Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 5, as we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount. We have said the last two weeks that from Matthew 5, verse 21, to Matthew 5, verse 48, Christ is applying the general principals that He taught in verses 17-20 to six specific issues in human relationships. Over and over we have said that Christ stresses in these passages that the law is spiritual. It is not merely external. It reaches to matters of the heart. And that our relationships to one another and the way we act in those relationships is an index of our relationship to God Himself. So that if we are being disobedient in those human relationships, it probably reflects a disobedience in our divine relationship. It perhaps reflects that we do not know God as we ought to know Him. Last week in verses 27-32, we focused on Christ’s challenge against the Pharisees interpretation of the seventh commandment. And then again there, Christ emphasized that the law is a matter of the heart. That this commandment, the seventh commandment not only require us to be physically faithful, but it also requires heart fidelity. Our eyes and our hearts ought not to wonder after simple things. And so, Jesus employs the law as a heart test. As a spiritual check up for us. What is our response to, our obedience to the law is an index of whether we really know and love God. This week, we come to Matthew 5, and we will again read from verse 27-32, but we will focus on verses 31 and 32. This is the third antithesis that Jesus gives us beginning in verse 21. You remember we said there are six contrasts that Jesus draws between His interpretation of the law and the Pharisees interpretation of the law. We have already seen two. We will see one today. And then there is are three more to come.
The first contrast that He drew, you will see back in verses 21 and 22. There He says, “You have heard,” 21, “but I say…” and in that case it referred to the commandment on murder, the sixth commandment. And He was contrasting their external teaching on that commandment with His heart teaching on that commandment. They said that commandment had to be obeyed externally. He said, yes that is true, but it must go further than that. Then last week, we looked at His second antithesis.
His second contrast between His teaching and the Pharisees teaching. You see it in verses 27 and 28. “You have heard, but I say…” And again He contrasts their external teaching on adultery and on infidelity with His heart teaching on that.
The third contrast, or antithesis between their teaching and His teaching comes in the passage that we will focus on today. Verses 31 and 32. Notice that unlike any of the other five contrasts or antithesis this is actually Jesus application of the principal He set forth in verse 27 and 28 to the relationship. You may recall, we said in each of these passages we see three things. First, Jesus says that He disagrees with the Pharisees interpretation of the law. Then He gives His exposition of the law. But thirdly, we said in each of these passages, where He contrasts His teaching, Jesus also applied His teaching to human relationships. In this passage, in verses 31 and 32, He is applying the principals that He set forth. In verses 27-30, He applies them to our human relationships, in this case, the relationship of marriage. Notice what He has done so far. In verses 21 and 22, He contrasts His teaching on murder with the Pharisees teaching on murder. In verses 27 and 28, He contrasts His teaching on immorality with the Pharisees teaching on immorality. And then in verses 31 and 32 as an application of that, He contrasts His teaching on marriage or divorce, more properly to the Pharisees teaching on marriage and divorce. And that is where we are today. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. Let’s read the Word of God beginning in Matthew verse 27.
“You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. “And it was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired Word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would enable us, not simply to receive this truth with our minds, but to receive it with our hearts and thus with our wills. We would be both hearers and doers of Your word. We would embrace Your Word, where our thinking, where our living is out of accord with Your teaching O Lord, bring us into accord with it. Help us to know, Oh Lord that Your teaching is for our good, and for Your glory. And help us to cling tenaciously to that hope and that promise. We pray that You would enlighten our hearts and make them ready to stand under the scrutiny of Your Word and then by Your Spirit, and by Your almighty grace that You would equip us and enable us to embrace the truth and to live it, all through Your glory and our good. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In Jesus’ day, there was a great deal of confusion and complexity to the teaching, even within the Synagogue, on the subject of divorce. And into that context, Jesus came and gave here His disciples, His marching orders, His instructions on marriage and on divorce. This is a hard subject to talk on for many reasons. For one reason, it is very complex at certain points. There are all manners of difficulties that one gets into when begins to explore the issue of marriage, remarriage, divorce, etc. But in addition to that, perhaps the most difficult aspect of it is, we are so emotionally involved, in these issues.
There can be few of us in this room today, who have not been touched in some way by divorce. Perhaps, you are here today, as someone who has been divorced. Perhaps someone very close to you, perhaps a partner, perhaps a family member has experienced divorce and you have helped them walk through that process. Perhaps you have a child who has been divorced, or perhaps your own parents have been divorced. There are few of us who have not been touched in some direct way by divorce. And we know that it is an intensely emotional thing. For there is no disappointment like the disappointment of marital love gone awry. All the hopes, all the expectations dashed, and then a person begins to search for any way out of that miserable situation. Certainly there is much emotionally involved in this issue. But we shall attempt to be faithful to the word of Christ and to be courageous as we learn it together.
