Marriage and Singleness Pt 1
Summary: Jesus responds to a question about divorce by pointing out the true nature of marriage.
This morning we find Jesus answering the question – who can get divorced, and under what circumstances? His answer points to the very nature of marriage – what it is, where it comes from, and why it has been a part of human history since the beginning. Next week we’re going to hear what Jesus says about being single.
I want to say from the very beginning, that I do not want to hurt anyone as I handle these sensitive topics. I know some of you have been affected personally by divorce – your own, or that of your parents, or your children or someone else you love. I know some of you have been single longer than you want to be. And your personal experience will affect what you hear. I understand that. I’m not here to play games with your pain. But I have an obligation to you and to God to stand here and examine with you what God says about marriage and divorce.
In some ways I feel like a nurse in a burn unit. I don’t want to hurt you or pick your scab, but we have to examine your wounds and make sure there’s healthy skin and no infection. There may be areas where truth needs to come into your experience and change your thinking or help you heal. Remember, no matter what else you’ve heard or read or thought about the subject, this is what Jesus has to say.
So, let’s read together.
Matthew 19:1 Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there.
3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
Now that is important for you to note – they’re testing Jesus with this question. This isn’t an honest inquiry, they’re asking for His take on a controversial subject. Some of you remember John the Baptist was beheaded over his views on divorce and remarriage.
At this point in Jewish history there was a debate occurring over the issue of divorce. Conservative rabbis said divorce should be rare and limited to a specific cause such as infidelity or neglect, while liberal rabbis went so far as to say a man could divorce his wife if she ruined his dinner, in other words, for just any reason at all. So the Pharisees want to know – Jesus, where do you fall on this issue? What does it take to justify a divorce?
4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Notice the response here. Jesus doesn’t ask: what does your rabbi say? He doesn’t ask, what do your civil laws say? What have you voted for? He doesn’t ask, what does your ruler say or what have your judges decreed? He points back to the order of Creation.
In the very first pages of Scripture we read that God made a man – Adam:
Gen 2:18 – And the LORD God said “It is not good that man should be alone, I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
Jesus anchors the discussion about marriage and divorce in Creation – we have marriage because we have men and women and they go together. This is a really interesting argument if you stop to think about it.
Have you ever realized that the birth rate of little boys and girls is consistently 1 to 1? All throughout the world, all throughout history, the birth rate of males and females is roughly the same. Now, that can be affected through things like selective abortion, and it certainly doesn’t play out in a single family which can have all boys or all girls, but at the community level, the tribal level, the national level, and the global level, all throughout history and all throughout time, the average birthrate is one boy for every one girl.
That’s amazing, isn’t it? Don’t just take it for granted. Ask: why? Because something, some force in the universe seems to be guiding the reproduction of the human species to keep things evenly paired. There has never been a time or place or ethnic group in history where 2 baby boys were born for every 8 girls. Or vice versa. The birth rate has never been heavily lopsided.
Jesus says this is God’s plan. He says God is responsible for the differences between male and female. He made them that way, and He designed them to go together – that a boy, or girl, is born to a man and a woman – the parents – and then eventually pairs up with a member of the opposite sex, leaves his or her parents, and becomes one with the other person.
And, notice this, Jesus says God is the one who joins them; so don’t let people separate them.
Now, this is really, really, fascinating to me as well. Because, in our Western understanding of marriage, we think of a man and woman walking down the aisle, maybe in the church or at the beach, and there is a pastor there to conduct the ceremony that costs, on average $30,000. Or, they go to the courthouse and there is a judge that marries them. Or they go to Vegas and Elvis marries them at the drive thru.
But notice what Jesus says – GOD joins a man and a woman together. Did you know there is NOTHING in the Bible that says you need the pastor to marry you?
Now, if you are a Christian, I think it is wise to have the pastor perform the ceremony. I think it should be public, just like your baptism, and I think you should make a covenantal commitment to one another in front of God and witnesses. If you want to receive any legal or tax benefits, you have to do it with the recognition of the government, but there’s nothing in Scripture that says what a wedding has to look like.
Marriage is a gift of common grace, that means it is something God has given to all of humanity, no matter where you live or at what point in history – whether you know God or not, He has given you the gift of marriage and joins people together with a spouse, making the two, one.
So, if you have been living together and sleeping together, I think I’ve got a really good argument to say you are “married in God’s eyes” even though you’ve never walked down an aisle together.
Jesus is making the case here that marriage is God’s creation. And when we separate a man from a woman through divorce we’re breaking something that God has made – we’re shattering the work of His hands.
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
This was the center of the religious debate happening between the rabbis. In Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24 God gave Moses instruction about why and how to have a divorce. He said a divorce could happen in the case of unfaithfulness or neglect. A divorce could occur if the spouse was not provided with food, clothing and sexual intimacy – but the woman had to be given a certificate of divorce.
