Matthew 5:31-32

Matthew 5:31-32

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

To be perfectly honest, I am approaching our subject today with a measure of caution, though I want to make it clear that I am not approaching it with any apology.  We must never apologize for preaching God’s Word.  Even so, this passage is, perhaps more than any other, the one part of the Sermon on the Mount I have not been “looking forward to” preaching.  Not because I don’t believe it is true.  It is true. But rather because the issue of divorce touches so many lives and is disagreed upon by so many Christians and is so fraught with controversy that my fear is we won’t give God’s Word a clear and accurate hearing this morning.  Frankly, I fear that our emotional reactions to the idea of divorce and to the idea of a sermon on divorce will hinder us from giving Scripture an accurate hearing.  Of course, giving it an accurate hearing assumes that I am giving it an accurate preaching, and that raises yet another question:  what exactly does Jesus say here and what does He mean by what He says?

I am also feeling a sense of caution because in any gathering of this size there will be numerous instances of divorce, each containing numerous backstories that may or may not grant legitimacy to the divorce.  I do not begrudge your emails.  Feel free to send them.  But this will, indeed, be a sermon that gets emails because of how sensitive this issue is.

I’m ok with all of that so long as we all agree on certain fundamental truths.  First, that God’s Word reveals God’s heart and we should bow to God’s heart.  Second, that God’s Word should shape our opinions and not vice verse.  And third, that the preacher’s job is to proclaim God’s Word regardless of how popular or unpopular it might be.

I suspect there is something else we can all agree on:  something is wrong with our approach to marriage in this country and this is reflected in the divorce culture in which we live.  By “divorce culture” I am referring to the whole, national malaise concerning marriage and divorce.  I am referring to the phenomenon of cheap, disposable marriages.  I am not saying that every divorce indicates that those in the marriage viewed it as cheap and disposable.  That would be absurd.  Many of you in this room have been through divorce and would see it as anything but inconsequential.  One member of our church told me this week that the aftermath of a divorce feels like standing in the rubble of your home that has just been obliterated by a tornado, wondering how to start picking up the pieces.  No, not all who have gone through a divorce are apathetic about it, but it is undeniable that our culture in general approaches the issue in many ways that reveal a spirit of profound misunderstanding about what marriage even is and what exactly is happening when divorce happens.  Even when we agonize over divorce, we oftentimes don’t have the theological and biblical understanding to understand even the origins of our own pain.

How has our culture reached this point?  How have we reached this point of confusion concerning marriage and divorce? I am inclined to lay the blame primarily at the feet of the sin of selfishness, and I think there are good reasons for doing so.  But I am also impressed by the opinion of Midge Decter who wrote this while reviewing Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s book, The Divorce Culture:

The truth is, the divorce culture has come upon us not as the result of our selfishness—people have always been selfish—and not as the result of the tension between the sexes—that tension has been a permanent fixture of human existence—and not out of any unconcern for our children—children have seldom in history been so much attended to and so kindly treated as ours. The disarray…is brought about by the fact that the lives we lead are in respect of ease and comfort and confidence and good health simply unprecedented. Never have so many, even the poor among us, had so much. We are disoriented. We do not know whether to laugh or to cry; we do not know whom or what to thank; and we cannot think of what there might be to want next. And so we giggle and preen and complain and forget our debts and keep on seeking for things (and sometimes finding them). In short, there is no merely social cure for what ails us.[1]

I suspect there’s something to that.  We are a spoiled and comfortable people.  Our relationships reflect this fact, and so do our divorce statistics.  We are, indeed, disoriented.  And what should one do when he is disoriented?  Well, he should seek to be oriented.  And how does one get oriented?  He finds a true and fixed point of orientation.  He finds “true North,” we might say.  Or, to put it another way, he finds Jesus.

That’s what we’re going to do today.  We’re going to reorient ourselves on the issues of marriage and divorce by listening to Jesus.  What, then, does Jesus say on the issue?  How should we as Christians think?

I. Marriage is not disposable.  It is sacred before God.

Jesus has just spoken on lust.  He has said that we can commit adultery in our hearts by looking at somebody with lustful intent.  He continues to speak of adultery, this times in terms of divorce.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

As you hear these words, it is important to remember that these two verses are a continuation of the preceding verses concerning lust and the human heart.  The sections should not be separated and isolated from one another.  Here, too, Jesus is saying something about lust and the human heart.  He is expounding further on the verses immediately preceding this.

To understand what is going on here, we must understand the specific, first century Jewish controversy concerning marriage and divorce to which Jesus is referring in these words.  The controversy involved two passages on marriage and divorce from the Old Testament and what they meant for the issue at hand.  The verses are found in Deuteronomy 22 and 24.

First, consider what Moses says in Deuteronomy 22.