Remember that many Christians have argued the meaning of Jesus’ words in years past. There are have been many who have read Jesus’ words here in Matthew 5, verses 31 and 21 and also in Matthew 19, and they have determined that Jesus is teaching here that there is no divorce that is legitimate. There have been many well meaning Christians that have held that position, that divorce is always unbiblical. That is not the position of the Westminster Confession. It is not the position of the Reformed tradition, because we believe that, that is not what Jesus is saying here in the scripture, and yet there are many well meaning Christians that teach that.
On the other hand, there are others who have suggested that all remarriage is unbiblical. Did you know that in the second and the third century, in the early church, in north Africa there was a famous theologian and preacher named Tertullian. And he taught that all remarriage was unbiblical and he based His teaching on Jesus’ words here in verses 31 and 32. He went so far as to say, that you couldn’t even be remarried after your spouse had died. Is that what Jesus is saying? Again, I think not. Our Confession and our Reformed tradition teach us that that is not what Jesus is saying here.
On the other hand, some will say, well He makes an allowance for divorcee here, but He makes no allowance for remarriage in this passage. Again, many Christians have taught that. Is that what Jesus is teaching here? Again, the Reformed tradition says no. We will not be able to say that everything about this subject at once. Jesus, even in this passage, does not address everything that one could say about marriage, divorce and remarriage here. But His emphasis must be our emphasis. And so I would like to attend to several of the great emphasis that He gives us in this passage.
I. Our attitude to adultery reflects itself in our view of marriage.
And the first one we learn in verse 31. There Jesus teaches us that our attitude to the seventh commandment, the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” reflects itself in our view of the sanctity of marriage. When we show a high view of the sanctity of marriage, we are showing that we have a high view of the seventh commandment and we are showing that we have a true knowledge of God. Notice what He says in verse 31, “It was said, whoever sends His wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” Now Jesus introduces that phrase, it was said, but the thing that He is referencing as being said, was not something that has been spoken in the annals of the ancient history in Israel. This wasn’t something that someone once said five hundred years before Jesus lived. We know that this is, in fact, what was being taught by many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They went to Deuteronomy 24, verses 1 and following, and said, what Moses is teaching there is that a man must give his wife a certificate of divorce if he is going to divorce her. And they emphasized that a man had the right to do anything he wanted with regard to divorce. He could divorce his wife for any reason. Divorce policy and practice in Jesus’ time in Israel was very, very loose. You need to know, for instance, that there were two competing views in Israel amongst the Rabbis in Jesus’ time on marriage and divorce. There was a Rabbi named Shammei and all those who followed him had a very vigorous view of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Shammei taught that there was only one ground on which a person could be divorced, and that was unseemliness, or indecency in the wife. That was the only ground for divorce according to Shammei.
On the other hand, the popular view in Jesus’ day was a very lax view. It taught that you could divorce for any reason whatsoever. This was the view that was popularly followed amongst the Pharisees and amongst the people. And so a man could divorce his wife if she was a bad cook. A man could divorce his wife if her looks ceased to please him. A man could divorce his wife if she was too plain or if he lost interest in her. And so in that context, Jesus attacks the Pharisees’ views of the seventh commandment. You see, in Jesus’ day, Israel had very strong views on adultery. Israel had gone through a time in her past when physical adultery was a tremendous problem in the nation in Israel, especially with regard to those religions around Israel which practiced cult prostitution as part of the religion. The prophets of Israel had preached against that and consequently the children of Israel had heard that preaching and they had very strong views about adultery and so it very likely that when Jesus said the words that He speaks in verses 27 and 28, that there would have been some in the crowd who would have heard Him and said, well, He is talking about adultery now, He is talking about the seventh commandment, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. I have never committed that sin. We live in a moral society here. We believe in family values and we don’t do that. What the Lord Jesus is doing in verses 31 and 32 is He is saying, look I know that adultery is not common here. But you people will divorce for any reason at all and that is tells me that your hearts are still not right about the seventh commandment. And so the Lord Jesus applies the seventh commandment to their attitude towards divorce. They were harsh on literal adultery. You remember in John 8, Jesus comes upon a woman who is about to be stoned for her adultery and yet they were lenient in their divorce laws. A man could divorce his wife, for virtually any reason. And that, Jesus says, reveals their true hearts, their true attitude.
