Jesus’ teaching on the subject of singleness is not extensive, but what he did say appears to be quite radical in the context of his predominantly Jewish audience. A case in point is his dialogue with the Sadducees on marriage in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). The Sadducees raise the question of the levirate marriage teaching of Deuteronomy 25 as a challenge to the possibility of a resurrection. The teaching to which they refer was given in the Old Testament context in which marriage and procreation were necessary and foundational to the reception of the covenantal blessings. Jesus is thus confronted with a direct clash between the methods and means of the old covenant and those of the new kingdom which he is announcing.
A new order of relationships
Of the three accounts, Luke provides the richest detail concerning marriage and singleness in Jesus’ response. He responds:
“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God.”Luke 20:34-36
The statement is a critical clarification. Marriage is an institution for this age and not for the age of the resurrection. Verse 36 explains why marriage is no longer necessary in the age of resurrection, “for they cannot die anymore.” The implication is that one of the primary functions of marriage, to provide for the continued existence of the species, is no longer necessary in the age to come. Jesus’ statement appears disconcertingly shocking at this point. For beyond the procreative function of marriage, surely he was aware of the joy and fulfilment that marriage brings through intimacy and companionship, and the practical transforming value of learning to love another who is different! Yet it is apparent that in Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the new creation, intimacy and companionship are restored in such a fashion that the unique provision of these things through the marital relationship is no longer required. Even more wonderful relationships are a feature of eternity.
Because the kingdom which Jesus is announcing is not built through physical procreation, nor is mortality present within it, marriage will no longer be necessary in the consummated kingdom of God. Nor will it be needed for sake of intimacy and companionship in the advent of the perfected order of the new creation. Thus the place and necessity of marriage radically change in the movement from the people of God in the Old Testament to the coming of the kingdom of God which Jesus announces.
Divorce and divine ideal
Jesus’ other surprising teaching on marriage and singleness arises in the context of questions on divorce which Jesus’ disciples raise in Matthew 19:1-12. Here the Pharisees raise a question concerning the extent to which Moses allowed divorce. Rather than engage in their legal speculations, Jesus surprises them with a reiteration of the divine ideal, legitimizing divorce only on grounds of adultery. The disciples, surprised by Jesus’ radically idyllic answer, respond in turn with an equally radical proposal that “if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry (Matt 19:10).”
Given the critical function of marriage in the Jewish context, the disciples react to Jesus with a response which they presume is equally as extreme as his. But Jesus surprises them again. For rather than refuting their wildly absurd idea, he instead commends it and reiterates it: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For 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 (Matthew 19:11-12).”
Jesus’ use of the term “eunuch” (eunouchos) on one level seems surprising given the disdain for eunuchs within Jewish culture and their exclusion from the temple on account of their physical deformity. But on another level it provides in fact a vivid model for the point he makes. For in the ancient world, a court eunuch was one who set aside sexual activity (either from a congenital defect or as a result of physical castration) for sake of devoted and loyal service to the king. Since the eunuch could not have children or a dynasty of his own, he could be more trusted in his loyalty to the monarch whom he served. Likewise, without wife or family, the eunuch also had additional time for service to his king and could serve him in a completely dedicated fashion. Perhaps Jesus had the Old Testament example of Daniel in mind. While there is not conclusive Scriptural evidence that Daniel was a eunuch, there is strong circumstantial evidence that he was (2 Kings 20:18; Daniel 1:3). In any case, Daniel provides a model example of loyal and dedicated eunuch service.
Remaining single for the sake of the kingdom
Jesus proceeds to describe three classes of eunuchs, those who are so from birth, those who have been made eunuchs by men, and those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12).
The Jewish audience of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with the first two categories of eunuchs, but the third category would have been a surprising climax. Rather than refuting the proposition that it is better to remain single than to marry, Jesus suggests that there should be some who renounce marriage and procreation for sake of devoted service to the kingdom of God. But Jesus gives two qualifications to the teaching. First, verse 11 clarifies that this teaching is not for everyone, but only to those to whom it is given.
