"Honoring the Sacred Bond"
(Delivered Sunday, October 24, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we come to a passage that some might consider the most controversial in all the Sermon on The Mount - the passage that introduces us to our Lord's teaching on divorce and remarriage.
I want to begin by recognizing that the subject touched on by this morning's passage is a very sensitive one. The Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage would be easy to talk about if it weren't for the fact that so many people that we know and love - including some people in this room this morning - have been personally affected by divorce and remarriage. For many, this passage brings up painful memories and deep personal losses. It calls to mind periods of life that involve deep and abiding regrets. And for some who discover that they're going to hear a sermon on this passage, there may even be a measure of fear and apprehension; because it raises up the question of the legitimacy of a situation they are now in. As your pastor, I want you to know that I understand all that; and it motivates me to rely on God to give me great grace and care as I preach this morning.
But let's also affirm, from the very outset, that these words are the words of our wonderful, loving, forgiving Savior. Jesus not only knew us thoroughly; but He even loved us enough to die for our sins while we were still sinners. It's a hard subject; but let's remember that it's being taught to us by our very dearest and best Friend. There isn't anyone who could teach us about this subject with more grace and gentleness than He possesses. Whatever else this passage may involve for each of us personally, I believe that if we look at it with a desire to follow our Savior's good ways for us - trusting in His unfailing love for us - we can look at it with confidence. Jesus only desires good for those who love Him; and He's always ready to forgive us our sins, pick us up, dust us off, and help us to go on in His life-changing grace.
Jesus was talking about the subject of adultery in His sermon. He taught that His followers are to be free from all forms of adultery - even from committing acts of adultery in the heart. And when we come to this passage, we find that He's still talking about adultery. In verses 27-30, He spoke of adultery with respect to someone outside the marriage circle. But here, in verses 31-32, He speaks of it with respect to our own marriage partner. He says;
Furthermore it has been said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who has divorced commits adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I have been a believer for over thirty years. I have read that passage many, many times; and I have always thought of it as an introduction to Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage. I have, like so many, read that phrase "except sexual immorality" - the famous "exception clause", as we've sometimes called it - and thought of it as the main point of this passage. I now believe that I have been misunderstanding the point of this passage all along. It's true that tells us when a divorce and a remarriage may legitimately occur; but it's main point is to teach us something far greater than that. You see; it's not primarily a passage about divorce and remarriage. Rather, it's a passage that - above all else - teaches us to imitate God's own example of commitment in a covenant bond of love. We're being called in this passage to behave toward our spouse as God behaves toward us.
God is a God of faithful love. He is a God who enters into a bond of love with His people; and He is faithfully committed to that bond forever. Even if His people forget or ignore that bond, He Himself never does. He is always true to it. And I believe that, to really understand our Lord's intention in this morning's passage, He would want us to have a grasp of the kind of commitment God has toward us.
To help us understand the love of God that stands behind this passage, I'd like to tell you a story from the Bible that illustrates how committed He is to those He loves. It's a story of God's love for His covenant people Israel - a love that is faithful and committed, even though His people were not. And it's told to us through the story of the Old Testament prophet Hosea.
God commanded Hosea to do something very hard. He told him to go out and marry a woman named Gomer. Now; marrying any woman with a name like "Gomer" would be hard enough. But this was particularly hard, because she was a woman who would prove to be very unfaithful to her prophet husband. She was to serve as an illustration of the nation of Israel. God told him; "Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry. For the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the LORD" (Hosea 1:2). And so, he took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, as his wife.
In time, this woman Gomer - who symbolized Israel - bore Hosea a son. God commanded Hosea to give this son the name Jezreel, which means "God Scatters". This was because he wanted this boy to serve as a sign of His impending judgment for Israel's sin. And then, the Bible tells us that Gomer bore a daughter. But this time, the Bible is careful to say simply that she "bore a daughter" (v. 6) - and not that she bore this daughter to Hosea. God told Hosea to name the child Lo-Ruhamah, which means "No Mercy"; "For," God says, "I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel." Then, no sooner was Lo-Ruhamah weaned than Gomer bore yet another son. And God commanded Hosea to name him Lo-Ammi, which means "Not Mine"; "For," God says to Israel, "You are not My people, and I will not be your God" (v. 9).
