2 Timothy 4:9–18,
Do your best to come to me soon.  For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.  Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.  Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.  When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.  Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds.  Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.  At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!  But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.  The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
So I am now to preach a sermon on singleness, and this is the most intimidating sermon I’ve ever tried to preach, really for three reasons:
For most of my adult life I have been married, not single. Melissa and I got married my senior year of college and so for nearly all of my twenties I did not experience singleness. I have not felt what so many of you feel, and therefore I am trepidatious to talk about it.
This is not the usual kind of sermon that we preach here at Cities because it is focused on a topic. Normally, we take a section of the Bible and we explain what it means. But this time I am taking a topic — singleness — and I am asking: “What does the Bible say about this?” And that kind of question takes a lot of work, which is why this has sort of been a consuming topic for me this week (those of you who I’ve been hanging out with this week know this. I can’t stop talking about it). It also means that this sermon will be a little longer than usual and feel more like a lecture (sorry). You guys know that I usually stick to around 25-minutes. Well, this sermon, not so much.
This reason this is an intimidating sermon for me: I realize that there are so many variations to the experience of singleness. Some of you are single and happy — maybe you are single and working and content; maybe you think marriage could happen down the road but you’re in no rush; maybe you sense a call to stay unmarried and you’re good with that; maybe you’re hoping to get through school first and then be married — some of you are single and happy. And then some of you are single and sad — sad because you’ve wanted to be married for years and it hasn’t happened yet. Or because you’ve experienced a relationship fall apart and your heart is broken. There are so many different stories of singleness in this room and I know that I can’t possibly be helpful to every story, if any story at all, and so I want to be sensitive; I don’t want to say anything wrong — but chances are I will, or I’m going to miss something, and if I do, please know, I am sorry in advance. I need your graciousness, and so I’m asking that you show me grace as I try to speak to this topic.
So there are basically two things that I want to do. First, I want to give you a framework for how we as a church should think about singleness. Then second, I want to talk about the experience of singleness, mainly about a common reality that many unmarrieds feel.
The first part is a framework for all of us. It gets at the Together theme of this series. Just as with marriage, all of us, married or unmarried, need a common understanding on what singleness is.
Then the second part is meant directly for the unmarried men and women in our church.
So let’s get started first with the framework.
Our Framework for Singleness
There are five things to say here — five statements to make toward building a framework for us on how to think about singleness. There’s nothing really poetic about this. No alliteration. Nothing clever about it. Just five straightforward statements about how we at Cities Church think about singleness. Here is the first.
1. Singles are not really single.
That’s the first thing to say. If you are single, you are not really single.
This has to do with our language, and I want to be reasonable here. Culturally — which is how language works — the word in American English for someone who is not married is “single.” Single as in not couple. One as in not two. When that’s what we want to say, to distinguish between marrieds and unmarrieds, then single or singleness is the way we talk. I’ve already used the word “singleness” several times, and I think in our language, when we want to distinguish someone as unmarried, saying “singleness” is okay. That’s okay, but listen closely here:
While it’s okay to use the word “single” as a distinguisher for unmarrieds, it is not okay to use the word “single” as a title for someone’s identity, whether for yourself or someone else. So it looks like this, for example . . .
If someone asks you, “Hey, is so-and-so married?” You can say, because of our language, “No, they’re single.” So as a distinguishing word for someone unmarried, it’s okay to say single.
But, if you look at someone, or if you look at yourself, apart from any questions, and you think single, we need to stop that. If you carry around the title “single” or you bestow that word on people as an identity, I think it is unhelpful. And it’s unhelpful mainly because it is simply untrue. Every Christian, and every person for that matter, is part of several different relationships. We are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, neighbors, friends, co-workers, teammates. We are connected to so many people relationally that to use “single” as a title for someone is just untrue, and this is especially if you are a Christian. If you’re a Christian, you’re not single, you’re a member of the church. You are an indispensable part of the body of Christ. You’re part of a really big family of people who love you. You have lots of brothers and sisters, and you are inseparably connected to them. So you might be unmarried here, but you’re not single — not as a title for your identity.
So singles are not really single.
2. As Christians, our goal for unmarrieds is not that they get married.
So if you’re here and you’re unmarried, you need to know that as a church we are okay with that. Our main goal is not to find you a husband or a wife, our main goal is to help you look like Jesus — we want to help you know his love more truly and deeply.
Now if you’re here and you want to be married, we can walk with you through engagement and marriage and all of that, but know that our ambition for you is not to find you a man or a woman. Our ambition for you is for you to be transformed into the image of Jesus. So we are happy to have singles at our church. We need singles here. We want singles here. We value people who are unmarried.