That certificate was an important thing – a radical step toward civil rights – because it protected the woman. It proved she had been abandoned, her husband had broken his vows to her and she was eligible to remarry. And it forced the man to be public and intentional about what he was doing. He needed to publicly confess he was breaking his vows to her and her family; he was going back on his word.
God told Moses if there is going to be a divorce, it has to be for an acceptable reason – which we’ll cover in a moment – it has to be public, she has to know about it, and there is no changing your mind and going back to her if she remarries.
But don’t forget: this is only a concession by God because of the reality of living in a sinful world it was never the ideal. As Jesus said, God created male and female and intends for them to be joined together forever, to become one, til death do they part. Divorce, like death, is a sign that there is something terrible wrong in this world. Jesus goes on to explain:
8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
Notice this: they ask “Why did Moses command divorce? (vs 7)” And Jesus says, “Moses PERMITTED divorce (vs 8).” There’s a difference. There are situations where it is an option, but it’s never compulsory. God never looks at a situation and says, well, that’s beyond all hope.
If you are willing to endure, and seek help and healing, any relationship can be saved.
Jesus taught that marriage was special and intended for there to be very few reasons to get out – I see three in the Bible, and I’ll categorize them as adultery, abandonment, and abuse.
Jesus makes a clear case for adultery here. If you go out and get emotionally or physically attached to a person who is not your spouse, they have grounds for divorce. And, I would add, since Jesus said that if you look at someone to intentionally lust after them, it’s as if you actually did what you’re only thinking of, I think there is room here to argue that a pornography habit is legitimate grounds for biblical divorce. You’re engaging your heart and mind with images of people who are not your spouse, using your arousal and excitement for personal indulgence instead of shared intimacy with the one person you supposedly committed to for life.
The other clear grounds for divorce is abandonment and neglect – Paul develops this thought in 1 Corinthians 7 where he says a Christian should never intentionally marry a non-Christian, but if you become a Christian after you’re married, and your spouse does not, you should still stay with them and perhaps God will use your testimony and witness in their life to bring them and your children to salvation.
But, if the other person leaves or kicks you out, you have grounds for divorce. If they do not provide for you – food and clothing – the basics of life, not the luxuries, the basics, if they intentionally neglect you, you can divorce. And, if they withhold sexual intimacy from you, you have grounds for divorce. He writes:
1 Cor 7:5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
God wants married people to enjoy sexual intimacy. He made your body and He designed the activity. He knows what’s going on. It’s His wedding gift to you. Do not deprive one another. But don’t abuse one another either, work to make this enjoyable for both parties, pursue one another, make it something to look forward to.
These are two legitimate reasons for divorce: adultery and abandonment, and now finally, abuse. This one is not as clear and simple – I don’t have a specific verse to cite for you, but I can point out the principle that God does require you to endure abuse if you can avoid it. Even Jesus avoided unnecessary violence at times. I cannot make a biblical case that you have an obligation to remain in a physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive relationship. But that’s a much larger subject than we have time to address here in this general overview. Perhaps if you have questions we can talk one on one later.
These are the three Biblical possibilities I see for divorce: adultery, abandonment, and abuse.
So, what happens then?
Can you re-marry? I think the answer is yes. I know some churches have taught the opposite viewpoint, but I think they are wrong. In fact, the last church I pastored had two assistant pastors and both of them had been divorced, remarried, and were now serving in ministry. Divorce is always regrettable, but it is not a life long stigma that makes you an eternal second-class citizen. It is possible, with repentance and prayer, to recover from divorce.
When Jesus says, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery we have to hear him in the context of the question. He’s dealing with people who are contemplating divorces of convenience – they want an easy way out of the commitment they made so that they can move on to the next thing that has captured their attention.
I see Jesus making a prohibition here against what we call no-fault divorce. He’s saying that marriage shouldn’t be like buying a car – you use it, or lease it, for a while and then trade it in when something nicer comes along. He’s emphasizing the fact that marriage should be something durable, permanent.
And, He’s recognizing that yes, sometimes it is broken by broken people, so there is a way out, but the way out only proves that something has gone wrong. It’s the exception, not the rule.
And Christians, we need to recognize something: we have made too many excuses for divorce. It’s always easier to bail out than to work things out, but that is what God expects us to do – to work things out with one another, even when it’s hard. We are called to receive love, mercy, patience from God and then reflect them to our spouse. Marriage is the training ground for every other relationship we have, it’s important that we get it right.
So let me give you seven ways we go wrong in our thinking about marriage.
1. We go wrong when think of marriage as an achievement. Today we view marriage as the crowning achievement of our life, the thing that completes us. We’ve got a degree, and a good job, a reliable car, now we’ll get married and then buy a house which will be beautifully decorated and we’ll have amazing children who will be obedient and surprisingly high performing little accessories to our beautiful life. After all, that’s what we see on Instagram.