Can you imagine Hosea introducing someone to his harlot wife and his harlot-born children? "This is my wife Gomer; and over here are the three children God gave me through her: God Scatters, No Mercy, and Not Mine." What a heartbreak it all must have been to poor, godly Hosea. But then, what a heartbreak unfaithful Israel was to God!
Now, God not only wanted to show the unfaithfulness of Israel in this; but He also wanted to show His own commitment to her in spite of her faithfulness to Him. Apparently, Gomer had become so unfaithful to Hosea that she wandered away into utter harlotry. She gave herself to other many lovers; and yet, there is the suggestion that Hosea continued to care for her and provide for her sustenance even though she didn't know it - just as God did for wayward Israel (2:8).
Eventually, Gomer sunk down so low in her sinful unfaithfulness that she became auctioned off as a cheap slave. And any other husband would say, "Serves her right! She didn't want my love; then forget about her! Let her get what she deserves!" But God commanded Hosea,
"Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the LORD for the children of Israel, who look to other gods and love the raisin cakes of the pagans." So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and one and one-half homers of barley. And I said to her, "You shall stay with me many days; you shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man - so, too, will I be toward you" (3:1-3).
She was sold at quite a discount! - nearly half the price of a normal slave. And yet, Hosea pursued her, paid the price to redeemer her, and brought her once again to himself. This is a picture of God's faithful love to Israel. He said of her, "I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD" (2:20). What a God He is! Even when His covenant people prove very unfaithful - even when they shunned His love, turned away from Him, and embraced idols instead - He never ceased to be committed to them. He sought them, redeemed them back to Himself, and affirmed His unchanging love to them.
And by the way, isn't He the same toward you and me? The Bible tells us that "God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We were utterly unworthy of that love. We were in rebellion against Him. And yet, He loved us enough to purchase us for Himself through the sacrifice of the cross. Jesus says, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand" (John 10:27-29). God is committed in love to the people He binds to Himself. He will never cease to love them. He will never let them go. Our God is a God of faithful and committed love.
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Now once again, I remind you of this because I believe it stands as the true intention behind Jesus' words in this morning's passage - that is, to teach us about faithful love in the bond of marriage. It's not just about when divorce can happen, or when it cannot happen; or who can marry afterwards, who can't marry afterwards. It's not primarily about divorce and remarriage. It's primarily about covenant commitment.
Consider the context. This is a part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus contrasts the 'letter of the law' with respect to God's commandments with the true 'spirit' of those commandments. The scribes and Pharisees were focused on the 'letter' of the law. They believed that they were sufficiently righteous if they just observed the letter of the law alone. If they didn't actually take someone's physical life, they thought they were innocent with respect to the command against murder. Or if they didn't sleep with another man's wife, they thought they were innocent with respect to the command against adultery. They focused on the mere 'letter' - not the true 'spirit' of the commandments.
But Jesus calls His disciples to a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). He calls them to obey the true spirit of the commandments. He taught that, unless someone refrains from being resentful toward another, or from calling them names, or from despising them in their heart, then they are guilty of murder in the heart. He taught that, unless someone refrained from lusting after another woman in his heart, he was guilty of adultery in the heart. And the same sort of thing is going on in this morning's passage.
God calls people to faithfulness in their commitment to the bond of marriage. And yet, even in this, the scribes and Pharisees were focused on the letter of the law and not its true spirit.
Let's begin, then, by noting . . .
