Hearts have a way of changing over time… especially marital affections.
Last week we looked at how Jesus restored sanctity to our pursuit of marriage and family… this week I want to address more specifically the questions that may surround divorce and remarriage for those seeking to follow God.
Not an easy subject to address for several reasons:
- The painful reality of divorce is something we really don’t want to be reminded of. It’s been called the “hemorrhoids or cancer” of our relational life… but perhaps that is why we do need to hear God’s heart openly… because too many have been left with silence, shame, and confusion.
- My own calling to ministry grew out of a love for fellow youth and the problems so many faced in their families. This would later lead to completing a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy… and becoming licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. What has shaped my heart most is the calling to pastor a community of lives and marriages… which includes a calling to share in the pain of divorce.
- If you’re here … as one who has experienced the painful process of a divorce… it’s not my intention to pass judgment on your past. While I am straightforward in speaking into the marriages I know, I would never presume to speak fairly about a marriage that ended without being a part of all that was involved.
What I want to do is help us get God’s heart and mind clear. Let’s begin with the very challenging words of Jesus…
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
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." Matthew 19:3-9
• Christ’s teaching here has often been poorly misunderstood and painfully misapplied.
• My desire is first to consider UNDERSTANDING the intent of God’s Word, then share briefly several points for APPLYING the intent of God’s Word.
I. Understanding The Intent of God’s Word
The issue is not whether these statements are to be taken seriously, but precisely what Jesus intended to imply. He meant to oppose divorce but did he mean to forbid remarriage to the faithful victims of divorce or even repentant participants of divorce?
A. Who and What Jesus is Addressing ...
The religious leaders Jesus was addressing were those who wanted to trap Jesus by forcing him to choose which concessions were fitting for them to put away their wives. In this time and culture, men held all the prerogatives concerning marriage and divorce, whereas women had little or no social place outside marriage. The concession they refer to is found in Deuteronomy 24. The concession was given to protect women who had been put out by their husbands. It required the husband to provide a bill of divorce which would authenticate her release and her right to remarry.
Jesus is addressing those whose "hardness of heart" led them to seek other wives by legal concession. Against their understanding that such legal concession left them righteous and pleasing to God, Jesus says "you have put her out as a woman married in God’s eyes." The challenge is not against those put out but those who self-righteously are putting another out in order to take another.
As note By Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School – “He was also standing against the teaching that a man was required to dispense with his wife when he suspected unfaithfulness. Jesus amends this, finding such behavior intolerable. Moses did not command his people to divorce wives, he permitted it. The springboard for right action should not be hard-heartedness, but charity. Jesus affirms once more that only if the woman has done something herself that irreparably ruptures the marriage can such a divorce be right. But it isn’t a necessary response.”
B. The Form of Jesus’ Expression ...
An important means to understanding Jesus form of expression is to look at the comments that surround it…
- He speaks of “anger”… and name calling as “murder.”
- He speaks of “lust” as “adultery”… and the subsequent merits of “plucking out one’s eye.”
This was called ‘hyperbole’… a common form of rhetorical exaggeration.
In using hyperbole, a form of rhetorical exaggeration, Jesus is calling forth a higher righteousness than the letter of the law rather than constructing a new law based on a literal application of His words. Every statement surrounding this makes such an intent perfectly clear. His point was that the heart will be judged by God, not that anger and name calling should literally be treated as murder (vv. 21-26), not that lust should literally be treated as adultery or lead one to pluck out their eye, (vv.27-30), nor that those improperly divorced should be treated as an adulterous.
- Might be like saying “If you neglect your teenager and kicked them out of the home you’re making them a criminal.”
o Who is it an indictment of? (PARENT)
o Is it intended to judge the child as a criminal? (NO)
- Why have these words of Jesus regarding divorce often been taken differently than the others subjects addressed in the same?
o It’s likely that only these about divorce could conceivably be enforced in any practical fashion.
o We can’t make a law about anger in the heart… or lust within. But in the same way, Jesus was not intending to make a law regarding divorce and remarriage.
