Old Reality, New Hope
- 2003 12 Sep
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.
Not only that, but Jesus seemed to have a particular place in his heart for single men and women, many of whom he counted as his closest friends. It is almost certain that at least a few of his chosen disciples were single during his earthly ministry. Also, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were apparently single siblings who might have been oddities in the community but were close with the Savior. And Jesus' interaction with the multi-divorced Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) was a taboo-buster on several fronts.
(There is also a compelling case to be made for the single status of John the Baptist-although if he was married, one can only admire the fortitude of his wife, for whom locusts, honey, and unfashionable clothes must have lost their novelty at some point.)
In the book of Acts we encounter Paul the Apostle, a man whose single status is clearly established in his first letter to the Corinthian church. If we also make the fair assumption that the Apostle John was a widower in the latter years of his ministry, then nearly half the New Testament was either spoken or written by single people!
In addition, while it is clear Peter was married (Mk 1:30; 1Co 9:5), scholars believe that a number of Paul's helpers and fellow leaders (including his "son in the faith" Timothy) may have been single for significant portions of their ministry. Very possibly, the well-commended church at Philippi would not have been started without the involvement of two apparently single women: Lydia (a successful merchant, whose conversion is recounted in Acts 16:14) and an unnamed slave girl/former demoniac-for-profit (who may well have been converted in association with the events of Acts 16:16-18).
The New Testament example of the vital place of singles in God's plan could not be more clear.
Next time, we'll take a closer look at the New Testament theology of singleness.
The Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney: Sometimes the most important truths are the easiest to forget. In this book, C.J. helps us get back to the starting point of the Christian life - the cross of Christ. Jesus' work on your behalf must be the central motivation for your life and faith - the main thing. "Never lay it aside. Never move on," says C.J. Mahaney, who shows you how to center every day around the cross of Calvary and how to escape the pitfalls of legalism, condemnation, and feelings-driven faith.
Trusting God by Jerry Bridges: Why is it easier to obey God than to trust Him? Because obeying God makes sense to us. In most cases His laws appear reasonable and wise, and even when we don't want to obey them, we usually concede that they are good for us. But the circumstances we find ourselves in often defy explanation. When unexpected situations arise that appear unjust, irrational, or even dreadful, we feel confused and frustrated. And before long, we begin to doubt God's concern for us or His control over our lives. In an effort to strengthen his own trust in God during a time of adversity, Jerry Bridges began a lengthy Bible study on the topic of God's sovereignty. What he learned changed his life, and he now shares the fruit of that study in Trusting God.
The Rich Single Life by Andrew Farmer: "The truths contained in The Rich Single Life could revolutionize your understanding of singleness. Andrew Farmer skillfully shows single Christian men and women what a rich and valuable opportunity they have. Just as importantly, he explains how to take full advantage of that opportunity. This book will help you live the single life in all the fullness of God." -Joshua Harris, author and pastor. Available from the Sovereign Grace Store. Read a sample chapter on the Sovereign Grace website.