God's Plan for Marriage and Divorce
Topic: Default Passage: Matthew 5:31–5:37
When I chose to preach through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I’ll be honest, I had a big lump in my throat looking at this passage. As I said last week, this passage and the one from last week on adultery really challenge my philosophy of preaching. My aim is to walk through passages of the Bible and simply make the main point of the passage the main point of my sermon because we have a deep belief here that all Scripture is God breathed and good for us.
And if that wasn’t my view, I would have most certainly skipped our passages last week on adultery and this week on divorce and remarriage. Divorce is such an emotional issue because we are all, in some way, connected to it now. Whether our parents are divorced, our kids are divorced, our siblings are divorced or we are divorced, all of us have grieved divorce in some way in our own lives.
Last month I got to spend a few hours with a man named Ron Deal who is the world’s foremost expert on how to resource and minister to blended families. And he said something that changed my perspective. Those of you in this room who are on your first marriage and the man is or was the primary breadwinner, do you know what percentage of our society you represent? 8%. You make up 8% of the US. And do you know what year that statistic came out? 1991. No one has done that research since then. Most experts guess that now, you would make up somewhere between 2-3% of the US.
So, what do we do with that information? Well, we can see that we don’t live in 1950 anymore and some of that is really a good thing. Some of that isn’t a good thing. Ron Deal’s main point is that 95% of the churches in America are just woefully behind in their ability to understand and resource the marriages in our community today. We minimize the complexities of families that juggle two sets of parents, 2-4 combinations of kids, two homes, biological siblings, step siblings, half siblings and up to eight sets of grandparents.
The conversation of divorce and remarriage in the church is so often handled in an academic way as if all this is happening in a vacuum or if there are divorces, they are happening in some far off place.
I had the chance to speak at the Cru meeting at UCF this week and I told them that at any given marriage conference that Angela and I do, I bet 10% of the crowd is at the end of their rope. Couples who aren’t talking, who haven’t slept in the same bed in years and in some cases who show up with their divorce papers. I met one woman in Tampa whose husband was so checked out that she had to trick him into coming by telling him they were going clubbing. He was not happy!
What has become very clear to me is that divorce is messy, it’s serious, but in extreme cases, it’s necessary. So, we as Christians need to continue to remind ourselves, our kids, our friends and really anyone willing to listen that marriage and divorce are both very serious things. So, this morning, I want to look at the seriousness of marriage, the seriousness of divorce and then a word for singles.
- The seriousness of marriage
There are lots of institutions we can tinker with. We can tinker with schools, we can tinker with business, we can and certainly should tinker with government. We can tinker with them because we made them. We designed them. But that’s not true of marriage.
Marriage was designed by God. God brought Adam and Eve together and He created the first institution. God could have said, “Well, there’s man and woman, we have a president and a Vice President. Here is your first country.” God could have even said, “Looks like we have a preacher and an organ player. Here is your first church.” But that’s not what God did. God took the first man and woman and made the first human institution: a marriage.
And God didn’t simply communicate this through the Bible, He spoke it into creation. He embedded it into who we are. We have never found a culture, no matter how old or remote that didn’t have marriage. And, certainly, there are those out there who believe that marriage is a social construct and a by product of male dominated societies. And, if this is you, please hear me that I do think much of our world is a product of male dominated societies, but whenever someone makes this claim, I have to push back a bit? It’s hard for me to imagine a room of men who get to decide how marriage is designed and think that this is what they would come up with. “Guys, I got it! What if each of us picks one woman and we have to stay with her no matter what until we die?” “Great idea, Bob! We’re in!” I’m not trying to disparage this view, but just push on it a bit.
People over the course of history have tried to modify that design to accomodate polygamy or polyandry, that’s one wife multiple husbands, but we have always come back to one man and one woman for life. Why is that?
