Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In 2020, there were about 2.71 million people who had obtained a legal divorce in Canada. This figure has been steadily increasing since 2000 when there were about 1.88 million divorces in Canada. Divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within broader Roman world.
Many Christian brothers and sisters are experiencing or have experienced the misery of divorce. Some are caught between warring parents and others may have been the offending party. Situations in some lives can be so convoluted it is challenging to know how to apply Biblical principles. At the same time, the Church must be prophetic. We must speak God’s Word to a hostile culture—regardless of what the culture thinks. Let’s be honest. Few, if any, preachers out there will want to write a sermon on this text. But, it’s one of those texts in the Bible that if read out loud, you must preach on it. Divorce has touched too many lives to ignore a passage like this, especially when Jesus is talking. The bottom line is, what does Jesus say about marriage and divorce?
A Trap Concerning Divorce
The Pharisees were out to trap Jesus in his own words. And what better place to trap Him than in the sticky matter of marriage and divorce. “Is it permitted for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s a trick question. Look and see where this incident is taking place. It’s down by the Jordan, in the Judaean wilderness. Who used to work there? John the Baptist. Why did John get put in prison and finally lose his head? For criticising Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod’s wife, Herodias, had needed to divorce Philip so that it could happen. If they can get Jesus to condemn Herod like John, maybe he’ll lose his head too! It all makes sense. Jesus, of course, can spot the trap a mile off; and he certainly knows how he deals with it. In public, they have a debate about the meaning of different scriptural texts. Jesus only gives the detailed answer when he’s in private with the disciples.
“What did Moses command you?” Jesus sends out the diagnostic question. Moses wrote the first five books of the OT and quite a bit about marriage. Where in Moses would they turn? “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to put her away,” the Pharisees chimed back. Well, not exactly. Deuteronomy 24 says that if a man gets married and finds something “indecent” he can write a divorce bill and send her out of his house. If she goes off and marries another man, and her new husband likewise divorces her or dies, then she can’t go back to the first husband. That would be an abomination to the Lord. In other words, Moses was regulating divorce and remarriage, not permitting it. The Pharisees figured as long as you had your legal paperwork in order before you kicked your wife out of the house, then everything was OK as far as God was concerned.
The Pharisees were looking for loopholes, lawful ways to get rid of their wives without running afoul of God. They thought that as long as they followed the letter of the law, as long as there was a proper certificate of divorce signed, sealed, and delivered, then God would have no problem with it. Following Rabbi Hillel, something indecent meant they permitted divorce for any reason. This allows some to leave their partners for others. A man could initiate divorce as a means to get someone else, sacrificing his wife to satisfy his own desires or ambitions.
Under this understanding, women were treated like cattle that husbands could trade back and forth. The law about divorce was supposed to protect Israelite women from the callousness of their husbands. But in the hands of a legalist, the same protective law became a license for divorce.
Jesus Teaching Concerning Divorce
Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “For your hardness of heart, Moses wrote you this commandment.” Divorce happens, but Jesus attributes it to a hardness of the heart—deliberate disobedience to God. Divorce is a matter of the heart, not paperwork. The hardness of heart made that law necessary. Hard hearts are calloused hearts, hardened against the spouse, and hardened against God. Hard hearts are unbelieving hearts that refuse God’s gifts. Hard hearts are looking for loopholes to justify the refusal, seeking ways to get rid of another. If disciples obey the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself (12:31), that neighbour also includes the spouse. Loving your spouse as yourself rules out the possibility of divorce.
Jesus next quotes our first reading from Genesis to emphasise two things. First, the intimacy of marriage: “the two shall become one flesh.” Marriage is the closest communion that can exist between two people. It is the complete and committed union of a man and a woman into one – physically, emotionally, spiritually. And it’s a closed communion – no one is permitted to drive a wedge between a husband and a wife. Marriage is the only proper and healthy place for sexual love. Only within marriage can two people be “naked and without shame” before one another. Marriage is a lifelong union, not a temporary romantic fling that you can get out of whenever it becomes inconvenient. Only within a lifelong union can two people be entirely open for each other without fear of one or the other leaving. No other human relationship comes close to this “one flesh” relationship of husband and wife. It is unique. The only thing closer is the relationship between Christ and the Church, between Christ and the believer.
Next, Jesus’ emphasis was on permanence. Jesus added a comment to the Genesis statement: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” There was no thought of divorce—ever! God’s ideal was and is a monogamous, intimate, enduring marriage. Anything less is a departure from God’s plan.
Marriage was not something one could walk in and out of. The reason God allowed divorce was that the hearts of the men of Israel were hard. This was a divine concession to human weakness, a concession to man’s sinfulness. Still, it doesn’t mean approval. Divorce is simply a symptom of human failure that is contrary to God’s intentions in creation. A marriage that can be dissolved in the courts cannot be so easily dissolved in life. Divorce may end the covenant between two partners, but it does not end the relationship.
Now, the Bible does permit divorce and remarriage on three grounds. You can remember them by three A’s: adultery, abandonment, and abuse. Notice that God allowed it—he did not command it. Divorce is never mandatory, it’s not the ideal. It is a divine concession to human sin and weakness. “For I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16)! The bottom line is: if you get divorced and remarried for reasons the Bible does not allow, you have committed adultery. Adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). If that’s you, repent, and be forgiven. But we must realise that if someone divorces and remarries within Biblical guidelines, it is not a sin.
If you are married, let Jesus be in the middle of your marriage. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 412). He is the Source of forgiveness between husband and wife. If you are having problems, even small ones, get help. Confess your sins to one another, forgive one another. Get pastoral and marital counselling. We are privileged in this congregation to have a few couples who have been united as one flesh for many decades. Wayne and Dianne this very day celebrate their fifty-first anniversary. They can teach us what it means to be two become one flesh. They will tell us that it isn’t always easy, that it takes much forgiveness, prayer, and the Word of God. We would do well to take the time and learn from these wise couples whose youthful love has grown over the years into a mature union.
If you have had a failed marriage, Jesus does not intend to shackle you with debilitating guilt. The question is not whether God forgives those who fail in marriage. The point also doesn’t deal with messy situations and potential exceptions. There is, after all, no instance in Scripture of an individual seeking forgiveness and being denied it by God.
These are tough words from Jesus. They are hard on our ears. But look at our Epistle reading: “We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one,” (Heb. 2:9). Jesus gave His life for everyone– the married, the single, the divorced, the little children. Jesus became bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh by His incarnation. He reached out in mercy to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, five times divorced and living with number six because she was no longer permitted to marry. He defended a woman caught in adultery from her stone-throwing accusers, and He absolved her. That’s the Jesus who paid for your sins on the cross. He died for you, in your place, so that he could sanctify you and make you part of his family. We are joined to Jesus by faith. We become “one flesh” with God in a union that transcends every union in this life.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.