Jesus still affirms marriage for some, but to whom? While Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:9 makes marriage the explicit preference for those who burn with passion, Jesus does not specify either those for whom the teaching is given, nor those for whom it is not. The implication is that recipients are to be self-determining. In this case the teaching is not given to those who have strong longings for marriage whether this longing is because of sexual passion, the desire for intimacy, the longing for companionship, or the desire for children. Rather, the teaching is given to those for whom such desires are not paramount. But for these, the second qualification at the end of verse 12 then serves as an imperative. “Let the one who is able to receive this (teaching) receive it (Matthew 19:12).”
This qualification is radical in the context of traditional Jewish values. For not only does Jesus affirm the legitimacy of one remaining single for the sake of kingdom service, he commands whoever is able, to do it. Thus the church is faced with the prospect of keeping both qualifications in view. It should not ever mandate singleness upon anyone that has a strong innate desire for marriage, but nor should it discourage it from any who are able to faithfully undertake it.
Paul’s teaching on marriage and singleness
Paul’s statements about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 are consistent with the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. He too affirms that it is good for the unmarried to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:8). His reasons seem to describe the eunuch type dedicated service that Jesus suggests when he argues that the single person is “free from anxieties” and “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32).”
The benefits of singleness are clear. One is able to cultivate an “undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35)” and dedicate one’s energy to how he or she might please and serve him. But there were specific aspects of the situation of the church in Corinth that also serve to shape Paul’s response. Most notably the church had a history of problems with illicit sexual activity (1 Corinthians 5:1-11; 6:12-20; 7:2; 10:8, etc.) Thus Paul wishes to make clear to his Corinthian audience that marriage is a provision of God given for legitimate sexual expression. He goes so far as to direct the Corinthians that within marriage partners should not deprive each other (1 Corinthians 7:5)! While Paul stipulates that the inability to control one’s sexual passion is a valid (and good) reason to marry, thus providing a category of those to whom Jesus’ teaching on eunuchs is not given, he does not indicate that sexual passion is the exclusive reason that one should marry. Rather his answer appears shaped by the Corinthian situation and still leaves open other legitimate motivations for marriage consistent with Matthew 19:12.
Jesus’ single life
Though the Gospels give no indication of Jesus being married, did Jesus consider himself to be a eunuch for the kingdom of God? Was he fulfilled and satisfied as a single man in first century Jewish Palestine? The former question seems evident from Jesus’ statements of his own lifestyle. In Jesus’ statement, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58),” the Gospel writers indicate that he had no home or family of his own. Jesus also declares that the purpose for which he was sent is to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).” As an itinerant single man preaching the kingdom Jesus fits the sense of one who sets himself apart for dedicated service to the kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t have sons and daughters but he did leave a legacy though those who became his disciples and followers. He uses maternal language to express his desire to gather all the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34), although they would not be gathered. Instead he turns to calling selective individuals to follow him as his disciples. These become members of Jesus’ kingdom family which supersede the importance of his own nuclear family. He refers to his disciples as his mother and brothers over and against his physical family (Matthew 12:48-49). His disciples likewise recognise this tension between their nuclear families and their commitment to Jesus; Peter acknowledges that “we have left our own homes and followed you (Luke 18:28)”.
The Last Supper as a Passover meal would have been a family occasion in which the father was to instruct the children in the significance of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:24-27). But here instead we see Jesus gathered with his disciples and instructing them regarding the details of his impending betrayal and death. The culmination of the occasion occurs when Jesus proclaims the new covenant, offered to them in the cup of his blood (Luke 22:20).
Thus the legacy Jesus leaves is not in physical progeny, but in forming disciples in his image and in commissioning them also to be disciple-makers (Matthew 28:19-20). The apostle Paul sees himself within Jesus’ legacy of discipleship when he exhorts the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).”
Even though Jesus lived without a wife he didn’t live alone and without companionship. While some might presume that a life without a spouse is a life of abject loneliness, lived in solitude without the benefit of close relationships, this is not the model of singleness we find in Jesus!
Jesus had concentric circles of relationships. His inner circle included three disciples: Peter, James and John. The Gospel of John refers repeatedly to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” traditionally thought to be John himself. Beyond this were the twelve disciples who accompanied him during his ministry period in Galilee and travelled with him to Jerusalem (Luke 18:31).
