These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’
One of the great advantages of walking through a section of Scripture (as we are doing) is that it forces you to confront subjects you might otherwise avoid. Divorce is one of those subjects.
At first glance Jesus’ teaching seems overly restrictive and difficult. But even his disciples thought the same. After hearing him teach the same ideas in Matthew 19, they say, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ In other words, if there’s no way out of marriage, why would anyone get in in the first place?
But on reflection we know that our massively liberal attitudes to divorce are wreaking havoc to people’s lives. The fallout is huge, not least in the effects divorce has on children. Fatherlessness is widely recognised as one of the most destructive problems in society.
The result of our easy-divorce culture is that we have a bizarre and contradictory situation. On the one hand, many people are apathetic or even afraid and cynical of marriage. On the other hand, people are spending more and more money on elaborate weddings, and go nuts when celebrities get married. Why? Surely this all points to the fact that we’re not sure what marriage is any more, we can only cling to some vague romantic ideals.
Surprisingly, the situation wasn’t all that different in Jesus’ day. In our passage he references Deuteronomy 24.1 which mentions a man divorcing his wife because he has found ‘some indecency in her’. There were two schools of thought. Rabbi Shammai had taught a relatively restrictive view of what ‘some indecency’ referred to; you can't divorce except for the most serious reasons like adultery. But Rabbi Hillel had taught a much looser view, that you could divorce for ‘something’ or ‘indecency’, which is pretty all-inclusive. If your wife burns your food she's out. This looser interpretation was (unsurprisingly) the more popular one.
It is into this context of virtually no-fault divorce that Jesus speaks with the heart and voice of God, echoing those words from Malachi: ‘I hate divorce’.
But why is Jesus so black and white about this issue? We need to go to Matthew 19.1-9 to understand. It starts like this:
‘And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” ’ (Matthew 19.3).
You have to realise that Jesus was in Herod’s territory — Herod, that murderous, divorced king. It’s like being on Russian TV and being asked about Putin’s foreign policy. These Pharisees are testing Jesus, knowing his views aren’t popular or likely to win friends in high places. How is Jesus going to respond? His answers go as follows:
1. Jesus moves the conversation onto first principles
Most of the ethical debates in our society are a car crash because we can’t agree on fundamental principles — the assumptions we all make long before we discuss the particulars. If we don’t agree on something as fundamental as What is man? How did we get here? how can we agree on issues like abortion, euthanasia, trans-genderism, sex, and everything else? If you are a consistent person then your beliefs about any particular ethical issue are founded on more basic beliefs. So, if you think God made us, that basic conviction dictates what you believe about the preciousness of life (but if you believe we’re just accidents in a meaningless universe…)
Look at how Jesus responds.
‘He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” ’ (Matthew 19.4-6)
First, God invented marriage. If you believe that marriage is a social construct that has arisen for the benefit of the species — in other words, that we invented marriage — then we can just as easily un-invent or redefine it. But if you think God invented it when he made us, then it follows that God has a purpose for marriage and it’s important to know what that purpose is.
Second, God invented marriage to more fully reflect his image. How? The creation account shows us that the job wasn’t finished when God has made Adam. It wasn’t good that the man was alone. God exists from eternity in three persons, as a community, and so God could hardly have made a man in his own image who was not also able to reflect that community. In Genesis 1.27 it is male and female together that reflects God’s image. There’s something about marriage that more fully displays the image of God in us. (Not that single people do not reflect the image of God, but that marriage can reflect something singleness can’t, which is the joining of persons to become one.)
Third, God invented marriage to more fully reflect his image by displaying covenant love. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’. This word ‘flesh’ is literally the word for meat. They’ll become one meat, one body, one lump of flesh. This unity is not just an idea, it’s a reality. But how does this happen? How do two become one? It’s partly because of the vows they utter (which are surely rendered meaningless by prenuptial agreements, as though your fingers are crossed as you promise to have and to hold til death). And it’s partly through the act of sex, which has a joining power. That is why there’s no such thing as casual sex or friends with benefits; sex is never a weak and meaningless act.
And so, by creating marriage to show oneness in covenant love, God was showing us something about himself as Trinity, and something about his love towards his people, which is like a marriage. These are the basic convictions and beliefs which Jesus holds before he even gets to the subject to divorce.
2. Jesus reveals the heart behind the problem
The real question is, why would anyone want the option to divorce? The answer that Jesus’ hearers gave was that it was legally ok; Moses had allowed it!
‘They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” ’ (Matthew 19.7)
Look again at Jesus' response:
‘He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” ’ (Matthew 19.8-9)
Jesus is showing them that there are many things that are legally ok, but morally wrong. I remember when the internet began to get big and we were all downloading a piece of software called Napster. It allowed us to download any piece of music we wanted, for free. Sure, it took about an hour to download one track, but we were happy because it was free. And best of all, it was legal; there were no copywrite laws to cover digital distribution of music. But was it morally ok? My conscience didn’t think so.
Jesus explains that the only reason Moses allowed divorce was because of sklerokardia — sclerosis of the heart, hardness of heart. In other words, all divorce is because of sin. Divorce only ever happens because of sin and selfishness. So why would you want the option to divorce? Only because you want the option to sin.
3. Jesus reflects the heart of God
Would you trust a god who didn’t hate divorce? Remember that marriage is a covenant, and so is our relationship to God. Therefore, God’s commitment to marriage is his commitment to covenant love.
If God didn’t hate divorce, how could we be sure of his covenant love towards us? ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Romans 8.35). Answer: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Why? Because Jesus is committed to his bride. Divorce isn’t an option. Remember what marriage means: ‘ “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.’ (Ephesians 5.31-32) The meaning of marriage is that Jesus is married to his church.
When we let the full weight of that sink in we understand Jesus' hostility towards divorce.
Does Jesus still seem harsh on the matter of divorce? Wouldn't you rather marry someone whose commitment to marriage is as passionate as Jesus’ commitment? And wouldn't you rather know a saviour with that same fierce commitment to his people?