Because the core of the essence of marriage is companionship. Do you remember what
God did right before He gave Adam Eve? He had him name the animals. I remember
the first time I read this and how random it seemed. 18 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." 19 Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. - Genesis 2:18-19
Why would God decide to give Adam a companion and then make him name the animals? Think about how this would have gone down. God, that’s a rhinoceros, a he rhinoceros and a she rhinoceros. That’s a giraffe. A he giraffe and a she giraffe. That’s a lion. A he lion and a she lion. And eventually, he must have gotten a bit lazy and been like, “Frog, dog, hog.” But with each animal, Adam would have seen more acutely that everything had a companion, but him. Where is my companion, God?
God showed him his need and then provided it. And in the following verses, we have the first recorded poem in human history. That’s why verse 23 is indented. It was likely a song, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." - Genesis 2:2 Adam is singing and it’s not just because he has a necked woman. He has a companion.
But, God knows that companionship is deepest when accompanied by commitment so he gave us companionship in the context of a covenant. Not a contract, but a covenant.
A contract says, if you do this, then I’ll do this. If you’re good to me, I’ll be good to you. But a covenant says, I will do these things regardless of your follow through.
This is why we take vows before we marry. A vow is a future promise that anticipates hardship. You don’t’ have to vow to do something easy. I’ll never have to vow that I’ll sleep in when I need it or treat myself to a good steak every now and then. You vow to do the hard things. To stay committed in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, till death do us part.
So, how does this companionship in the form of a covenant show us something about our God? Do you remember when God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15? God promised old, childless Abram that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Then God has Abram take some animals, cut them in half and make a path with the front halves of the animals on the left side of the path and the rear halves of the animals on the right side of the path. And the custom was that both parties would walk through the path symbolizing that the same fate of the animals would fall on the party that does not follow through on their commitment. This is serious.
But God knew that we would not follow through on our commitment so He caused Abram to go to sleep and God went through for both of them. God was making a statement that said, “May this happen to My body if you don’t follow through on your commitment.” And that is exactly what happened. We failed and Jesus’ body was broken for our failure.
When the early explorers came from Europe over to America to settle the new world, do you know the first thing they did after unloading the ship? The burned it. The leaders knew that if an exit strategy was within reach, no one would really be committed. In the same way, God wants us to be just as committed to our marriage.
Our marriage relationship is the priority relationship in our life and we protect it in every possible way. And one easily missed implication of this is that your spouse is the priority relationship even over your children. It is a well documented phenomena that couples make their kids the priority relationship and when the kids leave the house, divorce rates spike. Once the kids are gone, they have no more reason to stay together.
Years ago, Collins asked me who my best friend was. I answered, “Mama.” He yelled, “Whaaat?? I’m not your best friend??” Then I told him, “Buddy, I love you more than you will ever know, but Mama was here first and, Lord willing, you will move out and Mama will still be here.” And without a pause, he said, “That makes sense.”
The design of marriage is serous. Lifetime, life giving companionship in the context of a covenant. So, where does that leave divorce?
- The seriousness of divorce.
Now, we get to the passage at hand. And there is a lot of context that needs to be understood to appreciate what Jesus is doing. Jesus is talking to Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, you had two sides to this debate. The Hillel and the Shamai. The Hillel Jews were more liberal and the Shamai were more conservative. The Hillel Jews, to whom Jesus is speaking, made up all kinds of crazy reasons they could divorce their wives. Their legitimate reasons to divorce included things like if the woman disrespects the man, if she disrespects his parents, if she is quarrelsome in nature or even if she spoils the dinner or burns the bread.
So, you can see that Jesus is speaking to a people who have a flippant view of marriage and a truly abusive posture toward women. So, don’t let Jesus’ harsh tone rub you the wrong way. I have no doubt that if Jesus were talking to a wounded, recently divorced woman, He would have a much more compassionate tone.
The same situation is going on in Matthew 19. These same Jews ask Jesus this question: And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" - Matthew 19:3 They are testing Him by asking if He is ok with this ‘any cause’ divorce or if He is one of the Shamai.