Well, this is a very relevant thing for us today. Adultery in our circles would still not be something that you would want to brag about. It would be something that you would attempt to hide and it would be frowned upon in our circles. But the divorce rate is escalating at a phenomenal rate in our society and in Mississippi. In 1960, there were about five thousand divorces in Mississippi. In 1995 about fourteen thousand divorces. I don’t know what the current divorce rate is in Mississippi. I suspect it is about twice what is was in 1960. But there are almost three times the number of divorces occurring today. So this is a matter for us. This is a problem to us. And Jesus is speaking to us where we are when He addresses this issue. He is speaking to us for our good, and not for our destruction. It is sin that destroys us. His words to us are a balm of comfort and hope and grace.
Why is divorce such a problem for us? Well, I couldn’t possibly begin to give a stab at that very profound question today. But let me just outline for you a few factors which may be involved in this rise in divorce.
First of all, we have to come to the grips with the legal ease of obtaining divorce has added pressure to young couples. A hundred and fifty years ago, if a wife was living with a husband who verbally abused her, neglected her, and mistreated her, if she went to the civil magistrate and said, I want a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, the civil magistrate would have said of what? There was no such thing. There would have nothing on the statute law which would have allowed for a divorce of that nature. And therefore, people didn’t consider that as an option. It wasn’t possible civilly, it wasn’t possible in the church and therefore there wasn’t even the consideration of that. Now, every couple that gets married, knows in the back of their mind that there is nothing in the law books that would keep them from dissolving that marriage. That adds a tremendous psychological pressure to a young marriage. Because when the difficult times come and they will, the persons are not thought well, we better work to make it good, because this is the only option we have. Immediately the mind thinks, well I can always get away. I can always make a new start. And that adds much more pressure on the marriages of today than the marriages of yesteryear would have faced.
And secondly, there is a social acceptability about divorce that there would not have been fifty or sixty years ago. One who was divorced fifty or sixty years ago, was very likely to be ostracized even in the context of family and friends. This is not so today. We do not say that we prefer the ostracism of old today. We just simply state it as a fact. It is certainly more socially acceptable today. Many, so many of friends have experienced this and continue to be part of our circles with little or no social consequences. And that too, adds pressure because a couple does not think, well if I do this, I am going to be cut out.
Thirdly, let me suggest that our marital expectations, perhaps are a part of the rise in divorce. We live in a society that is increasingly secular. God is no longer in the center of the way we think individually and corporately. God used to be the foundation of meaning in all of our lives. Today, because God has been pushed to the edges and in many cases is not even part of our thought life, something else must provide the foundation for meaning in life. What gives meaning to life? Many people in our world say this. This gives meaning to life. A loving relationship with another human being. That provides meaning to life. Now if that is the ground of your meaning and all your hopes are based on another person providing you loving relationship for the rest of your life and having all of your dreams fulfilled, you are bound to be disappointed in marriage. Because marriage is not for the faint of heart and it is not for those who lack courage and it is not without problems. Marriage is not a place where you escape from problems. Marriage is a place where you find problems that you never knew existed. Marriage is that place where you go thinking that you have got your act together and suddenly you find out that you need a counselor. Marriage is not a place where we escape all those things about ourselves which haunt us in other spheres It is a place where we either face up to those things and we love them beyond those obstacles or it absolutely collapses in upon us. For all these reasons, this reality of divorce is reality for us today and perhaps for some of these reasons, divorce is at a higher rate than it used to be before. At any rate, Jesus applies what He had said in verses 27-30 to our relationship in verses 31-32. And I want you to note just a few things about what Jesus does in these verses.
First of all, have you noticed that the Pharisees were preoccupied with the issue of the grounds of divorce? Jesus, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the issue of the institution of marriage. That is a profound difference. The Pharisees again, were looking for the loopholes. Jesus was asking what is marriage? What should marriage be? And what did God intend for marriage? Those two sets of questions are fundamentally different. Notice also that the Pharisees interpreted Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 24 as allowing for, or actually commanding the law of divorce on command. Whereas Jesus called Moses’ teaching a concession to hard hearts. Notice also that the Pharisees throughout this passage do not regard divorce itself to be a sin. They regard adultery to be a sin. They regard it to be a sin if you send a wife away without a certificate of divorce. But they do not regard divorce highly, ethically speaking. Jesus, on the other hand, takes divorce seriously. In fact, He calls unbiblical divorce adultery. It is a breaking of the seventh commandment, Jesus says. And so, having seen those things, and having seen that Jesus teaches that our attitude towards the Seventh Commandment reflects our view of the sanctity of marriage, let’s look at two other things that Jesus teaches in this passage.
