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Covenant Blessings for Singles

James Gidley

Thus says the LORD: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil."

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

"And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:1-8)

Our text comes in the "afterglow" that follows Isaiah 53, perhaps the greatest Messianic text in the Old Testament.[1] After speaking so fully of the atoning sufferings and death of the Messiah to come, the Spirit of God gives his people remarkable promises of blessing to come. From Isaiah 54:1 to the end of our passage (56:8) there is an extended description of those blessings. The Westminster Catechism picks up on this pattern in speaking of the benefits that Christ has purchased for us by his redemption. In Isaiah 52:13-53:12, we have the accomplishment of redemption by the sufferings and death of Christ. In Isaiah 54:1-56:8, we have the application of the benefits of that redemption promised to the people of God.

Not surprisingly, the language of the covenant is pervasive in this passage. To trace some of the highlights: In 54:5 we read "your Maker is your husband," speaking of the relationship of God to his people in terms of the marriage covenant. In 54:9, we find a reference to the oath that God swore to Noah, the very pledge of God's covenant with him. And like the covenant with Noah, so shall be God's covenant with his people again: "my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed" (54:10). The covenant blessings will descend to their children (54:13), and no weapon or enemy will prevail against God's people (54:17). In 55:3, God promises to "make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David." The blessing of this covenant will come upon a nation that did not know God (55:5), and God will abundantly pardon those who return to him (55:7).

In our text (56:1-8), the obligations of the covenant become prominent. Twice we read of the promise coming to those who "hold fast my covenant" (56:4, 6). Three times we read of the blessing coming to those who keep the Sabbath (56:2, 4, 6), the sign of the covenant. So the grand themes of biblical religion unite in this passage: redemption in Christ, the blessings of redemption, even the blessings of the covenant, the bond between God and his people, and the obligations that arise from the covenant.

Yet we can be even more specific about the contours of this covenant. Isaiah is speaking of the New Covenant. To be sure, his language is colored by the forms of the Old Covenant. Yet his promises burst the bounds of the Old Covenant forms. There is new wine here that will not be held in the old wineskins!

Again, we can survey a few highlights in 54:1-56:8. The people of God are called upon to "enlarge the place of your tent," for "your offspring will possess the nations" (54:2-3). And as the passage progresses, it becomes evident that the nations will not merely be subjugated to national Israel, like a new race of Gibeonites to hew wood and draw water. No! Isaiah prophesies to the Messiah, as it were, saying "you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you" (55:5). The text of that call is given in 55:1, "Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters." Everyone! Not just ethnic Israel. And again in 55:6, "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near," for now he is coming near to all the nations.

Perhaps the God-fearing Gentile listener is not quite ready to believe in the expansiveness of the blessing being promised under the New Covenant. After all, the law had severely restricted Gentiles from access to the Temple, which meant access to the typical presence of God in the Old Testament (see Deut. 23:1-8). Perhaps he trembles in himself, not quite daring to believe what sounds too good to be true. Is it only high-flown rhetoric, designed to impress the Israelites with a sense of their great privilege among the nations? As if to answer such doubts and fears, the Lord addresses the foreigner in 56:3: "Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely separate me from his people.' " And the promise is given to them in all its fullness in verses 6-8: they shall be brought to God's holy mountain, and into his house of prayer—that better, heavenly temple, which, far more than the earthly temple ever was, has become a "house of prayer for all peoples" (56:7). No, the new wine will not be held in the old wineskins!

But there is another class of people in our text whose trembling hope is satisfied by the overflowing blessing of the New Covenant. Eunuchs also shall enter into the fullness of the blessing. Eunuchs also, who, like the foreigners, were debarred from the Temple courts (Deut. 23:1), shall be brought within the walls of the house of God (Isa. 56:5). And not only shall they be brought in as if by special allowance, to glimpse holy things for a moment and then be hurried out again into the profane world to which, presumably, they belong. No! They shall be given an honored and permanent place, even "a monument and a name better than sons and daughters."

