"What God Has Joined Together"
(Delivered Sunday, November 11, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We come today to the 19th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. And as we continue our study of the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus, we come to a topic that can—sadly—raise up some sad memories and painful wounds. We come to Jesus' teaching regarding divorce.
Because it can be such a painful subject, lots of people have a lot to say about it. But what we find in the words of Jesus is not like the advice we read in the magazines or hear from the psychologist shows on radio and television. This morning, we are hearing the authoritative words of the One who Himself first made marriage. May the Holy Spirit give me the grace to speak the words of Jesus accurately; and may He also give all of us together the grace to hear His words humbly and obediently.
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This passage begins with a beautiful picture; and I would like for us to take some time to notice it:
The "sayings" that Jesus had just finished uttering were the things that He taught in chapter 18—sayings that concerned His love and watchful care for those who are His "little ones" by faith. Whether they are tiny infants or old folks, Jesus loves all those who come to Him and trust Him with the simple faith of a humble child. He welcomes them. He protects and defends them. He warns that no one better ever cause one of them to stumble from Him. He commands that if even one of them should wander away, he or she is to be diligently sought and brought back to Him. And He commands that, when they come back in repentance, they are to be forgiven and welcomed again into the fold.
I'm grateful that our Lord's words on the difficult subject of divorce are found after He had spoken these "sayings" of tender love for His little ones. The One who speaks authoritatively on the subject of divorce is one who is immeasurably gentle and gracious toward us poor, fallen, stumbling sinners who come to Him. We can feel safe in His love—even when His teaching is strong.
In these initial words, Matthew let's us know that the context of our passage was the beginning of a brand new phase in Jesus' earthly ministry. We're told that He had departed from Galilee—which was the place in which the largest portion of His earthly ministry had been centered. Galilee was a humble—even a despised—part of that world. The people who lived there were simple folks. They were not refined, or cultured, or highly esteemed. In fact, the Galilean people were as close to the edge of the Gentile world as a Jewish person would dare to draw. And yet, it was there—not in Athens, or in Alexandria, or in Rome; but in humble Galilee—that the Son of God lived upon this earth, and taught, and performed so many of His miracles.
And it's with this morning's passage that Matthew's account of Jesus' Galilean ministry comes to an end. It wouldn't be too long from this point in the story before He would make His way to Jerusalem to die on the cross for us. But before then, it was in the Father's plan that He would spend a little time in the region of Judea "beyond the Jordan"—near the place where John the Baptist first baptized (John 1:28)—in order to minister to the Jewish people that were there.
And we're told that a great multitude of people followed Him. Wherever our Lord went, needy people were drawn to Him. He never advertised Himself. He never sought the crowds. They were were compelled to come to Him because of their need, and because of His divine ability to meet that need. Matthew tells us that when this great multitude of people came to Him, "He healed them there".
He was on His way to lay down His life on the cross, according to the will of the Father, to meet our great need for salvation. But so long as He lived on the earth, He graciously met the temporal needs of those who came to Him.
That portion of the story is important to keep in mind—particularly as we see the things that happen next. It seems that whenever the Lord Jesus is active in the lives of those who believe on Him, the forces of unbelief hurry upon the scene to oppose Him.
It's in this context, then, that we read;
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Now that seems like a strange question to ask in such circumstances; doesn't it? What did it have to do with the care our Lord was giving to the needy people who were drawn to Him? But there's a couple of things you need to know in order to understand what's behind their question. First of all, you need to know that in Jesus' day, there was a theological debate going on among the teachers of Israel concerning divorce.
The debate came about because of an Old Testament passage from the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, God speaks to the people of Israel through Moses and says;
This law was given by God for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it graciously protected a woman from an unjust and cruel husband who no longer loved her. He couldn't simply send her away to fend for herself—which, in that culture and time, would have left a woman in a very vulnerable condition. Instead, God required that he go through proper legal and social channels; that he write her a certificate of divorce and indicate clearly that they are no longer married.
Second, this law also regulated the matter of remarriage. It indicated that, if a woman was sent away and became married to another man, and if she left that second man, she could not return to her first husband and remarry Him. To do so would be an abomination before God; and would move Him to bring His hand of judgment upon the land.