And this reality, the valuing of singleness, is unique to Christianity. No other monotheistic religion sees it that way. Judaism, whether rabbinic Judaism or modern Judaism, has a negative view toward singleness. Marriage is a commandment, and therefore if you’re not married, something is wrong. Also, in Islam, the Quran tells unmarrieds to get married. Mohammed despised singleness. So while other major religions in the world call singleness wrong, Christianity looks at singleness and calls it a gift.
That is what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8. Paul, who was an unmarried apostle, a single man, writes,
I wish that all were as I myself am [which he means unmarried]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
So it is good, not wrong, but good to remain single. To live life as an unmarried, celibate Christian is a good life. Which means, the only thing more radical in our culture than Christian marriage is Christian singleness. Which means today, right now, the only thing crazier than a man and woman exclusively committed to one another in a complementing marriage relationship is a man or woman happily single and celibate. Both Christian marriage and especially Christian singleness defy all social norms. Christians are strange. We’re different. And one of the big ways we’re different from everyone else is that we value singleness as a gift from God. So know, if you’re here and your single, our goal is not to get your married, it’s to make you look more like Jesus.
3. Singleness is good if you think it is.
So now let’s look back at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. Let me read verses 7–8 to you again, and then verse 9:
I wish that all were as I myself am [which he means unmarried]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Okay, so Paul says that he wishes everyone could be single like him, but he realizes that God doesn’t give the gift of singleness to everyone — Paul talks about singleness here like he talks about the spiritual gifts. It is a spiritual gift. God gives this gift to some and not to others. And he says, to the unmarried, that it’s good for them remain single and celibate. But then he adds that if you don’t have the self-control that celibacy demands — if you don’t have the gift of singleness — then you should get married.
A few verses later in 1 Corinthians 7 he talks more about the goodness of singleness and gives some reasons why it’s good. He says marriage is good — if you get married you do well — but singleness is actually preferred, and the reason why, Paul says, is because single Christians are less distracted in their devotion to Jesus than married Christians. Let me read to you verses 32–35 (and this is going to sound here like Paul is knocking marriage, but he’s not. He’s just describing reality). So listen here, 1 Corinthians 7:32.
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.
I remember as a junior in college, in one of the administrative buildings on campus, this girl named Melissa worked as a switchboard operator — so she answered the phone and directed calls. Now I had known Melissa (that’s a longer story), but we were becoming good friends again in college. And I really liked this girl; I wanted to pursue her, and so I would drop by her office to say hello throughout the day. (You know, I’d happen to be walking by, and there she was, and so I’d stop in and talk.) And one day, when I was walking out of her office, I must have been smiling or something, but as walked out, in the hallway, I passed by one of the higher-ups in the school and he’s walked by and he said: “Divided man, Parnell. Divided man.”
And I had no clue what he meant. I just knew the girl was pretty.
Well, he meant 1 Corinthians 7:33. And he was right. Because he knew I was lovestruck, that I was on the road toward marriage, I was bound to be a divided man. That is true, for married men and women. Spouses worry for their spouses. Husbands and wives have to rethink everything they do because they have to make sure that what they do is going to serve and please their spouse.
Okay, side note on marriage: If you’re married and you don’t do that; in other words, if you are married but you try to live like you’re single, you’re doing it wrong. The reason I work 40 hours a week and not 60 is because I’m married. The reason I don’t do/won’t do/can’t do many good ministry things is because I am married man and Paul tells me I gotta keep mama happy. Spouses worry for their spouses. That takes time and energy. For husbands and wives, time and energy that could be put toward serving Jesus is put toward serving their spouse. I didn’t say that, Paul did.
Then Paul says in verse 35,
I say this [I’m saying all this] for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you [not to command you here], but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
So Paul’s goal for Christians is that they be holy, not married, you understand. And he even says in 1 Corinthians 7:38,
So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
Jesus teaches this same truth in Matthew 19. After Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce, and the profound mystery of two becoming one in marriage, his disciples, who realize that marriage sounds hard, ask him: “Is it better then not to marry?” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus basically says, Yeah. “Not everyone can receive this saying, not only those to whom it is given” (verse 11). He means it’s a gift, and then he give us a category: there is such a thing as a “eunuch of the kingdom” (eunuchs were historically unmarrieds who were high servants of a king). And Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs (they remain single) for the sake of the kingdom of God.
So taking this, and what Paul says, we know that marriage is good and singleness is good, and singleness is even better than marriage, if you think it is. If you can receive that saying. If you have that gift. If you don’t like singleness, or if you want to be married, you don’t have the gift. And Paul says that’s okay.
Divided man I have become, but Paul said I could marry the girl. So I did.
4. Human reality is trending toward singleness.
So the gift that is singleness is a gift. And one day every Christian will have this gift because in heaven there is no marriage. At the end of time, in the final new creation, individual Christians will all be single.