But Jesus has many other friends and companions beyond even the twelve, many of whom, notably, were women. Luke 8:1-3 indicates that a large group of women also followed Jesus as he preached in the cities and villages of Galilee, ministering to him out of their own means. Among these women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna and “many others”. Mark indicates that many of these women also followed Jesus to Jerusalem (Mark 15:41), including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. It is women close to Jesus who were mourning and lamenting for him as he walked to his crucifixion (Luke 23:27), who looked on during the crucifixion (Mark 15:40), who prepared spices and ointments for his burial (Luke 23:56), and who were first to witness his resurrection (Luke 24:1-11).
Jesus’ lifestyle as an itinerant preacher also fostered occasions to develop close relationships with those to whom he ministered as they had opportunity to share their homes with him. Some examples of those who shared such hospitality include: Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15), Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5). Thus the model of Jesus’ singleness suggests that though he did not have benefit of spouse or children, he had personal and close relationships among those to whom and with whom he ministered.
Singleness affirmed in the New Testament church
Jesus’ own example shows us that the single life need not be a life lived apart from companionship and intimacy. The church as the kingdom family of God is not a substitute for the closeness and intimacy experienced with a spouse and physical children; nevertheless, it serves as a real family providing opportunities for companionship and genuine spiritual intimacy in the current age, and directs us toward a renewed and perfected relationship with church family and the creator in the age to come.
Singleness is affirmed rather than condemned as a status within the New Testament because it attests the sufficiency of Christ for the reception of God’s covenantal blessings in the new covenant. It serves a reminder that the entrance to the people of God is through spiritual re-birth rather than physical family membership. Likewise, the presence of both single and married people in the church together signifies the fact that the church lives between the ages. Married people are necessary because the church is still part of the current age, but single people remind it that the spiritual age has already been inaugurated in Christ and awaits imminent consummation.
When taken as a whole, the Biblical account should comfort those who are single in the church. It is a comfort because marriage and procreation no longer serve the vital function in the kingdom of God as they did in ancient Israel. In the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus’ Gospel message, marriage and procreation are neither the mechanism by which God builds his people, nor the necessary conduit to maintain one’s place within the divine blessing. Rather marriage is an institution limited to this age which is no longer present in the age to come. Furthermore, the fundamental importance of offspring in the Old Testament points to the ultimate fulfilment in the Offspring who is Christ. He is the means and mechanism through which God is now at work building the people of God – a people who will last for eternity. Therefore, the single person can rejoice in possessing a legacy and a name in the house of God which is greater than the legacy of physical children (Isaiah 56:5). Likewise, the childless person can find legitimate joy and satisfaction in the opportunity to cultivate spiritual offspring through the nurturing work of discipleship.
Single for the sake of the kingdom of God
But Biblical reflection on the theological significance of singleness also presents a challenge for the church. For unlike the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the primary mission of the church is not fully realized merely in possessing the land and raising healthy families. Rather, the primary mission of the church is to raise and nurture spiritual children in making disciples (Matthew 28:19) to expand the kingdom of God. As such the present world is not our inheritance but we are aliens and sojourners (1 Peter 2:11) awaiting an inheritance now kept in heaven (1 Peter 1:4) in anticipation of the new creation. While the raising of children is one potential (and important!) method of making disciples who follow Christ among intentional parents, the spiritual mission itself is much larger. Single people have an even greater opportunity to dedicate themselves to the kingdom task than those who are distracted by the burdens of home and family. Singles thus serve as tangible reminders to the larger church of its anticipated future inheritance in the new creation, and the real mission to which it is called.
In addition, the presence and ministry of single people is vital for the Church in another sense. It is a visible reminder that the kingdom of God points to a reality which stands beyond worldly pre-occupations of marriage, family and career. The Gospel message of the Kingdom of God stands for and represents something greater than all the blessings and satisfactions which the present world has to offer. Encouraging men and women to remain single for the sake of the kingdom is a tangible way by which the Church demonstrates this truth.
This article is excerpted from A Biblical Theology of Singleness, copyright © Barry Danylak 2007, published by Grove Books Limited, Cambridge, UK. Used with permission.
- See related article On the Gift of Singleness, by Dr. Barry Danylak in Living Bulwark archives
Top photo credit: image of Jesus with Disciples, from GoodSalt.com, © by Jeff Preston artist. Used with permission.