13 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ 15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; 17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 22 “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

This seems relatively clear enough.  In the Old Testament, if a man married a woman and then found that she was not a virgin, that she had been sexually active before their marriage, he could have her put to death.  Then, in Deuteronomy 24, Moses wrote this:

1 When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Here, Moses says that the discovery of “indecency” in the wife by the husband validates the giving of a decree of divorce.  This decree, it would seem, was actually for the woman’s protection as it would allow her to remarry without impunity.

Taken together, in the minds of the Jews, these two texts created a problem.  If Deuteronomy 22 reveals that sexual indecency was punishable by death and Deuteronomy 24 reveals that indecency could lead to legal divorce and the granting of a certificate of divorce, does that not mean that the indecency spoken of in Deuteronomy 24 must be of a different sort than the indecency spoken of in Deuteronomy 22, for the one leads to death and the other to a decree of divorce?

Two schools of thought quickly arose among the Jews over this question.  The followers of Rabbi Shammai took a strict view, interpreting the indecency in both chapters as infidelity, but arguing that Deuteronomy 22 referred to sexual sin before marriage by the woman which she had attempted to cover up and that Deuteronomy 24 referred to adultery after marriage.  The followers of Rabbi Hillel interpreted it much more liberally to refer to any kind of unfaithfulness.  In other words, the indecency spoken of in Deuteronomy 24 might be almost anything.

As Hillel’s more liberal interpretation caught on, it opened the door for great abuses in the area of divorce and remarriage.  Carl Vaught has pointed out that it was permissible for a man to make his wife go into a house where a person had died, which rendered her ceremonially unclean, and then give her a writ of divorce when she came out.[2]  In other words, this broad definition of indecency led to husbandly manipulation of the wife to make her indecent and unclean.  Furthermore, others argued that you could divorce your wife if she spoiled your food or if the husband “found another fairer than she.”  Daniel Doriani points to the 2nd century (B.C.) Apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, which says, “If she will not do as you tell her, get rid of her.”[3]

The upshot of all of this is that Jesus was being drawn into and was addressing a debate over precisely this question:  should marriages be disposable?  In general terms he was addressing this issue:  just how important is marriage?  To many of the Jews, marriage had become tragically disposable.  By following what they understood to be the letter of the law, they were able to dissolve unions that God had made between men and women.  Here, too, Jesus is saying that righteousness is not just a matter of the strict adherence of technical law.  Rather, righteousness is a matter of the inner condition of the human heart before God.  Any heart that could reduce the miracle of marriage to the parsing of particular words is a heart going in the wrong direction.

Oddly enough, we as believers often approach our text this morning with the same mentality:  what is the exact meaning of the words that will allow me to end my marriage?  However, let us note that even that is not the point.  The point is the condition of our hearts and whether or not we value marriage as the Lord God does.

When all is said and done, we modern Americans have our own equivalents to the Jewish heresy of, “If she burns your toast you can divorce her.”  Our equivalents are more subtle and are usually bathed in emotional and sentimental language:  “We fell out of love.”  “We just grew apart.” “Sometimes life takes you in different directions.”  “I’m not happy anymore.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, marriage is not disposable and these kinds of vague sentimental assertions are simply that:  vague and sentimental.  They do not speak of the rock-solid commitment of covenant vows expressed between a man and woman before God and in sight of the assembled saints.  They do not honor the profound mystery of God making two fleshes into one flesh.  They are our own weird parallels to, “She burnt my toast.  It’s over.”  What is more, apparently divorcing for these shallow reasons does not work anyway.  I was struck by the following words in an article highlighting some research on the issue of divorce and happiness.

The popularly held notion that divorce is the answer to marital unhappiness was recently debunked by a team of leading family scholars at the University of Chicago.  Their study discovered that people who divorce their spouses when marriages get rocky are less likely to find happiness than those who stay married.  They found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were any happier than unhappily married people who stay married.  Researchers, led by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, also determined that 80 percent of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later.  Divorce didn’t reduce symptoms of depression or raise self-esteem compared to those who stayed married, the study found.

“In popular discussion, in scholarly literature, the assumption has always been that if a marriage is unhappy, if you get a divorce, it is likely you will be happier than if you stayed married,” said David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values.  “This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and there is no evidence to support this assumption.”[4]

No, divorce as a step towards happiness-maintenance does not seem to be a good idea, even by secular standards.  This was the mentality Jesus was dealing with when He said the words in our text.  In many cases, this is the mentality we are dealing with today as well.

D.A. Carson said it well when he said, “Love has become a mixture of physical desire and vague sentimentality; marriage has become a provisional sexual union to be terminated when this pathetic, pygmy love dissolves.”[5]  At the very least let us acknowledge this fact:  marriage is not disposable.  It is sacred before God.  This is a fact that our culture and, most tragically, our churches seem to have forgotten.