And the debate that was going on in Jesus' day was centered on the words, found at the beginning of that passage, that indicated the reason for the divorce in the first place: "because he has found some uncleanness in her". The debate concerned what could be considered sufficient "uncleanness" to permit a man to divorce his wife.
The word itself means "nakedness of a thing"1 in a shameful sense. And one school of thought in this debate was drawn from the teaching of a rabbi named Shammai. He held to a conservative interpretation of that law, and taught that the word "uncleanness" referred to some kind of sexual immorality. He said, "A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her."2
The other main school of thought drew its teaching from a rabbi named Hillel. He held to a much broader interpretation of that law, and taught that "uncleanness" in a man's wife referred to anything he considered "unseemly" in her. Hillel declared that a man may divorce his wife "even if she spoil his cooking."3 Another rabbi of this same school of thought taught, "He may divorce her even if he found another woman more beautiful than she."4
In Jesus' day, the school of thought led by Hillel's teaching—that is, the more broad interpretation of the word for “uncleanness”—was the prevailing view. Under the law—as these teachers were interpreting it—it was said, "A bad wife is like a leprosy to her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of his leprosy."5 It was even taught, "If one has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her."6
Now; that was what was going on in the background when these Pharisees asked our Lord this question about whether or not a man could divorce his wife “for just any reason”. And knowing that, there's another thing you need to know in order to understand what's happening. It's found in the word that Matthew used to describe the motivation of the Pharisees in asking their question. Matthew says that they were "testing" Him. In other words, it wasn't a sincere question they were asking. It was a question that was designed to trap the Lord—in front of all these followers—into a controversial and divisive theological debate.
It was assumed by them that if they could get the Lord to side with the school of Hillel and say that divorce was allowable for any reason, then they could portray Him as harsh in His teaching concerning women and lax in His interpretation of Scripture. But since—not surprisingly—that was the popular view of the day7, getting Him to side with the school of Shemmai and say that it was only permitted in the case of unchastity would put Him on the wrong side of a very strong popular opinion.
Isn't it tragic how, in their sinfulness, unbelieving people are so prone to twist the intention of Scripture around to serve their sinful ends?
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But no one can ever pull a fast one on our Lord. He answered prudently—and in a way that was in perfect conformity with the scriptures themselves.
Look at how He points the Pharisees to the very first chapter of the Bible; and to God's original design in marriage. So many of the arguments and cultural debates we hear today would be brought to an end if we did the same! Matthew writes;
When God made humanity, He made one man; and from that one man, He made one woman. At the beginning, He didn't make one man and two women; or two men and one woman. But only one man and only one woman. And it was through the union of those two—and only those two—that all of humanity would spring forth. That was a picture of His intention in marriage.
And after making them, God expressed a pattern that was to be followed for every other "one man/one woman" union from then on. First, there was to first be a "leaving" of father and mother. When a man took a woman to be his wife, he was not to take his mother and father into the marriage with him; nor was he to receive her father and mother as a part of the deal. They were to both be allowed to step out from under the supervision of their parents, and become their own independent union under God. Many marriages have struggles because there isn't, first, a full "leaving" from father and mother.
Second, there was to be a "joining" of a man to his wife. The word that is used means that he is to be "glued" or "fused" to her in an inseparable bond. They were to be "married". They were to be legally, culturally, and socially joined together in such an official sense that they are "cleaved together" for life. They were to be joined in such a permanent bond that 'coming apart' would tear pieces out of both of them.
And finally, they would become "one flesh". This certainly means sexual union; but it means much more than just that. It means that they become so identified with one another that their joining together creates an entity all its own. They are no longer “he” and “she”, but “they”. What is his becomes hers. What is hers becomes his. She takes his name. He cares for her as if she were his own body. (I even believe that there's a spiritual dimension to this. That's why it is that, when you see an old couple who have been married for many years to each other, they even start to look like each other!)
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This is the original intention of the Father in making marriage. And this leads our Lord to say,
And I suggest we can state this the form of the first principle we draw from our Lord's words in this passage:
1. IT IS THE FATHER'S DESIGN FOR MARRIAGE THAT HUSBANDS AND WIVES NOT DIVORCE.
He did not build into the design of marriage the idea that the legal union of a man and a woman may be broken. When a man and a woman leave their fathers and mothers and are legally joined together in marriage according to God's design and according to the laws of the land in which they live, they are no longer—as far as God Himself is concerned—two separate entities that just happen to be living together in the same house. He views them as one flesh for life. And that's how they are to view themselves.