So, that is part of the context, but there is something else important going on here that we need to understand. You heard read this morning that the Pharisees also have a problem keeping their word. Just like all the other laws, the Pharisees are trying to make this one manageable. And to do so, they have decided to manipulate the third commandment. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. - Exodus 20:7
What the Pharisees are doing is trying to figure out what oaths they need to keep and what oaths they don’t. Kind of like kids on the playground. We don’t have to keep our word if our fingers are crossed, but if you say, “I promise” and show no fingers or toes are crossed, then you really have to follow through. God vs. Gob
So, they came up with things like, it’s ok to break a certain kind of oath, but not another. You can’t break oaths that are made in court or, more specifically to our text, oaths that are sworn by the name of the Lord your God. But if you are outside of court and not swearing by the name of the Lord your God, then you can break that oath.
So, can you see how this all comes together? If a marriage vow isn’t under legal oath and it isn’t taken in the name of the Lord your God, then you can break it. That, at least, is the line of thinking here. Obviously, that isn’t at all what the third commandment means which is why we read the catechism questions today on the third commandment. Jesus also isn’t saying don’t take oaths. My goodness, both Jesus and Paul made oaths in the New Testament. Jesus is simply saying your word matters and that includes marriage vows.
And to back their argument up even more, in Matthew 19, they ask Jesus, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" - Matthew 19:7 The Pharisees here are citing Deuteronomy 24, that gives precedent for divorce if the woman has been unfaithful during the betrothal period. Incidentally, this is exactly the reason Joseph sought to divorce Mary quietly before he knew what was really going on. But, as usual, the Pharisees are manipulating the laws to allow them to do what they want to do.
So, what does Jesus do? He reinforces the main meaning of Deuteronomy 24. 31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. - Matthew 5:31-32
So, two things have to be crystal clear here. First, Jesus is talking to men divorcing women left and right for no reason. Women who had no recourse, no protection and no due process. Second, Jesus is not exhaustively teaching about divorce. Paul says things about divorce that Jesus doesn’t. Paul adds the category of abandonment as an acceptable reason for divorce and remarriage. So, we can’t develop a whole theology of divorce based on this passage alone. Jesus is making a point to men with very dark hearts and He says as much in Matthew 19: He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. - Matthew 19:8
The problem isn’t with the law, it’s with our hearts and God makes a provision to allow for divorce as the lesser of two evils in very extreme cases because we live in a fallen world. God DID NOT make concessions for people who just don’t want to do the hard work of making a marriage work.
Divorce is horrible, but sometimes necessary. It seems clear to me that divorce in situations of adultery, abandonment and I would even add situations of abuse as a subcategory of abandonment are permissible. God doesn’t want us divorced, but He doesn’t want us abandoned, abused or adulterated either. It’s the lesser of two evils.
And make no mistake, even when a divorce is necessary, it’s like an amputation. If you went into the doctor’s office with a bad cut on your arm and he said, “Well, looks like we are going to have to amputate.” What would you say? “No! Have you explored every option? Can we get a second opinion? Is there any other avenue here to explore before we take the most serious measure possible?” This is the level of seriousness we need to have when evaluating if divorce is necessary.
Most counselors would take it further than an amputation though. When they counsel people who have been through a divorce, they deal with them as someone who has experienced a death.
It’s easy to look at your marriage and think that it’s unredeemable without realizing that that is what Jesus specializes in! Look at David and Bathsheba. Not only did they commit adultery first, David then murdered her husband. Talk about a bad start! But, David repented and God blessed that marriage. To them He gave Solomon and through the line of Solomon came Jesus.
I want to say in the strongest possible words that divorce is horrible. It’s horrible for all parties involved, but there are times when it is necessary. And divorce is not the unpardonable sin. I don’t see any reason that murderers and worse can experience the grace of God and be fully restored and remarried, but not a divorced person.
But, I have a big caveat here. There must be significant repentance and often a coming to faith in Jesus Christ for the first time. I think it is really hard for a true Spirit filled Christian to pursue an unbiblical divorce. Not impossible, but very hard. The teaching of the Bible is for Christians to repent and if at all possible return to their spouse and for non-Christians to go to Christ and let Him lead you from there.
