Since the middle of October I have been preaching through Jesus' Sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This morning, our study brought us to Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus' statement on divorce and remarriage. I have been somewhat apprehensive about approaching this text, because of the trajectory my life has taken over the past 5 years. I did put a sermon together and preached it this morning. I humbly submit it to you, here, in written form. I pray that you will find these words a blessing. I would enjoy your comments and the wisdom you bring to this hard subject.
Did you read the Sermon On the Mount this week? This morning, we continue our study of this important part of the Bible. We come to a very difficult subject and one that is deeply personal to many of us here in this room.
But, first a little lightheartedness: A man visits a lawyer to seek a divorce. The lawyer asked, “Do you have any Grounds?” The man replied: “About three acres.” The lawyer tried again, “No, I mean do you have a Grudge?” The man answered, “No, but we have a carport.” The lawyer made one last effort: “Are you really sure you want a divorce?” The client replied, “No, I don’t, but my wife does. She says we can’t communicate!”
That’s about as humorous as the subject before us this morning gets.
DIVORCE. A scary word. A word that we’d rather not hear. A word that represents much pain and heartache, distress . . . even shame.
Everyone of us here today has been affected by the sorrow of failed marriages. I have experienced divorce firsthand . . . my first marriage failed . . . many of you have walked in those same shoes . . . some of you have had children that have suffered divorce . . . some of you have experienced the divorce of your parents.
In 1999, thirteen years ago!, a study showed that 25% of adults in the United States have had a marriage end in divorce . . . one out of four adults in this country! Did you know that among those who call themselves “born-again” Christians the percentage of divorced adults is 27% . . . two percentage points HIGHER than the public at large.
Divorce is not merely “of the world” . . . it’s in the church, as well . . . indeed I would say that at least a third of the adults in this room today have been divorced, including myself.
So, what does Jesus teach about divorce? He addresses the subject in the Sermon On the Mount.
In Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Do you see the pattern? The pattern that Jesus has repeatedly employed in this section of His Sermon On the Mount?
Notice, Jesus says, “It was also said,” similar to the refrain from earlier verses, “You have heard that it was said.” And that is followed by, “But I tell You” (as we also see in vv. 21 and 27). This pattern will again be employed in vv. 33, 38, and 43.
What Jesus is doing is taking portions of the Law (the writings of Moses) and reciting them to His audience as their teachers (the Pharisees and scribes) were teaching them during that time. And He contrasts those teachings with proper applications of them for His disciples to employ in their lives.
Remember, the Pharisees, and those like them, emphasized the letter of the law . . . their’s was a religion of rule-keeping . . . crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. And they sought ways to skirt around God’s laws . . . to do JUST what was required and nothing more.
But, Jesus is calling for a deeper obedience . . . He says that our righteousness must “surpass” that of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not a matter of mere rule keeping, but a desire from the heart to BE the person God wants me to be. Jesus is emphasizing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law.
And, so, He takes a portion of the Law that had been misapplied, or glossed over, and says let Me tell you what this principle truly means in the lives of My disciples.
And, so, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’” He is referring to something Moses said in Deuteronomy 24.
Deuteronomy 24.1-4a: Moses said, “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house or if he dies, the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord.”
Notice, Moses neither encourages or commands divorce. He basically presents one long conditional sentence . . . saying that if this set of conditions occurs, then this is how the matter should be handled.
Moses’ interest in the matter is not so much focused on “divorce” as it is on the treatment of the woman affected by the divorce.
As Moses is outlining this instruction, there was great disparity between men and women. A husband was the unquestioned master of the house and of marriage. If he chose to dismiss his wife, SHE had little recourse. He could throw her out . . . and, out on her own, she would be in a very precarious situation . . . especially if she sought to remarry. She could be accused of adultery for remarrying, and would have little ability to prove otherwise.
And, in Moses’ day, the penalty for adultery was not merely the inability to remarry . . . BUT it was death . . . if you were guilty of adultery, you were to be stoned.