I believe that this has something to say to those who look at that husband or wife that is sitting next to them, and who secretly wonder if they have made a mistake. I'm not speaking here of someone who is married to someone who is violating the marriage covenant. Rather, I'm speaking of someone who is just "disappointed" and "dissatisfied" with their spouse. They think back to the time when they got married to them—all starry-eyed and idealistic; and as they see what they've ended up with, they wonder if they have somehow managed to marry the wrong person.
I suggest to you that our Lord's words—"what God has joined together"—has relevance to that concern. If you have gotten married to someone—even if they are far from your ideal—they are nevertheless the one whom, in the providence of the almighty God, you have married. He or she is the spouse God has given you to, and you have been joined together to him or her in God's sight in a permanent bond.
And "what God has joined together" is something that we are not to "separate”. If you are married, you are not married to the wrong person. Stay together with that husband or wife as a part of God's appointed plan for you. Let Him work through that which He—however it has occurred—joined together.
And pray for that spouse. Who knows but that it's in God's plan to change your spouse on the inside—rather than you changing to a different spouse on the outside!
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Well; as we noted earlier, this was all motivated by a desire to trap our Lord. And so, no sooner does He give a scriptural answer to their question than they seek to call the authority of the scriptures into question. They attempt to show that the Bible contradicts itself.
Notice how they do this. We read of how they hear Jesus quote from the Old Testament to show how God intended marriage—from the very beginning—to be a permanent and inseparable bond. And then, Matthew goes on to say,
Here, again, they're citing that passage from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They note that Moses gave clear instructions regarding the man giving his wife a certificate of divorce. And so, they were challenging over Lord over why it is that if man was not to separate what God had joined together, Moses "commanded" the giving of a certificate of divorce.
These unbelieving men were seeking to get Jesus painted into a corner—making Him say in front of the people that Moses was saying one thing and God was saying another. And again; isn't that just how the sinful heart of unbelief works?—twisting God's word around and saying that it's full of contradictions—all in order to avoid obeying what it says?
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I believe that our sovereign Lord knew exactly where their questions were heading from the very beginning; don't you? They thought they had Him. But He did something utterly unexpected. He exposed the real heart condition that was behind their question.
I wonder if you notice that the Pharisees used the word "command" in reference to what Moses said. But the Lord doesn't use that word. Matthew goes on to say,
Moses—in no sense—"commanded" that a certificate of divorce be given and that a man's wife be put away. Even if there was genuinely found to be "uncleanness" in a man's wife, God did not give the command through Moses that she be put away. A man could forgive his wife and restore her to himself.
This leads us to a second principle we can draw from our Lord's words; that . . .
2. THE FATHER NLY PERMITTED DIVORCE BECAUSE OF THE HARDNESS OF THE HEART.
I have, in my work as pastor, seen some couples overcome some of the most dreadful failures in their marriages through forgiveness, and through an open-hearted desire to see God's grace restore both the husband and the wife into a union of deep love. After the victories that I have seen, I have come to the conclusion that there isn't a single problem in a marriage that Jesus Christ could not overcome if He was simply permitted to do so!
But there's the problem. So often, someone in the marriage does not want to permit Jesus to exercise His Lordship in their lives. They hold on to their dissatisfaction and disappointment, or to their unfaithful lust, or to their bitterness and anger, or to their pride, or to their unforgiveness, or to their hatred. They fight against the idea of the Lord doing what He wishes to do in them in order for their marriage to be healed.
And because some people refuse His help, their hearts become unrepentantly hard toward their spouse. And that hardness of heart is why God permitted a certificate of divorce to be given.
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Jesus goes on to give a further principle . . .
3. REMARRIAGE AFTER A WRONGFUL DIVORCE RESULTS IN A STATE OF ADULTERY BEFORE GOD.
Now; I believe that it's important to remember who it is that Jesus is speaking to. He's talking to a group of Pharisees who are defending a reckless and self-serving attitude toward marriage; men who were cruelly putting away one wife in order to take up another. They were believing that they could do this without incurring any guilt before God—so long as they stuck a certificate of divorce in their wives' hands.
