The Protection of Marriage

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Our title for this morning as we continue with our series of sermons on the Ten Commandments is The Protection of Marriage. We are looking at the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20.14) - the prohibition against marital infidelity and that leads to the biblical teaching that sex is to be reserved for heterosexual marriage alone.

Today marriage is under attack. A recent headline in The Times newspaper read, "Britons fall out of love with marriage". There is now the lowest rate of marriages since records began in 1862. With more sex before and outside marriage there is marital and sexual chaos. "Experts", the paper said, "predict that the 2005 decline of 10 percent will get worse if Government pushes through plans to give cohabiting couples the same legal rights as married couples". Yet the paper adds, we know that "less than 5 percent of cohabiting couples stay together for longer than ten years;" and a Government Greenpaper said that marriage was best for children.

When I was a student, I heard the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, preach on this seventh commandment. It was the first "sex" and "marriage" sermon I had ever heard. The gist of what I remember him saying was this: if you really understand the seventh commandment on "no adultery", that is all you need to know about the Bible's teaching on sex. Well, that is probably misleading unless you "unpack" the commandment. But that is exactly what Jesus does for us in Matthew 5.17-20 and 27-32 our Bible reading for this morning. And my headings this morning are going to be very simple, first, THE DIVINE LAW, secondly, MORE DIVINE LAW and, thirdly, THE GOSPEL.


Look again at Matthew 5.17-20:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

There are some people who think the gospel - or the good news that Jesus taught - has done away with the Old Testament and its moral law. That couldn't be further from the truth. To make this crystal clear Jesus says it twice: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets." And he repeats that: "I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them." One of the first heresies in the early Church was an attack on the Old Testament by a man called Marcion. He actually erased this passage from his Bible. The early Christians soon saw how wrong he was.

Let me put these verses into context. Jesus is speaking to his followers or disciples (Matthew 5.1). He has just said they are to be salt and light in the world. Like salt in times before refrigeration they were to be a preservative - in their case, preserving the world from decay but without losing their own "saltiness" through compromise (Matthew 5.13). And they were to bring light to the world in its darkness by being different and shining like a light. So practically how were they to be salt and light?

The first thing they needed to understand was the importance of the divine law and to respect "even one of the least of these commandments". But how did Jesus "fulfil" the Old Testament and its Law and Prophets. Well, he fulfilled the whole ritual law of the Old Testament with his death on the Cross, the supreme and final sacrifice for sin. That is why all those lesser Old Testament rituals have now ceased. He fulfilled the Old Testament's moral law by obeying it perfectly and then by explaining what true obedience really means, as we will see in a moment. He fulfilled the "law" understood as "doctrinal teaching" by being God's final and perfect revelation. By his teaching he completed the Old Testament's instruction about God, man and the world which was only partial, but still absolutely necessary. And he fulfilled the Prophets by being the one the Prophets pointed to and foretold.

Nor did Paul differ when he says, "Christ is the end of the law" in Romans 10.4. He certainly doesn't mean we are now free to disobey the moral law of God. For he said earlier in Romans 8.4 that the goal of Christ's coming was that "the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us." What Paul was (and is) teaching loud and clear, is not that the moral law is abolished as God's standard for living. No! He is teaching that obedience to the law (which God indeed wants) is not, however, the way to acceptance with God. For obedience follows acceptance. That acceptance is only through faith in Jesus Christ and a thankful receiving of his love and grace that we do not in any way deserve.

So - the first strategy for being salt and light in respect of protecting marriage is to seek to obey and then teach (verse 19) God's moral law as it relates to marriage. The second strategy is to obey and teach more divine law (my second heading).


I am referring to Jesus' unpacking of that basic commandment. This has two parts. Look first at verses 27-30 of Matthew 5:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."

