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Following the Way of Jesus (9)

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Jesus and Divorce

Matthew 19 (ESV)
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 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.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Marriage is and should be a beautiful thing!
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, as a loving hind and a graceful doe” (Prov. 5:18–19).
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord” (18:22).
Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell ya, brother, you can't have one without the other. Love and marriage, love and marriage, It's an institute you can't disparage. Ask the local gentry and they will say it's elementary. Try, try, try to separate them, it's an illusion. Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion: Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. Dad was told by mother you can't have one You can't have none. You can't have one without the other.
(Frank Sinatra).
Such a notion of marriage is more than romantic feelings or sexual fulfilment however. It is a covenant, an agreement made between you and God to love, honour and cherish one another until God shall separate you by death!
This is the ideal and its not easy to remain faithful to all of your life, but it is a requirement within a loving; giving and commited relationship, which has God as its centre.
Also as we shall see later, singleness as a choice to remain unmarried can equally be a beautiful gift of God and one to be embraced!
Jesus chose a life of singleness! He talked of it as a gift, as much as marriage is a gift!
Likewise, many Christians throughout the ages have “accepted”, (Greek word, chōreō) which carries the basic idea of making room or space for something. Metaphorically it means to completely embrace an idea or principle with the heart and mind so that it becomes part of one’s very nature.
One example of the many I could draw upon, concerns Edith Margaret Clarkson. She was a noted writer, poet and hymnwriter. Perhaps her most famous Missionary hymn which was written in 1937, when she was 22 years old and experiencing a time of great loneliness. This is what she wrote:
So send I you to labor unrewarded, To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown, To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing, So send I you to toil for me alone.
So send I you - to loneliness and longing, With heart a-hungering for the loved and known; Forsaking home and kindred, friend and dear one, So send I you  - to know my love alone. So send I you - to leave your life’s ambitions, To die to dear desire, self-will resign, To labor long and love where men revile you, So send I you - to lose your life in mine. 
It was a little one sided, telling, “only of the sorrows and privations of the missionary call and none of its triumphs” so she revised it in 1963 to be a “more biblical one.” (Clarkson). This is how it reads:
“So send I you- by grace made strong to triumph O'er hosts of hell, o'er darkness, death and sin, My name to bear, and in that name to conquer- So send I you, my victory to win. So send I you- to take to souls in bondage The word of truth that sets the captive free, To break the bonds of sin, to loose death's fetters- So send I you, to bring the lost to me. So send I you- My strength to know in weakness, My joy in grief, My perfect peace in pain, To prove My power, My grace, My promised presence- So send I you, eternal fruit to gain. So send I you- to bear My cross with patience, And then one day with joy to lay it down, To hear My voice, "Well done, My faithful servant- Come, share My throne, my kingdom and My crown!" "As the Father hath sent Me, So send I you."
The reason I cite her as an example is because it is clear that she suffered “loneliness and longing.” She was a single lady and she struggled with it but this is what she said about it! “Through no fault or choice of my own, I am unable to express my sexuality in the beauty and intimacy of Christian marriage, as God intended when He created me a sexual being in His own image. To seek to do this outside of marriage is, by the clear teaching of Scripture, to sin against God and against my own nature. As a committed Christian, then, I have no alternative but to live a life of voluntary celibacy. I must be chaste not only in body, but in mind and spirit as well. Since I am now in my 60’s I think that my experience of what this means is valid. I want to go on record as having proved that for those who are committed to do God’s will, His commands are his enablings… My whole being cries out continually for something I may not have. My whole life must be lived in the context of this never-ceasing tension. My professional life, my social life, my personal life, my Christian life – all are subject to its constant and powerful pull. As a Christian I have no choice but to obey God, cost what it may. I must trust Him to make it possible for me to honour Him in my singleness. That this is possible, a mighty cloud of witnesses will join me to attest. Multitudes of single Christians in every age and circumstance have proved God’s sufficiency in this matter. He has promised to meet our needs and He honors His word. If we seek fulfillment in Him, we shall find it. It may not be easy, but whoever said that Christian life was easy? The badge of Christ’s discipleship was a cross. Why must I live my  life alone? I do not know. But Jesus Christ is Lord of my life. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I accept my singleness from his hand. He could have ordered my life otherwise, but He has not chosen to do so. As his child, I must trust His love and wisdom.”
