I recently preached a sermon on “The Gift of Singleness,” based on Matthew 19:10-12. The main point of that text—and therefore the sermon—was that for those called to it, singleness should be received as a gift from God. I organized the sermon into three points to help unpack and support that thesis:
- “The Gift is Given (vv. 10-11)”
- “Circumstances are Seen (vs. 12)”
- “Singleness is Savored (vs. 12)”
So that is where we are going.
To begin with, we need to set a little bit of context. So look with me at verse 9.
This is Jesus speaking: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” Okay, so what is going on here? Jesus has just entered Judea and large crowds have gathered to hear him teach, and to be healed. And the Pharisees, up to no good as usual, come as well. Look with me at verse 3.
3 “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’”
So the Pharisees are testing Jesus…again. And the question of testing is this: “Is divorce allowed for any reason?” In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, there were two competing schools of teaching when it came to divorce. One school said that divorce should be allowed for any reason at all, much like our country’s no-fault divorce laws. The other school, the more conservative school, taught that divorce was not allowed except in the case of sexual immorality. So the Pharisees are testing him, trying to pin down Jesus and make him pick a side. So let’s see how he answers them.
4 “He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Jesus’ clear answer is that divorce is not part of God’s ideal plan. From the beginning God intended that a man should hold fast to his wife, and that the two shall become one flesh… no longer two, but one! And it is God who has joined them together, and therefore it is not desirable for man to separate them by divorce. Jesus has a very high view of marriage here. It is sacred, the most meaningful human covenant that a man and a woman can enter into, and it should not be dissolved on a whim. So in a sermon about singleness, just hear me affirming the beauty and worth of marriage. It is glorious.
Now, I think that the Pharisees knew that Jesus would say this. Remember, they were testing him, and they were ready with what they thought was a real zinger. Lets look at verse 7:
7 “They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
So I think they are thinking, “Ha! We got you now, Jesus! Moses, in the law, said that if you have a certificate of divorce then you are in the clear. What do you have to say to that?” Well, lets see what he says:
8 “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
So Jesus says, “No, no, Moses did not command anyone to get divorced. In fact, the only reason that Moses allowed divorce at all was because of the hardness of the people’s heart. They were rebellious and stubborn, and so divorce became necessary, but it was never the ideal!” Divorce is the result of sin, not a command from Moses or God.
Now, that phrase, “Except for sexual immorality.” There are some different opinions among conservative, evangelical, biblical scholars about exactly what circumstances make divorce lawful and whether or not remarriage is allowed or not. And since this is a sermon primarily on singleness, I simply don’t have time to go into those questions very deeply. But one thing is very clear from this passage: Jesus does not like divorce. And his message here is very counter-cultural, both in his day and in our day as well.
In Roman culture of Jesus’ day, divorce was so easy that all a husband had to do was leave the house and not come back, and the divorce was considered legit. If for whatever reason the husband wanted out, all he had to do was say goodbye, and the marriage was over.
And in our day, divorce is easy as well. Since no-fault divorce laws were passed in the 80’s, it’s allowed for any reason. And Jesus is saying, “No it isn’t! Divorce is not allowed just because you are sick of your wife or you don’t like her cooking or your husband is annoying. It’s a covenant that should be for life because God has joined you together.”
And yes, sometimes divorce happens. Sometimes it is unavoidable. And there is grace, there is much grace with Jesus. But regardless of whether or not a divorce is biblically allowed, there is still damage, isn’t there? The couple becomes one flesh in the eyes of God, bonded together so tightly that when the bond is broken, damage occurs.
We need to have this high view of marriage like Jesus, and we must not take divorce lightly. Jesus does not mince words, and that is the context that we need to understand verses 10-12.
So the disciples were evidently watching all of this unfold. Look at verse 10:
10 “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Even the disciples are blown away by Jesus’ teaching. So they get a bit extreme and say, “Wow, that is really tough. If that is true, then isn’t it better to not get married? It’s less risky, that’s for sure.” Verse 11 shows us Jesus’ answer:
11 “But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”
This is an amazing response. One might expect Jesus to say, “Don’t get crazy, guys, it’s still better to get married.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he actually affirms the statement that the disciples just made by saying, “Actually for some people, it is better that they do not get married.”
