Revelation#24. Victory is Assured.

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Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

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Revelation #24. Revelation 11:15-19.

The structure of the book of Revelation is fascinating. I think if we understand it better, that will help us in our overall understanding of the book. The entire book is divided into seven different sections. Each section begins with a scene in “the throne room of heaven.” Each section is comprised of seven different parts. This structure of sevens has many unique and interesting aspects. The first section and the seventh section have deliberate similarities. The second section and sixth section are also similar in some ways. The third and fifth share some common ideas. The fourth section stands in the center of the seven-fold structure. When you map it out on paper it looks a little bit like an inverted K, or an arrow pointing to the right, or a greater-than sign, like this: >. Let me show you.

1. Seven Letters, dictated from Jesus to the churches.

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

2. The 7 seals. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the early parts)

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

3. The 7 trumpets. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

4. The 7 signs. (Which tells the story of all time, with balanced focus)

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

5. The 7 bowls. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

6. The seven part victory of Jesus. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the later parts)

 7. Seven statements spoken by Jesus to his church.

This is obviously a very brief outline, but I think it can be helpful. In fact, I encourage you to print out this outline and hold onto it. You can see that the first and the seventh sections are made up of things said by Jesus. The second section (the seven seals), I believe, tells us the story of history from the time of Jesus up until the very end, with an emphasis on the beginning and middle. I believe the sixth section does exactly the same thing, only it uses different metaphors and word pictures, and emphasizes the end. The third section (the seven trumpets) seems to be focused on the judgments that will come upon the people of the world. There is also an interlude; we have just finished that interlude, which is about the temple and the two witnesses. The fifth section also focuses on judgment, and also has an interlude. The fourth section, like this second and the sixth, tells us the story of all history up through the very end of the world; however, it uses different metaphors and word pictures than the other two, and is balanced between beginning and end.

Now, I don’t think this outline is perfect, but I think it’s worthwhile, and I believe it can be helpful for us as we continue through the book of Revelation. We can refer back to this again and again to understand what we are studying in its place within the larger picture.

In this outline above, each new section transitions with a glimpse of the worship and praise going on in what I call “the heavenly throne room.” We have come to the end of the third section (or the beginning of the fourth), and so these next few verses depict the next “throne room scene,” just prior to section four. Please read chapter 11:15-19 right now:

15The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign forever and ever!

 16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18The nations were angry, but Your wrath has come. The time has come for the dead to be judged and to give the reward to Your servants the prophets, to the saints, and to those who fear Your name, both small and great, and the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth.

 19God’s sanctuary in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant appeared in His sanctuary. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail. (Rev 11:15-19, HCSB)

We constantly need to remember the situation of the people who first received the book of Revelation. If we can understand what it meant to them, then we can begin to understand what it means to us. They were persecuted, marginalized, treated badly in hundreds of different ways. Some of their friends and family members had been killed for being Christian. Many of those who remained had lost property. They experienced shame in the culture in which they lived. But this return to the perspective of heaven would have brought them great comfort. Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

This should mean a lot to us as well. In a certain “somewhere” it is already finished, the battle is already over. Here on earth, we are still in the thick of it, but the end has already happened. Our future is secure. It is no mistake that Revelation returns to the heavenly throne room five times. We need to hear this over and over again. Don’t feel bad if you need to keep hearing it. But do hear it right now: God has already won the victory. Those who are evil and unrepentant have already met their fate. God has already begun to reign. He has already secured our reward.

I want to take a little bit of time to address something else in general about the book of Revelation, because it relates both to this text, and to the text we will study next time, Revelation 12:1-6. Last summer, a Christian blogger named Gary Ray (and he was only one of several) caused quite a stir over these verses. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post that summarizes it well:

The Book of Revelation, which is full of extraordinary imagery, describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” who gives birth to a boy who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” while she is threatened by a red, seven-headed dragon. The woman then grows the wings of an eagle and is swallowed up by the earth.