2. We go wrong when we think feelings are the most important part of marriage. Today a wedding is seen primarily as a public party to celebrate my romantic feelings. Today marriage means I love the way you make me feel. And I’d like to make you feel that way too. But if there comes a time when I don’t make you feel good, or you don’t make me feel good, we’ll dissolve the whole thing.
3. We go wrong when we think of a soul-mate instead of a sole-mate. We think the perfect person is out there somewhere – the person we will never fight or argue with, we’ll never disagree, the person who will complete me. But that’s looking for someone to do what only God can do. Don’t rely on love to sustain your marriage, rely on your marriage to sustain your love. Turn to God and ask for the strength to keep your commitment, and you will find that He is able to reignite the flames that have died and restore the romance and feelings that falter.
4. We go wrong when we think we made the wrong choice. Don’t tell yourself or anyone else that you married the wrong person, or married too young, or didn’t know what you were looking for – let God be your provider, let Him be the one who completes you, and don’t put such a burden on your spouse. Now, God will, most often meet your needs thorough your spouse, but remember, it’s ultimately Him. The lower your expectations of what your spouse is going to do for you, the better your marriage will be.
5. We go wrong when we think of happiness over holiness. People will try to justify divorce by saying things like, “God wants me to be happy.” Actually, God wants you to be holy. And sometimes He perfects our holiness through struggles. Do you remember what we said a few weeks ago about sin and sandpaper? Sometimes God uses the sandpaper of marriage to polish and perfect as He makes us into something even better than we are. And yes, if wood could feel it would tell you being brushed by sandpaper hurts. It makes me unhappy. But when the sanding is done, the wood is in better condition than when it began. Is God polishing and perfecting you through a difficult season of life and marriage?
6. We go wrong when we think it should be easy. Sometimes people seek a divorce because their marriage feels like a constant struggle. But a nation-wide survey was done several years ago and people were asked to rate their marriage on a scale of one to seven with one being very unhappy and seven being very happy. Five years later they asked people the same question and found that 77% of the people who rated their marriage a one, and stayed together anyway, rated their marriage a seven now.
Here’s the thing – life has ups and downs, certain stages of life are more difficult than others, but if you just stick it out – if you stand by your vows to honor and cherish for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, things often get better. God expects you to stay together; do you really think you’ll be happier by going against His commands? And, do you think He can give you the strength to go on and to grow as you do – to do it with joy and peace as you lean more and more on Him?
7. We go wrong when our expectations are too high. You think your spouse turned out to be a loser, a disappointment, that he or she isn’t what they used to be, and if you knew then what you know now, you would have never gotten yourself into this. You’re disappointed in how things have turned out. So you say your feelings have changed, you just don’t love them anymore.
But Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and He died for us while we were sinners, in other words, when we weren’t all that lovely to Him. Marriage isn’t built on butterflies – we make a commitment to stick with each other until the very end. The strength and depth of that promise is what makes marriage, marriage. You prove the strength of your marriage, and your commitment, in the difficult days.
Ask yourself this: has God given up on your spouse? And aren’t you God’s servant? If God hasn’t given up on them, is it possible He wants to use you to encourage, pray for, and help your spouse become more of the man or woman He wants them to be?
Here’s why all of this is so important: God wants marriage, especially Christian marriage, to be a living illustration of theological truth. God comes to us, establishes a relationship with us – a relationship that He promises never to leave. He will not neglect or abandon you.
Heb 13:5 … For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
And, He promises He’s never going to send you away.
John 6:37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.
He promised He will provide for you:
Matt 6:31 … do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
He’s never going to abuse you:
Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.
He’s going to give you all that you need to love someone else:
Acts 1:8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
We often think of this in terms of ministry, but ministry begins in our own home. You can ask God for supernatural strength to love you spouse – in fact, you should!
And finally, remember
1 John 4:7,11 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God [and…], if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
One of the greatest lies I have ever heard preached from a pulpit is the lie that the rate of divorce is the same in the church as in the world. It sounds shocking. It gets people’s attention. But it simply is not true. I’ve got the data to back it up if you want – the truth is, when you take a man and a woman who both have a personal desire to know God and let Him have His way in their life, who understand how much they have been forgiven, and what they have received, and you put those two people together – they are going to face difficult things in life, but they are going to have peace with each other…because they have found peace with God.
And maybe that’s what you need to find this morning- peace with God. Your marriage is never going to be as strong and healthy, as resilient, as it could be until you are personally connected to God through Christ. The best thing you can do for your marriage is begin, or grow in, your relationship with God – receive the love, patience, forgiveness and mercy that He wants to show to you and then reflect that to others, beginning with the people closest to you.
So, let’s pray.