Both marriage and singleness are beautiful gifts of God, however all beautiful things, sadly, can be spoiled and Jesus acknowledges this by speaking here of divorce!
And to speak on this subject is really difficult for me pastorally because some of you have experienced divorce and are now single or remarried.
Others of you have come from divorced homes, where parents divorced and the mere mention of the word divorce, carries with it, a huge weight of emotions, sorrow, loss , anger, disappointment, guilt and regret which are very painful. Indeed for many, the emotional scars are more heart-wrenching than the death of a spouse because death is usually the pain of an unavoidable loss, whereas divorce is usually avoidable loss, if the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘if-only’ considerations and actions had been heeded!
Divorce is a major problem and cause of heartache in our country! According to the Office of National Statistics, “In 2021, there were 113,505 divorces granted in England and Wales, a 9.6% increase compared with 2020 when there were 103,592 divorces.” There were just over 7,000 in Scotland and just over 2,000 in Northern Ireland.
The reasons for divorce are varied, but the most common reason cited is “unreasonable behaviour” but due to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 which came into effect in England and Wales on 6 April 2022, a system of “no-fault divorce” now operates instead of the previous 5 causes - adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion and separation, either with or without consent of the respondent - to establish the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.
Statistically, 1 in 5 marriages breakdown within the first 10 years and the median length of a marriage that ends in divorce is 8 years! So much for “happily ever after”!
Of course, for every marriage that breaks down there is a whole host of personal tragedies and consequences upon families and children who are hurt in that process, which is why our law prescribes a minimum period of 6 months between application and the final divorce order. This is needed to get people to slow down, seek mediation and seek to reconcile if possible! Why? Because as well as the personal tragedy of a broken marriage, the evidence of its damage to wider Society is uncontrovertable! It costs the economy over 51 billion a year (Cost family failure 2018 update’, Relationships Foundation, 29 January 2018, see pressreleases /cost-family-failure-2018-update/ as at 22 September 2022) and As Professor A H Halsey, the late Professor of Social Policy at Nuffield College, Oxford and co-author of English Ethical Socialism, once stated: “No one can deny that divorce, separation, birth outside marriage and one-parent families as well as cohabitation and extra-marital sexual intercourse have increased rapidly. Many applaud these freedoms. But what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered… The evidence all points in the same direction, is formidable, and tallies with common sense.(Halsey, A H, quoted in Dennis, N and Erdos, G, Families Without Fatherhood, 2nd edition, IEA, 1993, page xii4).
Now this is not to say that divorce should never be an option, for Jesus Himself acknowledges that sometimes in this fallen race and because of human selfishness and sin, as Jay Adams said: “Even though all divorces are the result of sin, not all divorces are sinful.” Divorce will be necessary and indeed, physical separation of husbands and wives can be life-saving for women and children and even some men, in abusive situations, but is always less than indeal. No one sets out to be unhappily married! There are not many people that set out on the marriage journey who want or anticipate divorce!
And this effects the church as well. Christians get divorced to or people become Christians having already experienced divorce, this to is a common reality for Christian churches:
That is why every branch of Church, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, around the world, strongly promote marriage and support family life and try to support their members to avoid divorce if at all possible as they understand that this is a good gift of God and should not be “entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”
And this is why, when our Society was much more overtly Christian, divoirce was a relatively rare phenomenon being only legalised in England and Wales in 1857. Prior to that an Act of Parliament was needed to obtain a divorce and historically the tendency was for churches of all denominations in Britian was not to permit any divorce at all, allowing legal separation (i.e. non-cohabitation) of spouses or annulment and then only where one spouse had committed a serious sin against the other, such as adultery. In such circumstances, both parties remained legally married and therefore could not remarry. (Note: The European Protestant Reformers permitted remarriage after divorce for the innocent party, even though divorce was “a relatively little exercised option” because the possibility of collusion in order to obtain a divorce “was considered so great by Protestant authorities that they would not even consider allowing remarriage unless the innocent spouse was free of any suspicion and willing to endure a series of legal and financial obstacles intended to dissuade him or her from such a course”.(Joel Harrington: Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany, Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 269-270).
The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act permitted divorce for the innocent party where they could prove their spouse had committed adultery. The grounds for divorce were widened in 1937 to include desertion, cruelty and incurable insanity, which were added to in The 1969 Divorce Reform Act restated the three existing fault grounds of adultery, desertion and cruelty (widened to ‘unreasonable behaviour’) and added the two ‘no-fault’ separation grounds of living apart for two years or desertion after 5 years.