The sixth commandment (Exodus 20.13) "You shall not murder," Jesus said, means more than refraining from actual murder. As we saw a few weeks ago, It covers angry thoughts and abusive language. Similarly the seventh commandment means more that refraining from physical sex outside marriage and being faithful to your marriage partner. Jesus taught that there could also be adultery of the heart. For God's standards are far higher than people who simply keep the letter of the law often realize. Look on to verse 48 of chapter 5: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

So Jesus is saying here that the seventh commandment can be broken in your thoughts, your heart, and in your imagination, as well as in deed. This obviously relates to pornography and other forms of sexual display that generate lust. It also has to do with what "therapists" call "emotional infidelity". That is where a man and a women can have quite an intimate relationship involving sexual thoughts but without physical involvement. Jesus calls all this "heart adultery".

There was a much respected and well-known clergyman who not so long ago got up into the pulpit and said: "before I begin this sermon I have a serious and rather personal announcement to make." There was a dramatic pause. He then went on. "It is in the nature of a public confession. I have to confess to being an adulterer." There was another pause before he added, "But I am a non-practising adulterer." He was referring to Matthew 5.

Jesus' application here is a challenge to nearly everyone. That is why Christians still need the law. Don't forget, Jesus is talking to his followers who, on average, would have been sexually normal men and women and so open to temptation. One of these, Peter, himself deals with female attraction in his epistle, where he says the inner spirit of a women is more important than her outward appearance (1 Peter 3.4). He then commends Sarah, who Genesis 12 calls a "beautiful woman" and the Egyptians, we are told, "saw that she was" (Genesis 12.16). So Peter is not against women looking good. But he sees the dangers if the physical dominates. It is one thing to look attractive, it is another to be deliberately seductive.

Also remember that among the disciples were converted prostitutes (Matt 21.31). There is no reason to suppose that some of them weren't still highly sexed after their conversion. They were probably listening to this Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is crystal clear. He is, of course, not denying the right of sexual relations within marriage. He is simply giving practical advice to prevent "heart adultery". Nor is he forbidding men looking at women, so that women should be veiled as in Islam. No! He is warning against looking "lustfully". And, of course, this does not just apply to men but women also.

Jesus practical advice is that there is a connection between the eye (what you see) and your desires (your "lust") and your heart (you inner-most being). And to look lustfully is to commit adultery in the heart. So, says Jesus, if your looking leads to lust, deal with your "eyes" - what you see first of all and then what you see in your mind's eye - your fantasies or your imagination. He says, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away." Notice the "if". People no doubt are different. But "if" what you see causes you to lust, take drastic action. Jesus is using a dramatic figure of speech. He means, "Say 'No!' with the help of God's Holy Spirit. Have some ruthless moral self-denial. He means mortification (to use the old theological language) not mutilation. Similarly, if the problem is through what you touch, deal with your hands - verse 30:

"And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."

Well, after all this, many of Jesus' listeners who thought they were fine, because they were keeping the letter of the law, suddenly realized that in God's eyes they had committed adultery - heart adultery. That was the result of the first part of Jesus' unpacking the commandment. But more was to follow. For there were others who thought they were fine; they too, Jesus says, were adulterous.

You need to realize that in Jesus' day, like today, divorce and remarriage was all too common. Some Jews believed that you could divorce for almost anything. Others believed you could only divorce for discovering pre-marital intercourse (or adultery). So among the "large crowds" who followed Jesus and were now listening to him (Matt 4. 25) "from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan", there undoubtedly would have been many who were divorced and remarried. What does Jesus say to them and to all the others who wanted to know what to think about divorce and remarriage? Look at verses 31-32:

"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."

Jesus is presupposing the remarriage of the divorced person. But he is saying something that was unthinkable to the majority present. He says that those in a marriage with a former marriage partner still living were also breaking the seventh commandment and adulterous. And this teaching is repeated again in Matthew and also in Mark and Luke and Paul. Paul records Jesus' teaching in 1 Cor 7.10-11:

"To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord [that is Jesus - it is his teaching): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife."

Mark records Jesus as saying - Mark 10.11-12:

"Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."