Ray says that image will be created in the sky on Sept. 23 [2017]. The constellation Virgo — representing the woman — will be clothed in sunlight, in a position that is over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will have been inside Virgo — in her womb, in Ray’s interpretation — will move out of Virgo, as if she is giving birth.

Astronomers don’t see this as a particularly unusual event. But to Ray and others, it could be the sign that the Rapture is ready to happen: “We think it’s God signaling to us that he’s about to make his next move.”

And Ray thinks the two eclipses that are slated to travel across the United States in 2017 and 2024, together marking an X across the nation, could be the starting and ending signs bookmarking a seven-year period of awful tribulations that Revelations says waits in store for nonbelievers who are left behind on Earth when the Rapture occurs.

“That time frame is speculative, 2017 to 2024. But it makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that really point us to that,” he said.

(Link to the Washington Post article)

In connection with this, another common idea is that, according to Jewish rabbis, “blood moons” are a sign for the Jewish people, and solar eclipses are a sign for Gentiles. That is why Gary Ray said that part about the eclipses. A lot of Christians were caught up by these ideas. They were excited to think that part of the book of Revelation was actually coming true.

There are many troubling things about all this. In the first place, obviously, nothing has happened yet. But it also concerns me that many people were caught up in it. I think many of the Christians who were excited by this would never, in any other circumstance, consider consulting a horoscope to help them interpret the Bible. I think most sensible people, upon reflection, would also not expect Jewish rabbis to be teaching Christian theology. But unfortunately, when it comes to the book of Revelation people often lose their heads. I think all of this is often fueled by a desire to feel that God is actually at work, that he is really doing something. I think many of us also yearn for the return of Jesus, for the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth and the annihilation of sin and sorrow and death. So we grasp at things that seem to show us that He is really working to make all things right.

But the thing is, that is the message of the book of Revelation. The entire book is telling us that God is still at work, that he will fulfill his promise to return and make all things right. If we get nothing else from the book of Revelation, that is the main message. When we start to look to world events, and horoscopes, and the teachings of those who are not even Christians, I’m afraid it shows a lack of faith in what God has already said. There are many warnings in the Bible about seeking God in these sorts of things:

3As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine 4or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. (1Tim 1:3-4, HCSB)

 13This testimony is true. So, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith 14and may not pay attention to Jewish myths and the commands of men who reject the truth. (Titus 1:13-14, HCSB)

 6If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. 7But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness, (1Tim 4:6-7, HCSB)

We need to learn to trust the word of God. We don’t have to look to horoscopes, or other things. Instead, we need to trust what God already said. In our text today, that is the message: the victory of God is already a present reality in heaven. It is true. We can trust it. It has already been accomplished. He has already begun to reign. The book of Revelation says it, and that should be enough for any Christian.

I’ve used this analogy before, but I think it’s a good one. I’m a WWII history buff, and I’ve done a lot of reading about the war. A huge number of countries contributed many things to the victory of the allies. People of all nationalities suffered, and played important roles in that victory. I don’t want to minimize any of that. But the decisive moment in World War 2 was December 7, 1941, when the United States stopped being neutral, and declared war on Japan. That led to a declaration of war against Nazi Germany four days later. Once the United States declared war, the outcome was settled. With all of the other countries against them, adding the United States to the mix made it impossible for either Japan or Germany to win. From the perspective of Germany and Japan, the US was too big, it had too many natural resources, it was already industrialized, and it was too far away to attack. There was simply no way they could win once the United States entered the conflict. In spite of this, Japan and Germany continued to fight for another four years. The outcome of the war was settled, but the fighting went on. I’m sure that for prisoners of war waiting in a concentration camp it didn’t feel like World War 2 was over. But it was. All they had to do was persevere, and their eventual rescue was a foregone conclusion.

This is our situation today. We are still in the battle. We still have to struggle and fight. But the outcome was settled long ago. God has already won. He has already begun to reign. All we have to do is persevere to the end: our eventual rescue and victory is a foregone conclusion.