1. THE ERROR TO BE REFUTED (v. 31): THAT A LEGAL DIVORCE ALONE IS SUFFICIENT TO BREAK THE BOND OF MARRIAGE.
Jesus said, "Furthermore it has been said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce." The implication of this was that, if someone simply gave his wife a legal certificate of divorce, that was all that was required for the marriage bond to be broken. That would be all that was required from a strict 'letter-of-the-law' view. Such a man was then free to marry another if he wished.
Most scholars believe that the scribes and Pharisees drew this from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In that passage, it says,
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deut. 24:1-4).
The point of this Old Testament passage was to regulate remarriage. A certificate of divorce is mentioned twice in it - but it's importance to the point of this passage is only incidental. A certificate of divorce was a way of providing a woman with a valid document that certified that a divorce from her former husband had legally occurred. But from that, the scribes and Pharisees developed the principle that whoever wished to divorce his wife is commanded to simply give her a certificate of divorce; and that was sufficient to break the marriage bond. They clearly focused on the mere letter of the law, and completely missed the spirit.
There was a long-standing debate in our Lord's day that may have also been behind this interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees. We read about it in Matthew 19:1-9; "Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?'" (Matthew 19:1-3)
You see; there were two main schools of thought on this; and they both looked back to the words of that Deuteronomy 24 passage that spoke of a man divorcing his wife because he had found "some uncleanness" in her. The literal meaning of the phrase was "some nakedness"; and it ordinarily meant some kind of sexual immorality. The teaching of one famous rabbi had been to follow that understanding somewhat literally. A divorce could only happen in the case of some kind of sexual unfaithfulness being found in her. The teaching of another famous rabbi, however, had been that the words "some uncleanness" should be understood in a much broader way; that is, that a husband could present his wife with a divorce for anything about her that the husband found to be 'unseemly' - even if she simply spoiled the cooking. Another rabbi took that broader interpretation even further; interpreting the phrase about the woman who "finds no favor" in her husbands "eyes" to mean a divorce was allowable if the husband found another woman to be more attractive than her.1 This may have been what was behind the Pharisees' question, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" The broader interpretation had come to rule the day.
Jesus' answer is very instructive to us. They asked if it was allowable to divorce one's wife for any reason; but He answered them by pointing them back to God's original intention in marriage. He said, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (vv. 4-6). Jesus emphasized that the issue wasn't divorce, but commitment to the marriage bond.
At this point the Pharisees raised a question: "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (v. 7) And this is where they erred. Moses never "commanded" divorce in that passage; but only regulated it. They not only emphasized the letter of the law over the spirit; they didn't even have the letter of the law right!
And please listen to Jesus' response. It's very important. Jesus stressed to them that, even in the case of unfaithfulness, divorce wasn't "commanded". It was only "permitted". Jesus told them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (vv. 8-9).
It was not God's intention that a divorce occur. It was only permitted because of the hardness of the hearts involved. And even then, it was only permitted in the case of hearts hardened because of sexual sin. God's great example is not divorce, nor is it hard-heartedness. His great example is one of tender-heartedness, pursuing grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation; because He is a God of commitment to the covenant bond of love.
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The Pharisees thought that a simple letter of divorce was sufficient to end the bond of marriage. But clearly this was not so. This leads us, then, to . . .
2. THE TRUTH TO BE ASSERTED (v. 32): THAT THE BOND OF MARRIAGE CANNOT BE BROKEN - NOT EVEN BY DIVORCE.
Jesus says in our passage this morning, "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery." Here, He is teaching us that a husband and a wife are joined together by a bond that is permanent and indissoluble. They may obtain a legal document of divorce from the governing authorities, they may separate from one another, and they may even become married to someone else; but before God, their marriage bond remains unbroken. This is why they are said to commit adultery and violate the indissoluble bond of marriage, even after obtaining a legal divorce, if they become joined to another.
