The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost July 6, 2008
44, 403, 620, 47
Furthermore it has been said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to God and His Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen (Revelation 1:5).
Dear friends in Christ Jesus in whom we learn true love:
I was hoping to find some clever and intelligent quote about marriage with which to open this sermon. So I went online to a site that promises something like 50,000 quotes. After looking at four pages of the quotes it offers from famous people dating back to the 17th century up until now, I gave up. Except for the half dozen or so that were taken directly from Holy Scripture, they were all so dismal or cynical that I saw no point in repeating them for your ears. But I guess it was an exercise that gave me what I needed to begin. It showed that although marriage is an estate that is practiced in every culture in the world, man is most creative when he wants to mock it and point out its faults.
This should be no real surprise. Marriage has been under attack ever since Adam and Eve bickered over who was responsible for the Fall. Today, as Jesus directly addresses marriage and divorce, we see that even among the Jews of Jesus’ day marriage was held to a pretty low standard. But Jesus, as He instructs His disciples on the true and full will of God, restores marriage to its truly glorious position. Jesus honors marriage as sacred and precious. I. Marriage involves a bond that is not to be violated, and II. Marriage is a blessing not to be despised.
In the first place, Jesus makes it clear that marriage involves a bond that is not to be violated. Jesus takes up the low view of the marriage bond that was perpetuated throughout the history of the Jews: “Furthermore, it has been said, ‘whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” [v.31] The way that was taken by various teachers over the years was more or less: “If you (namely, the husband) want to divorce your wife, go ahead. ‘A certificate of divorce’ will make it legal.” Different teachers interpreted it variously. Some held that the husband must find her to be morally lacking, while others argued he could divorce her for anything that he found displeasing about her. Women, evidently, were not given the same latitude with regard to their husbands.
So things in Jesus’ day, though pretty one-sided gender-wise, weren’t really different than they are in our day. Divorce is common and easily obtainable. While probably not many men today would consider divorcing their wives because of bad cooking, we see some pretty flimsy excuses given for divorce—although at the time the participants probably thought that their problems were serious enough.
Many people will tell you that they wanted to make their marriage work but just grew weary of fighting over this or that and finally decided they were better off apart than together. “Let’s draw up the papers, wait three months, and sign off. Its done, and we’ll both be free as birds.”
We can even give that a Christian-sounding spin: “God doesn’t want us to fight, does He? And it can’t be good for the children. So let’s call it quits before it gets any uglier than it is. God wants us to be happy too.”
But that’s not what Jesus says. He says your marriage vow is inviolate. Period. Later on in His ministry He would underscore the divine foundation of marriage by proclaiming “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). But the way He addresses that in our text is a little hard to follow, partly because it’s a tough piece of translation, and partly because He uses a different point of departure than we would.
What Jesus effectively says is: “whoever divorces his wife for any reason except for adultery makes her (i.e. stigmatizes her as) an adulteress.” Now, we would think that the guy dumping his wife would be guilty of adultery, not the one being dumped and that is true. But Jesus presents things from the proper view that the only condition where someone might properly dismiss his or her spouse is if the spouse is actually guilty of adultery. The marriage vow is already broken. That is the high view of the marriage vow that marriage deserves. Under that set of circumstances, anyone who dismisses or divorces his or her spouse for any other reason, compounds his own sin by making the innocent party appear (“stigmatizes her”) to be guilty of adultery. Jesus goes on to stress that even the person who then marries the innocent party appears to participate in the supposed adultery. Jesus’ point is that the person who holds a frivolous view of divorce actually brings much shame on innocent people. When Jesus speaks later on about divorce, He states that the reason Moses legalized divorce at all was because of the people’s “hard heartedness” (cf. Matthew 19:7ff). Too often, people stubbornly defied the will of God and wouldn’t love, honor, and respect his (or her) spouse. Divorce was a social option because some people just wouldn’t accept the responsibilities of marriage. That’s why Paul also told Christians whose spouses simply left them, that the marriage was already broken and they could obtain legal divorces—not to escape their own obligations, but in recognition that they had been abandoned already.
Nowadays, if we meet a divorced person we don’t automatically assume that the person is either guilty of adultery or a victim of someone else’s adultery. Sometimes that may be more fair for the individual involved. But it’s not good in the sense that it’s possible to think that way just because marriage is held in such low esteem and divorce is considered acceptable. It is still the hardness of man’s heart that causes the marriage bond to be violated.
After He gave the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made similar addresses about marriage. These addresses didn’t stop with attacking the permissive view of divorce, but went more to the heart of the matter. So when He was questioned by the Pharisees about divorce toward the end of His ministry, Jesus went back to the beginning: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’” (Matthew 19:4-5). Jesus, as we will now see, honors marriage as sacred and also precious. It is a blessing not to be despised.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus brought up matters of the Law, and as Lord of the Law He showed its true interpretation. Here He also shows that His teaching is not some new innovation, nor a tired old rehash of some other forgotten rabbi, but His teaching goes back to the foundation, back to God’s purpose and plan in creation.
God made man as the crowning jewel of creation. He was to have dominion over all the earth. But right away, God also created a woman to be with man, to labor together in their joint calling. “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), the Lord declared. Woman, taken out of the man and joined to him by the union of marriage, was God’s solution to that aloneness.
All the perversions of marriage: polygamy, gay marriage, divorce; all of the sorrow and trouble and burdens that occur within marriage; all the marriages that aren’t really marriage but simply sham relationships for convenience or greed or to save face with family—all of this confusion and distress cannot overrule the simple fact that God created marriage for a man and a woman so that He might bless them together. Think of the mystery of the union as God created it. God showed Adam his aloneness in this world, then took a part of him, from which He created another person who would nevertheless be a part of him, only this time with a lot more voice and personality than a rib.
God gave them their sexual union that they might deepen their love and have the fruit of that love in their children. This meant they had both the tragedy of an Abel and the misery of a Cain, but at least they shared this burden together as well as the joys of Seth and his godly descendants.
God made Eve, not as a clone, but as a counterpart to Adam. Men and women, husbands and wives, are different by design so that they may become more than they are individually. It is only the selfish flesh that would conclude that a faithful husband or wife is holding you back. It is by the accountability that we must grant to our spouse that we are more challenged to take a second look at who we are and how we do things, rather than to blunder along in our own headstrong foolishness.
Jesus related the sanctity of marriage and its blessedness to His disciples so that children of God could serve their Lord in this life with a right view of how to be husbands and wives. If anyone ever questions the wisdom and blessing of marriage, point them back to the fact that God ordained it, “from the beginning,” and then point them forward to the fact that Jesus patterns the relationship of the Church to her Savior according to marriage as John saw in the Revelation: “Then I, John, saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). That marvelous image of Christ as husband and the Church as bride is not only a complementary picture of marriage, but does much to guide and inform Christian husbands and wives for the success of their own marriage: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the Body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5.22-28).
We sit before our Savior and learn more about our wives and husbands than we could learn in a lifetime without Him. For Jesus shows us that marriage is inviolable and precious—a sacred vow and a precious blessing. God grant us the grace always to honor it that way. Amen
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.