Whenever a pastor preaches on the subject of marriage and divorce, he’s always in grave danger of being misunderstood, of not saying enough, or breaking the number one rule of preaching. That rule is “Comfort the afflicted with God’s gospel, and afflict the comfortable with God’s law.” If I were doing a lengthy sermon series on marriage then I might be more at ease. But as it is, in this series on universal human longings, we’ll only devote one sermon to marriage and faithfulness. So I’ll make a deal with you. As we examine Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, when you have a question, an objection, or a comment, jot it down for later, because I’m going to avoid everyone after the service! Why did I choose this passage? Because its teaching is extremely important but often neglected in the church. And it addresses one particular ache that almost every single person has deep in their soul.
We all need to love and be loved, to know and be known, especially in the most intimate of relationships—marriage. You are right to jealously expect love and faithfulness from your spouse, but despite good intentions you know you’ve failed in one way or another to be loving and faithful. At some level everyone fears betrayal, so people become adept at guarding their hearts—some more than others. And you know how a guarded heart eats away at love and faithfulness in a marriage! Marriage is hard, and it seems to be getting harder to stay together. The statistics don’t offer much hope that the institution of marriage will stabilize anytime soon. Most people believe that having a happy marriage is a longshot. And so more and more people are opting out or even declining to opt in. Yet the vast majority of us still desire to be married someday. All of this begs the question: Is there any realistic and solid hope today of laying hold of the universal human longing of faithfulness in marriage? Thankfully, as we look at Matthew 19:1-15, we’ll find the answer is Yes. Jesus’ teaching on divorce, which is rooted in God’s creational design for marriage, is difficult to accept but demonstrates its goodness in the way it protects and provides for husbands, wives, and their children. God alone can give us his love, his faithfulness, and his empowering grace to have faithful marriages.
Marriage is Good by Design
Fitting companionship (v. 5)
This verse is a quotation from Genesis 2:24. The only thing in the Garden of Eden that was not good was Adam being alone. He found no fellowship with the animals. So God created a woman to fulfill the man’s need for companionship and to complete God’s very good creation. When a man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, he transfers his most important human allegiance from parents to wife. In a sense the woman does the same thing—from parents to husband. “Two shall become one flesh” refers to the woman (created from the rib of man) returning to unite to the man from which she was created. Human beings were created by God as male and female. This is why men and women fit together by design in marriage. Man and woman are literally made to complement each other in their similarities and differences (1 Cor 6:16; 7:10-16). Furthermore, marriage is designed to put a barrier around the husband and wife, and to remove all barriers between them. Thus husband and wife belong to one another fully and to none other.
Unity in diversity (vv. 4, 6)
Jesus bolsters his argument that marriage is good by also quoting Genesis 1:27 and 5:2. The two (husband and wife) are no longer a single man and a single woman, but are in reality united in one flesh. God has transformed their relational status from single to married. From the moment they are married, they are unified in a way that no other human relationship is united. When a marriage becomes covenantally ratified (“I now pronounce you husband and wife”), in that very moment they have all the God-given marriage rights, responsibilities, and blessings that they did not have just a moment before as singles. Note there is no hint that some married couples are excluded from God’s uniting them in one flesh. All husband-wife marriages (Christian or otherwise) are unions that God has joined in one flesh. By design every marriage is ideally intended to be indissoluble. The logic is if God has joined a man and woman together into a one flesh marital union, who is qualified to separate them? The answer is no one: not the husband, nor the wife, nor any other third party. So the Bible teaches that from the start, marriage was and is a permanent bond between a man and a woman that covenantally unites them as one flesh. Unity in diversity. By the way, from the very beginning of the Bible, these verses in Genesis reveal God’s (not man’s) design and purpose for marriage. Note all three OT quotes illustrate Jesus’ view that the OT is divinely inspired. The verses Jesus quotes (“Therefore a man…”) are not attributed in the final analysis to any human narrator speaking. On the contrary, Jesus claims these are God’s words that institute marriage.