II. Divorce is an extreme act that must be considered only with fear and trembling and only within divinely-allowed parameters.

Even so, as Jesus acknowledges, sacred things in a fallen world do not always abide.  There are times when marriages fall apart.  Sometimes divorce must happen, at least from our perspective.  However, even if it must happen, we should see divorce as an extreme act that must be considered only with fear and trembling and only within divinely-allowed parameters.

Divorce is a big deal.  Approached wrongly or selfishly or flippantly, it invites the judgment of God.  Consider the words of the prophet Malachi in Malachi 2:

13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Yes, a sinful divorce is an impediment to our relationship with God.  It affects our worship and our walk.  It is, as Malachi says, a “violent” thing.  How so?  Because, as C.S. Lewis rightly pointed out, divorce is like an amputation.

…Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. There is, of course, a difference here between different Churches: some do not admit divorce at all; some allow it reluctantly in very special cases. It is a great pity that Christians should disagree about such a question; but for an ordinary layman the thing to notice is that the Churches all agree with one another about marriage a great deal more than any of them agrees with the outside world. I mean, they all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment. What they all disagree with is the modern view that it is a simple readjustment of partners, to be made whenever people feel they are no longer in love with one another, or when either of them falls in love with someone else.[6]

Yes, it is “a kind of surgical operation.”  It is separating one flesh back into two.  This is why, in Matthew 19, Jesus evokes the language of Genesis in responding to the Pharisees questions about divorce.

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

That is a fuller statement than our text this morning, and the primary addition is a harkening back to the first marriage of our first parents in the Garden of Eden.  Just as God brought Adam and Eve together and made one of two, so He does today.  For this reason, divorce, even if necessary, should be approached with fear and trembling.  It is no small thing.

So, too, in Mark 10, we Mark’s account of that scene:

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

The last two verses highlight the seriousness of divorce.  In verses 11 and 12 Jesus says that wrongful divorced and divorce unsanctioned by God leaves the people in a state of adultery. Carl Vaught has offered a helpful viewpoint on verses 11 and 12 in particular:

In interpreting this passage, everything hinges upon how we translate the Greek word kai in the second and third clauses.  Though it is usually translated “and,” it may also be rendered “in order to”; and if that is done in this case, the significance of the passage is transformed immediately.  Let us then translate the verses in Mark with this possibility in mind:

And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another woman, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband in order to marry another man, she is committing adultery.”[7]

I am not sure that Vaught’s suggestion holds water, but it is worth noting as a possibility.  That being said, it is undeniable that the motivation behind divorce is a key element that Jesus is addressing.  To divorce your spouse simply out of a desire to be with another person is a great wrong.  To divorce your spouse for selfish reasons, or because you do not want to work at the relationship, is also a great wrong.  In truth, the legitimate bases of divorce seem to be limited indeed.

It is clear, from our text, that sexual immorality is grounds for a divorce.  It should be noted that Jesus never says you must or even should divorce your spouse if they fall sexually.  Rather, He says divorce is permitted in such cases.  I have known many Christian couples who survived affairs, who worked through the pain and tragedy of sexual sin and came through restored on the other side.  Even here, we should strive to see God work a miracle and not be quick to abandon our spouses.

Are there other acceptable reasons for divorce?  It is generally agreed that Paul offers one in 1 Corinthians 7.

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

This is what is known as “the Pauline exception.”  Here, God’s Word would appear to allow divorce in the case of abandonment.  If your unbelieving spouse abandons you, you are free to divorce.

Are there other cases?  Here we enter into a very old and very heated debate among Christians, and we should do so humbly.  A strict reading of Scripture (as I read it, anyway) would appear to allow divorce in only two cases:  sexual immorality and abandonment.  Some hold only to those two.  Other Christians, who equally love and value the authority of God’s Word, argue that, in context, Jesus is addressing a specific issue in a specific cultural context and in light of a specific debate among the Jews.  They argue that Jesus is striking against the Jews’ penchant for easy divorce, and that His intent was not to give an exhaustive statement and catalogue of every acceptable reason for divorce.

It is true that context should inform our reading.  Even so, the words of Jesus do not appear to me to leave a great deal of leeway, and we should not seek to distort His words for our own purposes.

What is more challenging to me, personally, is Paul’s granting of an additional reason for divorce.  Let me explain.  In 1 Corinthians 7, as we just saw, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, grants freedom to a spouse who has been abandoned.  Presumably this is the freedom to remarry and not be in sin.  It is likely, also, freedom to divorce.  What is interesting there is that this fact alone would mitigate against a woodenly strict reading of Jesus’ words in the gospels.  Meaning, apparently there is at least one other area in which divorce is justifiable, an area no readily apparent when we read the words of Jesus in the gospels.  Is Paul conflicting with Jesus?  By no means.  We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God.

