Is Divorce Okay? (Matthew 19:1-12)
I know that many families here have been affected by divorce in one way or another. Many of you have shared with me stories about divorce in one way or another. Some of you experienced divorce from the vantage point of your own parents. Some of you have stood by children as they walked the lonely valleys of divorce. Some of you have walked through the valley of divorce yourselves.
Those of you who have walked those lonely miles understand precisely why God declared, “The LORD God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence” (Mal 2:16). God hates what divorce does to families–to the spouses, to the parents, to the children. God hates the pain divorce brings, He hates the financial strain, and He hates when children must choose sides. God wants what’s best for His children, and divorce, while sometimes necessary, is by no means a pleasant experience.
The Pharisees should have known that God hates divorce–those words are part of the Scriptures the Pharisees, at least, claimed to hold so dear. But, they come and ask Jesus about divorce in order to trick Him. Except when they crucified Jesus, I don’t know that the Pharisees ever got as low as they do here. They take an issue that has ruined countless millions of families and use it for their own political gain.
Jesus, being the wise Son of God, doesn’t fall for their trap, but takes them back to the Creation to speak of God’s design for marriage. As we think about God’s ideal, we must understand: “Divorce was never God’s plan.” What is God’s plan, you ask? “God’s plan: One man, one woman, for life.” This morning, we want to think about God’s original plan, think of times it’s acceptable (because of sin) to deviate from that design, and ways that we can submit to God’s plan. Let’s go to our text to learn God’s plan for marriage.
Text (Matthew 19:1-12)
The Pharisees came to Jesus, tested Him, and asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
The Pharisees likely hope that Jesus is going to get in hot water over this. You remember that Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John the Baptist had preached against Herod. John lost his life for that. Jesus is standing not far from the prison where John was held when this question is asked, and the Pharisees likely hope that Jesus will say something that they can carry back to Herod and that will allow them to get rid of Jesus altogether.
The question, however, is: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” Most Jews believed that they had a right to divorce their wives but that the Gentiles did not. You likely know there were two main thoughts among the Jews about the grounds for divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 says that a man could divorce his wife if “he has found some uncleanness in her.” What did “some uncleanness” mean?
- Rabbi Shammai believed that “uncleanness” was some gross immorality. That gross immorality would not necessarily be adultery. Remember that under the Law the penalty for adultery was death, so divorce wouldn’t be necessary in such a case.
- Rabbi Hillel interpreted “uncleanness” as any offense, real or imagined, against the husband. Hillel said that a man could divorce his wife if the wife did not cook a meal to his satisfaction. One of his disciples said that a man could divorce his wife if a prettier woman caught his eye.
Divorce was very common among the Pharisees. Josephus was a divorced Pharisee, and he believed in divorce for any and every reason. Divorce was so common among the Pharisees that it’s very likely that a good number of the Pharisees who came to test Jesus were divorced.
Jesus cuts right through their hypocrisy, bypasses Deuteronomy 24:1, and goes back to Genesis.
Jesus does several important things in these verses:
- He shows respect for the authority of the Scriptures. . . “Have you not read?”
- He says that God created marriage. Marriage is not an institution created by man or that man really has much say in. God created marriage for “male and female.” Some say that Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, but Jesus says that God created marriage for a man and a woman.
- He says that marriage is to be a permanent relationship. Man and woman are one flesh–they are a whole unit. Man is not to separate the union of man and woman.
The Pharisees want to know why Moses commanded divorce.
He did not command divorce. Jesus says that at verse 8: “Moses . . . permitted you to divorce your wives.” In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, God is actually protecting women from being pawns of their ex-husbands; He’s not encouraging divorce at all.
“From the beginning it was not so”–God never wished for divorce to become a reality.
In fact, divorce and remarriage is only permitted in cases of “sexual immorality.” I have often said that “adultery” was the exception that permitted divorce and remarriage, but that’s not what the Lord says. The Lord says that “fornication” or “sexual immorality” is the exception. I believe that’s a significant statement, or I wouldn’t mention it. Here’s the significance:
- “Adultery” refers to married person’s sexual relationship outside of his or her marriage.
- “Fornication” is a broader term that refers to any sexual relationship outside of marriage whether or not either person is married. “Fornication” is a broader term. While “fornication” for a married person would also be “adultery,” I believe Jesus wants to be very clear that any sexual relationship–except with one’s spouse–allows the other party to divorce and remarry.
Any remarriage after divorce–except that divorce be for sexual immorality–constitutes adultery. The verb tense here makes clear that idea that one continually commits adultery while in that marriage. That marriage is not at all pleasing to God.
I have often had people come to me and ask me about different scenarios. “Justin, what if I married too young and didn’t understand”; “What if there was abuse?”; “What if this-or-that?” I don’t mean to be rude or harsh, but no scenario you mention is going to change the Word of God.
Somehow many folks believe they can find loopholes that Jesus simply did not give. Scripture is unchangeable. “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven” (Ps 119:89). “The Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn 10:35).
The disciples get the difficulty of Jesus’ words. They come to Him and say, “It is better not to marry.” No, these words are not easy. But, they are the words of Jesus, and we, as His people, must heed them.
“Divorce was never God’s plan.” “God’s plan: One man, one woman, for life.” I fear that in the church we’ve been reactionary toward this truth. Instead of helping people avoid horrible situations, we’ve simply told them not to divorce and remarry. This morning, I want us to think about steps we can take proactively to prevent divorce in the first place.
To the unmarried:
Be careful whom you marry.
Not everyone who is single in this world is biblically eligible to be married. Don’t marry someone who cannot biblically marry. I’d strongly suggest that you don’t even date such a person–you can fall in love that way, and it can then be so tempting to go ahead and marry.
Make a list of the attributes you’d like to see in a spouse. At the top of that list, put “Someone biblically eligible to be married”–i.e., someone who, if he or she is divorced, has a right, according to Jesus, to remarry. Put other Christian attributes on that list. You know that you are much more likely to stay married and faithful to Jesus if you marry another Christian who exhibits Christian character. Solomon is a sad case of someone whose heart was turned away from God by his spouses (1 Ki 11:1-2).
Pray for your future spouse.
It’s never too early to pray that God would direct your steps when it comes to marriage. Scripture teaches that a good wife comes from God. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov 18:22). Finding a wife is obtaining favor from the LORD. Pray for that favor.
To the married:
We need to commit to building healthy marriages.
There are many ways we can do that, and we don’t have time to discuss all those ways this morning. But, I think it really boils down to one thing Jesus said: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Commit to treating your spouse–not the way he or she treats you–but the way you want to be treated.
We must avoid fornication.
- We do that through openness. When spouses hide text messages or emails or Facebook friends, there is a big problem. I’ve given my wife all my passwords, and she’s welcome to check my phone for texts or calls anytime she wants.
- We do that through setting boundaries with people of the opposite sex. You don’t let relationships get anywhere near romantic involvement. You set personal boundaries, you live within those boundaries, and you don’t even get close to fornication.
- We do that through proper sexuality. We don’t mention it much, but one of the purposes of healthy sex in marriage is to avoid temptation (1 Cor 7:1-5). We must make sure there is romance in marriage so that we never wish to look elsewhere.
Marriage is a big responsibility and an enormous blessing. We dare not treat marriage with disrespect. Those of us who are in Christ have been married to Christ, joined to Him in an inseparable bond. Romans 7:4. Have you been married to Christ? Are you willing to be married to Him this day?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.