Old Reality, New Hope
- Friday, September 12, 2003
In the first column in this series, we set the stage for a look at what the Bible tells us about singleness. Let's now examine how the Old Testament view of singleness differs from that presented in the New Testament.
The Old Testament Reality
Before surveying the Christian view of singleness, we must establish a reference point in the Old Testament. Frankly, for the single person, the Old Testament world was not terribly promising. Family in the ancient world was the primary economic and social foundation. To be single and older than about age 20 was to be effectively cut off from society's benefits. It was the prostitutes, slaves, and beggars who were the "singles" of that day. If some today advocate the "live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse" philosophy, the ancient world's approach was more like "marry fast, die young, leave a good-looking family."
The story of the Old Testament is one of God Almighty expressing his unmerited love to sinners. The Old Testament unfolding of God's plan for a rebellious human race took the form of a promise to a man, Abraham, "to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen 17:6-7). From this family line would come the ultimate expression of God's love-Jesus the Messiah. So to the already strong social and economic component of the ancient family was added, in the promise of Christ, a vital spiritual component.
Throughout Old Testament Hebrew culture, women were generally married during their teen years. While it was rare for a man in his twenties not to be head of his own household, there are some notable exceptions. Jeremiah (Jer 16:2) and Ezekiel (a widower; Eze 24:8) were two major prophets who apparently remained single throughout most or all of their lives. A quick look at their job descriptions as prophets of doom, however, is sobering for even the most stout-hearted single man. Rahab (the harlot) is also honored in the Bible, but wouldn't exactly provide the best vocational role model for single women (Heb 11:31). Generally, for the typical single individual in Old Testament Hebrew culture, your only hope was marriage, or, if you were male, the alternative hope that you might be gloriously smitten on the front lines of a battle.
The New Testament Hope
Before discouragement sets in too deeply and we're tempted to scurry off to the bookstore for self-help guides and romance novels, let us consider one important fact: there is a second half to the Bible! It is called the New Testament, and we can't fully understand Old Testament realities without reference to it. You see, the Old Testament truths are not stand-alone truths. They are preparatory realities for the great work of redemption in the Cross of Jesus Christ. And this work of the Cross is so profound and pervasive that it will radically alter who we are and what life means to us.
One of the beautiful aspects of the work of Jesus on the Cross is the "ministry of reconciliation" (2Co 5:18-19), whereby sinful man is reconciled to a Holy God. Through his death on the Cross, Jesus overcame our separation from God due to our sin, and brought us into a fellowship with our Creator that is intimate, ongoing, and life-changing. Through the ministry of reconciliation, Christ has also redrawn the lines of social interaction in very benevolent places. With the dawn of the age of redemption in Christ, Old Testament identities-man and woman, Jew and Gentile, married and single-are not abolished, but they are redefined in light of the Cross. All Christians now stand equal before God. All can please God within the context of these fundamental identities. All can enjoy fellowship with God in equal measure and access.
For the single adult, this radical new reality offers itself boldly in the person of Jesus himself. When we realize a little of what it meant to be single in ancient Hebrew society, how amazing it is that God would come to earth and carry out his entire earthly ministry as a single man! Setting aside the thorny theological questions of marriage and the Godhead, how it must have perplexed the Jews of his day to have this Rabbi, this leader of multitudes, be a single man.
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