************ Sermon on Matthew 5:31-32 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 13, 2001
Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:3-12
"Marriage is for Life"
Topic: AdulteryWhenever a country fails to esteem and uphold the institution of marriage, it is a certain proof of its ethical decadence.
In the last few decades before the fall of Rome it was said, "Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." In Rome the years were identified by the names of the consuls; but fashionable ladies identified the years by the names of their husbands; and, they kept tab on their divorces by the number of rings worn on their fingers. One historian quotes an instance of a woman who had eight husbands in five years.
In Ancient Greece the institution of marriage was never held in high esteem. One Greek writer put it this way: "We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day-to-day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for faithful guardianship of our homes."
Jesus speaks to us this evening about marriage and divorce. He reminds us that marriage is supposed to be for life.
Our text this evening is one of six times in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus introduces a subject with a set formula. He says, "You have heard that it was said ... But I tell you." By these six contrasts Jesus is comparing His teaching with the false teaching of the Pharisees.
I want to look at three things with you this evening: first, what the law of Moses teaches about divorce; second, what the Pharisees teach about the law of Moses; third, what our Lord Himself teaches.
I The Law of Moses
A What does the law of Moses teach about divorce? The answer is given in our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 24 (READ DEUTERONOMY 24:1-4). We notice six things in this passage.
First, we need to understand that in spite of the law of divorce, the Lord God was steadfastly opposed to divorce. The law merely tolerated what the Lord God condemned, in order to prevent a greater evil. You see, more than one hard-hearted husband would beat his wife or even murder her in order to be rid of her; the law on divorce gave the husband another option. God is opposed to divorce but He tolerates it, says Jesus, because "your hearts were hard" (Mt 19:8).
B Second, the law of Moses, unlike the teaching of Jesus, does not mention adultery when it talks of divorce. There is a very good reason for this. According to the law of Moses the punishment for adultery was death. Anybody who was found guilty of adultery was stoned to death; the marriage was ended by death, not by divorce (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22,24). This is a very important difference to keep in mind when we look at the teaching of Jesus.
C Third, the law of Moses granted the right of divorce only to the husband. No where was this liberty granted to the wife. This too we need to keep in mind when we look at the teaching of Jesus.
D Fourth, the law of Moses limited divorce only to certain causes. In those days men generally held a very low and poor view of women, and they had come to believe that they had a right to divorce their wives for almost any and every kind of frivolous and unworthy reason. If a man, for any reason whatsoever, was anxious to get rid of his wife, he did so. The primary reason, of course, was lust. That's why Jesus talks of lust and adultery just prior to talking of marriage and divorce. A man, lusting after another woman, would divorce his wife so he was free to pursue the other.
The law of Moses stopped all this. According to the law of Moses, divorce was permitted only when a woman became displeasing because of something "indecent." Before a man could obtain a divorce, he had to establish – in the sight of two witnesses – that there was something unclean about his wife. The law of Moses, therefore, removed all frivolous, superficial, and unjust reasons for divorce. It set limits to what previously had no limits.
E Fifth, the law of Moses said that any man who chose to divorce his wife because of uncleanness must give her a certificate of divorce. This certificate had to be legally drawn up and witnessed. Before the establishment of this law all that any Jewish man had to do was say: "I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you." Just like that the poor wife lost all her rights and privileges within the home. A certificate of divorce prevented this kind of divorce. It prevented divorce from being done hurriedly, in a fit of temper. The transaction was formal, serious, and solemn. It was not something to be done lightly, without thought, in a moment of passion. It served to emphasize the seriousness of marriage.
F And sixth, the law of Moses also stipulated that a man who chose to divorce his wife was not allowed to marry her again. Let's say a man divorces his wife and she marries another. Let's further say that the second husband also divorces her. When this happens, says the law, the woman must not marry her first husband again. The reason is that marriage is not something you can walk in and out of at will.
II The Teaching of the Pharisees
A Next, we need to consider the teaching of the Pharisees about the law of Moses. It is Matthew 19 which best states their point of view. (READ MATTHEW 19:3-12). We notice three things. First, the Pharisees taught that divorce was a "commandment." They asked Jesus,
(Mt 19:7) Why then, did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?As we have already seen, Moses did not command divorce; rather, he permitted it but only under certain conditions.