Don’t be like the Pharisees and look for technicalities. I had a guy back in Oxford who was recently divorced and came to me very soon after the divorce looking for a verse that would allow him to remarry. I told him, “You’re asking the wrong question. You need to search your soul and see what you contributed to this divorce and after there is a great deal of soul searching, a great deal of repentance and a great deal of passed time, then come back to me with that same question.” If he can’t deal with and repent of all the issues in his heart that contributed to that divorce, then no, I think he might need to consider remaining single for the rest of his life.
Remember, Jesus is after the heart, not the technicalities. Two of the people I admire most back in my old church are men who got divorced, found Jesus and remarried. Their marriages are great and I think both will eventually be elders at that church. This is the grace of God on display! Grace we want to display at OGC>
It’s a bold thing to use words in the name of your church like Bible or community or fellowship. If you are going to use words like that in the name of your church, you better be sure you’re executing on it. And, in our case, Orlando Grace Church, we had better be putting our money where our mouth is. If ever start looking at divorced people as some sort of second class citizen or as having committed the unpardonable sin, we might need to change our name.
God loves redeeming the worst of situations and divorce is no different. Now, I want to finish by saying a few words to single people.
III. A word for singles
In the words of Time Keller, “Singleness under any circumstance, has to be seen as a calling or you won’t be able to endure it.” We have been touching on Matthew 19 a good bit this morning because Jesus is saying almost the same thing to the same people under the same circumstances. And in that passage, Jesus says this: 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." - Matthew 19:12
What in the world does this mean? If you don’t’ know what a eunuch is, it’s important you know...so, ask your parents on the way home:) Jesus is saying that some people are single because they are physically unable to marry for some reason. Others are single because they are called by God to be so.
I think it is fair to say that if there was no sin in the world, there would be no singleness. I know this might strike you as odd, so let me explain. If there was no sin in the world, marriage would be the norm. Marriage was the norm in Eden and Marriage will be the norm when Jesus comes back and fully establishes His kingdom here. We won’t be married to each other, we will be married to Him.
Where there is no sin, marriage is the norm. So, does that mean that singleness is an inferior condition? No. It actually means the opposite. In many ways, singleness can be the superior condition.
It seems like Paul was married at some point, but maybe his wife died. Maybe she divorced him when he became a Christian. We don’t know. But, Paul became convinced that singleness was the superior condition for the calling he had on his life. He went so far to say, I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. - 1 Corinthians 7:7
So much of the problem of our society today is that everyone sees singleness as subhuman, as second class citizenship. So the definitions of sexuality are constantly shifting to keep anyone from having to be single. Singleness is under much greater attack today than gender by a long shot.
Singleness, though, is one of the most consistent ways God increases our capacity for ministry. It’s easy to forget that some of the most influential people of history Augustine, Paul, C.S Lewis, John Stott... all were influential because they were single.
But look at Jesus! Jesus was the purest form of humanity, the best of all of us, the most influential human to ever walk the earth….and He was single. So, being single just can’t be this subhuman status. Because of the condition of the world, singleness can actually be the superior calling. Some of you might be single for a season. Some of you might be single the rest of your life. But, rest assured that if God has called you to it, He will sustain you and He will use you in it.
Marriages are hard, marriages are messy and divorce should be avoided if at all possible. And all of us need to remember that we are that unfaithful spouse. Not just unfaithful, but Ezekiel compares us to a prostitute who pays her clients. And what did God do? He sent His people, Israel, away with a decree of divorce. So, how does that gel with the covenant He made with us? Ezekiel 16.
59 "For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant….62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, Ezekiel 16:59, 60, 62
God paid the price of a prostitute by coming here in the form of Jesus Christ to give His life to pay our debt and to win back His bride. He then remarried us and clothed our bodies and our hearts in righteousness that we might love Him back.
That’s how serious God is about marriage and that is how serious we should be as well.