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Marriage Is for a Lifetime

July 25, 2021 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Sermon on the Mount

Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:31-32


(Read Text) Our study through the Sermon on the Mount has brought us to a highly controversial and sensitive subject, even among the people in this room—the subject of divorce and remarriage. Therefore, it’s important that we begin by acknowledging that we come to this text with a broad variety of convictions about the subject and a broad variety of personal experiences.

First, when I was candidating to be your pastor, I was pressed on this subject more than any other. So, I know that people here are passionate about this issue.

Second, it’s important that we all understand that people in this room have had a broad range of experiences with divorce and remarriage, which have profoundly shaped their lives. Some of you struggled through the divorce of your parents, while you were children, while others are so thankful that their parents stayed together through hard times. Others were traumatized by an evil father who abused your family, but your mother felt trapped, so she just took it and made you do the same.

Of course, many people in this room are divorced. Some of you were abandoned for no good reason, or maybe you left for varying reasons. As a result, you are struggling to raise children on your own. It’s lonely, and it’s hard. Others have remarried, and you now enjoy a wonderful marriage compared to your first one. And there are others who stuck with it through dark days in your marriages, and you are in a great place today, or it’s still a difficult struggle.

So, this is not a theoretical, irrelevant debate. No, divorce and remarriage is profoundly practical, and it is a deeply emotional subject. We all need to be sensitive to these things, and I will do my best to do so today. But regardless of all that, I hope we are all united in our desire to put aside our assumptions and prejudices, to hear exactly what Jesus said, and to submit to it. Afterall, Christ is our authority, not our experience and certainly not the assumptions of our culture. This being said, the first major truth in our text is…

I.  The Law required the just treatment of a divorced spouse (v. 31).

As Jesus did in the last 2 paragraphs, he begins this one with another reference from the OT Law. This one from Deuteronomy 24:1–4. To really understand our text, we need to see this quotation in context (read).

You can see that the context for Jesus’ quotation is that a man recognizes “some uncleanness” in his wife, and he decides to divorce her. The word for “uncleanness” is not a precise word, and notice that God never says that whatever this indecency is that it is legitimate ground for divorce. Rather, God merely assumes that the man is going to get one. So, God is anticipating a reality that Matthew 19 says is ultimately the result of sin. Men (and women) will become discontent with their wives and divorce them.

When they do, God requires 2 things. First, the husband must give his wife a “certificate of divorce.” This would have been a legal document that explained the reason for the divorce and freed the ex-wife to remarry.

As such, God’s main purpose in this law is to protect the wife from false assumptions and slander and to protect her from economic destitution. Afterall, she couldn’t just walk out and get a good job that would provide for her and her children. She would almost certainly need to remarry to survive.

Second, God demands that if the woman’s 2nd husband dies, her first husband cannot remarry her, because God says this would be “an abomination.” God doesn’t tell us why it would be an abomination.

It’s possible that God is keeping men from working the system for their economic benefit. He abandons his wife for petty reasons, but then later, she has a dowry that he wants or the kids are now old enough to help in the farm, so he wants to take her back. But God saying you can’t do that. You’ve taken advantage of her once, and you can’t do it again.

The more likely view is that God assumes that the original divorce was never valid. She did not do something like commit adultery, because Leviticus 20:10–14 says she would have been stoned. Rather, the husband divorced his wife for something less.

As a result, in God’s eyes, the divorce was never valid. Therefore, the wife’s remarriage was also invalid. As a result, by remarrying, there is a sense in which she became an adulteress. Verse 4 says “she has been defiled.” And we’ll see that Jesus supports this view in our text.

Therefore, God’s point is that the husbands need to be very cautious about divorcing their wives out of selfish convenience. He’s warning that before you abandon your wife, you need to think about the consequences for yourself and for her.

You can’t just abandon her, submit her to defilement, and then take her back when it’s convenient. But if you go ahead with the divorce, make sure that you set her up for a good future by giving her a certificate of divorce. So, the Law required the just treatment of a divorced spouse.

And in our text, Jesus affirms God’s heart in this Law. Throughout history, woman have unfortunately often been treated as glorified animals. But Scripture teaches that they are equal image bearers who deserve justice. There is no place for men behaving as if they are superior or as if women are theirs to abuse. God made us stronger, and he gave us authority in the home to serve and protect our wives not to pursue our selfish interests.

So, v. 31 affirms this law, but as Jesus did in the previous two paragraphs, he then proceeds to say that he demands something greater.

II.  Jesus requires marital faithfulness for a lifetime (v. 32).

I’d like to build our discussion of v. 32 around 3 truths. First…

God created marriage to be a lifetime covenant. Verse 32 is a strong affirmation of the marriage covenant. To fully appreciate the effect v. 32 would have had in Jesus’ day, we need to see it in light of an important debate that was going on in Jesus’ day (Matt 19:3–11).

Notice in v. 3 that the Pharisees want to know if Jesus believes that divorce is valid “for just any reason.” This was a hotly debated topic, because of the differing views of two rabbis.

First, Shammai had taught that divorce was only allowable in the case of adultery. In fact, he went so far as to say that adultery requires divorce. On the other hand, Hillel believed that divorce is permissible for basically any reason. He famously said you could divorce your wife for burning dinner.

