The Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about divorce. He gave them an answer about marriage. This teaching of Jesus is difficult for many people, but it is right here in the bible, so we’ll try and understand what he said and apply it to our lives. This is part I on the text of Matthew 19:1-12.
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Matthew #65. Matthew 19:1-12 Part I
This is one of those passages I would prefer not to teach on. However, I do my best to submit myself to the word of God, and so I will do my best to help us understand and apply this passage, no matter how hard it might be.
Actually, of course, this passage is not particularly difficult understand. What is difficult is that many Christians have either ignored it or disobeyed it at some point in their lives, and so simply to repeat what Jesus says here sounds, at first, very harsh judgmental. In fact, this can be a very sensitive subject, and someone like me runs the risk of offending a large number of people in preaching on it. Far too many preachers simply avoid the subject.
In addition, there are some Christians and churches who have applied this passage without also giving people the bigger context of God’s grace and forgiveness; and so they have erred in the opposite direction, making people feel condemned without hope.
This subject is so important, and so prone to misunderstanding, I want to take it slowly, so we’ll spend two weeks on Jesus’ words here. Just to make sure we know exactly what Jesus said, here it is:
1When Jesus had finished this instruction, He departed from Galilee and went to the region of Judea across the Jordan.2Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.3Some Pharisees approached Him to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds? ”
4“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female,”5and He also said: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
7“Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away? ”
8He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.9And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
10His disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry! ”
11But He told them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those it has been given to.12For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matt 19:1-12, HCSB)
During the time of Jesus there was a debate among the Pharisees about how much latitude was allowed for divorce. One group held the you could get divorced for any reason, even if it was simply that you didn’t like your wife’s cooking. A smaller group of Pharisees believed that the only reason for divorce was sexual unfaithfulness. I think here the Pharisees are trying to place Jesus into their categories. They want to know which “camp” Jesus belongs to.
As he does so often, Jesus avoids their categories. Instead of talking about Moses’ command concerning divorce, he talks about the intention of God himself at creation (which of course was also the intention of Jesus, being God). This is a clear, definitive statement from Jesus about marriage; if you want to know what he thought about marriage here it is, in verses four through six. First, marriage was part of God’s original plan and intention at creation. To put it plainly: God created marriage. Second, marriage is made for “male and female.” If ever Jesus had the opportunity to affirm gay marriage here it was, but instead he affirms marriage is for “male and female,” and “man and wife.” If you don’t like it, don’t get angry at me – these are Jesus’ words, not mine. Third, Jesus says that in marriage, God somehow mystically joins the man and the woman into one entity. The book of Genesis calls this “one flesh,” and so does Jesus. Finally, Jesus says that since God created marriage, and somehow joins the man and woman together into this one-flesh entity, that human beings should not undo it.
Now, I want to unpack all this, but first we have to deal with the elephant in the room: divorce. The Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about divorce, and his answer was really more about marriage. Even so, of course he made statements about divorce as well.
Clearly, Jesus tells us that there is a very narrow set of circumstances where divorce followed by remarriage is no problem with God. In other words, in general, divorce is not what God wants for followers of Jesus. Some people from ultra-conservative backgrounds may have heard about the sin of divorce endlessly. I think more often, people are surprised to learn that Jesus generally calls it a sin, at least under most circumstances. Even so, divorce is no different than any other sin; it is no worse than anything I have ever done. It usually does have deep and long term consequences for those involved, but it is not, in any sense “the unforgivable sin.” In addition, I do not see anything here that tells us a person is sinning every day that they remain divorced from their first spouse. In other words, “the state of being divorced” is not one long ongoing sin. Like with any sin, we need to repent, receive forgiveness, and move on as we follow Jesus.
Jesus says that it is a sin to get remarried unless your spouse was sexually unfaithful to you (the word for “unfaithful” is specifically about sexual immorality). What if you have been divorced, got remarried, and you do not know that your first spouse was sexually unfaithful? It may indeed have been a sin initially to get remarried, but now that you are, I do not believe that you are sinning every day that you remain in your second marriage. In fact, I think if we would take Jesus seriously, we need to apply his words to whatever marriage we are in right now. If this is your second or third marriage, understand that today, this is your marriage. Don’t sin again by getting divorced a second or third or fourth time. Your present marriage is holy and special in God’s eyes. Make this one work.
What if you are divorced, but are presently single, and wish to get married to someone else someday? Can you get remarried even if your spouse has not been sexually unfaithful to you? It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is saying here, “no.” God views marriage is something permanent, and he calls it “one flesh.” That one flesh entity is only broken by sexual unfaithfulness. However, even in the case of sexual unfaithfulness, it is possible for couples to reconcile and once more enter into a one flesh union; in other words, you do not have to get divorced if your spouse had an affair, but in that situation, if you would like to do so, and remarry, you are free to do so without sinning.
