November 26, 2023

From the Beginning It Was Not So

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Topic: Marriage

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Common to many translations of Scripture are subheadings. If you’re using an ESV, you’ll find today’s passage labeled, “Teaching About Divorce.” There’s truth to that. In verses 3-9, Jesus addresses divorce. But if we’re not careful, those subheadings can drive our reading. We can reduce this passage to “divorce” and miss the larger point intended by the a/Author—not just Matthew but God.

The Gospels weren’t written topically. We don’t look up keywords (“divorce”) and then find Jesus’ teaching about that topic. That comes in handy when you’re trying to grapple with a particular subject. But that’s different from seeing the goal of Matthew’s Gospel in the way he puts things together. This passage is not first about divorce. The main point is to reveal Jesus himself, who he is and why he came.

So, if you were wanting a treatise on divorce and remarriage, sorry—even what we have from Jesus doesn’t address them fully. Jesus’ teaching is occasional, not exhaustive. One must consider other passages to determine a position on these matters.

Speaking of a position, know that sound-thinking Christians disagree on divorce and remarriage. Some hold to a “no remarriage” view, for example, even where legitimate grounds for divorce exist. Others, like myself (following the Westminster Confession of Faith), would argue that the Bible permits divorce on grounds of sexual immorality and abandonment; and where legitimate divorce has dissolved the marriage, remarriage is an option for the innocent party. I say that to let you know my approach, but also to alert you to a complex discussion, so that were you to encounter a different view, it won’t throw you for a loop.

With that said, let’s go back to the point I made a second ago: this passage is not mainly about divorce and what Jesus thinks of it. The main point is to reveal Jesus himself, who he is and what he came to do.

Jesus came to heal what’s broken.

So, let’s start where our passage does; and let’s first acknowledge that Jesus came to heal what’s broken. Verse 1, “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” This is a crucial moment in the flow of Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve heard Jesus explain his pending sufferings and death in Jerusalem. By entering the region of Judea, Jesus’ mission is now drawing nearer to Jerusalem, and that means nearer to the cross.

But as he draws nearer to the cross, we’re once again reminded of what his mission will eventually accomplish, the healing of all that’s broken. Verse 2 says that “large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.” That’s now the sixth time a summary like this appears in the Gospel.[i] It emphasizes how Jesus’ ministry was one that brought healing for humanity. He came not only to talk and teach, but to touch and heal.

This also aligns with what the Old Testament anticipated. Our world sits under the curse of sin and sorrow. Sickness is just one example of that curse. But the Prophets foresaw a Savior; and the way we’d know him is by specific signs God would perform through him. The lame would leap like the deer. The deaf would hear again. The eyes of the blind would be opened. These signs meant that in and through this Savior, God was reversing the curse. God was bringing a kingdom where sin and sorrow were no more. All that was broken would be made right through him.

The healings in Jesus’ ministry reveal that he’s the Savior. His life, death, and resurrection were just the beginning of those final days of God’s saving work. Jesus is the one who came to make things right. He’s the one who can touch your life and make you right. Do you see why that’s so crucial to recall before we talk about marriage and divorce? If Jesus has power to reverse the curse and recreate the world, think of what he can do in you and your relationships? If he comes to heal all that’s broken, doesn’t that also help us sit at his feet and give more attention to what he says about marriage?

He knows what the world is supposed to be like. He knows what’s good for you and what’s good for humanity. He’s able to make things right again, to heal what’s broken. So, no matter where your marriage is currently or what your past is like—even if it includes divorce, remarriage—this is the Lord who shows compassion to broken people. He comes to fix and heal us all.

Jesus came to fulfill God’s law.

So, let’s hear what he says about marriage and divorce. But again, hear this within Matthew’s broader purpose of revealing who Jesus is and why he came. Which leads to a second point: Jesus came to fulfill God’s law. Jesus already said this himself in 5:17, “Do not think that I’ve come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Meaning, Jesus brings them to their truest intent.

One way we observe this is when Matthew sets Jesus’ interpretation of the Law against that of the Pharisees. Again and again, the Pharisees question Jesus: “Why don’t your disciples fast?” (Matt 9:14). “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10). “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” (Matt 15:2). They keep trying to trap Jesus. But every time, it turns out, the Pharisees don’t understand the Law. They twist God’s law for their own ends. Which is exactly what Satan did in Matthew 4. Satan quoted the Bible and twisted it’s intended purpose. The Pharisees do the same.

In fact, when it says in verse 3 that the “Pharisees came…and tested him,” that word “tested” is the same word used of the devil’s temptations in 4:1. These Pharisees are up to something Satanic in the way they’re using the Scriptures. But Jesus, we will see, fulfills the Scriptures. He interprets the Law’s true intent—that’s the main point. Jesus is the better teacher of the Law. This time, the matter of concern is divorce.

Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The NIV paraphrases this, “for any and every cause.” They want to know the extent Jesus is willing to grant divorce. Their focus isn’t reasons to preserve marriage but how many rights Jesus will grant to dissolve a marriage. Verse 7 helps explain why that’s their focus. They allude to a Law where Moses addresses a specific case of divorce and remarriage.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 says this: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD.”

This law applies to a specific set of circumstances. It’s not written to stipulate grounds for divorce—much less to encourage it. It’s only addressing a thing that happens. The law exists to mitigate evils that arise when divorce is present in a broken society—evils like the first husband exploiting the woman after her second marriage. The only “allowance” for divorce in this passage is the recognition it happens. The Pharisees make that their starting place. How many ways to get out of marriage? That’s their focus.

Jesus responds, “You’ve started from the wrong place. You missed the Law because you didn’t read it within its broader context that begins at Genesis 1.” Look at verse 4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Don’t miss Jesus’ argument. The Creator made and the Creator said. Understanding marriage begins with God.

God created marriage. It’s a sacred institution in which God joins one man to one woman in an exclusive covenant relationship. That covenant includes two elements, which will become important to recall later: “leaving and cleaving” is one; “one-flesh” is the other. “Leaving and cleaving” means you prioritize your spouse over all other human relationships. Your loyalties belong first to your spouse. “One-flesh” refers to the bond “which results from and is expressed by sexual union.”[ii] Marriage is both commitment to each other and consummation in sexual union.

Jesus then draws this conclusion in verse 6: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Action? “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Or, “Man must not separate.” The point isn’t that man can’t separate it, but that entering a marriage covenant obligates you not to separate it. God has created something new in welding you together. You are morally bound to preserve that union. Do nothing to break the relationship at any level—God has joined you. God’s design is that all marriages be permanent, and anything that disrupts that union runs contrary to his original intent. That’s Jesus’ starting place. Jesus’ focus is not what rights we have to get out of marriage; it’s on what we must do to preserve the marriage.

The Pharisees fire back in verse 7: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” We looked at Deuteronomy 24 earlier. Now we get how Jesus reads that passage considering the whole of Scripture: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Divorce exists because of the hardness of human hearts. Divorce exists because people are stubborn and sinful. From the beginning it was not so. Jesus emphasizes that our starting place for marriage is on the other side of the Fall.

Jesus then adds in verse 9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” We live in a day of no-fault divorce laws. You’re not even required to show wrongdoing to end a marriage. Remarriage is just as easy. Yet Jesus says that anyone who gets a divorce and marries another commits adultery—unless there’s a case of sexual immorality.

Now, there are things to clarify about this exception. Jesus isn’t undermining what he said earlier. All cases of divorce still ruin God’s original intent. But he also recognizes that some acts of sin do such violence to the marriage covenant, that the innocent party is free to divorce and remarry. The one he mentions here is “sexual immorality.” Some will argue that this refers to sexual sin prior to the marriage, during a betrothal period, which also means it’s not an exception at all after the marriage. But the context is speaking about marriage and grounds for divorce in marriage.

Others will seek to limit “sexual immorality” to cases of adultery, physical intercourse with someone outside the marriage. But Matthew 15:19 uses both adultery and sexual immorality in the same verse, showing some distinction. Better is to take “sexual immorality” as an umbrella term for grievous sexual sin of all kinds. The reason Jesus permits divorce and remarriage on these grounds is that sexual immorality assaults a key element in the marriage covenant. Recall the “one-flesh” union we discussed—the bond resulting from sexual union. Sexual sin assaults that element of the covenant.[iii] It’s like taking a cutting torch to that welded union and beating it apart.

1 Corinthians 7:15 adds one more exception: abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (and many would add that abuse fits that category as well). Again, recall the marriage covenant in Genesis 2. Whereas sexual sin assaults the “one-flesh” part of the covenant, abandonment assaults the “leaving and cleaving” part. Outside those two, no one has grounds to divorce and remarry without committing adultery.

Jesus came to gift his followers.

You can see why the disciples respond how they do in verse 10: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it’s better not to marry.” Which brings us now to a third point Matthew reveals about Jesus: Jesus came to gift his followers.

The disciples recognize what Jesus’ teaching means. They hear him stress the permanence of marriage. Jesus has dismissed all the popular escapes. Maybe it’s just better not to marry, then? It’s almost like they’re saying, “Better single than having that ‘ball and chain.’” Again, not their brightest moment. Still, Jesus uses the moment to teach: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”

What does that mean, “not everyone can receive this saying”? Does that look back to Jesus’ teaching in verse 9? If so, then those “to whom it is given” are disciples now gifted to understand Jesus’ teaching about divorce (cf. Matt 13:11). In obedience to his word, some will have to choose celibacy after divorce since remarriage isn’t an option.[iv] Christ will gift those who do. He gives them what they need to obey his word.