A PCA minister named Sam Andreades pastored a church in Greenwich Village in New York City for over 10 years. Now if you know anything about that neighborhood, you’ll remember it’s a place with a very high homosexual population. So it turned out that Andreades had many gay men attend his church. After years of personal ministry to them, he wrote a fascinating book called enGendered that explores the Bible’s teaching on gender. He also details what he learned from quite a few men who came out of long term homosexual relationships and entered into husband-wife marriages. (Yeah, you probably didn’t know that happens, but you’ll never be able to unhear that. I just put a stone in your shoe that you’ll have to reconcile with your view of sexual orientation. You’re welcome!) The overriding question Andreades was trying to answer is “Does she matter?” In other words, does gender make a difference in the marital relationship? He asked these kinds of married couples because it stands to reason that their unusual perspective could be uniquely insightful. What did he find? The husband-wife couples all testify to an experience of profound unity in diversity that contributes to personal and relational flourishing like no other relationships they previously had—including romantic homosexual relationships. This is what he concluded:
The most enlightening point about gender to which the Bible leads us [is that] gender was given to us to foster intimacy. On the firm ground of [men and women] equally sharing God’s image, differences deliver us into the inner woods of close relationships, where the intoxicating fragrance of love convinces us that things really are all right and that our lives are possible. The power of this gender-wrought intimacy is undeniable (from Andreades’ enGendered, 154).
But in marriage that unity in diversity, that fitting companionship, can be elusive. Why? Because sometimes living out the realities of marriage is not easy. As this Bible passage illustrates, marriage has always been hard in practice.
Marriage is Hard in Practice
Selfish excuses (vv. 3, 7)
Now we meet again a particular brand of Jesus’ enemies—the Pharisees. In the first century the question of legitimate biblical grounds for divorce was a debated question in Jewish religious circles. In standard Jewish interpretation of the law, the husband had the right to divorce his wife upon simple declaration; no trial or appeal were required. All he had to do was give her a written statement of divorce and send her away! (The divorce rights of wives were very limited, but if the husband were charge with abusing his wife, a court could force him to grant his wife a divorce.) There were various “schools” that arose in the generation before Jesus that interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in different ways. For example, the liberal Hillel school supported divorce for almost any reason (emphasizing the word “something” in Dt 24:1)—even if she burned his meal or if he found another woman more desirable. On the other side of the argument, the conservative Shammai school restricted grounds for divorce to sexual immorality, i.e., marital unfaithfulness (emphasizing the word “indecent” in Dt 24:1). By asking Jesus their question on divorce, his enemies set a trap. Do you see it’s obvious they have no intention of learning from the Lord Jesus because they have their rebuttal ready? “But Jesus, Moses himself gave a command regarding the regulation of divorce. Are you against Moses? Ah ha!” How spiritually bankrupt can you be when you’re more interested in haggling over the reasons to divorce your spouse than in marveling at the grace and beauty of marriage?
Here’s the trap: the Pharisees hope to confine Jesus to one of several schools of interpretation, make him choose sides in a theological controversy of their making, put a label on him, and squash his popularity with the crowds. Or even better, to trick Jesus into incriminating himself through a misinterpretation of the law. Or the jackpot, to get Jesus to espouse inflammatory views on marriage such that got John the Baptist arrested and executed! And you thought ours is the first generation in history to make marriage a political culture war issue! The enemies of the Bible’s teaching on marriage are still doing the same to those of us who take Jesus at his word. Do you feel the force of this very public dilemma? Take heart. Jesus sympathizes. He did too. If Jesus sides with Shammai and forbids divorce except for adultery, then the men will be upset that he takes away a liberty they possess and were fond of. But if he sides with Hillel and liberalizes the grounds for divorce, he will scandalize the stricter conservative Bible believers (not to mention the women!) who hold marriage as a sacred covenant. And if he declares himself against divorce altogether, then the Pharisees can readily portray him as an enemy of Moses and the law, and would disqualify him as the Messiah for impurity of doctrine in the eyes of the people.
It’s interesting to note that people who theologically subscribed to the Shammai school outnumbered the Hillelites, but the more liberal Hillelite practice reflected the most dominant practice in Jewish society. In other words, some theological conservatives were acting the hypocrite on the question of proper grounds for divorce. Alas, there is nothing new under the sun! It seems that as a whole, American evangelical culture (of which Reformed people are a subset) are saying they believe one thing about divorce (breaking the sanctity of the marriage covenant) but are willing to consider something different when things get messy in their own families. The statistical trends bear this out, and the only statistical exception that makes a difference is religious commitment and practice. Even self-described Bible-believing Christians are not immune from hard-heart disease.
Hard hearts (vv. 8-9)
Isn’t our Lord marvelous! Jesus was not trapped at all by the Pharisees’ rebuttal. He conceded that divorce was permitted under various circumstances for Israel. But Jesus argued this was a concession because of hard-hearted Israelites. A close reading shows Moses didn’t command divorce or give good reasons for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (“something indecent” in verse 1 is presented as a cause of divorce not a ground for divorce). Rather Moses permitted, provided, and regulated the regrettable event of divorce because hearts get hard with sin! In other words, divorce might be permissible, but it can never be good. When there is divorce, there is always sin involved. Jesus goes back to the beginning of God’s original design for marriage to prove it should be permanent and lifelong. Commentator William Hendriksen explains Jesus’ point in light of Moses’ requirement for giving the woman a certificate of divorce.