Jesus teaches us this in Luke 20. Here’s the context: the Sadducees were a group of Jewish teachers who didn’t believe in the resurrection. They didn’t believe in an after life, and they came to Jesus, trying to stump him. And they presented this hypothetical scenario: say a man marries a woman but then the man dies, and then his brother marries her but then the brother dies, so then the other brother marries her and the other brother dies, and this goes on for seven different brothers. So this woman married seven different brothers and they all died — which is a bit ridiculous — and the Sadducees say, “So Jesus, after the resurrection, in next world, which of these men get to be her husband?” Then Jesus says something no one expected. He replied, Luke 20:34–36,
And Jesus said to them, “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, being sons of the resurrection.”
So in the age to come, in heaven, in the final new creation, after the resurrection, no human individual will be married. Every Christian will be single. We will be like the angels, meaning we will all have an undistracted devotion to Jesus.
And if that sounds weird to you, it’s supposed to.
This is how Christianity turns the world upside down, and refuses to be boxed in like everything else. I love how the gospel turns things upside down.
So an important topic in our day, for Christians ,is the topic of the nuclear family. So family values, marriage and family — there are books galore here. Conferences. Seminars. As Christians, we love this topic. We think it’s important. And conservative politicians know that, and so for years, these politicians will talk a lot about marriage and family to try get Christians like us to vote for them. Marriage and family values has been equated with Christianity.
And while, as Christians, we certainly care a lot about marriage and family values, in the grand vision of things Christianity is less about marriage and family and is more about Jesus, which is why in heaven we’re all going to be single.
And if that sounds weird to you, it’s supposed to.
If the idea of being single in heaven doesn’t appeal to you — and chances are it doesn’t . . . it doesn’t to me . . . — but if the idea of being single in heaven doesn’t appeal to you it is not because there is something wrong with heaven, but it’s because the future experience of heaven so far exceeds our understanding now. We can’t fathom it. We can’t understand how heaven is supposed to be better than here if heaven doesn’t have sex — which is one of the best things about marriage. We can’t imagine an eternity of pleasure where there is no sex. We can’t imagine that, and that’s the point.
See, the fact that Christianity’s vision of heaven doesn’t play into our earthly appetites is actually a case for it, not against it.
This is so different from other religions. Take, for example, Islam. The Islamic view of heaven does involve marriage, in fact the Quran teaches that every man will have at least two wives, and Muhammed in one of his sayings, said that “The smallest reward for the people of Paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives” (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, 4:21:2687).
So in this view, men will have 80,000 servants and 72 wives. And in another saying, Muhammed said that each man will be given the strength of 100 men so that they can have sex with all of their wives (Mishkat al-Masabih Book IV, Chapter XLII, Paradise and Hell, Hadith Number 24).
So that’s the Islamic view of heaven — do you think a man might have made that up?
Jesus, though, turns everything upside down. There is no marriage in heaven. We will all be single. Human reality is trending toward singleness, which means, for the Christian, singleness is not wrong or strange, but singleness is the new creation normal, and it will be better than anything we can imagine — better even than sex, which is only a pale shadow of the pleasure we will one day know.
All right, so now we’re at #5. This is the last statement for our framework, and in this statement, I want to give you a guiding metaphor in how we think about singleness together with marriage. Here’s #5 . . .
5. Single Christians and married Christians are both about art.
Here’s what I mean, first for marriage, then singleness.
Being married is art like a painting that displays a dynamic picture of the relationship between Jesus and his church.
Being unmarried is art like a drama that displays a dynamic skit of the Christian’s satisfaction in Jesus.
See one of the things that we may not hear much about singleness is how similar it is to marriage in the grand vision of things. Both marriage and singleness are dynamic — every story is unique. Both can be challenging at times. Both defy societal norms. Both are essentially art — because both are meant to say something about the gospel. Both communicate the upside-down, inside-out, just-how-you-least-expected-it reality of God’s grace.
Marriage is art like a painting. Think of like Monet impressionism. If you’ve ever seen Monet’s paintings of his garden or of water lilies — there’s not a lot of detail, but the colors are bright and beautiful, and you can tell what it is. So marriage is art like that.
And then singleness is art like a drama, where real people take up real roles and rather than see the impression of gospel reality, you actually see men and woman act out gospel reality as it will be in heaven — and that is our undistracted, undiluted, irrevocable, non-interferable relationship with Jesus.
And just like in marriage, the art is not perfect, but if you are single, this is what you are acting out. Whether you are single your entire life (because you have that gift), or you are single for a season, your calling as an unmarried Christian is to act out our undistracted, undiluted, irrevocable, non-interferable relationship with Jesus — the relationship that one day every Christian will know perfectly.
So just like marriage, singleness is about art. Singleness is saying something about the gospel.