This leads to our first point, the gift is given. And that gift is the gift of singleness. Notice that I called it a gift. Jesus is saying that for some people, it is actually better for them not to marry. In other words, for those people, singleness is a good gift.
This is exactly what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 7:6-7. He says, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am (in other words, single). But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” So Paul is recognizing that there are two different gifts being talked about here, marriage and singleness. So it isn’t that marriage is a gift, and singleness is a punishment. No, they are both gifts.
I think all too often the church in America tends to elevate and idolize marriage, so that everyone is kind of expected to get married. It is seen as the epitome of fulfillment. Many think you can’t really lead a happy life unless you are married, and that is really the only option that our teenagers hear for their life. At the same time, singleness is often viewed simply as a second rate existence, and “those poor single people must be miserable, and I am going to take it upon myself to set them up with someone so they can finally be happy.” If you aren’t moving toward marriage, many think there is probably something wrong with you.
But that just isn’t how the Bible views marriage or singleness. Instead, they are both gifts from God! For some, marriage is the gift that is given, and it is good, and it will be hard, and it will result in sanctification and ultimate joy. And for other, singleness is the gift that is given, and it is good, and it will be hard, and it will result in sanctification and ultimate joy.
And what Jesus is saying is that for some, it is GOOD for them that they not marry. Which leads us to point number 2, circumstances are seen. Look at verse 11 again with me.
Jesus says, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” So to some it is given not to marry, and to some it is given to marry. To those whom it is given NOT to marry, it is good for them. The “who” in this verse is those who are called by the Lord to be single. The Lord is sovereign over all things, he numbers our days, he plans our steps before the foundations of the world, and he gives different gifts to different people, all for our good. And so if he calls someone to singleness, then that person is able to receive the saying that it is better to not be married. It is a gift.
And then, Jesus gives us different groups of people that are able to receive this saying. Look at verse 12: “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.”
Okay, now first, why does Jesus all of a sudden start talking about eunuchs here? Well, a eunuch in Jesus’ day was basically any person who for whatever reason was forced into celibacy, either by birth defect, impotency, or external means such as castration, which was common among royal servants who were responsible for the harem of a King. But Jesus’ emphasis here is not on the physical organs, but rather on those people who are celibate, and by extension not married. So when he says eunuch, he is talking about a celibate person. And he gives two different categories of celibacy: involuntary and voluntary.
First he mentions eunuchs who have been so from birth, either by birth defect or impotency, and then eunuchs who have been made so by men, either by castration or perhaps accident. In both of those cases, the celibate person did not have a choice in the matter. It is simply their reality that whatever specific circumstance has led to their celibacy and singleness, it is part of their life and beyond their control. They probably didn’t choose it.
And then, he mentions another category of celibacy. He says in verse 12, second half, “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Almost without exception, Christian interpreters through history have agreed that Jesus is not talking about self mutilation, but about voluntary celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom. So those are the two different categories; those who are involuntarily single and those who are voluntarily single.
And then he ends verse 12 by saying again, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it”. I think he is directly applying the categories he just mentioned, and saying that these are two different groups who can receive the saying that it is better not to marry. In others words, Jesus is saying, “Whether you chose celibacy and singleness voluntarily or it was chosen for you, receive it as a good gift.”
So, maybe you are sitting here today and you are single. And maybe you did not choose your singleness, but it appears that for the rest of your life that is your calling. Jesus is looking at you and saying, “Singleness is a gift.” In God’s grand plan and purposes for you, your singleness is a gift from the Lord.