But “this saying” could also look back to the disciples’ words in verse 10, “it’s better not to marry”? Read this way, Jesus uses their own saying to make a broader point about singleness. “Not everyone can receive this saying [that it’s better not to marry], but only those to whom it’s given.” Meaning, Jesus gifts some to remain single and celibate.

Then he explains: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” That last clause is a figurative way to describe those who voluntarily choose celibacy.[v] Jesus then stresses his gift or enablement: “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”[vi]

Either way, the point is that some will remain single and celibate for the sake of the kingdom, and they will do so by Christ’s enablement. He will not leave them alone. Jesus will reward their faithful commitment with empowerment to serve his kingdom. This does two things at once in response to the disciples. It affirms that marriage is good—the disciples shouldn’t see it as a trap, a ‘ball and chain.’ Yet some are also gifted by Jesus to remain unmarried and serve his kingdom faithfully in their singleness.

When you compare Jesus with the teachings of other monotheistic religions this becomes striking. Judaism doesn’t look favorably upon celibacy, especially for men, since God has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply.[vii] Islam goes further and condemns the single life. Their prophet Muhammad is recorded saying, “The most low [in status] among your dead are the singles.”[viii] Mormonism states that “spiritual maturity and exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom require marriage.”[ix]

But the message of Jesus is different. Some he gifts with marriage; others he gifts with singleness. The greatest blessings don’t come through marriage and physical offspring, but through Jesus Christ the one Offspring and our union with him.

Some Pastoral Implications

So where does all that leave us? Let me close with several kinds of application. One relates to our reading of Scripture. Learn from the way Jesus reads the Bible. Pay attention to the larger storyline. The Pharisees read texts like Deuteronomy 24 apart from their place in the Bible’s larger storyline. They didn’t grasp the Law’s temporary provisions. It led to ethical positions that undermined God’s purpose for marriage.

Paul had to deal with the same thing in Galatia. People undermined salvation by faith alone because they missed how the Law was a temporary provision until the promise to Abraham was fulfilled. There’s a lot that happens in Scripture before the Law of Moses. Pay attention to that larger context. Jesus is the better teacher of the Law. He fulfills the Law. Read the Scriptures as a whole. Learn from Jesus how they fit together.

Second, listen to Jesus who heals our brokenness. That extends well beyond marriage. But since we’ve discussed marriage, I’ll tailor this for marriages. When Rachel and I sit down with couples whose marriages are struggling, without fail one or both people are not listening to Jesus. There’s little to no prayer and little to no hearing from God’s word daily. What do you expect to happen in a marriage when the only voices you’re listening to are the ones in your head. Jesus is the one who heals. Jesus is the one who knows how marriage works. Jesus has new-creation power, and he can transform your marriage to reflect the order and peace of his kingdom.

Third, embrace Jesus’ stance on marriage. Whether it’s the sexual revolution, or the Supreme Court, or Netflix, our culture inundates us with ideas that redefine marriage, or treat it lightly, or turn so cynically against it that fewer and fewer people want it. Jesus’ teaching subverts this outlook. God created marriage. It’s a sacred institution in which God joins one man to one woman in an exclusive covenant relationship. They partner in grace to glorify their Redeemer’s covenant-keeping love. Marriage has a divine origin, a covenantal design, and a Christ-centered end.

The world says, “If marriage compromises your personal fulfillment, then get out.” We must say No. The world says same-sex marriage is a thing. We must say No. If you uphold this view of marriage, the world will hate you. The world will say, “That’s oppressive.” But the real oppression occurs when humanity rejects our Creator’s designs. God’s word rightly orders relationships and brings true freedom, freedom to live as we ought. That includes what God says about marriage.

For those married, stay married and work on your marriage. Don’t tear apart what God has joined together. Protect your marriage. Don’t just drift and think, “Everything’s fine,” yet little is done to invest. Don’t make the faithful commitment of your spouse an excuse to do nothing. Invest in the relationship. Men, I had lots to say about this at the last Men’s Meeting. Come talk to me if you want the notes.

If you’re married, and things aren’t well, get help. Find a mature, godly couple in the church and learn from them. Tell them your struggles. Don’t go it alone. Ask for counsel. Pray together that Jesus turns your ashes into beauty.

If things have been so hard that you’ve toyed with divorce, consider whether you have legitimate grounds. If you don’t, it would be sinful to divorce. If you do, that doesn’t mean you must divorce. Grounds for divorce do not necessitate divorce. Consider how Matthew 19 follows Matthew 18—forgive seventy times seven.