- Jesus knew that the law had only served as a guiding concession in a fallen world. He came to restore the very reign of God on earth… the kingdom of God. Therefore he doesn’t debate the law with them but rather refers back to God’s original and ultimate intention.
o God’s highest calling would be empowered by the very life of Christ serving as a new law written in our hearts by the Spirit of God.
… And this point, he was leaving everyone silenced. (After this we note the disciple referring to Jesus’ teaching as ‘hard’)
- By speaking in hyperbole… Jesus showed the issue of the heart.
o Exceptions were not to become excuses.
o Concessions were not to become our calling.
o Which leads to the question of the exception he does refer to.
C. The "exception" is simply the freedom to respond appropriately if a partner severs the fundamental bond of the marriage.
The exception to "marital unfaithfulness" may refer to the broader principle of violating the bonds of marriage; not simply a single act of sexual union with another but any unfaithful state of giving oneself to another. The "exception" is not so much an exception as it is officially confirming the divorce the unfaithful partner has already rendered.
God always hates divorce because he provided marriage as an expression of covenant love. To recognize there are times when God approves of divorce only recognizes that there are times when He hates its alternatives more; that is, when there is a greater offense to marriage that must be confronted even at the risk of divorce. The concessions which most find fitting of God’s heart include:
Adultery - one’s partner giving himself or herself to another.
Abandonment - departure or total estrangement by one’s partner.
Abuse - significant and unstoppable threat to one’s basic safety.
The intent of Jesus is to show the inappropriate divorce for what it is, not to condemn or forbid remarriage to faithful victims or repentant participants.
To seek concessions from marriage is categorically wrong, but to accept concessions from marriage is not categorically wrong.
II. Applying the Intent of God’s Word
1. The central challenge in marriage is to guard our hearts from hardness.
The whole point of Jesus’ words is to make clear that the real issue lies within. It’s within our hearts that we lust, harm others, and allow marriage to come apart. The question is not so much a matter of whether we have conflict, but what we allow to go on in our hearts towards the other. Are we quietly developing a hardened heart… a wandering heart… a hopeless heart?
The breakdown in marriage stability and the increase in divorce naturally causes many to think marriage has failed us. The simple truth is that we have failed at marriage…and at an enormous cost. We need to look at what is driving our inward and outward cultural expectations… and become serious about guarding our hearts and getting help.
2. God’s provision is marital partnership more than the particular partner. Compatibility is only a relative ideal...and often a deceiving one.
- There can be a temptation to think how much easier it would be if we could find someone without that “one issue” that’s so difficult for us… someone who understands us better… perhaps even supports our spiritual aspirations more
o THERE ARE… lots of people potentially more compatible
- We do well to remember that in Christ’s time & culture… and still… often the choice for one’s spouse was made by the parents.
3. Jesus did not intend to establish a new letter of the law but to restore the spirit of the law; and He intended for those who would advance the Kingdom (His Church) to advance such principles of righteousness through their fellowship and submission to one another. (Matthew 18:15-20).
- If you want the life of Jesus to bless and fill your marriage… present or future, He extends Himself through the life of His people. I know there are hundreds of lives that have been deeply thankful for the premarriage class that they participated in. I know of dozens of marriages that have found camaraderie with others …support that became a lifeline in hard times.
4. While God categorically declares His hate for divorce, He does not categorically judge divorced people... and neither should we. Where there is faithfulness let there be honor and healing. Where there is unfaithfulness let there be repentance and restoration.
- Unless we’re intimately close with someone, we don’t know what lies behind a marriage that ended in divorce. There are some who are divorced who are more faithful to marriage than many who are never married…and even some who are still married.
- While it’s generally true that it problems in a marriage likely involve both partners, it is ot true that both partners have made the same choices towards a marriages final end.
- We need to discern the matters of the heart.
> If you’re a part of this fellowship… I want to ask you… will you commit to guarding and supporting the heart of those who are married?
5. The proper process of restoration and remarriage can be experienced by all through openness and submission to others, particularly those who Christ has set apart as pastors / elders / overseers of His Church.
