6. Marriage and Divorce in the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 19:1-12 2 October 2022
As we come to today’s passage about Marriage and Divorce in the Kingdom, I realize we are entering territory where I need to tread very lightly.
Because marriage breakdown is one of those topics that touches all of us in some way or another, whether personally or amongst family members or friends. Marriage breakdown causes deep wounds. And sometimes those wounds are multiplied by the way that divorce is talked about, or whispered about, in church.
So today, I want to speak into that space of marriage and divorce, so that it isn’t the subject of whispers and innuendo. Because I want us to be a church where the grace and mercy of Jesus and his kingdom is extended to every person who walks through the doors.
But like I said, that means I need to tread very lightly. So will you pray with me now, that this message comes to each of us with that mercy and grace of Jesus and his kingdom?
Our heavenly Father, you are the God of love, and you love each of us dearly. As we speak about matters of the heart, and matters that leave deep wounds, will you bring peace and grace into the conversation. Will you teach us and guide us now into all truth by your life-giving Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Well you have joined us today in the middle of our sermon series working our way through Matthew chapters 17-21. We’re calling it Kingdom People because it’s all about the way that God wants us to live out our faith on earth as it is in heaven.
And for the last few weeks, we have been deep in Christian ethics. Jesus has been teaching us about how to think Christianly about conflict and forgiveness, and what they look like in the church family.
And that sets the scene for the question that Jesus is asked in our passage today. (v3)
The Pharisee’s Trap
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test [Jesus]. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to
divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)
The Pharisees were the most religiously conservative Jews (of Jesus’ day). The Pharisees prided themselves on following the OT law to the letter, and they considered their rabbis to be the moral arbiters of religion.
And so they come to Jesus with a question of ethics. It’s actually a trap, or a test it says in v3.
They want to know which side of the religious divide Jesus falls on when it comes to his ethics: conservative or liberal.
You see, there were two prominent Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai was the conservative, and Hillel the liberal. And they both interpreted Moses’ teaching about divorce differently.1
The conservative Shammai taught that the only lawful reason for divorce was adultery. But Hillel took a liberal approach to what Moses said in Deuteronomy 24:1. That verse talks about divorce when a husband finds (and I quote) “something indecent” about his wife. Hillel interpreted that to mean that a husband could divorce his wife for any and every reason, including burning the dinner!
So, the conservatives ask Jesus, which side does he fall on? Our side or theirs?
BTW this is an interesting question in our context. California was the first state to permit no- fault divorce in 1970 (when Ronald Reagan was Governor). Since then every other state has followed suit. If there is a silver lining, at least now divorce no longer requires that somebody be judged the at-fault party. But that doesn’t make divorce any less messy.
In the US approximately 50% of all marriages end in divorce, although research says that number is dropping slightly. Something like 28% of Christian marriages end in divorce.2
And when it comes to dealing with divorce in the church, we find that some churches and denominations are very conservative when it comes to divorce and remarriage, and others are very liberal. Some denominations forbid all divorce, where others are more permissive.
So how do we come to a genuinely Christian understanding of divorce?
The answer is very carefully. We start by very carefully unpacking what the Bible says, and then we check that we have read it with humility and generosity, and then we check it against others who have taken the same approach.
Sometimes two people might read the same scripture and come to a different conclusion. And that might happen today. You might hear me and think – no, he has it wrong. I might. But what I’m going to say is the fruit of lots of study, and lots of prayer, and lots of reflection. And I’m happy to discuss it more privately at a later time. That’s part of doing ethics together.
1 Deuteronomy 24:1 ‘something indecent’
So what does Jesus say about divorce?
The Purpose of Marriage
Jesus starts by taking his listeners back to the OT, back to God’s original purposes for marriage.
Jesus quotes from the very first book of the Bible, from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to establish the idea of marriage the way that God intended it.
First, he reminds them that marriage was designed by God. It was ‘the Creator’ who created people, and Jesus tells us that it was the Creator who ordained marriage as part of his good creation.