And what’s interesting is that the good gift of singleness does not have to be a permanent gift. Maybe you are sitting here and you are yearning for a spouse and feeling like your singleness is the furthest thing from a gift that you could imagine. You didn’t chose to be single at this moment in your life, and if you could have your way you would get married. Jesus is looking at you and saying, “My child, I love you, and right now in this moment, it is good that you are not married. Your singleness is a gift.” God is doing something in your singleness right now that is preparing you for whatever comes next. And it is good. Even though it is hard, it is good!
Or, maybe you are sitting here and you have made a conscious decision to forgo the gift of marriage and accept the gift of singleness voluntarily for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is looking at you and saying, “It is good. Your singleness is a gift.” Oh, that we might look upon singleness in the church not only as a valid option and calling for people, but that we would look upon it as good and a gift. For those who are called to it, whether for a period or for life, singleness is a gift.
But, this raises the question: How is singleness a good gift? I can say it all day long until I am blue in the face, but for many their singleness doesn’t feel that great. It feels lonely, like a death sentence to a life void of intimacy and relationship and support. How is the world can singleness be something to be savored?
That leads us to our third point…how is singleness savored? I want us to get practical here. Romans 8:28 is true of everyone, so that no matter your life circumstances “God is working all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” Yes and amen, and that includes singleness! But what are some tangible ways that can be practically worked out in the life of a single person that make it good? I have three things I want to focus on here.
1. Singleness is a gift because, just like the Kingdom of Heaven, singleness points to a future reality that is only partially fulfilled now.
In the book of Matthew, we see Jesus teaching about how the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated now, but it is not yet fully consummated: it isn’t totally here yet. Jesus has come, and when he did the Kingdom of heaven broke into this world, but it will not be fully here until he comes again. Jesus compares the Kingdom to a small mustard seed in Matt. 13:31-32, that is tiny at first, but later grows into a tree. And in 13:33, Jesus compares the Kingdom to a tiny amount of leaven that eventually works its way throughout the entire batch of flour. The point is that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now, but we do not yet experience it as it will be in the future. It is already-not yet. But we have a taste, a real taste, of the real thing right now, pointing to the future fulfillment when Christ comes again.
Singleness is just like that. In his book, Redeeming Singleness, Barry Danylak says, “Singleness prophetically points to a reality greater than the satisfactions of this present age by consciously anticipating the Christian’s eternal inheritance in the Kingdom.” What is that inheritance? Jesus himself is that inheritance! All a single person has right now is Jesus, which is all any of us will have for eternity.
But right now it is only a spiritual reality. We don’t have Christ fully, physically with us right here. But we will, and just as the Kingdom is already-not yet, singleness points to the already-not yet of our relationship with Jesus in a way that marriage cannot do. Marriage is a picture of the reality of being the bride of Christ in eternity. Instead of having the picture, a single Christian HAS that reality right now in part, and until it comes in full, the single person can joyfully proclaim, “He’s enough! He really is enough! In case you were wondering if Jesus will eternally satisfy you, he will! Hallelujah, all I have is Christ!”
In his book, “Love Into Light” Peter Hubbard says, “Single Christians living in purity and community are billboards for the sufficiency of Jesus!” Amen!
Therefore, we should view singleness not as lacking something temporary, but gaining something eternal. Marriage is temporary. There will not be marriage in heaven. But we will have Jesus in heaven, and singleness points to his all satisfying nature in profound ways. Savor singleness for this reason.
2. Singleness is a gift because it is an invitation into Kingdom community. Yes, it is hard. There are lonely nights, there are thoughts of being 80 years old and dying and having no one there. Singleness is a gift, but it can be a costly one.
However, the promises that the Bible has for single people are simply staggering. Listen to Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-30: “Jesus said, ‘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, 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.” So what he’s saying is that whatever relational loses you have incurred in your singleness for Jesus’ sake, you will receive a hundredfold in this life! Now he doesn’t promise exactly what that will look like, but he promises to take care of us so that our singleness will not primarily be a lack of relationship, but rather an opportunity FOR relationship.
What if that’s how we viewed singleness for the sake of Christ? What if we viewed singleness not as a loss of relationship, but as an invitation into authentic Christian community? I love how Wesley Hill says it:
Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love. But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, (singleness) could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a [church] community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds?