B Second, the rabbis also gave a very broad meaning to the word "indecent." Remember, a woman could be divorced only for something "indecent." According to the rabbis, a woman who burned supper was indecent. Or, if a man ceased to like his wife or was unsatisfied with her performance, that too made her indecent. The Pharisees reduced the meaning of the word to all kinds of minor shortcomings. What it came down to, as they said to Jesus, was that a man could divorce his wife "for any and every reason" (Mt 19:3). The Jewish leaders reduced the law's demands.
Remember the woman of Samaria Jesus talked to at the well? She had five husbands and now lived common law with another man. We don't know the grounds for her five divorces, but this does show us how widespread and commonplace divorce had become for any and every reason.
Even the disciples of Jesus were affected or infected with this attitude. When Jesus maintained that God's will is no divorce, the disciples were so shocked that they said, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry" (Mt 19:10). They couldn't imagine marriage being for life.
I can't help but observe that today we have a lowering of the standards again. Even within the church people seem to divorce for any and every reason.
C Third, the Pharisees obeyed only one part of Moses' law on divorce: the certificate of divorce. Their silly, ridiculous laws specified that it must be written on 12 lines, no more, no less. No divorce was finalized without this piece of paper and the signature of the two witnesses. This is the worst kind of legalism: a piece of paper is more important than love and obedience; the letter of the law is more important than the spirit; as Jesus puts it, they strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Mt 23:24).
III The Teaching of Jesus
A This brings us now to the teaching of Jesus. What does He say? (READ MATTHEW 5:31-32). I like to remind you that Jesus is not speaking to just anyone here; rather, He is speaking to saved people, to people who have been washed by His blood and renewed by His Spirit. He is telling these people what He expects of them as believers. So, what does Jesus say to us who are believers? We notice six things.
First, we notice that marriage is forever. In Matthew 19 we see Jesus going behind the law of Moses to the law that was given by God at the very beginning of time. Jesus says,
(Mat 19:4-6) "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."In marriage, says Jesus, old relationships are replaced with something new, a one-fleshness. And this relationship, this one-fleshness, is supposed to be for life. No one should break this one-fleshness.
B Second, Jesus says divorce is NOT to be condemned if there is "marital unfaithfulness." Marital unfaithfulness means persistent, unrepentant acts of unchastity. By unchastity I mean things like adultery, homosexuality, sex with animals, sexual abuse of minors, voyeurism, addiction to pornography or strip shows, and the like. Divorce is NOT to be condemned only when a husband or a wife persist in these kinds of sexual sins and are unrepentant of them.
We may not recognize this at first, but in allowing divorce for marital unfaithfulness our Lord shows Himself to be gracious and kind. Don't forget, in Old Testament Israel the penalty for adultery and other acts of unchastity was death by stoning. Jesus now removes this punishment and permits divorce instead. Furthermore, the Old Testament law of divorce often left women and children abused, neglected, and suffering in impossible situations because only the husband was permitted to seek a divorce. Jesus' command permits wives to also initiate action.
We might ask why Jesus permits divorce in the matter of marital unfaithfulness? I read earlier from Genesis that husband and wife become one-flesh. Now, what happens when there is adultery? Paul tells us:
(1 Cor 6:16) Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."When one member of a marriage relationship commits adultery they become one-flesh with someone else and they break the one-fleshness of the marriage relationship. Where there is adultery, the husband and the wife are no longer united to one another. In some mysterious way, where there is marital unfaithfulness the marriage bond is fractured, broken, destroyed. Divorce and remarriage, says Jesus, is NOT to be condemned when the one-fleshness has been broken.
C Third, I want you to notice that God does not command anyone to divorce. As in the law of Moses, God permits divorce rather than commands divorce. The reason is simple: marriage is for life.
Sometimes husband and wives can do cruel things to each other. Husbands can treat their wives like dirt. Wives can cut down and belittle their husbands in front of guests.