It is one thing to say to a man, ‘If you don’t like your wife, go right ahead and divorce her.’ It is an entirely different matter to say, ‘If you are convinced that you have a good reason to reject your wife, you must at least provide her with a bill of divorce. Besides, you better carefully consider what you are about to do; for if you subsequently regret what you have done it may very well be impossible for you to regain what you have lost.
If I’ve learned anything as a husband over the past 16 years, it’s this: if my wife and I have reached an impasse and we’re really emotionally wounded due to the effects of a particular sin, then there is no use in trying to “win” or “opt out”. It’s a dead end that never ever fosters peace or intimacy. I’ve seen couples bring their list of grievances that just grows and grows as we address the items one at a time. The tragedy is that what these folks really need is heart surgery! Because a list of reasons for separation and divorce is not the same as grounds for divorce. I counsel couples, as I counsel you now in the name of the Lord, that if your one-flesh union has not been broken then you must work it out. Your marriage vows still apply: for better or for worse. And realize there is hope for troubled marriages. Do you realize that two thirds of troubled unhappy married couples who are committed to working it out are happy in their marriage five years later? So pray, read the Bible, discuss with each other, seek counseling, confess, repent, forgive, preach the gospel to yourself, and ask God for a change of heart. Don’t let anything remain a threat to your one-flesh union. But you ask, “what if our one-flesh union is broken?”
Does the Bible teach there is anything that breaks the one-flesh union? Jesus says there is one biblically legitimate ground for divorce: sexual immorality, which translates the Greek porneia (cf. Mt 5:32). The lexical meaning is unchastity, prostitution, fornication, or various kinds of unlawful sexual intercourse. Its semantic range includes adultery, incest, homosexuality, molestation, or indecent exposure.” Porneia is not the same as the Greek word for adultery (moicheia) that appears at the end of verse 9. How does adultery enter the discussion? Jesus makes it clear: without a biblically legitimate reason for divorce, remarriage after divorce is adultery for the offending party because marriage is a creation ordinance and is by nature inviolable. This goes for both men and women. If sexual immorality breaks the one-flesh union between a husband and wife, then divorce and remarriage for the victim are permissible, although not ideal. Why not ideal? Because if there is confession and repentance, then an act of forgiveness (with appropriate checks, accountability, and boundaries) can work to restore the one-flesh union that God created when the husband and wife first married.
At the risk of belaboring the point about hard-heartedness, we cannot move on until we bind up the wound this teaching may inflict on the tender-hearted. Jesus is not saying that only hard-hearted people initiate divorce. He’s making a point about the existence of rebellion against God’s ideal for marriage which leads to flagrant sexual immorality and serious defilement of marriages. This is the principle: hardness of heart can destroy marriages, but in God’s kingdom hard hearts are no excuse to neglect God’s way. In the church, Christian spouses should never look for reasons to leave each other, but instead concentrate on how to stay together. Couples should decide against divorce from the very beginning of their marriage. What does that mean? It means you both agree that divorce is “not an option” and that you will work through your troubles based on mutual commitment to each other, to your marriage, and to God as the one who joined you together as a one-flesh union. In my household we don’t even joke about divorce because it’s not funny. The pain of divorce never disappears. If you sometimes find yourself telling or chuckling at jokes about unfaithfulness, sexual immorality, or divorce, then you must admit they are what I call “bad funny” and not “good funny.” Friends, of all people Christians should not be laughing at any sort of “bad funny” humor (Eph 5:3-14). Even though marriage is hard in practice, God’s grace in Christ comes to give us life so we can truly reflect the gospel—especially in our marriages because marriage is a public testimony to and image of the gospel as Christ and the Church are husband and wife.
Marriage is Gift for Life
The call to marriage (vv. 10-12)
In the minds of some, Jesus’ teaching on the grounds for divorce is overly strict. But it is the biblical teaching. A better way to look at it is that the Bible’s teaching on marriage is in accord with the way God’s world works. So if a person cannot accept God’s will for marriage, then the appropriate response is a celibate, single life. To some singles God has given the gift of celibacy, but Jesus recognizes there are many who cannot accept the sexual ethic of abstinence that singleness requires. What the disciples have said (“it is better not to marry”) is technically true, but only for those to whom it has been given. Notice the example of gifted singles Jesus employs: eunuchs! In the Greco-Roman world, eunuchs were ridiculed as effeminate or half-men. Jewish people abhorred castration, and OT law excluded eunuchs from covenant worship (Dt 23:1). In that culture eunuchs were excluded as sexually repressed misfits.