I. A Question on Divorce
It was certainly true, that British law was stricter than the Jewish law of Jesus’ day with regard to Divorce!
The question of divorce has already been discussed in Matthew 5:31–32: “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.”
Divorce was a matter of Rabbinic debate and there were essentially two opposite opinions at the extreme ends of the debate. One, following the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, who had died just around 20 years prior to when Jesus began His ministry and he taught that a man could divorce his wife for the even the most trivial of reasons, for example letting her hair down in public or talking to other men or speaking negatively about her mother-in-law or even for burning the bread or putting too much salt in the food. Likewise is she was infertile, this was sufficient grounds for divorce. Among the Talmudic writings of the rabbis is the statement, “A bad wife is like leprosy to her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of his leprosy.” Another rabbi wrote, “If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her.” All that was required was the giving of “a certificate of divorce.”
Jesus on the other hand followed the stricter school interpretation of Rabbi Shammai, which said, it was only allowable “on the ground of sexual immorality.” A narrower, less popular and therfore regarded as a more intolerant viewpoint! (Culture Wars existed even then and in every age!).
And whilst Matthew indicates that there is a change of setting from chapter 18, - moving from where He had spent around 2 years preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee in northern Palestine as well as giving private instruction to the Twelve, which culminates in the phrase "when Jesus had finished these words” (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1) which then led him to move to the south of the country, to the region of Perea, Judah and Jerusalem for the last stage of His earthly ministry, where he would “go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21) - it is important to see the thematic connection between this teaching on divorce and what our Lord Jesus has been saying about forgiveness. The question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”(Matt 18:21) could be rephrased here, “Lord, how often will my husband/wife sin against me, and I forgive him?”
It is also important to note also that ‘divorce’ in the Jewish sense at the time of Jesus was not the same as in the modern sense of a legally approved annulment of a marriage by the courts at the behest of either the woman or the man, but the right of the man alone, to send his wife away, with no right on her part to object ot be protected in law.
In almost all the passages in the Old Testament, divorce is initiated only by men, not by women. The implication is that women lacked the legal rights to divorce husbands.
The hard line that Jesus takes against divorce can be understood as protective of women, who in the first century would have been subject to poverty and abuse without the guardianship of a man. Indeed, in Mark 10:2–12 Jesus presents both men and women as capable of divorcing their spouses which was not in keeping with Jewish law at the time and so it is significant that Jesus discussed marriage without subordinating women to a secondary role. He allowed for no double standard for man and woman, husband and wife. Though He contended for the permanency of marriage, honoring husband and wife alike, Jesus like the Romans gave husbands and wives equal right to divorce and an equal right to permanency in marriage!
Divorce in Jesus’ day had massive social, economical and ethical implications, especially on women:
Take the Bible words for divorce and you will get a sense of this. The Hebrew and Greek nouns, commonly used to describe divorce, of “divorce” are, כְּרִיתֻת (kerithuth) and ἀποστάσιον (apostasion), which both translate as “certificate of divorce” (Deut 24:1, Matt 5:31 NRSV). The remaining words are verbs with connotations which suggest the seriousness of divorce, namely the Hebrew verb form גְרוּשָׁה (gerushah) translated, “casting out.” Also the Greek verb ἀπολύω (apolyō) meaning to “let loose or set free” and the Greek word, χωρίζω (chōrizō) meaning “to separate” and the Greek verb, ἀφίημι(aphiēmi) used only by Paul for divorce in 1 Cor 7) which implies a sending away or abandoning.
The subject of divorce in Jesus’ day as we have already noticed was a theological battle ground but it also provided the Pharisees with a clever ruse to try and trap Jesus!
Jesus position on divorce was already well known(Matt 5:40-42), but here he is being “tested” by the Pharisees - “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”.
It was clever because whatever He said here would alientate one group or another! Knowing Jesus’ views, they could expect him both to incriminate himself by going against the apparent liberal interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4, and thus lose popular support by condemning the divorce which was freely practised by his contemporaries.
It could also get Him into trouble with the political authorities. Remember that John the Baptist lost his life when criticising Herod Antipas over an unlawful marriage, so they might hope that Jesus would also come a cropper in this, the jurisdiction of Antipas here in Perea!
