This is hopefully the first in an irregular series on difficult Biblical passages. I do this for several reasons. There are admittedly some passages in the Bible which are somewhat hard to understand, or open to all manner of interpretations – some better than others. Believers may well have honest questions about such texts.
Also, I find that sadly there is a woeful level of biblical illiteracy amongst God’s people. It seems increasingly that many Christians do not even have a basic understanding of God’s word. Indeed, one can ask how many Christians have even read the entire Bible through at least once. Far too few I suspect.
Of course I am not claiming here to offer the one correct interpretation of these tough texts. But I will seek to draw upon the wisdom of those who have gone before: Christian thinkers, theologians, interpreters, commentators, and so on. Hopefully at least some light will be shed on these difficult passages.
My first text just happened to be part of my morning reading, so I will begin with that. The full context of this verse is Matthew 19:1-12. In it Jesus answers a question about marriage and divorce, and he reinforces God’s desire for permanence in marriage.
After giving a strong and restrictive word against divorce and remarriage, his disciples reply in verse 10 with these words: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” The reply found in the next two verses comprises the difficult passage:
“Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it’.”
I have heard all sorts of strange explanations of this passage, even some which would seek to use it to justify homosexuality! So what exactly is Jesus getting at here? The short answer is that Jesus is simply stating that celibacy may well be an option for some of his followers.
Of course in first century Jewish culture this was a pretty radical concept. Jews back then considered marriage and the bearing of children to be a duty. The unmarried Jesus would have been a rare exception in that culture. Marriage is certainly God’s norm, but as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 7, both marriage and singleness are gifts of God.
As to the three categories of eunuchs which Jesus mentions, the first two are to be understood in a literal sense, while the third is evidently metaphorical in intent. The first category has to do with those who are born without the physical capability – in other words, those who are, for various reasons, impotent.
But some apologists for homosexuality seek to twist this passage into support of their cause. They want to argue that Jesus meant some people are born with a same-sex attraction, and therefore heterosexual marriage is not for them. But there are big problems with this view.
As R. T. France states, it is of course anachronistic to read back modern Western notions of homosexual orientation into this passage. No first century Middle Easterner would have thought in those terms. Also, back then homosexuality most often meant what we today call bi-sexuality: primarily men who had sex with both women and other men. There was no thought of people being born with some inherent, unalterable homosexual orientation. (The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007, pp. 724-725.)
The second category would have to do with castration and the like, a common practice for those who worked in harems. Those men who worked with women in high positions in the royal court were usually castrated. We have an example of this in Acts 8:27: the Ethiopian eunuch.
The third category has to do with an individual’s choice. While self-castration may be a very slight possibility here (something which would have been abhorrent to Jews), it most likely should be understood in a figurative sense: it has to do with choosing celibacy over marriage.
That is, some people are willing to remain single for the sake of the Kingdom. That is why Jesus could say it would not be accepted by all, and only those to whom it has been given (i.e., the gift of celibacy) would be able to receive it.
In 1 Corinthians 7:7, 17 Paul also talks about this gift of singleness. Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus were all single men in a culture overwhelmingly geared toward marriage. Thus celibacy is certainly the exception to the rule, but it is a valid gift and calling of God nonetheless.
As D. A. Carson comments, we must recognise that “neither Jesus nor the apostles see celibacy as an intrinsically holier state than marriage (cf. 1 Tim 4:1-3; Heb 13:4), nor as a condition for the top level of ministry (Matt 8:14; 1 Cor 9:5), but as a special calling granted for greater usefulness in the kingdom.”
Looked at in this way, Matthew 19:11-12 is not too difficult to understand. Sure, there will always be theological revisionists who will seek to distort such passages in order to promote their agenda, such as the homosexual activists. But usually each text, considered in its context, and compared with other biblical passages, can be found to be more clear and straightforward than first thought.
Stay tuned for more such tough passages. In fact, if you have a passage you have been stuck on, why not send it through in the form of a comment, and I will see what I can do with it. I do not – and cannot – claim an infallible interpretation for any of these texts, but I am happy to take a stab at them.