And Luke reports Jesus as saying - Luke 16.18:

"Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

That saying in Luke, surely, makes something clear: namely that Jesus (in our verse in Matthew with its "exceptive clause") can't be meaning that if there is a divorce (because say of the adultery of one party), there can be a second marriage for the innocent party. For both parties, says Jesus in Luke 16.18, are involved in an adulterous relationship in what follows the divorce. He says both the man who divorces his wife and marries another, and the second husband of the divorced wife commit adultery. That is why it is difficult to take the "exceptive clause" here in Matthew as a permission to remarry.

I haven't time to go into details about the meaning of the word translated "marital unfaithfulness" in the NIV. But that certainly seems wrong. There is another Greek word for "marital unfaithfulness" which is the noun of the verb here translated, "adultery". The Jerusalem Bible's translation seems to me correct where it translates this verse 32 as:

"I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

An "illicit marriage" is what today would result in a "nullity". In Jesus' day it was a marriage within the Jewish forbidden degrees. English forbidden degrees are similar. They mean you cannot marry your mother (or step-mother, or former step-mother, or adoptive mother) or your daughter (or step-daughter) or sister (or half-sister) or aunt or niece and it goes on and on, and in reverse for a woman.

It was particularly serious at this time for the Jews because of king Herod (Antipas). He had made an illicit marriage within these forbidden degrees. He had married his brother Philip's wife, Herodias. And you read in Matthew 14.4 that John the Baptist "had been saying to him [it is an imperfect tense, "he kept on saying"]: 'It is not lawful for you to have her.'" That is why John the Baptist was arrested and put in prison (and eventually executed) - "because of Herodias".

So, however you translate this verse, in both these areas (of heart adultery and remarriage) Jesus seems to be saying something that pointed to a "righteousness [that] surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law" of his day. And, he says, unless your righteousness is like that "you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5.20). So what hope is there for anyone? Jesus unpacking this commandment shows us all to be guilty? The hope is in out third heading which is ...

Thirdly, THE GOSPEL.

The good news of faith in Christ needs the bad news of the law. You see the law is necessary for bringing a knowledge of sin. You often do not realize the mess you are in, and so see the need of Christ. Christ is irrelevant to those who do not realize they are in a mess. But if you are in a mess and failing God, the gospel is good news. And if you are maritally and sexually failing God, don't think that you are unique. The social consequences in this life are often more heart-breaking than with other forms of sin, but as Jesus said, it is better to have pain - even the excruciating pain of loss in this life than "to be thrown into hell" at the judgment day (v 29).

So if your mess and failure has brought, or is bringing you, to Christ, thank him and trust him. Find out what he wants to do with you in your present situation. He will have a good plan for you. He can bring good out of bad situations.

A friend of mine, a clergyman, was preaching about Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage. At the end of the service a couple in the congregation who had been divorced and remarried, thanked him for what he had said. Of course, they knew that they were not now to split up - like Herod should have left Herodias. The one thing the Old Testament law on divorce in Deuteronomy 24.4 is clear about is that you are not to remarry your former partner after you have remarried someone else. But remarried people need to make sure any responsibilities from a former marriage are being met.

However, God was blessing this couple now, not because of their sin but in spite of it. But they wanted the next generation to know about Jesus' teaching. No one should sin, says Paul, "that grace may increase" (Rom 6.1). Yet God does increase his grace, even when you have completely messed up. And that is because Christ died, in your place, bearing your guilt. God doesn't change his mind. There is still moral right and moral wrong. Paul puts it clearly in 1 Cor 6.9-11:

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. 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."

These are not people who trust Christ and fall into temptation and sin, but then seek forgiveness. Of course, not. These are people who affirm their immorality or greed or say it is good to be an adulterer or a homosexual offender. But being "washed, sanctified and justified", as you thank God for his goodness and grace, it helps you in the moral struggle. The Holy Spirit will be working to change your heart. So little by little you become more like Christ - not perfect this side of heaven, but growing in grace.

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