The Experience of Singleness
So that’s the last statement. That’s the framework to help us think about singleness. And I know right now, as nice as some of these points might sound, but many of you who are unmarried are struggling because you don’t want to be. And now, in closing, I want to say just a few things about the experience of singleness.
And I am trepidatious here because I haven’t been where you are. But I have read and talked to enough of you to know that singleness can be lonely. There’s the disappointment — how you previously thought things would be. There’s the discontentment — how you wish things were different. And there’s the just real loneliness — of you feeling isolated, not known, passed over.
And if that is you, I want to encourage you with three things. These are like three lessons for the single life that I think we find in the life of the apostle Paul. These are really simple, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on them, but I want to put them out there. Paul was probably the most influential Christian who ever lived, and he was single. And there are three lessons for the single life that I think he teaches us:
1. Paul highly valued friendships.
Paul loved people and he was loved by people. See sometimes I think we can mistake a strong Christian as someone who doesn’t really need people. Just them and Jesus, right? We can think that if a person’s faith is strong enough, and Jesus alone can truly satisfy their hearts, then why worry about other people?
But Paul, who was the, you might say, strongest Christian ever, was so connected to people, and so highly valued his friendships, that he tells the story of Epaphroditus in Philippians. Epaphroditus was one of Paul’s friends and co-workers in the gospel, and he tells the story in Philippians 2 how Epaphroditus got sick and almost died. And he says, in Philippians 2:27,
“Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”
So God healing Paul’s friend’s was a mercy to Paul himself because if Epaphroditus would have died, Paul would have been depressed. That’s what sorrow upon sorrow means. And what is so amazing about this is that the chapter just before this, in Philippians 1, Paul is saying things like “To live is Christ, to die is gain!” (v. 21) and that it is better to depart and be with Christ (v. 23) — whether by life or by death, I want to honor Jesus! (v. 20).
And then he also says, I so value my friendship with Epaphroditus — I so deeply value human relationships — that if I were to lose my friend, I would be overwhelmed with sorrow.
So if you are single, it is a holy thing to have friends. Invest yourself in people. Love and be loved. Know and be known. Highly value friendships.
2. Paul had spiritual children.
And this is an amazing thing to notice in his letters. Check out the way he talked about the people he shared Jesus with:
Galatians 4:19 — “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”
1 Corinthians 4:15 — “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
1 Thessalonians 2:7 — “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.”
Paul called Timothy his “my true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), “my beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2), “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). He does this over and over again. For Timothy, Titus, Onesimus. Whole churches. In other words, Paul was a dad and he had lots of children. And they were all spiritual children.
Which we should recognize is a greater legacy than physical children. He shared the gospel with people who believed the gospel and he poured his life into them as a good dad and mom does their children. And you can do the same. In fact, if you are single, I want you to know that we see you as a parent — and when you lead someone to Jesus we want to make a bigger deal about that than when we have babies born into our church.
3. Paul knew Jesus deeply.
Jesus was real to Paul. That is what he is saying in 2 Timothy 4, in the last letter he ever wrote. Look again at 2 Timothy 4:16. Remember in those latter years in his life Paul was in Roman custody, and he was always on trial. And well he tells Timothy the story. 2 Timothy 4:16,
“At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me…”
So this is when Paul the apostle, Paul the strong Christian, Paul the single man became Paul the deserted man. He highly valued friendships. He had lots of spiritual children. And then, when he was on trial, when he needed them most, nobody came. None of his friends were there. They deserted him. So Paul became bitter and angry and pouted. No. What does he say? He says “May it not be charged against them.” Why? Because although his friends didn’t stand by him, he says, verse 17, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me.” So Jesus. The real man. The real person. Jesus, in the hardest moment, when Paul felt isolated and abandoned, Jesus was there. Jesus made his presence known. Jesus didn’t leave him. Jesus didn’t forsake him.
So I want you to know that just as Jesus stood by Paul, Jesus can stand by you. This is not sentimental well-wishing. I’m so serious right now. Jesus will stand by you. In the depths of your loneliness, when you feel — though it probably not true — but when you feel like no one is there and you are all alone, Jesus is there.
And the reason that Jesus is there in your loneliness is because he endured the ultimate loneliness in your place. When Jesus was on the cross, bearing our sin, suffering the punishment we deserved, dying in our place, he went to the place of utter abandonment. Isolation. Dereliction. And he went there for you so that three days later when he was raised from the dead he could send his Spirit to live in you, and be in you, and make it so that you are never separated from him. And right now, because Jesus went there, because his Spirit is in you, you are united to him forever. And I want you to know him that deeply.
And that brings us to the table.
The point of this meal is that we remember our union with Jesus. We are going to take the bread and the cup, which symbolize the body and blood of Jesus, and when we eat and drink we are dramatizing our participation in his life. We are remembering we are his and that we can’t be separated from him. So if you are unmarried here, and a Christian, this meal is where you are most at home.