16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. (Rev 11:16-17, HCSB)

He has begun to reign. Let him rule in your life, also. Let his ultimate victory give you perspective on your current troubles and challenges. What you face right now is temporary. God’s victory is eternal. We know he will do it, because, in the realm of eternity, he already has done it. That means that right now we can be patient, knowing that we will be rescued from this body of flesh and this world of sin and sorrow.

Allow the Spirit to speak to you right now!

Revelation #9 THE COMPROMISING CHURCH

Idolatry

The church at Pergamum resisted persecution, but they began to fall to seduction. With overwhelming cultural pressure around them, they began to compromise. They sought satisfaction in physical things, and it cost them greatly in spiritual things. Jesus told them to repent. He said that he was willing to go to war with them over their compromise with the culture. But he promised to the repentant ones that could find a satisfaction unlike any they could find on earth. They promised to the ones who were willing to not fit in on earth that they would be welcome in Heaven.

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Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

The church at Pergamum was one of the three churches in Asia that we know for sure had experienced overt persecution by the time John was writing. Virtually all the churches existed in a culture that was hostile to Christianity, and I’m certain that being a Christian in Asia during those times involved considerably more sacrifice than being a Christian in America in these times.  Even so, Revelation only clearly identifies three of the seven churches as experiencing overt persecution, and one of these was Pergamum. There was, however, a difference between Pergamum and the other two persecuted churches. In Smyrna, the tribulation was on-going, and the worst of it was yet to come. In Philadelphia, they were also in the middle of it, though Jesus promised to cut it short for them. In Pergamum, the overt portion of the persecution was over. Once again, it is important to understand that all the churches experienced a culture that was against them, even when there was not direct harassment, but those three churches were singled out for direct maltreatment.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a center of Emperor worship. Not only that, but they had a hill something like the acropolis in Athens, covered with shrines and temples to various deities. At the very top of this “temple hill” was the altar built for the Greek god Zeus, who was in the mythology of that culture, chief of all gods. It might have been this shrine to Zeus that Jesus was referring to as “Satan’s throne.” Alternatively, “Satan’s throne” could have been an allusion to the pervasive worship of the healing-god Asklepios, who was represented by a snake. A third possibility is that he was making reference to Pergamum’s dedication to emperor-worship, and a fourth is simply that the city was a center for all sorts of pagan worship. In any case, the picture we have of Pergamum is one of virulent paganism; or, in other words, a culture that put a lot of pressure on Christianity.

So, in this pagan environment, the church at Pergamum made it through a difficult time of persecution, during which at least one of their number was killed for his faith (v.13). It is for this that Jesus commends them. However, it turns out that once the persecution was over, the church did not remain unaffected by the culture around them. Jesus says to them:

“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.” (v. 14)

To understand this, we need a bit of Old Testament background. Please read Numbers 22:1-25:9 to get the complete picture. Balaam was some sort of Seer, someone who followed the Lord, and from the Lord had a gift of visions, and of blessings and curses. He lived in Mesopotamia. Balak was the King of Moab, which was near Palestine, and he was afraid of the Israelites, who at that time were still wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had defeated everyone they encountered in battle, and so he called for Balaam to come and curse them, in order to defeat them without a military confrontation. Balaam came, in spite of strong warnings from the Lord to stay at home. He was apparently swayed by the huge amount of money that Balak offered him. He tried to curse Israel, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was blessing for them. Balak, naturally, was not happy with Balaam, and the latter went on his way. That is all the text tells us overtly. But shortly after he left, the Moabite women came to where the Israelites were camped and invited them to Moabite religious festivals, which involved having sex with the women. The Israelites were thus committing a double sin – they broke God’s standards for pure and healthy sexuality (sexual intimacy is to be within marriage only) and they did so in the context of worshipping other gods. It was not a happy day, and God in his anger sent a plague upon the people. Later, in Numbers 31:16, it is revealed that Balaam was the one who suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelites. Apparently, although he could not curse the Israelites, he really wanted that money, so he conceived of this plan to derail the Israelites in order that he personally could get his pay.