So, Moses says that the husband who divorced his wife MUST give her documentation, a “certificate of divorce,” declaring her purity. Moses also guards against further manipulation of the woman by saying that her first husband cannot then subsequently remarry her, if she has been divorced by another man. In effect, Moses is saying that you can’t go in and out of marriage at a whim.
People in Jesus’ day, notably the Pharisees, were using this instruction from Moses to JUSTIFY divorce. Thus, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’”
In fact, as Jesus sat on the hillside near the Sea of Galilee and delivered His Sermon On the Mount, a rather hotly-debated controversy was being fought between two factions of Pharisees over Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24. It was a debate that broiled for many decades. The battle hinged on Moses’ words, “she becomes displeasing to him,” and “he finds something improper about her.”
On one side of the issue was the school of Rabbi Shammai, who took the conservative line. He and his followers taught that Moses allowed for divorce, but only because some “grave marital offense” had been committed. Shammai argued that this offense was an act of “absolute indecency”—basically, an act of infidelity . . . not necessarily limited to promiscuity, but a “major” offense.
On the other side of the issue was the school of Rabbi Hillel, who adopted a much more lax position . . . and, the more widely-accepted view during Jesus’ day. Hillel and his followers argued that Moses gave permission to a husband to divorce his wife for any action of hers that upset him. For instance, Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by adding too much salt, or if she were seen in public with her head uncovered, or if she talked to other men on the street, or if she spoke disrespectfully to her husband’s parents, or if she became “plain-looking” compared with other women who seemed more beautiful in her husband’s eyes. These are laughable, but they were viewed as legitimate reasons for divorce in Jesus’ day.
The situation isn’t much different today, is it? Don’t people still divorce for just about any and every reason imaginable? A man in Hazard, Kentucky divorced his wife because she “beat him whenever he removed onions from his hamburger without asking for permission.” A deaf man in Bennettsville, South Carolina filed for divorce because his wife “was always nagging him in sign language.” A woman in Canon City, Colorado divorced her husband because he forced her to “duck under the dashboard whenever they drove past his former girlfriend’s house.” And a woman in Hardwick, Georgia divorced her husband on the grounds that he “stayed home too much and was much too affectionate.” These are actual statements made by plaintiffs seeking divorces.
Did you know that every state in our union except South Dakota has some sort of law in place allowing for what is commonly called “no fault divorce”? It essentially means that either spouse in a marriage can file and petition for divorce for any and all reasons, or no reason at all.
This was essentially the view of the School of Rabbi Hillel . . . although it was a prerogative of only the husband . . . the wife had no legal standing to divorce her husband. She was at his mercy . . . or lack thereof!
Jesus is called into this debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. In Matthew 19 we have recorded an exchange that took place between Jesus and some Pharisees.
Matthew 19.3: “Some Pharisees approached Jesus to test Him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?’”
In other words, they are asking, “Which Rabbi do you side with, Shammai or Hillel?” They might as well have been asking Jesus, “Are you a conservative or a liberal on the matter of divorce?”
Jesus responds in vv. 4-6: He said, “Haven’t you read that He who created them in the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
Jesus’ answer must have surprised the Pharisees. Undoubtedly, they expected Him to cite Moses in Deuteronomy, but He doesn’t . . . Jesus goes all the way back to the beginning . . . to the creation of man . . . and in doing so, stresses the permanence of marriage.
Jesus says that God’s ultimate plan, the ideal, is that marriage: (1) is between one man and one woman; (2) is for life; and (3) is an institution created by God.
The Pharisees shout back: “Why then did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?” (v. 7).
Notice the attitude. The Pharisees saw Moses’ instruction as a license to divorce. They totally missed the point that Moses was simply speaking in the woman’s defense.