Second, Jesus asserts that marriage is to be complementary. (v4) says God made them male and female, and he intends marriage to be between a man and a woman. They are made for each other by God’s design.
Thirdly, marriage is to be permanent. In a marriage, the man and the woman are united and ‘the two will become one flesh.’ This is not the kind of relationship that should be easily broken. You wouldn’t tear off your own arm or leg, and so we ought not tear apart the one-flesh relationship that God has created within marriage.
This ‘one flesh’ idea also affirms the goodness of sexuality, one of God’s good gifts to his people. In a marriage, a husband and wife’s physical bodies are joined and from their one flesh comes a lifelong reminder of their union – children, who are literally part mom and part dad. Children are one of God’s blessings to his people in Genesis – he wants us to be fruitful and multiply.
The fourth thing Jesus teaches about marriage is that it is to be exclusive. The two become one, and God wants nothing to come between a husband and wife, or specifically (v6) ‘no one’ must separate them. Because it’s not just that we choose to be joined to one person, then to another as our heart desires. No, it is God who joins us together (v6) in a one-flesh, inseparable relationship.3
3 Based on Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (BST, p202-203) 3
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Now this is a very high standard for marriage. It is God’s original intention for what marriages should be like – wonderful, safe, loving relationships that endure.
Of course, that was all before the fall. At the fall, the first husband and wife, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and brought sin and separation into the world. From that moment, every human relationship has shared elements of the dysfunction of Adam and Eve. It is difficult to attain that high ideal for marriage the way that God intended it.
And that’s why the fifth thing this passage teaches us is that marriage isn’t for everyone. (v10)
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (Matthew 19:10-11)
In a world that says we can only find happiness and fulfilment in sexual relationships, Jesus says actually for some people it is better not to marry. In v12 he says that there are some people who choose to be ‘eunuchs’ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. That is, there are some people who choose to remain unmarried because that is the pathway that God opens up for them in life.
And this is not the time for a sermon about singleness, but remember that Jesus himself never married, never had children and yet we would consider him the most loved and most loving human who has ever walked the earth. Jesus teaches us that intimacy with God is even more fulfilling than the intimacy of the marriage relationship, and more permanent than marriage which ends with death. Marriage itself is used to describe the relationship between Jesus and the church: a wonderful, loving, safe, permanent, protective and grace-filled relationship...
That’s the picture Jesus paints of marriage.
But the Pharisees want to know about the ethics of divorce. (v7)
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)
The Possibility of Divorce
The Bible is really clear that divorce is not part of God’s plan for marriage. In Malachi 2:16, God says he hates divorce, or at least he says there is something terrible about divorce when a man hates his wife, and divorces the one he ought to have protected. There is a kind of violence about it, God says.
And historically, that was often the case with divorce. In those very early days of Moses, divorce was a fact of life for God’s people, even if it wasn’t part of God’s purposes for marriage. Divorce happened, and it happened to women who were in a very vulnerable position.
In ancient cultures, women were often treated as property, and while a man may divorce a woman and marry another, he could come back at any time and claim rights over the previously divorced wife if he so chose.
But the certificate of divorce declared the legal dissolution of the marriage. The certificate of divorce meant this woman could remarry without fear of her former husband returning to claim her again. Without this she had no hope of convincing another man to marry her.
And so God’s command about providing a certificate of divorce was actually a protective measure. It was a necessary concession in a society that had undermined the goodness of marriage.
And that’s what Jesus says in v8:
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
It’s interesting that Jesus is talking to men, isn’t it? I know divorce isn’t one-sided, but for their male-dominated society, the power was in the hands of men. And Jesus had to teach the men to respect the sanctity of marriage.
You see, Jesus doesn’t declare that divorce is a ‘command’ of God. He said it is something that Moses permitted, because of the hardness of the human heart.