Apparently something of this sort was going on in Pergamum. The church there could not be destroyed by overt persecution. So Satan’s new plan was seduction. If they couldn’t be forced to deny Jesus, maybe they could be compromised and seduced into it. Thus, with the pressure of the pagan culture around them, some members of the church had begun to take part in the feasts and festivals of false gods. It is important here to understand that the issue is not simply that the Christians are eating meat sacrificed to idols – the apostle Paul clearly says that is OK in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. However Paul placed two conditions on the eating of such meat. First, a Christian should not do it if it causes another Christian to “stumble” – that is, if it causes other Christians to think that idol worship is OK (1 Cor 8:9-13). Second, Paul emphatically rebukes those who deliberately partake in the feast as part of the of the whole worship experience of a false god (1 Cor 10:20). I would guess that the people in question in Pergamum are doing both things – causing other Christians to stumble, and actually participating in idol worship.

Not only were they engaged in such worship, but they also committed acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” means any kind of sexual activity that takes place outside the union of one man and one woman in marriage. Therefore, it covers a host of possibilities. In every place it is mentioned in the New Testament, sexual immorality is condemned as a sin, and it is not right for Christians to engage in it. I realize that this sounds terribly old-fashioned and unenlightened, but it is what the Bible teaches, without a doubt. There are dozens of other verses like these two:

18Run from sexual immorality! “Every sin a person can commit is outside the body.” On the contrary, the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:18-20, HCSB)

3For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, 7and you once walked in these things when you were living in them (Col 3:3-7, HCSB)

Now, the thing to remember is that this teaching sounded strange and prudish to the culture that surrounded Christians in the first century. Sexual immorality was just as common and accepted by ancient Greco-Roman culture as it is today.

Apparently, to make matters even worse, the people who had caved in to cultural temptations in this way were teaching others that it was OK to do these things. They not only sinned, but they tried to pass it off as if it weren’t sin, thus sucking more innocent people into the darkness.

Jesus has seen this before, way back in the days of Moses, and is thoroughly angered. His words are blunt: “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth (v.16)”

The sword here seems to clearly represent the Word of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Word of God a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), and here a double edged sword is coming out of the mouth of Jesus, who was called by John (in his gospel) “the word. (John 1:1-14)” What this all amounts to is that Pergamum has the opposite problem to Ephesus. You will remember that the church in Ephesus was doctrinally pure, but struggled with relationship to Jesus. The Ephesian church hated the Nicolaitans and their practices. Here in Pergamum, the problem is false doctrine leading to sinful practice. In fact their error is similar to that of the Nicolaitans. Doctrine does matter, and it is important. So important that Jesus will go to war with his church over it. Sin is sin, and if we fail to call it that, we can expect to hear the judgment of God.

On the other hand, even before he warns of judgment, Jesus calls his people to repent. He holds out not only the possibility of judgment, but also promises for those who hold on to the true faith. He promises first the hidden manna. There are many possibilities here, but it seems most sensible to understand that Jesus is promising a source of heavenly nourishment that is not available to those who don’t know him. These people have tried to satisfy themselves with meat from idol worship, and with sex. But Jesus is offering nourishment for the soul, a food that meets needs in a way that no idol feast and no illicit tryst could possibly meet. At least part of this “soul food” is the Bible, the Word of God. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe experiences of “ingesting” the word of God and finding it sweet to the taste. Peter was told to “feed my sheep” by Jesus – to feed them on Jesus’ own Word. But more than just the Bible, it is the promise of a soul fully satisfied by the presence of God himself. When we stop orienting our lives around ourselves and our own desires, and instead center our lives on God (who is, after all, the center of all things) we find a satisfaction that far exceeds any temporary pleasure derived from food or sex. I won’t deny that it takes some self-denial and effort to develop a taste for it, but when we do, we find this is the richest satisfaction in the universe, and the only satisfaction that will truly last.