When we hurt each other, as we so often do, we must follow the example of God: we must be gracious and forgive. Even as God forgives us, so we must forgive each other as husbands and wives. In other words, instead of commanding divorce, what God does command is love and forgiveness.
Even if there is marital unfaithfulness God's first wish is for us to stay together as husband and wife. God does not want divorce. He never wants divorce. What He wants is repentance, forgiveness, and love.
D Fourth, we have to compare what Jesus says to what is happening in our world today. In many states you can now get what is called a "no-fault" divorce. In Tampa, Florida you can get a divorce without leaving your car: I call it a Drive-thru Divorce. And, couple after couple get divorced today because of reasons of incompatibility. Like the Pharisees, our society allows divorce for any and every reason.
Let's examine the incompatibility issue for a moment. It is fair to say that no incompatibility is as great as that between a believer and an unbeliever. Is this incompatibility a reason for divorce? Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 7. Imagine a husband and wife. The wife is suddenly converted, the husband is not. Here is a woman who has become a new creature in Christ Jesus, but her husband still remains a pagan. His presence makes it very difficult for her to live the Christian life. Can she divorce him? This is what Paul says:
(1 Cor 7:12-14) If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. (13) And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. (14) For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
E Fifth, we see that believers should never initiate divorce. The emphasis is on that little word "initiate." In the case of marital unfaithfulness the sinful party has already initiated the divorce. By the act of adultery the guilty part has actually dissolved the one-fleshness of marriage. In the case of a believer being married to an unbeliever, the believer should not take the initiative for divorce. But if the heathen spouse takes the initiative, "let him do so," says Paul (1 Cor 7:15).
F And sixth, Jesus also reminds us of the basis for marriage. If it is marital unfaithfulness that breaks a marriage, then it is marital faithfulness that makes a marriage.
There is a myth that love is the basis for marriage. Think of what this leads to. Many people say they do not feel love for their husband or wife anymore; therefore, they say, their marriage has lost its foundation and has become a lie. In the same vein they go a step further and say, "I love another woman or another man and that means I now have a new foundation for a new marriage."
Love is not the foundation of marriage. For in every marriage there are moments when a husband and a wife do not like each other. In such moments the feeling of love is not strongly felt. Does this mean the marriage is over? Of course not!
The basis for marriage, the foundation for marriage, is fidelity, faithfulness, commitment. Where there is this faithfulness, the marriage remains together even when love is difficult. Where there is this faithfulness, the two remain one-flesh. And, by the strength of Christ, where there is this faithfulness love can slowly grow and come alive again.
Whether you are married or planning to get married, I want you to realize that marriage is for life. So let me say to all of you:
Hold on to each other. Hold together even when the light seems to have gone out, even when the magic seems to have gone, even when your future together looks dark and dull. Stay together even though it hurts.
Let me also tell you that adultery and divorce without adultery are not unforgivable sins. Yes, they are sins. But God forbid that anyone should ever feel they are outside of His love because of these sins. In other words, if you truly repent, you can be forgiven. But you need to hear also the words of Jesus, "Go, and sin no more."
Let me conclude with a letter written to Ann Landers some nine years ago. This comes from the Columbus Dispatch:
Dear Ann Landers: Eleven years ago, I walked out on a 12-year marriage. My wife was a good person, but for a long time she was under a lot of stress. Instead of helping her, I began an affair with her best friend.
This is what I gave up:
1. Seeing my daughter grow up.
2. The respect of many long-time friends.
3. The enjoyment of living as a family.
4. A wife who was loyal, appreciative and who tried very hard to make me happy.
This is what I got:
1. Two step-children who treated me like dirt.
2. A wife who didn't know how to make anything for dinner but reservations.
3. A wife whose only interest in me was how much money she could get.
4. A wife who disparaged my family and ruined all my existing friendships.
5. Finally, the best thing I got was a bitter, expensive divorce.
Ann, tell your readers that anyone who is married and has his or her next mate all lined up is looking for trouble. People don't know what they are giving up until they no longer have it. Then it's too late.
Signed: Otis of Wisconsin
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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