Have you ever heard the Christianese about the “gift of singleness?” I remember when I was younger my single friends and I would talk about the gift of singleness like it was sort of a spiritual booby prize. “Bummer your girlfriends keep breaking up with you, but cheer up, maybe you have the gift of singleness!” That’s not how it is at all.
Look at verses 10-12. Who has the “gift of singleness” according to this passage? Eunuchs: castrated men and those who choose to live like them. Jesus says there are three types of “eunuchs”. The small percentage of people who are born with a birth defect of the genitals and those who are castrated by others are the first two kinds of eunuchs that are the result of the ravages of living in a fallen world. But the third kind of eunuchs are those whose bodies are whole but who choose to live in celibacy like eunuchs (renouncing marriage and sexual activity) for the sake of God’s kingdom (Mt 22:30; Lk 14:26; 18:29; 1 Cor 7:8, 25-40). Jesus says those who can “accept” the last option (to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom) should do so. Celibacy is acceptable, legitimate, and under certain circumstances recommended. Forgoing marriage does give a person more freedom for ministry. Elevating the calling of the eunuch puts Jesus at odds with the mainstream Jewish position of his day, and at odds with the cult of virginity/celibacy that developed in early Christianity. Jesus is unique in affirming the dignity of both the married and single, and the goodness of chastity in both marriage and singleness. He presents neither as a higher spiritual office over the other. But the Bible consistently affirms the goodness of being called to marriage as it pictures the wonderful, mysterious, and loving relationship between Christ and his Church (Gen 1:27-28; 2:24; 9:7; 24:67; Ps 127:3-4; 128:3, 8; Jn 2:1-11; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 5:14; Rev 19:7).
The protection of the vulnerable (vv. 7-9)
So if God loves marriage and hates divorce, why does he grant the concession of divorce and regulate it? (1) To protect the sanctity of marriage from “something indecent” that threatens to defile the relationship. (2) To protect both husbands and wives from each other when one divorces the other on legitimate grounds. (3) To document the status of the wife sent away in order to protect her reputation from accusations of being a harlot or a runaway adulteress. Of course a document gives similar protection for men as well. God’s law intends to protect the victims of divorce who are left vulnerable. Having such laws is important because of the existence of sin and the inevitable breakdown on some marriages in a sin-filled society. Israel’s dismal view of marriage had to be specifically restrained by OT case law. So although God never requires divorce, he permits and tightly regulates it with permission only granted on very specific grounds to protect the vulnerable (cf. Mal 2:14-16; 1 Cor 6:12).
The fruit of godly offspring (vv. 13-15)
Isn’t it curious that a short passage about children and God’s kingdom immediately follows the teaching on marriage and faithfulness? They are related to each other in that both are instances of Jesus reversing the prevailing societal norms to demonstrate the right-side-up values of God’s kingdom. Children are normally the happy heritage of those who are married. A child is an image-bearing, biological monument of that one-flesh union. Children are thus an intentional and appropriate fruit of marriage. Babies are a blessing not a burden (Mal 2:15)! Christians must observe and heed Jesus’ example in how he receives and blesses children. To Jesus, children must not be despised or kept away because they are very important. Why? They show adults the humility and trust required to enter the kingdom of heaven. Our little children are heirs of many kingdom blessings now, and they will realize these blessings in greater fullness as they grow up to the full measure of salvation.
Faithfulness found and expressed in marriage is a universal human longing. So you are not wrong or foolish to long for and seek out the gift of marriage. The blessing of faithfulness flows abundantly when we live within the bounds of God’s design for marriage. God designed men and women for a fit companionship that flourishes in a one-flesh unity in diversity. Marriage meets our deep human longing for love and faithfulness because God loves to give good gifts to us. He gives intimacy to the lonely. He gives protection for the vulnerable. He oftentimes gives the blessing of children. And he calls many (but not all) to marry in this earthly life. But if marriage is not in your future, don’t forget the greater reality that marriage points to. There is a different call to a higher marriage extended to all—including people who will live this earthly life as single, divorced, or widowed. That higher marriage is to the Heavenly Bridegroom—Jesus Christ. Marriage is hard in practice because of sin. But Jesus loves sinners. He is faithful to all who come to him in repentance and faith. He is the perfect Bridegroom. He is like us yet different from us—unity in diversity. You were made for intimate personal relationship with him. So come to him regardless of your marital status for the gift of marriage and faithfulness that lasts beyond this life into eternity.
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