Marriage And Divorce

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This morning in our studies in Matthew's Gospel we come to Matthew 19.1-15 and Jesus teaching on Marriage and Divorce. And it is highly relevant. The week before last the General Synod of the Church of England decided that clergy should formally be allowed to do what they like with regard to marriage discipline. If they want to remarry divorced people in church, they can. If they do not want to, they need not remarry them.

This is the situation in the book of Judges where "everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21.25). How important, therefore, that we go back to the Bible and see what the Bible teaches. We need to listen to Jesus and not to the call of a decadent 21st century Britain. And it is decadent. Britain is now the divorce capital of Europe.

For centuries there were only two or three divorces per year in Britain; and even in 1914 there were only 1000. But that figure reached 10,000 in 1942. And we are now scores of 1000's over 100,000. So we must listen to and learn from the Bible. And as, I trust, we shall see, it teaches what the Church of England has taught formally since the Reformation and until the week before last. And what is that? A former Archbishop of Canterbury said, (I quote):

"The attitude of the Church of England, shortly put, is a) No marriage in church of any divorced person with a partner still living, since the solemnizing of a marriage is a formal and official act of the Church, and the Church must not give its official recognition to a marriage which (for whatever cause) falls below our Lord's definition of what marriage is: b) But the relation of such people to the Church or their admission to Communion is another matter, one of pastoral care for the sinner, and properly a matter of pastoral discretion."

That has been and still will be the position of this church, for I am convinced it is the position of Jesus himself. But there are problems.

First, there are problems related to compassion. "Is it possible," some people ask, "that Jesus could be so unkind and so uncaring in saying that remarriage after divorce is wrong?"

Secondly, there are problems related to the text of the Bible: "It surely allows for exceptions in the case of the adultery," others say.

Thirdly, there are problems related to motivation. What do I mean? Well, there are people who decide their ethics not by looking at the text of the Bible carefully and dispassionately. Rather, and for a range of different reasons, they have already made their minds up. They then read all the Christian books on divorce and, remarriage they can find, until they find one that fits in with what they have already decided. I have counselled people like that. Paul warned Timothy in the New Testament about people who ...

"... will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim 4:3).

Well, so much by way of introduction. Will you now turn to Matthew 19.1-15. As we look at these verses I hope we can address some of these problems. And you will see that I want to look at this passage first, in terms of THE CONTEXT, and then, secondly, in terms of, JESUS' TEACHING.


I want us to focus on four contexts. First, the context here is Matthew. Secondly, the context of the Old Testament. Thirdly, the context of eternity. And, fourthly, the context of the 21st century.

First, the context in Matthew's Gospel.

Ian Garrett, when we were thinking about Fellowship in 40 Days of Purpose, took us through the immediately preceding verses (18.15-35) on the importance of working at relationships and forgiveness - both vital for marriage. But there is also the context of the following verses. Jonathan Redfearn took us through 19.16-30 and what Jesus said to the Rich Young Man, when we were thinking about Discipleship in 40 Days of Purpose. And what Jesus said to this Rich Young Man seems so hard. Jesus said to him, "Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (19.21). In the same way as Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce in our passage shocked the disciples, so this teaching on money also shocked the disciples - verse 25, "they were greatly astonished."

The parallel between Jesus' teaching on money and marriage is very important. In both cases Jesus teaching is hard and rigorous. He is rigorous in the first part of chapter 19 over marriage and divorce. He is rigorous in the second part of chapter 19 over money and greed. But this Jesus is the one who was a man of infinite compassion and care, and uniquely so for people who failed in these two areas of money and marriage.

Jesus also shocked people by eating with the tax collectors. And, remember, tax collectors were not like the people who send you your assessment sheets at this time of year - respectable civil servants. No! These were like the worst of loan sharks who ruthlessly robbed and ruined the poor by their demands. Jesus similarly defied political correctness by talking to and caring about people like the Samaritan woman in John 4. She was a woman who had remarried five times and was currently cohabiting with some other man. But Jesus' love, compassion and friendship towards people who sinned in respect of money and marriage didn't mean he watered down his high standards regarding money and marriage. So much for the context in Matthew.

Secondly, the context of the Old Testament teaching on marriage and divorce.

And the Old Testament teaching is divided into two. First, there is the teaching you get in the early chapters of Genesis. And Jesus reminds the Pharisees in our chapter of that teaching - look at verses 4-6:

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' 5and 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'? 6So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

God's intention for marriage and sexual union is therefore heterosexual not homosexual - male and female, not male and male or female and female. This says marriage involves a leaving of father and mother. Then, as we can see from elsewhere in the bible, there is to be a free, decisive and socially recognized act of mutual commitment - a public uniting to a wife or husband in a permanent, lifelong and exclusive relationship. And finally there is to be a consummation in sexual union - they become "one flesh".