The question as raised by the Pharisees is disturbing! “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” - Will any reason do, or are there limits? It sounds like they are trivialising the issue and it certainly carries the idea of, can divorce be for trivial reasons or does it have to be adultery?
Jesus answers in this way in Matt 19:4-6: “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.”
(i). Divorce is not part of God’s original intent for marriage - “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.”
This is the basic scriptural principle, underlying marriage. The principle is drawn from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, which show not only that sexual union is God’s creation purpose for man, but also that that union is exclusive and unbreakable.
For Jesus, the husband and wife, through marriage become in God’s eyes “one flesh” - their bodies and minds unite in a common goal and direction, with one will, serving the Lord together and taking care of the family that God has given them. If and when children are born, the child becomes the sign and symbol of their oneness, being a unique product of the fusion of two people into one flesh, whilst combining the traits of both parents.
Its also important to note that though the sexual act, formally signifies the marriage it is not the marriage in and of itself. Sex outside of marriage in the OT is referred to as “fornication” and under Mosaic law, the act of fornication obligated the man to either marry the woman or pay compensation to her father, if the father(or his daughter) refuses the marriage request (Ex. 22:16–17).
(ii). Those who divorce are not “holding fast” to thier marriage commitment - “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife”
The word transalted into English as “hold fast” or “cleave” is the Hebrew word dābaq, referring to a strong bonding together of objects acheived by gluing or cementing objects together.
Job used the word when he spoke of his bones “sticking” to his skin (Job 19:20) or as the Psalmist puts it “clinging” to his “flesh”(Psa 102:5).
It was also used of Ruth’s “clinging” to Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and the Israelites’ “holding fast” to the Lord in love and obedience (Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; Josh. 22:5; 23:8).
Marriage is to be “held fast” to; it will not always be easy to remain committed and loyal, but when the going gets tough in marriage you are to “hold fast” to your commitments for “love is as strong as death”(Song of Songs).
(iii). Those who divorce are breaking the “one flesh” reality of their marriage and separating what God has joined - “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The “one flesh” metaphor, vividly expresses a view of marriage as something much deeper than either human convenience or social convention, and this is drawn out by Jesus’ ringing pronouncement, repeated in the traditional marriage service, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Jesus’ point is that marriage is always the work of God, whereas divorce is always the work of man, and that no man, whoever he is or whatever status he occupies and for whatever reason he may have, has the right to separate what God has joined together.
II. A Consideration of Human Weakness:
The Pharisees retorted by asking, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”(v7).
They pit one scripture against another to try and get Jesus to reject one scripture in favour of another. Clever, and a device used by Satan in the Wilderness temptations, but not a trap that Jesus falls into!
Their attempt to get Jesus to repudiate Moses’ fails because they have no realised that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” does not explicitly command or even approve divorce, but accepts it as a real possibility, due to human sinfulness and the unwillingness or inability of some men to overlook “faults” on the part of their wives and be reconciled to their wives!
Incidently, the word translated “indecency” is tricky to precisely interpret. The NRSV translates the phrase as “because he finds something objectionable about her,” but the original Hebrew literally reads “because he found in her a naked thing” (כּי־מָ֤צָא בָהּ֙ עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר, ky-matsa' vah erwath davar) or “the nakedness of a thing” (Driver) which leads to the conjecture that this has to do with something sexual or lewd, that might stop short of actual adultery. Indeed, Jesus used the πορνείᾳ (porneia) to substitute for the Hebrew, which according to Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon refers to “any kind of extramarital, unlawful, or unnatural sexual intercourse.”
Jesus could have used a more precise Greek word for adultery, μοιχεία (moicheia), but the more general word perhaps reflects the law in practice in which divorce was cited often for sexual behaviour which may have been previous to marriage, which was feared by Joseph in relation to Mary, during their betrothal ( see Matt 1:18-19). That it does not refer to adultery seems evident from the fact that the OT penalty for adultery was death, and although this was often not carried out (see David, Solomon and the returned Jewish diaspora during the governorship of Ezra (Ezra 10:3), divorces for reasons other than adultery is intended here! So, the indecency mentioned here must refer to some kind of action that came short of adultery, which made the marriage intolerable for the husband.
In Judaism, as in Christianity until relatively recently, a wife was considered a man’s property, to be given away in marriage to become the responsibility of the man. The “certificate of divorce” then served a legal provision as well as a social permission for the first husband to release his legal claims upon the wife and send her out of his home which in turn allows the woman to seek a new home or relationship and remarry. Without this “certificate of divorce”, another man could be charged with stealing or violating the property rights of the first husband, should he take the woman as wife or servant. Thus the writing of divorce was intended to place some limits upon the husband and to afford the wife some protection.
