Read yesterday’s post first before reading this one! There, we saw that the Mosaic Law’s main goal was to control divorce. The cultural situation in which Moses found himself was chaotic in the area of marriage. Men generally held a very low view of women, and had come to believe that they could divorce their wives for just about any reason. Therefore, the Mosaic Law was introduced into the culture by God through Moses, not to make divorce easier, but to regulate and control a situation that was chaotic, grossly unfair to women, and often led to great suffering on the part of women and children. It did this by limiting divorce to three causes, enforcing the need to provide a wife with a physical bill, and by not allowing a divorced couple to marry one another again. All three of these things reveal that marriage is not something that you can walk in and out of at will.
The problem in Jesus’ day is that the Pharisees were misinterpreting the law. Their teaching and application of the law was that Moses permitted, if not encouraged,divorce for any reason, as long as one gave a certificate of divorce. This interpretation, of course, led them right back down the road towards demanding divorce for any number of superfluous reasons. Some Pharisees even felt that if a husband ceased to like his wife, that alone made her “unclean” and legitimized adivorce. The result was that the culture of Jesus’ day was beginning to look a lot like that of Moses’ day with regard to marriage: a chaotic mess that resulted in a great deal of injustice and harm to women.
But there was one thing the Pharisees were sure to do, and that was to provide the certificate or bill of divorce. They were very careful with that and any other legal matters. And that explains why Jesus summarizes the Pharisees’ teaching as he does in Matthew 5:31. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificateof divorce.” It’s a powerful testimony to the depravity of the human heart: the very law meant to discourage and control divorce was used by religious leaders to encourage and permit it.
In light of this context, we have Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:32: But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the groundof sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries adivorced woman commits adultery. Jesus offers one legitimate cause and reason for divorce: unfaithfulness on the part of one party to a marriage.
I cannot answer all of the questions and implications this text raises, but I do want to address a few very practical things that are helpful. Remember, my commitments are twofold: First, I want to come alongside those who go through divorce as they grieve and repent of any sin on their part, and also stay by them in their transition and help them enjoy forgiveness and find strength for new obedience. The second commitment I have is to faithfully and caringly articulate the teaching of the Bible, which demonstrates a genuine hatred for divorce, and a sacredness and permanence for one marriage until the death of one spouse. I think the guidelines below are faithful to those biblical commitments. Many thanks to authors like D. A. Carson and Martin Lloyd-Jones for much of these guidelines.
- First, I think it is fascinating that both the Mosaic Law and Jesus’ teaching on marriage are almost exclusively aimed at men. What this communicates to me is that men are especially culpable and responsible for their marriages. As Christ is head of the church, so a husband is head of his wife. I understand and affirm that a relationship is a two-way street and that women have responsibilities to make a marriage successful, but the clear biblical teaching is that the partnership God created in marriage requires husband headship.
- Second, we must also conclude that a biblical marriage is always God’s best, even in the case of adultery. While Jesus permits a divorce on the grounds of adultery, he is by no means mandating divorce on the grounds of marriage. It is far more glorifying to God for couples in the most horrific situations to repair and restore their marriages to a healthy state than to divorce.
- Third, we all need to recognize the solemnity and seriousness of marriage. It is not something we can walk in and out of like the post office.
- Fourth, there are lots of people who become Christians after they have become married and divorced, sometimes more than once, and people like this need to know that all past and previous conduct is wiped clean by the blood of Jesus Christ, and that you have the right to marry for the first time as Christians.
- Fifth, there are Christians who marry out of God’s will and get divorced, remarry (often to Christians), and that God seems often in his great grace to sanctify and bless the remarriage. Does this mean that God has changed his standards? No. But it does mean that even divorces and remarriages, serious though they are, are not unforgivable and that God is always able to start with children precisely where they are and bring blessing.
- Lastly, we must be careful not to miss the main point, I think, of Jesus’teaching here; namely, the total depravity of hearts and the necessity of fighting for our marriages. The Christian is not looking for justification for divorce. Rather, he gives his life to fight for his marriage. Fighting against past sin. Fighting against unforgiveness. Fighting against lust. Fighting against addictions. Fighting against a lack of communication. Fighting against insecurities. Fighting against consumerism. Fighting against making kids the center of the marriage.
Such is Jesus’ teaching on this deeply personal issue in Matthew 5.