As you would expect, Hillel’s position was far more popular, and divorce was common in Jesus’ day. You can see how the Pharisees felt in the way they pushed back on Jesus in v. 7 and how the disciples pushed back in v. 10.

But Jesus didn’t care about what was popular; instead, he answers the question by going back to God’s original design as stated in Genesis 1–2.

Verses 4–6 are so relevant for our day. The assumption of our day is that marriage is a self-serving contract that you should maintain as long as it is mutually beneficial. If you’re tired of marriage, just get a divorce.

But Jesus won’t have it. He says that God made mankind as 2 complementary genders to be joined in marriage. And when they get married, God makes them “one flesh.” And it is not our place to destroy what God has created.

Now, I believe there are some exceptional circumstances where divorce is permissible, and we’ll get to that. But every marriage must begin where Jesus does. God made marriage to be a lifetime covenant. When you get married, you must enter the marriage intent on staying together, “till death do us part.” And if you are married, you must be committed to staying with your spouse, “till death do us part.”

But the Pharisees weren’t going to let Jesus dodge the debate, so they ask about Deuteronomy 24:1 (v. 7). Jesus follows with a fascinating reply. He says that the only reason God permitted divorce was “because of the hardness of your heart…but from the beginning it was not so.”

In other words, “You should be more concerned about Genesis 1–2 than about finding some exception in Deuteronomy 24. Yes, in a sin-cursed world, divorce will sometimes happen, but that’s not the way God made it to be. God created marriage to be a lifetime covenant.”

It is so important that we also begin here. Let’s follow Jesus’ lead and build our expectations for marriage from Genesis 1–2, not the broken, selfish views of our world. Returning to 5:32, a second truth Jesus asserts is that…

Breaking the marriage covenant endangers each other’s souls. Notice that in the middle of v. 32, Jesus makes a stunning assertion that sometimes gets overlooked. He says that if a man divorces his wife for a cause short of immorality, he “causes her to commit adultery.” And “Whoever…”

That’s clearly a strong word in a day of “No Fault Divorce.” But what exactly does Jesus mean? Based on what we saw in Deuteronomy 24, it’s clear that Jesus believed that an illegitimate divorce does not break the original marriage covenant. Just because 2 people separate, does not mean that God views the covenant as broken.

And such a divorce put women in particular, in a difficult spot, since they had little means to provide for themselves. If she had children to care for, she really was in a tough spot. Therefore, she had no recourse to provide for herself other than to remarry.

However, since her divorce is illegitimate and the original marriage covenant is still in place, her remarriage is an act of adultery. That’s a tough one to stomach. But the final statement is abundantly clear that this is what Jesus means. When you marry an illegitimately divorced person, you are committing adultery, by violating the original marriage covenant.

That is a radical statement for our day. Jesus says that just because someone has divorce papers doesn’t mean that the bond that God created is necessarily severed. In that case, remarriage is adultery.

Now, what does this mean if you are illegitimately divorced and remarried? Is Jesus saying that you are living in perpetual adultery? No, I believe he would say that the original consummation of the second marriage was wrong, but the Bible never encourages people in that position to abandon the 2nd marriage or to refrain from the physical relationship.

If you have sinned before the Lord, confess it and go forward. You made a covenant before God and each other, so stand by it and enjoy it.

That beings said, Jesus is strongly challenging the assumptions of his day and ours. God is not okay with no fault divorce. And if you go down that road, you don’t just do spiritual harm to yourself; you threaten the soul of the one you divorce.

That’s because divorce creates real hardship. It’s hard to be alone. It’s really hard to raise children alone. My heart goes out to single parents. And even in our day, finances get a lot more complicated when you can’t share income, expenses, and responsibilities at home.

Therefore, Jesus strongly condemns the one who needlessly puts his spouse in this position. Breaking the marriage covenant endangers each other’s souls. Instead of looking for excuses to divorce, we should work hard to build healthy marriages that last a lifetime. The 3rd truth Jesus affirms is…

Divorce and remarriage are permissible in specific situations. Notice in v. 32 that Jesus clearly states an exception to his condemnation of divorce. Divorce is wrong, except in the case of “sexual immorality.” Jesus gives the same exception in Matthew 19:9.

Now, I must point that that not everyone sees it as black and white. For one the parallel statements in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 leave out the exception clause and simply condemn divorce and remarriage. They ask why God wouldn’t include the exception clause there if it is so important. It’s a good question, but for the sake of time, I’d simply say that God only has to say something once for it to be true, and Matthew’s statements are pretty clear.

As well, there has been a lot of speculation as to why Jesus switches from the very specific Greek term for adultery, moicheia, to the more general term porneia. Some of have speculated that porneia refers to specifically to something like incest, which Leviticus 18 says requires divorce. Others have said that porneia refers to immorality prior to the consummation of the wedding. If this were so, Jesus would be only saying you can break off a betrothal.

But if Jesus were talking about one of these narrow situations, he had plenty of more specific terms he could have used. Therefore, we ought to go with the simplest explanation, which is that porneia means what it always means. Jesus is saying that any immoral behavior that violates the marriage covenant is legitimate grounds for divorce.