Now I hope you will understand that the "eunuch" in the Bible is not merely one who has been physically castrated. Jesus follows up his teaching on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:1-9), with mysterious words about eunuchs (Matt. 19:10-12) that will not suffer a narrow interpretation:

The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "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." (Matt. 19:10-12)

In the larger sense, the eunuchs spoken of here are the unmarried. Whether they remain unmarried because of an accident of birth, the demands of men, or the circumstances of life, they leave no posterity to the world, and are thus effectively eunuchs. And those who have been married, but are now again unmarried, may also take comfort that they are not forgotten. For the tent of the covenant has been enlarged to include all who will come under its shade.

But Jesus adds another category: those "who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." There are those who will sacrifice what no Jew would have willingly sacrificed for the kingdom; there are those who will remain in a single state for the sake of service to God and his kingdom.

Of course this is a radical departure from the forms of the Old Covenant, in which blessing depended so much on the possession of the land, and the opportunity to pass it on to the children and to the children's children. In which blessing depended so much on the hope that the Messiah would be born from one's own tribe and lineage; in which the bearing of children was elevated and spiritualized by the hope of the coming of that One Child, Jesus Christ. But now that One Child has come, and by his coming, even the dry trees run with sap, even those with no earthly hope are given a heavenly one!

All of this has the deepest significance for singles in the church of Jesus Christ. Particularly in Reformed circles, the doctrine of the covenant is wrapped up with our view of the obligations descending to the children of the covenant, with the practice of infant baptism, with the inclusion of our children in the membership of the church. In such an atmosphere, a single person, a eunuch, may begin to feel like the odd man (or woman) out.

But the New Covenant will not be bound within the confines of the Christian family. The eunuchs, too, have a monument and a name in the house of God, better than sons and daughters. If God has joined together Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female, and made them all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28), he has also joined together the married and the unmarried in Christ.

What does this mean? Let me draw out a few implications:

1. Our view of the covenant should not make the nuclear family the fundamental unit. That is to say, the church has priority over the family. There are tendencies in the Reformed and evangelical world today that are overturning that priority and putting the family before the church. Family worship and home-schooling, while far from being evils in themselves, may begin to vie with the church for pre-eminence. The New Testament, first century house church, with a family or single person serving as host (Rom. 16:3-5,14-15;1 Cor. 16:19, Col. 4:15), has become the 21st century home church, a family set apart with the father and husband as patriarch, elder, priest, and preacher.

2. The single person must not be viewed as, or made to feel like, a second-class citizen in the church. The single person, as much as the married person, is a full-fledged participant in the covenant. The single person is not "incomplete" or lacking ability to participate fully in life and service of the church.

3. The single people and the married people of the church must not be divided, as though their interests and needs were fundamentally different. We are one in Christ.

4. And yet on the other hand, the particular needs and gifts of single people ought to be recognized in the church, just as the particular needs and gifts of married people are. For example, we have a nursery that single people do not need. We have a program of instruction for children that single people do not need. Likewise, we may, and in many instances should, have special programs for singles.

5. Programs for married folks and single folks need not be and should not be exclusive. Just as single people can take an interest in the nursery and in the instruction of the children, and serve effectively in those areas, so also married people can take an interest in the singles program, and serve effectively there. There is a communion of the saints that transcends our particular condition or circumstances in this life. In the modern world, it is assumed that only the single person can understand and sympathize with the single person, only the widow with the widow, only the black man with the black man, etc. This is not so. While there are many members in the body, and we do not all have the same gift or function in the body, we have all been made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). The modern view, while it seeks to bring helpers alongside who have "walked in my shoes," ultimately divides people. The Spirit unites people.

Now, I conclude by posing a question: How shall we now live and serve together in the church of Jesus Christ? No doubt we as a church have not done all that we should have done to welcome singles. Perhaps we have acted as if we were a "family" church, in the unhealthy sense of making families feel first class and singles second class. Can single-minded service help us to get beyond that?

Endnote

[1] Originally delivered at Single-Minded Service Group, January 24, 2003.

James Gidley, a ruling elder at Grace OPC, Sewickley, Pennsylvania, is a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. He is also a member of the Committee on Christian Education and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant, December 2010.

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