As a note, of course, if your spouse remarries, your one-flesh union is broken; I think the same would be true if your spouse has sex with someone else after your divorce.
I have known of several couples (friends of friends) who got divorced, but took the words of Jesus here seriously; both members of the couple remained single after their divorce. Over the years, as they sought personal healing for themselves, and continued to see each other regularly in the process of raising their kids between two separate homes, these couples eventually reconciled and married each other once more. That was only made possible because they took Jesus’ command seriously, and did not look for remarriage. That approach honors the way God sees marriage.
That is the ideal. However, we live in a broken world, and things do not always work out ideally. Perhaps you just cannot stand to be alone for the rest of your life, and you are absolutely opposed to reconciling with your spouse. You get remarried, even though you know Jesus said you are not free to do so. There is forgiveness for you anyway, grace in abundance. Pretty much anytime I sin, I know beforehand that what I am about to do is wrong, and yet I go ahead and do it anyway: that is the nature of sin. So if you happen to fail and sin in this matter of remarriage, you are not beyond redemption and forgiveness. You can receive God’s grace and move on, and know that his death at the cross was enough for that too; you can know, even if you do this with your eyes wide open, that his love for you will not change and you can receive his grace if you want it, and if you trust it. I am not suggesting that you do this. It would be a sin for you to do it. I am merely reiterating what Paul said in Romans 8:1
1Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus,2because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.3What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering,4in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4, HCSB)
No matter how weak your flesh is, his grace is stronger.
I want to say one more thing about this, not by way of condemnation but by way of advice. Whatever the situation was, if you are divorced, you need to walk through some kind of process of healing. No matter how bad your marriage was, its breakup will leave scars. And not only that, but no matter how bad your spouse was, you had at least some involvement in the falling apart of your marriage. If nothing else, you need to understand why you ever married such a horrible person in the first place, and get healing for the things that caused you to do so.
I am not saying this to assign blame, I’m only saying that divorce leaves people in a situation where emotional healing is important and necessary. If you do not walk through the sometimes-long and sometimes-difficult process of emotional healing after divorce, your next marriage will suffer greatly. We have all heard many times that the divorce rate is roughly 50%. In terms of strict numbers of marriages, this is true. However, the true divorce rate is much higher among second marriages and later. In other words, the divorce rate for second marriages is something like 75%, in large part, because people usually do not work through their issues before getting remarried. What I am about to say next is not a rule, and I’m not getting it from the bible, but practically speaking, I doubt you can really have new relationship that is truly healthy until at least a year after your divorce is final, and that would be only if you are making a conscious effort to seek healing and wholeness. If you don’t want your second marriage to end like your first, I strongly advise you to pay attention to this.
Now, the Pharisees were shocked by Jesus’ response, and they had an argument against it. Moses said they could do it, and Moses was inspired by God. Jesus’ response does two things: first, he is literally claiming that he knows better than Moses, which was a staggering claim for any Jew to make. It is one more place where he is subtly claiming to be God. Second, he lays out the reason for the divorce-regulation given by Moses: he said it was because they were hard-hearted. Both the Old and New Testaments talk about how some people are hard-hearted toward the Lord. The Pharaoh of Egypt during the time of Moses was one of those. No matter that God’s will was to set the people free, Pharaoh wasn’t having it. Some of the people of Israel became hard-hearted, and rejected God in the wilderness. Being hard-hearted means you are determined to go your own way and do what you want to do, regardless of what God wants for you.
So, some of the ancient Israelite men were hard-hearted in the matter of divorce. They were determined to divorce their wives, no matter what God said about marriage. Remember, Jesus quotes from Genesis chapters one and two in talking about God’s view of marriage – and the ancient Israelites had those scriptures also, at least orally; in fact they were probably first written down by Moses himself. So they knew how God felt about marriage, but they were hard-hearted.
In the surrounding cultures at the time of Moses, if a man didn’t want his wife, he would simply kick her out. In those cultures, there would be no place for such a woman in society. Her parents would not take her back, nor any of her family. She would become a beggar and a target for sexual abuse; she would have no provision nor protection in society. So, God said, “Look, if you are going to be hard-hearted about this, and dissolve your marriages, at least you must give your wife a certificate of divorce.” This certificate of divorce had the effect of giving a divorced woman standing in the community. She remained respectable. She was eligible to remarry. Her family could take her in with no dishonor. She could not be mistreated or turned into a prostitute. To put it another way, the Old Testament regulation about divorce protected women in a society where many men were determined to dissolve their marriages no matter what God thought. The intention was not to endorse divorce, but to protect vulnerable women when men were hard-hearted.
This is a statement of God’s great grace. He didn’t want them to divorce. They determined to do it anyway, so he said, “OK, this is how we can minimize the damage.”
As Jesus said, it was not God’s original intention. It is not his desire. But when it happens, he finds a way to bring some grace into the situation. Let him speak to you about that right now.
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