I gained a surprising insight in this matter through a classic radio broadcast. It featured a famous Jewish philosopher by the name of Julius Marx. You might know him better, though, as Groucho. During an episode of his famous 1950's radio show You Bet Your Life, he interviewed an African gentleman; and in the course of the interview, he discovered that the African man was married to five wives back in his native land. Groucho, of course, couldn't let a thing like that pass by; so - with cigar twitching and eyebrows wiggling - he grinned and told the man, "You'll have to pardon my curiosity; after all, that's not the way we do things around here." "Oh; it's not really all that different from how you do things in America," the astute African replied. "It's just that in my country, we have many wives all at once; and in your country, you have them one at a time."
You see, the marriage bond may be viewed as legally broken as a result of a divorce; but in the eyes of God it's still intact. And so, if a man divorces his wife in a way that is contrary to God's law, he places her in a very vulnerable position; so that if she marries another man, the husband has led his own wife to commit adultery. And the man who marries her has married a woman who is still in a bond of marriage; and so, he too commits adultery. And if the first husband who had put away his wife then turns around and marries another, he too commits adultery. And so, if someone marries, and divorces, and marries, and divorces, and marries, and divorces (in a condition that we often today call "serial monogamy"), in God's eyes he or she stacks spouse upon spouse in an adulterous manner (in a condition that might better be called "serial covenant-breaking").
And please understand what Jesus is doing in saying this. He is taking the matter away from the mere letter of the law, and on to the true spirit of the law. He shows that all parties involved become guilty of adultery; because, from the standpoint of the true spirit of the law, a bond of marriage has not truly been severed. And this is wrong because God is calling us to follow His own example of covenant faithfulness toward those He has committed Himself to.
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Now, what about that exception? Jesus said, that divorce and remarriage results in adultery except in the case of "sexual immorality". The NIV translates this "marital unfaithfulness"; but the Greek word that it comes from - porneia - is a very broad term that can refer to any kind of sexual immorality. It can certainly include marital unfaithfulness; but it also can include all other kinds of sexual sin - even at a time before the marriage.
If a Jewish man had found that his wife had committed adultery, there would have been no need for a letter of divorce; because the penalty for adultery for the Jewish people was death. The woman caught in adultery in John 8, as you may remember, was in the process of being subject to that penalty when the Lord found her. And in the case of sexual sin found in a woman before she and her betrothed husband got married, he was permitted to, as it were "divorce" her - that is, to call off the wedding and send her away. This was apparently what Joseph was intending to do when Mary was discovered to be with child by the Holy Spirit before they came together. Joseph, being a just man and not wishing to humiliate her publically, intended instead to put her away secretly (Matthew 1:19).
But again, remember Jesus' words. He was asked why Moses "commanded" that a letter of divorce be given; and Jesus replied, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives." It wasn't a command; rather, it was only "permitted". And it was only permitted because of the hardness of their hearts. Divorce - even in the case of unfaithfulness - was not absolutely required. It was only permitted. And then, only in the case of adultery.
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This "exception" is an act of mercy from God toward those who are trapped in a situation in which one's spouse is aggressively and habitually violating the marriage vow. But let's remember: To focus on this exception clause and make it the key point of this passage is to commit the same error as the scribes and Pharisees had committed with respect to the letter of the law. As a pastor, I have even had to deal with couples that were so resentful toward each other, and so desirous to become divorced from one another, that one of them even offered to become the adulterer so that the marriage could end "biblically"! To my mind, that's the ultimate expression of clinging to the mere 'letter' of the law and completely missing the 'spirit'!
Jesus is calling His disciples to something higher than the mere letter of the law. He is not trying to teach them when they may or may not divorce. Rather, He is calling them, in their relationship to their spouses, to imitate the committed love of His own covenant keeping Father toward them. This leads us to a final point . . .