But if that is the case (and it seems indisputable to me that it is), that may mean a couple of things.  It may simply mean that the justifiable bases for divorce have gone from one (sexual immorality) to two (sexual immorality and/or abandonment).  Or some interpret it to mean that Paul is presenting us with a paradigm in which we evaluate current situations not specifically addressed in Scripture but always in light of the teachings of Scripture.

Let me use one example:  abuse.  Jesus does not address the issue of physical abuse explicitly, and certainly not in relation to the question of marriage and divorce.  However, Scripture seems to offer teachings that might inform our consideration of such an issue.  For instance, mothers are enjoined to love their children (Titus 2:4).  Jesus assumes that even fallen men would never neglect the needs of their children (Matthew 7:9-11).  Jesus gives dire warnings against those who would harm children (Mark 9:42).  Furthermore, Jesus himself stops a group of men from violently assaulting a woman (John 8:1-11).

What are we to make of these things?  Are we free carefully to build other legitimate cases for divorce on the basis of other clear biblical principles?  As a rule, I think this is an idea fraught with danger.  Such an idea would open the door to a chaotic imposition of our own opinions on the text.  However, it is perhaps legitimate to say that sometimes life presents us with competing values.  For instance, a Christian wife will seek to value the miracle of marriage and the significance of the two-become-one work of God.  On the other hand, if this wife is being violently abused, or if her husband is abusing the children, then certainly the passages mentioned above would mean that the act of divorce in this case is not selfish or self-centered.  Rather, it is being done in light of the whole counsel of God’s Word and in an effort to protect herself and her children from violent crimes.

Another way of saying this might be to say that sometimes divorce is the lesser of wrongs, even if not explicitly mandated in Scripture.  I will be so bold as to suggest that sexual immorality, abandonment, and (in my opinion) abuse are legitimate grounds for divorce, given the understanding and approach articulated above.  Again, this is my opinion, and I hope I have shown that I have sought to ground this opinion in Scripture as well.

Regardless, even when permitted, divorce must be seen as a radical and painful step to be taken in the fear of God and in light of the whole counsel of God.

III. The grace of God meets us here and now to forgive and equip us, not to license us for shallow approaches to marriage.  

To leave the matter there would be to leave some of you with relief and others of you with great shame.  After all, in a gathering of this size, it is very likely that we have legitimate and illegitimate divorces present.  But is that the end of the matter?  If you divorced wrongly, are you simply stuck in your sin and guilt?  Even if you divorced for legitimate reasons, must you always carry around the stigma of divorce?

Let me say, on the basis of the blood of Jesus Christ, and in the shadow of the cross on which He paid our sin-debt, and in the face of the empty tomb where Jesus rose victorious:  no and no!  Does divorce fall well short of God’s ideal?  Yes.  Is it oftentimes, maybe even most times, a sin?  Yes.  But is it unforgiveable and the sin above all other sins?  Absolutely not.

I would be lying if I did not tell you that I oftentimes marvel at the way we have separated this one sin from all others.  In many churches divorced people are made to feel like second-class citizens and subpar Christians.  But may I remind you that the central point of what Jesus is doing at this juncture in the Sermon on the Mount is reminding us that righteousness is not defined by technical adherence to the letter of the Law but rather to the inner condition of the human heart?  Can I remind you that the very heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to free us from the bondage and shackles of sin, death, and hell?

Yet, it is important that the forgiveness of God not be turned into a license for selfishness.  To say, “Eh, I’ll just divorce her and God will forgive me,” is to reveal a lack of the very repentance that opens the heart to forgiveness in the first place.  That mentality makes a mockery of the cross, and God is not mocked.

But for you who have struggled under the taint of the divorced, who have been the object of Satan’s particular attacks and arrows of guilt, may I say to you that Jesus Christ, Lord of Heaven and Earth, is here, now, with open arms.  He loves all of us poor sinners, divorced or not.  His blood is more than sufficient.

Whatever you’ve done or not done, wherever you’ve been or not been, whatever road you walked to get here…the love of Jesus is sufficient!  The grace of Jesus is sufficient!  The blood of Jesus is sufficient!

Come to Jesus, brothers and sisters.  Come to Jesus and live.



[1] RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things.  August/September 1997.

[2] Carl G. Vaught, The Sermon on the Mount. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2001), p.82.

[3] Daniel Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2006), p.69.

[4] USA Today, July 11, 2002.  Referred to In:  On Mission.  Nov.-Dec., 2002, p.9.

[5] D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), p.49.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), p.105.

[7] Vaught, p.83.

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