II. Our view and practice regarding divorce is a measure of our attitude to God.
In verse 32, Jesus says, but I say to you that everyone that divorces his wife except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery. Jesus there teaches that our views and practices regarding divorce are a measure of our attitude to God. It is not just something that is a private matter. It is not even something that is just a matter between two people. It is a spiritual matter and it is a matter that concerns our attitude to God. In the day of Israel, we have already said, in the day of Jesus in Israel, the people of Israel would have had strong views against adultery and they might have been tempted to think that Jesus exposition of the Seventh Commandment had nothing to say to them. And so Jesus applies it to the issue of divorce. He challenges their unbiblical notions of the marital bond. He says to them, look, even if according to your law, all divorce is legal, I am telling you that unbiblical divorce, even if it is legal according to your law, is immoral. Unbiblical divorce is a violation of the Seventh Commandment and hence, unbiblical divorce is adultery. You see what Jesus is doing. They had strong views against adultery. They thought that they were not guilty of it. And so He says, well, even if you are not committing adultery yourself, if you have a low view of divorce and remarriage, then you are involved in adultery. Jesus is speaking to a social situation in Israel where men would have been virtually the only one able to have divorce. They would have been the only ones with the financial resources or the legal resources in order to have a divorce, and hence Jesus’ words, do apply to all those who are engaged in divorce in our society. Even though His words are directed to men. He is not just zeroing in on the men, with no other application anywhere else. But what does He mean when He says, I tell you that everyone who divorces his wife except for the reason of unchastity makes her commit adultery. I mean that sounds unfair. He unbiblically divorces her and she commits adultery. But that is not what Jesus is saying, is it? Jesus is saying, that anyone who initiates an unbiblical divorce is breaking, himself, the Seventh Commandment and involving others in it. Jesus makes it clear that unbiblical divorce does not solve sin, it complicates sin. It doesn’t get you out of the difficult situation, it gets you into a more difficult situation. In fact, Jesus is saying more than that. He is saying that the Seventh Commandment requires us to uphold the sanctity of the marriage bond. Not, merely to refrain from violating it, but actually to uphold the holiness of the marriage bond.
III. Our view and practice of remarriage is a measure of our attitude toward God.
Notice also in the second half of that passage, Jesus goes on to speak about remarriage. And again, He teaches that our views and our practices remarriage are a measure of our attitude to God. He says, whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Now again, as we mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, many have interpreted that to mean that Jesus is saying that there is no remarriage that is biblical. Or that Jesus is saying if you have been divorced, there is no remarriage that is being biblical. But this is not what Christ is saying. The point of Christ’s statement is this. Our marital faithfulness reflects the heart. Our attitude to the marriage reflects our heart and it will come under divine scrutiny.
Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage in this passage could be summarized as follows. First of all, Jesus makes it clear that God’s design is for permanent commitment in marriage. That was what God intended when He instituted marriage in the Garden and that is still what God intends. And even though the law of Moses made concessions and allowances, legally, the plan of God is for permanence in marriage. And Jesus stresses that. Notice that also in this passage Jesus makes it very clear that He is against divorce on demand. He is against a policy that says you can get divorce for any reason. Notice also, in this passage, that Jesus teaches that unbiblical divorce complicates sin, rather than cures it. So often people will get a divorce, thinking that it will solve a horrible situation. And if children are involved, they just find themselves in a more horrible situation. And Jesus here says, that unbiblical divorce complicates sin rather than relieves it. Notice also that Jesus makes it clear in the passage, that sexual immorality destroys the marital bond. It strikes so closely at what marriage is that it is a legitimate reason for ending a marriage. It is a legitimate ground on which to proceed with divorce. Notice also that Jesus does not say, that remarriage after a biblical divorce constitutes adultery. Jesus is speaking of someone who has sought an unbiblical divorce and that is what He means when He speaks in verse 32 about those who marry a divorced woman committing adultery. By the way in this passage, it is not mentioned, Jesus never mentions it in fact, but in I Corinthians chapter 7, Paul adds a sixth point summarizing biblical teaching about marriage and it is this. That willful desertion by an unbeliever frees the offended party to remarry. All of those we may say in summary about the teaching of the scriptures on marriage, remarriage and divorce.
