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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

On Divorce

Matthew 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12


The teaching of Jesus on the subject of marriage and divorce has never been popular. Today’s lesson gives us the reasons why.

(Mat 19:1-12 NIV) When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. {2} Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. {3} Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" {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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." {7} "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" {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 marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." {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. {12} For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

(Mark 10:1-12 NIV) Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. {2} Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" {3} "What did Moses command you?" he replied. {4} They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away." {5} "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. {6} "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' {7} 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, {8} and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. {9} Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." {10} When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. {11} He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. {12} And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."
The state of marriage


In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times we find that it is less popular than ever. I quote:

The National Organization for Women launched an attack on the Promise Keeper’s men’s movement this week, contending that the goal of the popular evangelical organization is to repeal women’s rights.

“We are here today to announce our ‘no surrender’ campaign,” Patricia Ireland, NOW’s president, told a news conference. “When Promise Keepers talks about men taking responsibility, they really mean men taking control and women taking the back seat.”

The campaign – the distribution of a video and special report on the movement – comes as Promise Keepers plans a national rally Oct. 4 in Washington.

This is a sad thing. One of the great features of the Promise Keeper movement is the encouragement it gives men in staying faithful to their wives. Indeed, we live in a time very much like that of the Old Testament prophet Malachi:

(Mal 2:13-16 NIV) Another thing you do: You flood the Lord's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. {14} You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. {15} Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. {16} "I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

Divorce and violence are honored in our society; is it any wonder our prayers go unheard by the living God?

In Jesus’ time

Marriage was in a similar state then. The law of Moses permitted a divorce but was somewhat vague as to the cause of divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives the cause as “something indecent” (NIV) or some uncleanness. There were two schools of thought about this in rabbinical literature:

·         The school of Shammai held that divorce was permissible only on the grounds of adultery. Period. Nothing else.

·         The school of Hillel was much more liberal. Basing themselves on various scripture passages, they said that she could be divorced if she

·         Spoiled his dinner

·         Went about with her hair down

·         Spoke to other men in the street

·         Could be heard quarreling one house away (a “brawling woman”)

·         Spoke disrespectfully of his parents

·         Among other grievous offenses.

·         There was a third, and worse, school to come. Akiva held that such indecency could be interpreted as meaning that the husband had found a prettier woman whom he wished to marry.

Worse was the state of the divorced woman. She was required to have her dowry returned to her, but other than that she depended upon male relatives for her protection – for she had no rights in court.

The test of the Pharisees

So the Pharisees put Jesus to the test. You can see the two options he has:

·         He can accept the popular clamor – you can easily guess which view was more popular with men, who rule in this society – and confirm the “law.”

·         He can take the higher road – which he does. This is not popular, but it is righteous.

God’s plan for marriage

To understand why Jesus gave such a severe reaction to the question we must first understand God’s view of marriage.

“From the beginning”

It is important to understand what is being said in the early part of the book of Genesis. However else you take the story of Adam and Eve, it is clearly intended to be of allegorical (symbolic) significance. This is not to say the story is not literally true. Rather, it is to say that you must attach proper importance to the symbolic aspects of the story. Adam and Eve are the picture of what God meant man and woman to be. They are a statement of God’s intentions for mankind. If you know the right use of a thing you usually know what the thing is.

·         “In his image” – mankind is made in the image of God. This is a striking statement. Among many other meanings it implies that we are to act as God would act, and God acts faithfully. If we promise in marriage, we are to keep those promises.

·         “Male and female” – please, folks, there is a difference. I know that we are bombarded daily with the idea that there is not, but God says he made us that way, and not by accident. The distinction between male and female is to be preserved (which, by the way, accounts also for the hostility to homosexuality as well).

·         “One flesh” – the union between man and woman is to be so tight that the two are like one body. You are to value your wife like she is your own body – because she is. The two become one.

Idolatry and Adultery

An even stronger indication of how God feels about divorce is taken from the fact that throughout the Old Testament God refers to idolatry in the figurative sense as adultery. He pictures Israel (the forerunner and type of the church) as his faithless wife. I see in this two ideas:

·         First, as one author put it, “God has painted on the living canvas of our bodies a picture of his love for the church.” We are the image; we are the Mona Lisa picture of how God loves the church. Man portrays Christ; woman portrays the church. To change the imagery is as offensive as repainting the Mona Lisa to look like Elvis Presley.

·         More directly, God, we are told, is love. Adultery (despite what Hugh Hefner taught us) shatters the love relationship. Idolatry shatters the relationship between man and God. In both cases the God who is love is greatly grieved and angered, for in both cases love is insulted and assaulted.

The law of “no return”

The Old Testament laid down that once a woman was divorced she could no longer return to her first husband; the relationship was forever broken (Deu. 24:1-4). Wishful thinking still abounds, however. How often I have heard women who are divorced (and are otherwise quite reasonable people) tell me that they are sure that they will get back with their first husband – even if it means divorcing the second (or third) one. Our hearts know what is right, what ought to be, but our actions have put it out of reach. Divorce is like ripping your arm off; you can’t just stick it back on, unless you’re Mr. Potato Head.

Which, by the way, does bring up by analogy the question of whether or not you can finally reject salvation, once having been a Christian. My thought – and many disagree, and reasonably – is that the Jehovah of the Old Testament sent Hosea to buy back his faithless wife Gomer; that he sought the nation of Israel again and again, and that he will seek us too. Today, if you will hear his voice.


The teaching is not without reaction, and almost all of it is negative.

The Pharisees

Their reaction is, by now, almost predictable. They run right to the law for passage and verse, and ask, “what about….” After all, didn’t Moses permit it?

Indeed he did. But Jesus lays down not law but principle. It is well for us to distinguish three cases:

·         Principle – that which ought to be the ideal, that which is to be sought for. If you are writing traffic laws, the principle is that you prevent accidents in all circumstances.

·         Law – that which comes from the ideal, but which can be enforced by mortal men. You ought not to cross the intersection until safe – but you have the right of way when the light is green.

·         Permission – that which you may do, but which is not protected as legal right. You may turn right on red – but I wouldn’t advise seeing if that truck can slide to a stop behind you.

Christ tells them they have the permission of Moses to divorce their wives. That doesn’t mean that it’s God’s principle. God’s intention is that marriage is happiness for this life.

The disciples

Interestingly, the disciples are stunned. If things are that tight, then wouldn’t it be better not to marry? Paul says much the same thing , in a way, in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians.

Jesus, and Paul amplifies this later on, places the matter in terms of those who have the gift. There are some people for whom the work of the church is such that they cannot be married. For most of us this is not the case. It may also be taken that some of us should not marry because we are not capable of carrying out the duty of marriage – we are so shallow that we cannot keep our promises. First things first.

But indeed, who could keep such a strict standard, especially in our day? The one who can “receive it.” And from whom do we receive, if not God? So we have it; those who have help from God can do this. Those without, cannot.

The reaction of our time

In our time we have largely ignored this teaching.

·         First, we have separated out “sexual morality” from all other forms. It’s not OK to cheat on a business contract. It is OK to cheat on your sworn word to your wife. The former is morality. The latter is “sexual morality.” This is a distinction without a difference, but an excellent measure of the fallen nature of our time.

·         The casual acceptance of divorce – especially by the church – is another symptom. The ease with which people shop for churches has made this more common (if they don’t like it, I’ll go down the street). But in many ways our acceptance of divorce (which is greatly different from our acceptance of the divorced) is a terrible mark on our testimony to the world. Christian marriage should be different from the world’s version.

Even at that, there is still hope:

(2 Chr 7:14 NIV) if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

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