Sin makes us mess up even the relationships that mean the most to us. That’s why we need to forgive, and forgive without ceasing. (That was our lesson from last week.) But it’s not always enough. Sometimes our hearts are too hard, and our relationships are too broken to save.
And that’s why God allows the possibility of divorce. ~
You might have been at a church which teaches that divorce is sinful. I think here, Jesus says divorce is a fact of life in a broken and sinful world. It’s not the ideal, but where divorce happens, Jesus recognizes it and takes steps to protect the vulnerable.
I’m going to say more about that in a moment.
Remarriage after divorce?
But let me jump back into v9. Because Jesus gives a new teaching about divorce and remarriage. He says:
9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9)
Some commentators call this ‘The Matthean Exception’. Their interpretation of this verse is that sexual immorality is the only legitimate reason why a person might ask for divorce.
And there is good reason for that. Adultery, or sex with a person outside of the one-flesh marriage relationship, tears at the fabric of a relationship. The two become one, but then you add someone else into the mix, and the sanctity of the one-flesh relationship is torn apart.
But the word Jesus used for sexual immorality means more than just physical adultery. Porneia is the Greek root behind our word pornography. Porneia encompasses a whole host of sexual thinking and activities that are destructive to relationships. From lustful thoughts, to inappropriate relationships, to instant messaging, to acting out sexually online. Jesus says these can be relationship killers, as much as physical adultery. We mustn’t be fooled.
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27)
And I think that’s the intention behind Jesus’ comment in v9. Look closely at what it says about the person who initiates the divorce. He says that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. Jesus was condemning the idea of people getting rid of one spouse in order to be with someone else. That’s adultery! And in Matthew 5:32, Jesus says that when a divorce happens like that, the abandoned wife is actually the victim of the husband’s adultery.
Many Christian traditions take these verses to say that any remarriage after divorce makes a person an adulterer. Whether they were the person who committed adultery, or the victim. But is that what Jesus is really saying?
If I read Jesus correctly, he is saying that remarriage is a possibility, at least for the person who is the innocent party. The adultery of the spouse has effectively ended the marriage, because he or she has broken the one-flesh union. And the innocent divorcee is free to remarry. Divorce is the ending of a marriage before death.
Now I know some will consider this a controversial interpretation, but I’m just trying to read Jesus’ words faithfully.
Because it seems to me that Jesus would want justice for the victim of adultery, rather than condemn them to a life of celibacy because of somebody else’s sin. That wouldn’t seem fair.
And I take it that this is true of other sins that cause the death of a marriage. Things like abandonment, and abuse. God’s concession of divorce was there to protect the weak and vulnerable. Surely he would protect in those circumstances... And surely he would set the victim free to marry again, if that first marriage was truly dead.
Some will agree with me, and some won’t.
In all things charity...
It’s tricky, isn’t it, applying kingdom ethics? We need to read the scriptures carefully, and with humility, and with generosity. As I’ve read different books and papers this week about divorce, I’ve had to weigh arguments and decide if they are biblically faithful.
But at the end of the day, our discussion is not about the legal arguments for and against divorce or remarriage. We’re actually talking about real people, and real marriages, and real heartbreak and pain and sorrow that comes from the breakdown of marriages. And so when we speak about this subject, we’re never speaking in a vacuum. We have all felt the effects of divorce to a certain degree, and some more than others.
So as a church, I want us to practice kingdom ethics. I want us to think like Jesus, and speak like Jesus. Because Jesus always infused his conversations with grace and mercy, especially to those who were hurting. And when a person joins our church family here, no matter what their background, I want them to know the same Christ-like grace and mercy through everything we say and do.
Because at the end of the day, we are all victims of the brokenness that comes from sin. And we’re all guilty of bringing brokenness into the relationships that mean the most to us. None of us are innocent in that sense.
And yet our Lord is consistently compassionate to those who fail, repent, and come back to him for restoration. There is no sin too great for the Lord to forgive, and no heart too broken for him to fix.
Isn’t that good news? Let’s pray.