Augustine of Hippo interpreted the need to issue a bill of divorce (Deut 24:1; Matt 5:31) as a means to calm down an impulsive husband, since the husband would need to go to a scribe to have such a document written. The scribe could then counsel the husband against the separation (Augustine, Reply to Faustus, XIX.26).
However, the main purpose of permitting divorce is to show mercy to the sinning spouse, not to condemn the innocent one to a lifetime of singleness and loneliness, so that he or she might have opportunity to enjoy again the blessings of marriage that was destroyed by the other partner’s adultery.
So, Jesus reconciles these two scriptures by saying “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.”(v9).
Divorce, though allowed in exceptional circumstances, is not the ideal. It fails to hold fast to the marriage commitment; breaks the one flesh principle and separates what God has joined together but sometimes it happens and often it is unpreventable and in the event that it does, “because of your hardness of heart” allowance is made. Divorce is therefore permitted but not ideal!
Jesus is saying here that a divorce that does not result from adultery, results in adultery if there is remarriage! This is a serious sin and violates one of the Ten Commandments, puniashable by death under OT law
And yet I want you to see something really important here. Jesus’ answer to adultery is not death by stoning, it is divorce or it is forgiveness and reconciliation! How “gospel like” is this. God is gracious in allowing divorce instead of requiring execution for adultery, He is equally gracious to the innocent spouse by permitting remarriage, which was permissible when a spouse died (cf. Rom. 7:2–3).
So the key here is that Jesus makes it clear that, Moses’ permission to divorce is not to be taken as divine approval for the practice! Divorce is not, as the Pharisees suggested, “commanded” by Moses, it is allowed, as a consession to accommodate human hardness of heart, not necessarily because the men are being cruel to their wives, but they are being unresponsive to the mind and will of God. The passage in Deuteronomy assumes the practice of divorce and seeks to regulate it, without commanding or approving it!
When it comes to marriage, Jesus upholds God’s original intention, taking us back to first principles about marriage and its purpose. When God said to the people of Israel, through the Prophet Malachi “I hate divorce”, He really means it! He hasn’t changed His mind and He does not excuse it as the people of Israel found out to their cost, in Malachi 2:13-16 “And this second thing you do. You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom tyou have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
God has His ideal in marriage and divorce should not be considered an option by those who seek to please God because marriage serves not merely as a social contract and solemn covenant, it also portrays the relationship of God with His people amd He will not divorce them or be unfaithful to them and they should be unfaithful to Him!
However, as we know, Israel is sadly represented as God’s transgressive wife who needs to be put away or cast out from Him (Isa 50:1; Jer 3:1–8). Through Isaiah the Lord rebuked Israel for her spiritual adultery in worshiping pagan deities. “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,with which I have sent her away?” (Isa. 50:1). The answer, was that God had not given such a certificate. God was not willing to put Israel away, despite her constant spiritual adultery committed against Him(see Jer 3:8).
One of the best exampes of this is in the prophet Hosea who was a living illustration of God’s undying love for His people Israel. Hosea married a woman named Gomer, who became an adulterous prostitute. He had children by her and continued to love, care for, and protect her despite her persistent unfaithfulness. He even bought her back from the slave market after she had sunk to the pits of immorality. His life with Gomer was surely not without times of anger and resentment, but he forgave her and did whatever was necessary to bring her back to himself. His love for Gomer and his commitment to her as his wife, like God’s love for and covenant with His people Israel, was exceedingly gracious and forgiving. God had taken Israel as a wife, and like Hosea’s Gomer, she too was unfaithful.
On seeking to understand a Christian ethic we need to understand that it must truly reflect God’s will and not be based on concessions to fallen human nature.
Or to put it another way, just because we humans can’t achieve God’s standards of perfect goodness and righteousness, does not mean that he will lower His standards to accomodate us.
To take the 10 Commandments as an example, God says “do not murder.” This seems uncontroversial except there have been many occasions when people have unlawlfully taken life and have justified it - in war with the masacre of innocent; whilst carrying out capital punishment, even carrying out so-called “mercy killings” and at such times, people want to challenge the moral rule and qualify it in some way, but God does not lower His standards and say, ok in certain circumstances, to mourder may be acceptable, but what He does and can do if offer forgivenss for the murderer.