The second promise offered is the “white stone” with a new name written on it. There are several possibilities for what this is about. In the First Century AD, inns and places for strangers to stay were not as common as they later became. Sometimes, when people from different places became friends, they would each take a stone, and write their names upon it, and then exchange the stones – almost like a business card (remember “card stock” was not invented until many hundreds of years later). So, if I gave you a stone, you would have my name written on it. Whenever you traveled to someplace where I was known, that stone would show people there that you were my friend. If you showed the stone with my name, my friends would offer you a place to stay, and all sorts of help and hospitality.

I like this picture, because when we surrender to Jesus, we become, in a sense, entitled to His name, in the same way as a holder of one of these “business card stones.” The name of Jesus means we will be welcome in heaven, and given a place there. The name of Jesus gives us protection from the devil, and the right to pray to God the Father. Some of the Christians at Pergamum wanted to fit in with the culture. Jesus promises them that if they are willing to not fit in on earth, they would find an eternal place of belonging in His Kindgom.

Another use for white stones was as a kind of “ticket” to admission to feasts. I kind of like this possibility too, because, Jesus is offering these Christians something better than the idolatrous and licentious feasts available to them in Pergamum. Here is a heavenly feast, where a person is known by his “hidden name” – his true character. Jesus knows them as no other can know them, and the feast he offers is for eternity – not simply an unsatisfying, passing pleasure.

A third possibility for the white stone comes from the ancient world of athletics. Professional gladiators trained extensively. In the early stages of training, the gladiator was simply called “apprentice.” Once he had completed a long period of training, the gladiator was given an opportunity to compete. If he was victorious, he received a white stone as a symbol of his achievement, and an elevation of status from “apprentice” to being called by his own name, and given a rank with more privileges. This matches the statement of Jesus that he will give a white stone to “the Victor.” The Christian life often involves self-discipline and training, like an athlete. It involves spiritual battle also. Those that persevere will be rewarded.

Personally, I think Jesus meant for the Christians at Pergamum to think of all three uses of the white stone; they are all meaningful and relevant.

So, what is meaningful and relevant about this text for you today? Are you tempted in certain ways to compromise with our idolatrous and immoral culture? As with the 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, today our culture is highly sexualized, and anything goes between consenting adults. Are you tempted to find satisfaction there? I mean, it seems like everyone else is doing it. Or maybe you aren’t tempted yourself, but you are willing to accept people who call themselves Christians and embrace all sorts of different sexual immorality? Don’t fall for the lie that “it’s about love.” Love is about commitment, and sex in our culture is definitely not about commitment. Love also sometimes means self-denial – again, this is missing from our culture. This is a very big deal for Jesus, as he makes clear here.. Droves and droves of Christians have fallen for the trick of Balaam, just in the last two decades. There can be no mistake, Jesus says: “repent!”

Perhaps your temptation runs more towards idol worship. Not too many people in the Western world worship physical statues anymore. But many, many people center their lives around things that are not God: money, status, pleasure, sports, entertainment and drugs & alcohol are some of the most common. We are also tempted to make idols our relationships; perhaps a romantic relationship, or even a child. Any time we build our identity on something other than God we are worshipping an idol. If anything holds “first place” in your life that isn’t God, it is an idol. Again, Jesus calls us to repent.

I look at the world, and even the huge number of Churches and Christians that are compromising with the world, and I think, “Either I’m crazy, or they are.” I may be crazy, but if so, I’m crazy in exactly the same way that the Bible is crazy; exactly the same way Jesus Himself is crazy. Maybe that’s what you need to hear today: hold on to what you know to be true. Remain steadfast.

It is hard when we don’t fit in with the culture around us. But Jesus promises us (with the white stone) that if we are willing to have no place in our ungodly culture, will always have a place in His kingdom.

The promise Jesus gives for repentance and perseverance are wonderful and soul satisfying. We can be more satisfied than the world dreams of. We are known personally by the Lord of universe, and given access to all of his resources for eternity. There is a better future than the world could ever offer.

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

ONE FLESH, PART I:

One Flesh A

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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