3. THE PATTERN TO BE FOLLOWED: THAT FOLLOWERS OF JESUS ARE TO HONOR AND PROTECT THEIR OWN MARRIAGE BOND.
God is faithful to His covenant commitments. He not only stays committed to those He binds to Himself, but He also seeks to protect and defend them and advance the relationship of love He has with them. And we are to do the same. Wives are to behave toward their husbands as the church is to behave toward Christ. The wife is to submit to her husband out of reverence and love toward the Lord, just as the church is subject to Christ (Eph. 5:22-23). Husbands are to behave toward their wives as Christ behaves toward the church. The husband is to love his wife and give himself for her; sanctifying her and cleansing her 'with the washing of water by the word'; seeking to beautify her and make her glorious for himself, just as Jesus does for the church (Eph. 5:24-28). We are to become so deeply moved by the love of God in His commitment toward us, that we will behave in the same way toward our spouses.
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Now; let me suggest some practical implications of all this. Some will read these words of the Lord and realize that, after coming to Him and placing their faith in Him, they are now in a marriage that they entered disobediently. They divorced without biblical cause, being still bound to a husband or wife; and now, having entered into a marriage with another, they find that they are in a marriage that results in adultery. And of course, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 teaches us that it's an 'abomination' to now divorce and go back to our former spouses. What does someone do in a case like that?
Well, if this is the case you find yourself in, then it means you're a sinner. And I hope that you know by now that, in the church of Jesus Christ, you are one among many others who are also recovering from their sins. And the good news is that Jesus died on the cross to take our sins away. So first, I would urge you to hold tightly to what the Bible says; that, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Confess the sin of having violated the covenant bond of marriage, and by becoming unbiblically joined to another. When we confess our sins, He forgive us.
Second, I would assert what Paul said to many others in the church of Corinth that found themselves to be in complicated marital situations - "Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called" (1 Cor. 7:24). Don't go back now and try to unscramble the egg; because that will only result in more sin. Having confessed your sin, trust in Christ's forgiving grace, give yourself fully over to Him in the marriage you are now in, and work now to behave toward your spouse as God behaves in His covenant bond of love toward us.
And if you are in a marriage that is difficult, and you are feeling the temptation and pressure to separate or divorce, then follow the example of God's covenant commitment to love those He binds to Himself - including you. "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:31-32).
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What does covenant commitment look like in marriage? I could do no better than to share with you the words of another preacher from another era. Old as they may be, they are words that are as relevant now as they have ever been. Think about them carefully.
Few things have done more to promote the happiness and the moral improvement of man, than our Lord's re-establishing the principle, that the conjugal relation is indissoluble save for one cause. Let all who stand in this relation to each other, seriously consider the nature of their relation, and the importance of their duties. Let them reflect, that since they form as it were one body, they ought also to have one mind and heart. Let them reflect, that as they are so intimately connected, they ought to cherish each other with the same attention and affection, as they do their own bodies. Let them strive to have the same inclinations, as they have the same interests, and guard against all disputes and disagreements. Let them beware of all irritating language or disrespectful treatment, and always show each other every becoming token of civility and kindness. Let them bear with each other's infirmities; study each other's tempers; endevour to correct each other's faults. Let them always conduct themselves with gentleness, and perform their respective duties faithfully, though they may not receive the return they have a right to expect. Let them suppress every dislike which might produce in their mind even a wish to be separated, or which might render them more remiss in the duties which they owe to each other. Let them forbear, and forgive, and conciliate, and comfort, and cheer one another. Let them consider themselves as bound to promote to the uttermost of their power, not only the present prosperity, but the future felicity of each other. Let them often together draw near the throne of their common Father, and pray for one another, mutually exhorting, instructing, and comforting one another. Let them, in fine, live together as heirs of the grace of life, as those who know that death, the only lawful cause of separation, will ere long cut the otherwise indissoluble bond; and let them seek to be bound together by a tie, which even death itself cannot dissolve, - even the faith of the same truth, the love of the same Saviour, the hope of the same salvation. Thus will they spend a happy lifetime together on earth: thus will they spend a happy eternity together in heaven.2
1A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York; E.P. Dutton & Co., 1949), p. 167.
2Cited in John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), Vol. 1, pp. 199-200.
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