Now there have been times when Philosophers have argued that it may be right to murder someone in order to save lives (This was the defence of those German Officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, in the Valkyrie plot who attempted to murder Adlof Hitler in 1944, a plot which implicate and led to th death of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian Minister who had been a pacifist and joined the resistance against Hitler and although he never attempted to justify his action, on the contrary he acknowledged that, “our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427), and they justified it on the grounds of “the lesser of two evils” but note it is still an evil! Likewise, most Christians have generally traditionally taken the view that abortion is not justified unless the mother’s life and in this circumstance the abortion is justified as the “lesser of two evils.” No one wants to end the life of the child, but the circumstances involved do not permit the luxury of choice and the principle that one death is better than two is observed. We can of course sympathise with both cases and we can attempt a justification to mitigate against the evil acts being carried out here, but murder is murder and it is always wrong!
The consequence of this is that our Christian ethics, in a fallen world will always be subject to such tensions!
Jesus’ appeal to first principles is His insisting the ideal will of God does not change BUT, regrettably, provision for those occasions when human sinfulness has failed to maintain the ideal, must be made! Hence, the concession for marriage!
Situations sometimes make it impossible to implement the ideal, and in such cases we may have to choose between courses which may carry with them, much regret.
What is important is that in so doing we do not lose sight of the ideal, and that we accept the ‘lesser evil’ for what it is, an ‘evil’, even where it is the best course open to us in the circumstances.
Paul operated with this same tension in 1 Corinthians 7 when he counsels: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): 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. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.  How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Believers should not divorce an unbelieving spouse who wants to stay in the marriage, even whilst he discourages being unequally yoked with unbelievers, on the grounds that the holiness of the believer will make the children of the marriage holy, and perhpas, just perhaps, by staying together the believing spouse might save the unbeliever. However, he relaxes the divine ideal again in saying, if the unbeliever leaves the believer, the believer is not held accountable for the separation (1 Cor 7:12–16).
It is at this point that Jesus’ emphasis differs from that of the scribes, even of the more rigorous school of Rabbi Shammai.
Shammai allowed divorce for adultery but Jesus’ reaffirmation of the ideal of unbreakable marriage has an entirely different approach about it. Whilst Hillel and Shammai are providing escape clauses from marriage, Jesus is encouraging people to forget about the loophols and stay married by showing forgiveness!
This is hard and it provokes the disciples to reflect that such a demanding commitment might be better avoided by not marrying at all! - “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” v11–12. (see Mark 10:10). This rather ‘man-centred’ approach to the question reveals an uncommendable selfish take on marriage. Why get into a marriage when it is so difficult to get out of it? Nothing is said about the privilege of marriage, nor the danger of divorce for women if they get trapped into a loveless relationship with a feckless husband. Far better to remain single than to risk the entanglement of marriage with no “get out of jail free” card!.
We must not fall into the Rabbinic trap of building our expectation on the concession rather than the ideal and suggesting to people contemplating marriage that its ok for you to marray ebcause if it does not work out you can always get a divorce. Of course that is a reality, but it is not God’s best or His ideal.
But Jesus is insistent! We are not permitted to ignore the basic principle of marriage as being between one man and one woman for life just because its hard! We are not free to redefine marriage as God intended it, just because it is excludes other desired relationships - and remember that historically, Jewish society had for many centuries approved of polygamy and some of its greatest spiritual heroes had multiple wives and some of them even had mistresses. This however, did not change God’s original intention, nor excuse the violation of this ideal principle of marriage
III. A Call to Acceptance!
Yes this is A HARD TEACHING!(John6:16) and many will not accept it! But truth remains true even if I choose to reject that truth! This is why Jesus’ replied, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.... Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Marriage is hard, but we must not look for an easy way out! Though literally, Jesus used the word “anthropos” here, it is used generally of a human being, rather than, ‘anēr’, man as opposed to ‘gunē’, woman. Jesus is speaking here of actions that commonly happen to men but His call to marriage or singlness of necessity includes men and women, as reflected in the use of the word here.