Jesus responds. In vv. 8-9, he says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning. And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Jesus doesn’t take the bait . . . He’s not going to referee the controversy that was waging between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel. They were all about the permissiveness of divorce . . . that was their focus . . . whether it be the conservatives who limited it to some serious sin on the part of the woman, or the liberals who said it could be because of any offense brought to the husband . . . their focus was merely on the rights of the man to the end the marriage.
Jesus dismisses that battle as essentially a misreading (or, misapplying) of Moses’ instruction. And, in a manner of speaking, Jesus says, “Back up a moment, and remember what marriage is. It is a relationship created and given by God to a man and woman . . . it isn’t some trivial matter. It is a serious relationship that can’t just be thrown away on a whim. The cause of the failure of a marriage must be isolated to an act that in and of itself desecrates the very bond of marriage . . . like adultery.”
And, this is what Jesus also says in the Sermon On the Mount. Again, in Matthew 5.31-32, Jesus teaches, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
First of all, notice, the focus of Jesus’ teaching is on the MAN . . . the husband . . . HE “causes her to commit adultery,” and the man who “marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Now, certainly, Jesus’ teaching applies to both men and women, to husbands and wives, especially in our day and time when there is a certain equality of rights and actions for men and women, BUT, it seems to me, that Jesus is not-so-subtly leveling the “gender” playing field.
Remember, in Jesus’ day (and in Moses’ day), it was the men who had the power . . . whether it be in society, or in the family. According to the customs of the day, a MAN could divorce his wife, but a WIFE had no such ability. And, at least in the eyes of the more progressive-thinking Pharisees, a man could dismiss his wife for ANY reason.
To this mindset, Jesus puts the SIN of the divorce squarely at the feet of the husband . . . YOU cause “her to commit adultery,” he says. And, it would seem, the one who seeks to benefit from the callousness of the first man “commits adultery” when he “marries a divorced woman.”
In Matthew 19.9, Jesus’ focus is even more squarely on the man. He says, “And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
And, in Mark 10.11, the point is even clearer. There, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against HER.”
I see this focus on the MAN as being a primary reason for the strength of Jesus’ statement about divorce and remarriage. He’s employing a bit of hyperbole here to make a point . . . to stress the seriousness of the subject . . . much like what He says in the preceding verses about the temptations we have. Remember, Jesus says in Matt. 5.29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away,” and, in v. 30, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Gouge out your eye . . . cut off your hand . . . obviously exaggerations to make a point about the seriousness of temptation.
And, so, likewise, here, Jesus is using a rather pointed statement to get the attention of those men who thought they had license to summarily dismiss their wives without much cause or concern for their plight.
But, there’s more.
The debate between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel was much more a battle of semantics than anything else. They were debating the meaning of words that Moses used many centuries before.
To Shammai, Moses meant something akin to adultery. To Hillel it was anything that brought displeasure to the husband. These two rabbinical schools could not agree . . . and so in their struggle to be RIGHT on the subject they forgot the true importance of Moses’ instruction. In a battle over semantics (the meaning and use of words) the Pharisees reduced the sanctity of marriage to just another issue to fight over.
But Jesus, in both the Sermon On the Mount and especially later in Matthew 19, returns the focus to the sanctity of marriage.
Remember, when the Pharisees come to Him and ask Him to pick sides in the Shammai-Hillel debate, Jesus ignores the controversy over semantics and instead makes an appeal to what was true at the very beginning . . . that God had given marriage to a man and woman . . . it was not a relationship of convenience . . . but a holy bond.
The Pharisees debated when and how they could break that bond, BUT Jesus is saying, in essence, treasure that bond . . . value it . . . don’t be wrapped up in how can be nullified.
Today, sadly, the battlefield has shifted. Instead of fighting over the semantics of “adultery,” and trying to determine what is meant by “grave marital offense,” we fight over the “semantics” of “remarriage” . . . over when it is permissible for a divorced person to remarry.
Wouldn’t you agree? There’s been a lot of ink spilled (and probably more than a little blood, too) over the subject of divorce and remarriage. Families have become divided over it . . . churches, too. And the differing camps are as impassioned about their stances as were Rabbis Shammai and Hillel in Jesus’ day.
