellowship. Please know that they face certain unique challenges by living in a culture that is oriented around marriages and families. Singleness is a gift, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a lonely gift and even a painful one.
So let’s stop asking people why they’re not married, or when it’s their turn. Let’s remember that holidays and long weekends Sunday afternoons—times that you get to relax with your family—can be really hard and lonely when you don’t have a family to default to. Simple things like vehicle problems become bigger deals when you don’t have a spouse to pick you up from the mechanic’s.
So let’s take care of each other, single and married. We need each other. I think we do a good job of this here at EBC, but let’s keep pressing in to love each other better.
Now I’m going to wrap up here. I know that this is a lot to take in, especially if this is new and challenges some ways that you’ve previously thought.
So we’re going to end together by singing “By Faith.” All of us, married or not, are children of the promise. At this stage in the story, married or not, we walk by faith and not by sight as we trust and obey Christ and invest our lives in the gospel. Let’s determine to do that well together today and always.