Also, our pattern should resemble Yahweh’s pursuit of his unfaithful Bride. God’s relationship to his people was like a marriage covenant; and there were occasions in Israel’s history when they did great violence to that covenant. They abandoned God. They cheated on God with idols. God had every legal right to divorce them.[x] Yet, in tender compassion, God pursues them and woos them back to himself. God forgives them, cleanses them, makes them his own—even adorning her in the most beautiful garments and spreading his wedding canopy over his people.

We find the same pattern in the Lord Jesus. As a Husband, he came to us in our sin. He loved us. He gave himself for us on the cross, Ephesians 5 says, to cleanse us and present us to himself in splendor. That’s why Jesus holds such a high standard for marriage. Marriage is meant to reflect Christ’s union with his Bride. Jesus’ love went to the cross in the face of great betrayal. Consider how you might copy that same love.

If you’re already doing that—you’ve exhausted every attempt to restore the marriage and things are still bad—remember that Christ knows what rejection and betrayal feels like. He stands by you. The church is also here to help. The elders can help you discern next steps and join you in determining a plan of care. But your greatest hope is that Jesus will never leave you. Jesus will never lie to you, give up on you, or push you away. Keep looking to his faithfulness and his resolve to love you till the end.

For those who’ve been divorced on illegitimate grounds and you’re both still unmarried, 1 Corinthians 7:10 says to stay unmarried or be reconciled to your spouse. Where that's possible, pursue reconciliation.

If you’ve been divorced on illegitimate grounds and you’re remarried, then acknowledge that past act as adultery and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that your second marriage isn’t a true marriage—Jesus’ words imply that it is. This also doesn’t mean that you should view the second marriage as continual adultery. Jesus can make your current marriage a beautiful testimony to his faithfulness.

Like all other sins, adultery is not too much for Jesus’ blood. Listen to these words from 1 Corinthians 6:11. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Forgiveness abounds for all kinds of sinners at the foot of the cross.

Others of you have experienced a divorce on legitimate grounds. You were sinned against in terrible ways, and you’ve now found yourself remarried. Churches can sometimes stigmatize those who’ve been divorced and remarried. But that has no place in the church. We should be first to acknowledge the complexities of a broken world, and the first to extend fellowship and offer hope for the future.

If you’re currently choosing the path of celibacy for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom—a choice that might’ve been the result of various circumstances (maybe divorce, but also the death of a spouse, or just that you’ve never married)—know that Jesus doesn’t think less of your current singleness. In the church, singles often face the challenge of being treated like second best. Our culture can also give the impression that life really begins only after you get married. But that’s not true. Like marriage, singleness is a gift from God. Singles have an important role in the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul even explains the great freedom singles have to serve the Lord. If you’re currently single, give your undivided devotion to the Lord.

Lastly, remember Jesus Christ and why he came. According to Matthew’s Gospel, he came to heal what’s broken. Through his life, death, and resurrection power he is working to reverse the curse. Everything broken will be made right by him. He also came to fulfill the Law. We observe this in his teaching, but also in the love that Jesus embodies for us on the cross. He also came to gift his faithful ones with all they need. So, no matter where you are today, single or married; no matter what your past is, we all have this in common: we need Jesus and the salvation he brings.

________

[i] Matt 4:23-24; 9:35; 12:15; 14:14; 15:30.

[ii] William Heth, “Jesus on Divorce: How My Mind Has Changed,” SBJT 6/1 (Spring 2002), 18.

[iii] Heth, “Jesus on Divorce,” 19.

[iv] Blomberg, “Marriage,” 184.

[v] France, Matthew, 725.

[vi] This would be comparable to Paul affirming singleness in 1 Corinthians 7:8, “I wish that all were as I myself am [i.e., single] but each has his own gift from God…” Some gifted to marry, others gifted in their singleness.

[vii] Cf. Yeb. vi. 8; Maimonides, “Yad,” Ishut, xv.; Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, 1, 13. Celibacy is not necessarily condemned until much later in Rabbinic Judaism, but it was certainly not to be the chosen path, especially for the men.

[viii] Cf. Koran 24:32; 30:21 with the citation of Muhammad’s words at http://en.rafed.net/islamic-articles-v15-1030/ethics/14763-celibacy-and-monasticism-is-forbidden.

[ix] See D&C 131:2-3 found at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/131.2-3?lang=eng#1.

[x] Cf. Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8; Ezek 16; Hos 1:6, 9.

other sermons in this series

Feb 18

2024

The Stone the Builders Rejected

Speaker: Bret Rogers Passage: Matthew 21:33–46, Psalm 118:22–23 Series: The Gospel According to Matthew

Feb 11

2024

And You Did Not Believe Him

Speaker: Trey Mangan Passage: Matthew 21:28–32 Series: The Gospel According to Matthew