When these three things take place, more is involved than mere human action. God is doing something. God himself is joining two people together - "what God has joined together, let man not separate." There is now a new and altogether new unity, symbolized and enforced by the "one flesh". The couple are "no longer two, but one". But what is the nature of this unity?

In the Old Testament it is understood as close as a "blood" relationship. If you study Leviticus 18 you will find various prohibitions about certain relatives you cannot marry. They are not only people like parents and brothers and sisters, but also people related by marriage - people related not by a literal blood line, but by "blood" relationships created through marriage. Marriage in the Old Testament, or marital intercourse, makes the man and wife as closely related as parents and children. So their unity does not depend on how they feel, but on the fact that they are married. A brother and sister do not cease to be brother or sister if they, sadly, do not feel good about each other and never talk to each other and live in different parts of the world. So it is with a husband and wife. Death alone destroys the bond. And the reality of this bonding by marriage is behind Paul's horror in 1 Corinthians 5 where a man is married to his father's wife. It is incestuous.

So these are not just Old Testament idea that can be dispensed with. The married couple are "no longer two, but one" (verse 6) in an absolute way. That then is the first part of the Old Testament context.

The second part of the Old Testament context is what happens after the Fall and before the coming of Jesus. This was a period of "concession and compromise". God's people were coming into contact with other people in the ancient Near Eastern World and were often corrupted morally. You then had polygamy and divorce being tolerated, but not commanded. However, the Pharisees suggest in verse 7 of our chapter that divorce was commanded:

"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

But Moses didn't "command" divorce. In Deuteronomy 24.1 (alluded to by the Pharisees) there was simply an assumption that divorce was happening. Moses was only teaching that a woman who had been divorced and remarried shouldn't divorce again and be remarried again to her first husband. There was no command to divorce. So Jesus says, verse 8:

"Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."

Be that as it may, gradually during this Old Testament period people realized that polygamy, divorce and remarriage fell short of God's standards. So when you come to the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, as we heard in our Old Testament reading, "God hates divorce". That then is the context of the Old Testament.

Thirdly, and more quickly, the context in eternity.

One of the great lessons I trust we have learnt from Rick Warren and his book The Purpose Driven Life is that this life is not all there is. Advent is especially the season when we are to think of the four last things - Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. But we should always be reminding ourselves that this life is a preparation for eternity. So we need to keep things in perspective. Marriage is a wonderful gift of God, but it is not a state for all eternity Jesus taught, Mark 12.25:

"When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."

The married state will be transcended. Heaven will be better than being in the best of marriages. So the single and divorced will not be disadvantaged - something they need to remember.

And, fourthly, the context in the 21st century.

Social science is now making it crystal clear that if you stick to the instructions of God our maker with regard to sex, marriage, divorce and remarriage - in every respect, on average, you have the greatest happiness - not necessarily in the short term but certainly in the long term. So much for the context. But what does Jesus teach directly? That brings us to our second heading.


First, look at verses 1-2:

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. {2} Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there."

Jesus is now moving from Galilee into the region of Perea. He is in Herod Antipas' territory. And, remember, only a few years before this Herod had married Herodias, creating a cause célèbre. In those days, Herod and Herodias made as big an issue as King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson or, in our time, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. You see, Herodias had been married to Herod Antipas' brother, Herod Philip. She had divorced her first husband to marry her husband's brother. This was an incestuous marriage, like that marriage in Corinth. And because John the Baptist had denounced it, he was imprisoned and beheaded. Any mention of any woman divorcing her husband and remarrying someone else, either in Galilee or Perea, was bound to make people think of Herodias. For at this time a Jewish woman could not divorce her husband. Only a husband could initiate a divorce. However, Herodias had divorced her husband under Roman law as she was a Roman citizen. But Jesus did just that. He did mention a woman divorcing her husband.

Turn for a moment to Mark's Gospel, chapter 10 verse 1. Jesus, we read, is in "the region of Judea and across the Jordan" - that is Perea - Herod Antipas' territory. And he gives similar teaching on this occasion to the teaching Matthew records him giving about marriage and divorce that we are looking at. Jesus refers his questioners back to Genesis. Then, verse 11 of Mark 10, he says:

"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."

So Jesus here certainly had Herodias in mind in his teaching on divorce. Now look back again to Matthew 19 and verse 3:

"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?'"