I just want to shout, YES! That is exactly right. And the primary place that this should be happening is within the Church. Our bonds as brothers and sisters in Christ run deeper than blood. When Paul calls Timothy his “true child in the faith” in 1 Tim 1:2, it isn’t simply a ceremonial label. The title “brothers and sisters in Christ” from Col 1:2 is not an abstract comparison to a different concrete reality. The Church of Christ is the family of God (1 Jn 3:2), and our earthly relationships should reflect this truth. Our relationships in the church should be of such a nature that no one has to be without family. We are family, deeper than blood!
O, may we view singleness as an opportunity – not to be lonely and alone – but to dive headlong into authentic Christian community where the Kingdom of heaven is brought to bear in tangibles acts of service, hospitality, accountability, and love! May we view singleness as an opportunity to experience love to the fullest, and therefore savor it as it should be.
3. Singleness is a gift because singleness frees a person to devote their whole life to the Kingdom without distraction.
I hope that in this sermon you aren’t hearing me demean marriage. I am not intending to. Marriage is a beautiful thing…that takes time and energy. The person who is free from those obligations will be free to more fully invest in ministry, people, and relationships.
Indeed, singleness should always have a purpose. Notice what Jesus says to those who have voluntarily chosen celibacy in verse 12. He says, “because of the Kingdom.” In other words, the Kingdom of God is in view and singleness should always be pointing to that reality.
This is exactly what Paul says in 1 Cor 7:32-34:
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, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
The married person must invest time and resources into marriage, and that is a good thing…but it is still time and resources, and the single person has the ability to invest in the things of the Lord. So to all the single people here today, I just want to say to you, “You don’t have to get married.” You aren’t a second class Christian, you aren’t deficient, in fact, you are MORE free to do big things for God! Being freed from the responsibilities of a family, you can focus all of you energy toward Kingdom purposes. If you don’t waste your time.
So here is my application: Be Generous for the Kingdom. To all my single brothers and sisters here, myself included, I say don’t waste your singleness. There are so many distractions in this world. Fight to keep the Kingdom central. You are gloriously free to dream dreams and accomplish great things in God’s power. Savor your singleness by using it well! Invest in people, be hospitable. And don’t just use your singleness as an opportunity to receive love and support and relationships. GIVE as well! Serve others, cook a meal for a family, volunteer to baby sit so a husband and wife can go on a date, sacrifice in your love!
And let me say this. Maybe you are one of those who views their singleness as a temporary state with the ultimate goal of marriage. My challenge to you would simply be to pray and ask the Lord if his vocation for your life would be to gladly accept life-long singleness for the sake of his Kingdom. I know that sounds scary. I know that sounds like losing so much. There are questions, there are fears…but the Kingdom of God is worth enough to at least ask the Lord what he would have you do. If it is his plan for you, great. If it isn’t, great. But he has a gift for you, and if it is singleness for the rest of you life, you will not be missing out of God’s best.
And to married people, you are not off the hook here in this application. To you, I would say, be generous in your married life toward single people. Eve Tushnet says it so well. She says,
If we considered lay community life more seriously, and if we expanded our concept of family and welcomed single people into familial homes (for a season or for life), many more people could have the experience of living in a realistic familial love in which we all come first at times, and nobody is just there as support personnel.
Married folks, when you do that, when you welcome single people into your families, you become the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Mark 10! You become the hundred-fold mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children that Jesus promises to provide. You get to be a direct fulfillment to a promise of God!
But all of this can only happen when we as a church live in generosity toward one another, selflessly giving of ourselves so that singleness is a viable option. So what would it look like for us to really live as a church that view our bonds in Christ as deeper than blood? What would it look like for singleness to be held up as a beautiful, glorious, fulfilling vocation for those who are called to it? What would it look like for single people to generously give of their time and energy in selfless love, hospitality, and service? And what would it look like for married couples to do the same toward single folks? What a beautiful picture of the sufficiency of Jesus we would paint for a watching world.