And Jesus drops the bomb-shell on them that they were actually committing adultery. He had already taught this, you may remember, in the Sermon on The Mount; when He said,
One conclusion that you could draw from this is that Jesus agreed with the school of thought taught by the rabbi Shammai. But in actuality, it was Shammai who happened to be in agreement on this point with God's word!
But how can this be? How can it be that a man can divorce his wife, marry another, and thus be committing adultery? It's because God sees the marriage bond as more binding than men do. A marriage bond may be viewed, in the eyes of men, as legally broken as a result of a divorce. But if the bond was broken contrary to His law, it remains intact in His eyes.
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 even if someone marries, and divorces, and marries, and divorces, and marries, and divorces, in God’s eyes he or she is committing adultery over and over.
You might notice that Jesus does allow for one exception; and that is in the case of “sexual immorality”. The original word, porneia, is one that is very broad in its possible meanings; but I believe that it is meant to be understood as an act that brings someone else into the marriage covenant—whether through an actual physical act of adultery, or through an emotional attachment to someone outside of the marriage that is not repented of, or—even in some cases—an unrepentant addiction to pornography. These are all acts that involve bringing in someone else into the marriage as a violation of a “one man/one woman” covenant; and when such a thing is done, the covenant of marriage is being persistently broken.
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Now; I have to say a word about this. This may mean that some in our church look back on their history and realize that they have married 'unlawfully'. They may have gotten a divorce for the wrong reasons, and have even gone on to marry someone else when they should not have—and that now, according to Jesus' words, they are married in an “adulterous” condition. What should someone do in such a case?
I've thought much about that; and the conclusion I come to is that this truly does make them sinners. And if that's you, welcome to the club. But I also affirm that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners. The best thing to do in such a case is confess that you have sinned and have entered into a marriage unlawfully. And then, since you cannot 'unscramble the egg' without making things worse, commit yourself to stay in that marriage; and ask God to help you to live faithfully and obediently in together that marriage from them on.
I know many such cases in which, in God's grace, He has made a happy ending out of a disobedient course of action—when those involved truly repented.
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This leads us to one final principle we can draw from our Lord's words; that . . .
4. BECAUSE OF THESE PRINCIPLES, MARRIAGE SHOULD ONLY BE ENTERED INTO CAREFULLY AND REVERENTLY.
You may think that Jesus' teaching is rather rigid in this area. And if you think that, you are not alone. Matthew tells us,
If these things are true, and if this is the standard God calls people to, then they thought it would be better not to get into a marriage at all. And what's fascinating to me is that the Lord does not correct them; or say to them, “Oh no, fellas! You misunderstood Me!” Instead, He basically approves of what they just said. It's just that not everyone can live by such a principle. Matthew writes,
A “eunuch”, in this sense, is simply someone who is not capable of entering into a marriage. Some are born without the physical capability of doing so. Some—as was often the case with those who served in the courts of kings in ancient days—were born with the capability, but were later rendered incapable of marriage by men for the fulfillment of their appointed role in court. And some remain physically capable of marriage, but have no need to get married because they have been given a freedom from that need as a gift from God; and such people use that freedom in order to devote themselves to the service of God's kingdom. The apostle Paul appears to have been such a man (1 Corinthians 7:7). Not everyone has this capability. Paul warned unmarried people, “It is good for them if they remain even as I am, but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
The point of Jesus' response to the disciples seems to be, though, that they are getting the right impression from His words. It is a serious commitment to enter into a marriage. And it would be better never to enter into one than to enter into one without the commitment to honor God's call for a life-long union.
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May I conclude with one final exhortation? I don't believe the right way to look at all of this is to focus on the restrictions that limitations Jesus places on divorce and remarriage. Rather, I believe the right way to look at this is to focus first on His commitment to us.
The Bible teaches that we are His bride; and that He is our Bridegroom. And He is utterly and inseparably committed to us for all of eternity. He is absolutely and perfectly faithful in His love toward us.
Let's respond to His faithfulness by being faithful to those to whom we've been joined in marriage.
1BDD, p. 789. It's the same word as is translated "uncleanness" in Deuteronomy 23:14; with reference to the need to cover-up human waste in the camp of Israel.
2Michael J. Wilkins, Clinton E. Arnold, ed., Zondervon Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervon , 2002), vol. 1, p. 117.
3A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), p. 167.
5Ibid, p. 166.
7John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 397.
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