They were trying to catch Jesus out. You see, there were two schools of thought amongst the Jews at this time. The strict group, the followers of the rabbi Shammai, said that you could divorce a woman only for serious sexual wrongdoing - if you discovered on your wedding night that she was not a virgin or, say, adultery. The other group were very liberal. They followed Shammai's contemporary, Hillel, who said you could divorce you wife if she cooked badly or if you found someone more good looking. So how does Jesus in the end answer the Pharisees? Look at verse 9:

"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

Is this a qualification of his teaching in Mark when he doesn't mention any exception? It hinges on what "except for marital unfaithfulness" means. The word in the original is porneia. But that is not the word for adultery. That is the word moicheia whose root is used in the verb in the last part of this sentence. So the NIV translation (normally a good translation) must be wrong (here the Jerusalem Bible is better). The NIV makes Jesus out to be no stricter, or even less strict, than people in the school of Shammai. The disciples would then not have been shocked at Jesus' teaching. But they were shocked. Look at verse 10:

"The disciples said to him, 'If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry'."

So it is hard to see porneia as meaning "marital unfaithfulness". What then does it mean? Well, in the New Testament porneia can refer to incestuous marriages. It does so in 1 Corinthians 5 and also in Acts 15. A number of scholars say that is what porneia is doing here. It is referring to an incestuous relationship. And who do we know was in an incestuous relationship? Herodias! If that is so, this then is referring to what we would call a nullity. (As an aside, the latest thinking is that the two Greek words translated "except" may well not mean "except" at all.)

There are all sorts of other reasons why this seems not to be an exception in practical terms - not least from what we learn from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 as I explain in my book Church and State in the New Millennium (chapter 11). And there is the evidence of the early church. In the first five centuries of the Church's history, divorce as the idea of the dissolution of the marriage relationship with the possibility of remarriage was virtually unheard of. In those centuries all the extant Greek and Latin writers except one agree that remarriage following divorce for any reason is adulterous. Some argued then, as can be argued today, that separation or divorce for sexual wrongs is permitted in some circumstances, but as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7.10, that doesn't allow remarriage:

"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."

And this view remained the basic view of the church until Erasmus in the 16th century. Luther and other Reformers followed Erasmus. Our Anglican Reformers, however, did not. I believe they were right and the others were wrong - I explain that in my book too.

I must conclude. Jesus knows this is hard teaching not only to live by but to understand. You need the Holy Spirit to open your spiritual as well as your intellectual eyes. Jesus says in verse 11:

"Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given."

Some will, indeed, have to say "no!" to a second marriage, "because of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 12) as other single people have to renounce a first marriage. But the one who makes these demands, is also the one who earlier in Matthew (chapter 11.28) also said:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you [and a yoke can be uncomfortable at times] and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

That is the great promise. The question is, "do you believe Jesus?"

Finally, what if I am someone who is divorced and already remarried? Am I supposed to leave my new wife or husband? Of course, not. I have legal obligations to my new marriage partner and possibly to a new family. And after all, that reference to divorce in Deuteronomy 24 was against divorcing again to remarry the first marriage partner. But I have moral obligations to my former wife or husband. For in God's eyes there is a continuing relationship. That relationship cannot now be expressed fully. Yet, in so far as I can, I must be reconciled to him or her in terms of forgiveness, of communication and certainly of fulfilling financial responsibilities, especially as they relate to any children.

But if I have gone so wrong, what hope is there for me in God's service? Perhaps someone this morning is actually asking that question. So I reply, "you haven't been reading The Purpose Driven Life - or you didn't read Day 35 on 'God's Power in Your Weakness'." Yes, certain doors will be closed to you because of your past. But if you are humble and repentant, God can use you remarkably. As Rick Warren puts it, "God loves to use weak people." Think of King David. He was an adulterer and a murderer. But God used him. And he can use you. Oh! Like Paul you have a "thorn in your flesh" - your personal history. And call it for what it is, as Paul did, something from Satan. Don't try and pretend it is something else. And like Paul's thorn it can still "torment you" (as he says in 2 Corinthians 12). But remember those words of Christ to Paul about his thorn:

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12.9).

And one of the ways Christ can use you is for you to try to help roll back the divorce and remarriage culture of the 21st century and reintroduce Christ's better way. We are all to fulfil all of that Great Commission we thought about last week, our 5th Purpose of evangelism and mission. We have to make disciples of all nations. But we also, says Jesus, have to teach those disciples to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28.19-20). That includes his teaching on marriage and divorce.

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