Difficulties regarding marriage and divorce did not start or end in the first century, nor did debate about them. Divorce and remarriage was common both in the Jewish culture and in the Roman society. Today in America the trend shows that between 40-50% of marriages will end in divorce. And that’s first marriages. Second marriages are 60-67% likely to end and third marriages are up to 73-74%.
Before we consider Christ’s response to the questions shot at him regarding this area of human difficulty, it is instructive to take a moment to consider the context in which these questions arise. Chapter 19 follows Christ's discussion of dealing with a sinning brother and the crucial importance of forgiveness of one another when we have ourselves been forgiven by God (parable of the unforgiving servant). It is striking that Matthew will cover Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce right after dealing with the godliness of forgiveness.
Second, we see that Jesus is moving down out of Galilee into Judea toward Jerusalem, where He will be crucified. It is a sobering time. The reason for Christ’s incarnation is coming to its climax. The cross. Atonement.
Third, as He enters the area, He draws large crowds and heals people who come to Him. With the cross looming before Him, His compassion for broken humanity does not diminish.
Fourth, once again, at this there were large crowds, compassionate healings, cross looming—the religious conservatives of the day are still obsessed with trapping Him over some issue of theological debate. They are more interested in debate than healing broken people, more fixated on destroying Jesus than opening their eyes and their hearts to His power and love.
As we approach this passage we enter an arena of notorious debate. Not everyone will agree on how best to interpret what is here (and not everyone will agree with my interpretation, even though I believe it is valid according to the text). What we cover tonight will not be comprehensive—there is not enough time. So may I caution us not to let the debate blind us to the miracle-working Savior who went to a cross for our sin, nor harden our hearts toward human suffering, nor forget the spirit of forgiveness that ought to transform our lives to treat others the way God has graciously treated us.
I. Design of the Creator (3-6)
There were two main schools of thought in that day: one that argued that a man could divorce his wife for anything that displeased him—even down to having burned his food; the other that allowed divorce for immorality (rather than stoning as the Mosaic law prescribed). The Pharisees intended to draw Jesus into taking sides, thus alienating one party or the other. If He took the stricter position, He also risked losing popularity with the crowds, as well as offending Herod and Herodias, whose divorce and remarriage John the Baptist condemned. Everyone still remembered what happened to him.
His answer is instructive. As always, He appeals to the Scripture—too often neglected in theological debate over the hot issues of the day. He could have drawn from any number of passages, but He takes them all the way back to Genesis 1 and 2, to the Creator’s design for marriage in the beginning. The marriage bond is of first importance—greater even than the bond of parent and child, for a man is to leave his own father and mother and to cleave to—be glued to—his wife. The two are to become one flesh. Further, the Scripture He quotes makes clear that the marriage bond is sacred: God Himself joins a husband and wife to make them one. Having joined them together, man is not to break it apart. The familiar sentence we use at the end of most marriage ceremonies: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate—or let not man put asunder.”
Often our troubles and debates drive us toward focusing on loopholes and rationalizations. Jesus calls us to think first in terms of God’s revealed purpose and design. Let that drive your thinking and your living—not just on marriage and divorce, but on any area of life.
What is the purpose of the Lord’s Day?
What is the reason for my life as a believer—what is God’s revealed mission for me?
Why am I seeking a particular career path?
What is most important in my relationships with others?
Are the big truths evident in my choices?
Often the conflicts have to do with debating the minutia, rather than focusing on what the Scripture reveals are the main concerns.
II. Hard-heartedness of Man (7-9)
Jesus’ enemies are not done with him. He answered in a way that seems to disallow divorce of any kind rather than allowing it for any reason. And he has appealed to Scripture to do it. They think they’ve caught him in a misstep because Moses allowed divorce. The passage to which the Pharisees refer is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Their statement regarding Moses is misleading. He did not command that men divorce their wives in Deuteronomy 24. Rather Moses was seeking to curb frivolous divorce by requiring that there be a legal certificate for it. (The whole point of divorce, by the way, was to make it possible to remarry. Modern debate often divides the two.) Moses also stipulated that it was an abomination for a man to divorce his wife, marry another, then go back to the first wife. Once he had married another, the divorce was permanent. No more on and off divorces. Marriage needed protection, and divorce was serious business.
Jesus corrects their assertion. Moses only allowed divorce because of the people’s hardness of heart: toward the sanctity of marriage, toward a wife and her security. Divorce was never the ideal, creating great pain in human lives and long bitter harvest (Malachi 2:13-16). Mark Jesus’ words carefully. He is not advocating divorce. He does not require divorce any time there is sexual immorality. Such behavior violates the marriage covenant and often does so irreparably, but where there is genuine repentance there can be restoration. Nor is he advocating remarriage per se. What He says is that remarriage after a divorce is adultery, except when the divorce was for sexual immorality. If the divorce was for sexual immorality, remarriage is not adultery. The exception, by definition, does not conform to the general rule. I see no way to consider all remarriage adultery unless you take scissors to this text. Otherwise the exception is not an exception.
What does He mean by sexual immorality?
Porneia is the term. It is a general term for all kinds of sexual immorality. Some argue that only unmarried people can commit porneia because there is another term translated here adultery, that refers to sexual immorality committed by married persons. They argue on this basis that the sexual immorality had to have occurred prior to the marriage, thus as it were, annulling the validity of the marriage. Joseph was going to divorce Mary privately because he thought at first that she had conceived by immorality during their betrothal. They contend, further, that since Matthew is writing primarily to Jews, they would have been familiar with this particular kind of immorality during the betrothal period.
The problem is that the term translated sexual immorality is a general term that can include adultery, as well as other kinds of sexual sins. You end up with an odd situation that the only immorality that breaks a marriage is during the betrothal period. If it goes on after the marriage, it does not? If divorce is permitted for such hardness of heart displayed in infidelity, then remarriage is allowed as well, because that is the purpose of a divorce. It is not adultery to remarry if the divorce resulted from sexual immorality.
But don’t miss the point—divorce and remarriage is entirely the result of man’s hardness of heart toward carrying out the Creator’s design for marriage—by one spouse or the other or both.
III. Worth of the Kingdom (10-12)
Jesus has sided with the stricter interpretation of the law, and the disciples evidently were of the other view. If marrying someone is so permanent, better not to marry than to marry someone and find out you weren’t compatible after all. Jesus answers—but not everyone can remain unmarried. It is a calling given them by God. There are times that one will choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Times of persecution, times of perilous missionary endeavor, times when a legitimate marriage is not possible—say after a divorce that was legal according to civil law but not according to Scripture. Jesus is not advocating celibacy per se. At the same time He reveals that some are given the ability and the calling to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom.
That is to be the driving concern for married and unmarried alike. Our social status is not the main thing. 1 Corinthians 7 tells us to stay as you are—your status as married or unmarried, slave or free, is not the main thing about you. Serve God married. Serve God unmarried. Serve God as a slave. Serve God as free man. Serve God wherever you are every day of your life. Student or teacher, parent or child, young or old. Walk worthy of the kingdom of heaven. That is the main thing—the big design for your life given you by your Creator and Redeemer.