But, sadly, the battle is fought in the midst of half-truths and innuendos and speculations . . . in other words, we place ourselves as judges of relationships that are not our own and that we only view from the outside.
Do we get as worked up when somebody lies and sins? . . . treats another rudely and sins? . . . is improper with finances and sins? . . . dishonors his parents and sins? . . . withholds from God and sins? Do you catch the drift of what I am saying? We’re so quick to point fingers at another and question the validity of their divorce and remarriage, that we forget to notice our own sin.
Yes, divorce can certainly be sinful . . . but, it can also be that act of last resort that must be taken in a relationship that has become fractured beyond repair, and, worse, has become dangerous to one’s health and well-being. But, God is the judge of the merits of that . . . not me, not you.
Yes, remarriage after divorce can be sinful, but it also can be permissible in the judgment of God . . . and, I emphasize that, “in the judgment of God.”
I like the words of John Stott. He writes, “To be preoccupied with the grounds for divorce [and remarriage] is to be guilty of the very pharisaism which Jesus condemned.”
It is important to realize, we cannot undo the past. We can simply live this day forward in the best way that we can.
Let me say that again: we cannot undo the past, we can simply live this day forward in the best way that we can.
We all have past regrets . . . mistakes . . . things that we wish we had done differently. And it’s not always a matter of ruing over past sins. Sometimes it is a desire to have made wiser choices than were made . . . taking a more constructive course in life.
For some of us, those regrets involve the choices over who we married, or how we conducted ourselves in that marriage, or how that marriage may have come to an end, or what happened in the years that followed.
But, no matter how strong our regrets are, we cannot go back and undo what has happened . . . the pieces cannot be reassembled as if nothing had happened.
We can simply take this day, TODAY, and live it to God’s glory, knowing that the past is gone, forgiven by a gracious and merciful God, but realizing, too, that there are ongoing consequences from past choices . . . the issues related to divorce LINGER (especially if you have children involved) . . . but taking TODAY and committing ourselves to honoring God with the rest of our days.
I am reminded of the words Jesus shared with a woman caught in adultery.
He said, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus didn’t dwell in the woman’s past, or grill her over past choices and past sins. He simply helped her in the present and said, “Go and sin no more.”
Make TODAY a turning point, Jesus says, and live the rest of your days honoring God.
For those of us who have been personally affected by divorce and remarriage, those are encouraging words!
In His Sermon On the Mount Jesus says to those who want to be His disciples, “Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.”
The Pharisees were caught up in semantics, the meaning use of words . . . there’s was a religion of rule keeping. Jesus is calling us to something more.
Instead of debating when and how a person might get out of marriage, Jesus says VALUE marriage . . . HONOR that bond.
Instead of fighting over the subjects of divorce and remarriage and the semantics that surround the issues, we should be much more focused on promoting marriage and creating marriages that last.
Very quickly, here are some basic strategies for creating marriages that last. I offer these especially to the kids that are in here today and to those who are unmarried.
(1) View marriage as a sacred institution created and given by God.
(2) Find a mate who is committal in ways that extend beyond marriage.
(3) Look at yourself: value the commitments you make.
(4) Know that love is not the absence of conflict.
(5) Marry a Christian.
(6) Develop a mutual faith with your mate.
(7) Be humble. Always put the needs of your mate above your own.
One of the greatest gifts I have been given in life are the examples of my parents and grandparents. In July, my parents will celebrate 43 years of marriage. Yesterday would have been the 67th wedding anniversary of my mother’s parents, were my grandfather still living. Indeed I was blessed to have been at the Golden Anniversary celebrations of both sets of my grandparents.
We are blessed here in this congregation to have couples who have stood the tests of time . . . and provide to us such an example of love and commitment. They are the ideal! They are what its all about. Let’s honor them. Let’s be encouraged by them. Let’s learn from them . . . as we each strive to honor God each day forward.