- The greatest sign of honoring marriage is what one does in submitting their heart to others… and in so doing, to the ministry of Christ.
- I’ve had the privilege of ministering both reconciliation and restoration.
o I performed a second wedding of my closest childhood after his first wife ran away from God and from him in the process.
o I had the privilege to re-marry a couple who had already divorced eachother.
o I’ve had the privilege of simply helping others go through a season of reckoning with their past.
6. Whether in marriage or divorce, there is always hope... the Lord is a God of hope and healing... forgiveness and restoration.
- We need the Lord in our pursuit of marriage.
o He is the foundation of covenant love… the One who will never leave us or forsake us.
o Only his life in us, can fulfill his calling for us.
Below are additional notes regarding other passages in the Bible and related application… from Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School
"Not bound" to the marriage
A third important passage is found in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul discusses Christian marriage. He echoes the teaching of Jesus, saying that husbands and wives are not permitted to leave each other but should work toward reconciliation. Then Paul addresses a subject that was foreign to Jesus and the Gospels. What if a Christian man or woman had a pagan spouse? Could there be spiritual union between two people when one worshiped idols? Paul affirms that Christians should not initiate a divorce because of the spouse’s spiritual deficiencies: "If any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her" (v. 12). The presence of a Christian in the marriage, Paul is saying, brings hope of salvation to the children and the family.
But then Paul makes one exception to Jesus’ rule on divorce: If the unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage, the innocent spouse must work on reconciliation (vv. 10–11), but in the end "is not bound." This final phrase in verse 15 is crucial. The innocent party is not bound to the marriage, and this includes women or men equally. This language echoes words directly from Jewish divorce law: "not bound" means that the innocent person is free to remarry.
Paul even reinforces his thought in 7:26–28: "I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin." More literally rendered, Paul does not say "are you free," he says, "are you freed," meaning, someone who has been freed from a marriage, namely, someone who was married and divorced. Paul prefers they remain single because of the suffering of this age, but if they marry, according to verse 28, they do not sin.
In sum, Paul adds one more possible reason for a valid divorce: the desertion of a marriage by an unbelieving partner. In such a case, while the Christian spouse should not be eager to divorce, still, if he or she is a victim of divorce, he or she may remarry.
"The husband of one wife"
Finally, Paul makes some remarks about the nature of marriage in his pastoral letters that reflect on the issue of divorce and remarriage. In both 1 Timothy 3:2 and in Titus 1:6, Paul stipulates that bishops (1 Timothy) and elders (Titus) should be "married only once" or "the husband of one wife." These verses have led many Christian organizations to disqualify potential leaders who have ever been divorced. But I doubt that this is even near what Paul is thinking.
First, he may be referring to polygamy. While having multiple wives was against Roman law, still, it was legal in Palestinian Judaism even though monogamy was the norm. Jewish oral tradition, in fact, justifies having 18 wives. Thus, Paul may be saying that these Christian leaders must have "just one wife."
Second, evidence from Greco-Roman society indicates that some men did have concubines even though they were illegal in both Greek and Roman society. Paul may be making it absolutely clear: Christian men must be pure and moral in their marital relations. He is looking for leaders with stable family lives.
The New Testament, therefore, tells us that marriage is to be seen as a divinely instituted relationship between a man and a woman. It should be monogamous and permanent. However, there are two exceptions where divorce is valid: when a spouse is unfaithful and when an unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage. In each case, the marriage is dissolved and the innocent partner is free to remarry.
Divorce is the tragic result of what be comes of humanity as it wrestles with sin and brokenness. Whenever a marriage fails, we should mourn it as tragic. But there should be no error so grave that it cannot be forgiven; no mistake beyond the reach of grace.
Likewise, our God is a God of renewal and restoration. In some cases, this means restoring a marriage to its original partnership. In other cases—and I can think of many—it means that remarriage is an opportunity for renewal and new hope. This is why churches and Christian institutions are mistaken when they indiscriminately deny the possibility of leadership positions or remarriage after men and women have divorced. Such a position denies not only the spirit of Jesus’ ministry but also misunderstands the grace of God in a broken world.
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