Those who “escape” marriage and live a life of singleness also choose a hard route! And Jesus. spells out the possibilities for adult males in his own day - For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The term “eunuch” always implies something negative; something caused by congenital deformity or man-made, through castration. It was often used as “a term of disparagement, if not of abuse”(R. T. France). To be made a eunuch is to rendered physically incapable of sexual intercourse. And because this was usually caried out by powerful kings and Governors, to control the desires of their household slaves, or sometimes in pagan religions, it was a relatively rare phemonmenon in Israel and across the world.
Jesus, however speaks of a third category, of which He was one, of those who, “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. He was not married, and like Paul had already indicated, his choice of not being married was not because the condition was somehow less than celibacy, but rather that he may remain undistracted in doing the Lord’s will!
Now it is important to notice that this is not a recommendation of celibacy over marriage, as if one is a better choice than the other, for Jesus has just reminded us that marriage is part of God’s original design for men and women, so highly prized that it is not to be violated by divorce.
However, for some of Jesus’ disciples’ proposal of celibacy is a good one, a gift, hence Paul says, “now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.”(1 Cor 7:9) and one of the reasons for this is explained later in the chapter as being “Because of the present crisis” and due to the fact that “the time is short” and his interests, if married are inevitably divided between his wife and the Lord’s work. But he says, “I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” For Paul, if you marry, or do not marry, you do right, as long as you do not violate God’s law and your motives are pure.(see 1 Cor 7:25-35).
People though may choose to be celibate for a time but not remain celibate.
This may be their calling or a consequence of something done to them - “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Celibacy is a gift, whether the celibate likes the gift or not! - For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven(v12). Those to whom it is not ‘given’, to those whose calling is not to be married.
The gift which is for some, but not all of the Lord’s disciples - which is why the Roman church is incorrect when it claims that all priest ought to be celibate, indeed Peter, who had a “mother-in-law” clearly as married becuase you don’t get such a gift, without also getting a wife - it’s a package deal!
It is not easy to be celibate, but then it is not easy to be married, given the high ideal. Both are callings!
John Piper said: “Today singleness is cherished by many because it brings maximum freedom for self-realization. You pull your own strings. No one cramps your style. But Paul cherished his singleness because it put him utterly at the disposal of the Lord Jesus …. The contemporary mood promotes singleness (but not chastity) because it frees from slavery. Paul promotes singleness (and chastity) because it frees for slavery—namely slavery to Christ.”
Celibacy carries a commitment to sexual denial and restraint as well as a willingness to forfeit in some way the intimacy of human companionship, though not always.
So Paul says, to the umarried, who must wait for marriage in order to experience sexual intimacy - “If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married”(1 Cor 7:36).
Marriage likewise carries with it a massive responsibility that cannot be avoided, including in the sexual realm in which proper expression and proper restraint are required of both husbands and wives - “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.”(1 Cor 7:4-5) and “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”(Heb 13:4)
There are inevitably differences in lifestyle choices that frees up the celibate in a way that does not apply to the married who is to some degree restricted, even in the Lord’s work, from just doing what he wants or going where he will - “those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.”!
It was said of John Wesley that, “he was not happy with his wife”. Given that he was away so much preaching the gospel, I guess she was not happy with him either! Perhaps he ought not to have gotten married? But this is hard and those who can receive and ‘cope with’ it, do so and those who can;t should get married!
So, if marriage is a calling, your husband or your wife is a gift to you from God, this is why divorce should never be the easy or quick option.
Divorce is never the ideal, it exists as a compensation in a sinful world when even the so called “ideal” marriages, break down.
When marriage breakdowns do occur, the church must help support the couple to “be reconciled” but if this is not possible, then to support the divorced couple, where they can, to rebuild their lives
In the event that one, or both the divorced couple remarry, then supporting that remarriage becomes the buisness of the Church.
If singleness is your calling that the church should seek to help and support you in the same way!
by offering you companionship and support, care and attention in seeking to maintain your faithfulness to God and His service.
God hates divoirce BUT He loves marriage and He loves it so much that He uses it as a metpahpr for our relationship with Jesus!
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Chirst. Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” The divinely ordained and exemplified responsibility of the husband is just as clear: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:18, 22–25).
The key requirments for a successful marriage are found in mutual submission, which of necessity involves self-denial and self-giving. These attitudes do not come easily, but they are a fruit of love and are made possible to Christians through the Holy Spirit as we walk in humility and patience, forgiving and reconciling and restoring love twhen required!
By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, God expects His redeemed people in Christ to exemplify the original beauty and mutuality of the marriage relationship as well as the grace of forgiveness.
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