How should we respond to all of this? How should we respond to this teaching and the situation in which we find ourselves. Well let me suggest a few things. First of all, we must take seriously our ministering to single parents and to children of single parents in our congregation, and in our community. We have many who have experienced the tragedy of divorce in their own lives, and have children and the children are often the ones who take the brunt. You may be here today as a child of a single parent. You have lost one of your parents to divorce. In that case, we as Christians, as brothers and sisters in Christ, must take seriously our responsibility to help our brothers and sisters as they attempt to rear their children alone. The loss of a spouse in divorce to help rear their children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord likewise creates a great need for assistance. Perhaps there will be times when we can be, as it were, surrogate mothers and fathers, helps and friends to those who are in this situation. We must take seriously our responsibilities there.
Secondly, we must encourage marriage amongst our congregation and friends. Those who are already married, we must encourage to be faithful to their marital bonds. There are several ways we can do this. One way, is to encourage them not to discouraged by the difficulties that they encounter in marriage. I had the privilege of being at a wives’ meeting at RTS a few years ago when a professor’s wife was speaking on the subject of marriage, and after the meeting was over, one of the seminary wives came up to this very wise and godly woman and asked her the question, “Have you ever thought about divorcing your husband?” and you could tell this question was coming from an anguished soul who was wrestling with her own marital relationship. And you could tell that this person also thought that surely this godly woman and this godly professor have never had any problems that would lead them to feel or think what I am thinking right now. This godly professor’s wife said back to this young woman, “I must say that by the grace of God, I have never ever in my life thought of divorcing my husband. Now, murder, that I have thought of.” That was a tremendously encouraging thing for her to say. For it was very clear, and I wish you could have seen the look on this young woman’s face, it was very clear that she could not comprehend this godly woman and this godly professor ever having struggled in their marriage, and yet this woman had come to point when she was ready to kill her husband, and she was not joking. As you laughed, you know she was not joking. We must encourage one another that obstacles are to be expected in marriage, and intimacy is not found in the lack of obstacles in marriage, it is found in the overcoming of obstacles in marriage. And if our young people think that marriage is going to be without obstacles, then they will be set up for a fall. We must be ready to encourage them by reminding them that the difficulties of marriage are normal. It is not for the faint of heart.
There are other ways to encourage people in their marriage. You may well have friends come to you in a time when they are prepared to end their relationship with their spouses and ask you for advice. That is a time where you can take an opportunity to refer them back to the great biblical principals and to make sure that they don’t make a hasty decision. John Scott, that dear Presbyterian minister who has written so many books, and ministered to so many of us, tells the story in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount of his policy about marriage counseling. When a couple calls him, to ask to come speak to him, either individually or collectively about divorce, he says this, “I will not talk with you about divorce until I have first had an opportunity to talk with you about marriage and then about reconciliation. And then and only then will we move on to third topic.” Perhaps you will have that type of opportunity with a friend, who comes to you to confide in you that they can’t go on. Perhaps you will be able to say, now let’s think through this just one more time. I know how you feel right now. I know that this seems like that right way out. I must say that it has been a great encourage to me to many in this congregation who are in the legal profession that people have come to them seeking their services and they have asked them to consider what they are doing before they simply help them to do what they wanted to do in the first place. That is a godly attitude and approach to helping people in times of difficulty.
Thirdly we need to pay close attention to our own responsibilities to our mates. The desire for divorce does not grow in a minute, or in an hour, or in days. And probably even in months. It generally grows in years. And so when a wife announces to her husband, or a husband to a wife, that they want a divorce, you can be sure that there were road signs along the way. We must take responsibilities to love our own mates as we ought. Marriage is more than finding the right person. It is being the right person. And so we must practice ourselves thoughtful self denial. Walt Chancery has said, “There would be fewer people in marriage counselors’ offices if husbands and wives were attempting to compete with one another in thoughtful self denial. How can I deny myself for my mate? How can I deny myself for my wife? How can I deny myself for my husband?” Billy Sunday said, “Try praising your wife even if it does frighten her at first.” We must take responsibility towards our husband, towards our wife to encourage them, to ensure that the marriage is strong and then when those hours of crisis come, perhaps then it is time to lean upon the wise counsel and support of Christian brothers and sisters and even those who are professionally trained for helping in those areas.
My friends, if we take seriously family values, we will take seriously our views of marriage and divorce and remarriage. May God make us holy in this area and thus cause us to be a witness to the world. And may He bind up the broken hearted and thus show His grace. Let us pray.