This is because the marriage covenant is already broken. You may not be so sure, because our culture tends to downplay immorality. Ironically, so did the Corinthian culture; therefore, notice the correction Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 6:13–18. The language here is incredible.

God says that all sex is on the level of a “one flesh” relationship. You know that Paul chose that language very intentionally from Genesis 2. Therefore, immorality is a unique sin against God and my own body. And if my body belongs to my spouse, the implication is that it is a unique violation of my spouse also.

And the OT sees immorality as an equally severe sin. Leviticus 20:10–14 commanded Israel to execute anyone who committed adultery. It’s a big deal! Of course, if someone is dead, the marriage covenant is clearly broken.

Now, I’ve heard people say that the exception clause is built on the assumption that the adulterer will be executed. Therefore, Jesus is not saying divorce is permissible in the case of immorality; he’s simply noting that the offender is dead. But since our government doesn’t execute adulterers, the offended is stuck with the adulterous spouse.

But that’s not what Jesus says. And Jesus did not live in a world where adulterers were consistently executed. The fact that Shammai demanded divorce in the case of adultery means divorce, not execution was the standard practice.

No, Jesus is saying that immorality breaks the marriage covenant in a way that divorce papers never can. It is a wicked sin that justifies divorce. And if we are simply in a rush to fix the marriage, we will often be guilty of undermining the severity of that sin and of how the offender has seriously damaged his or her spouse.

Very often, churches have been guilty of doing further damage to the offended party in the marriage by putting all the attention on the one who sinned and then glorying in their repentance, while the other person has been traumatized and no one seems to care.

Now, I do want to emphasize that Jesus never says that immorality demands divorce; he only says that it is permissible. And in Matthew 19, Jesus said that God’s desire is always that marriage would last for a lifetime.

Therefore, the goal should always be true reconciliation. We ought to pray that the one who sinned would truly repent, that the offended would truly forgive and that the marriage would be restored.

But what do you do, when the offender is not truly repentant; he just wants to escape the consequences of his sin? There’s a high likelihood that he will simply return to his sin. Should his or her spouse simply stand by, while he or she is violating the marriage vows? Jesus says he or she is justified to divorce.

And the grammar of Matthew 19:9 says that he or she is also justified to remarry. It’s not so clear in our English versions, but in the Greek, the verbs “divorces” and “marries” are parallel, so the exception applies to both divorce and remarriage. If your spouse commits adultery, you are free to divorce, and you are not committing adultery by remarrying.

And even though we do not have time to fully develop it today, I must add that in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul builds off our text by addressing a new situation for the Gentile church—a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. He says that if your faith drives the unbeliever away, the believer “is not under bondage.”

I also believe that the biblical ethic would encourage a spouse who is being abused or whose children are being abused to guard their safety. Again, divorce should never be the desired outcome, but sometimes it is the best option or the only option in a sin-cursed world. We shouldn’t despise people who find themselves in this position; instead, we ought to surround them with love, support, and godly counsel.

To wrap this up, I’d like to speak to 4 different groups in this room.

III.  Application

For the married, guard your marriage. You may not always feel this way, but your marriage is a wonderful gift of God that is intended to show the world Christ’s relationship to the church. And God made it to be a lifetime commitment.

So, rejoice in the gift you have been given. Keep your mind anchored in God’s design as articulated in Genesis 1–2. Dream about growing old with your spouse. And then don’t ever take your marriage for granted. Guard your spouse and guard your marriage carefully. The healthier you are together, the less room there will be for Satan to attack.

For the single, prepare for a lifetime commitment. Just because you aren’t married yet, does not mean that Jesus’ words aren’t significant for you. Hopefully, God has a spouse waiting for you down the road. And understand that you are right now building patterns and habits that will either encourage a healthy marriage or be a drag upon it.

You can be working right now to develop a right view of the opposite sex, you can build habits of purity and holiness. You can develop the fruit of the Spirit, which, BTW, are a lot more important than passing a compatibility test. You can learn how to be a servant and how to love sacrificially. You can pay attention to godly couples and listen to their advice. Prepare yourself for a lifetime commitment that is full of God’s blessing and joy.

For the remorseful, rest in God’s forgiveness. I know that this has been a very painful sermon for some of you to hear, because you have a lot of regrets about how you failed in marriage. You certainly should learn from the past, but God doesn’t want us to live there.

If you have sinned against the Lord, confess it, and then leave it with him. There may be consequences that you will never escape, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a deep relationship with the Lord and use your failures to minister to others. God is not done with you, so keep going.

For the despairing, God is enough. Maybe you are the innocent victim of your parents getting divorced, maybe your spouse abandoned you, maybe you are an overwhelmed single parent, or maybe you are enduring a difficult and disappointing marriage.

I can’t fully understand any of those things, because God has graciously protected me from all of them. But I know that no family and no marriage will ever satisfy your heart the way God can. God is enough for whatever burden you are bearing, so rest in him, trust in him, and keep obeying his will.

May all of us trust God’s design and find our joy in pursuing God and his will.

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