From "I Do" to "I Will" (Matthew 5:31, 32)
From 'I Do' to 'I Will'
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
November 18th, 2018
I. The Shadow of Divorce
I would feel safe in saying there is not one person in this room this morning who has not, in some way, been touched by the shadow of divorce.
For some, divorce was a painful reality you personally endured. Others of you are children of divorce. Still others of us have watched from the sidelines as a member of our family, or a good friend, or a coworker, dealt with divorce. While still others of us, struggling through a dysfunctional marriage, might even be considering divorce as an option. All of us have been affected in some way.
And though sad, the reach of divorce's shadow is not surprising in light of the prevalence of divorce. Did you know that based on contemporary rates, if you attended a wedding a month for the last ten months, odds are that 4 or 5 of those new marriages will not last. They will end in divorce. That's not necessarily a statistic you want to talk loosely about at all those wedding receptions, but it is sobering, isn't it?
However divorce has touched your life, I also feel safe in saying that shadow has affected your thinking; it's affected my thinking. The prevalence of divorce, and our personal connection with divorce, has shaped the way we think about divorce.
This morning, as you and I consider the way we think about divorce, it's absolutely critical we ultimately understand how God thinks about divorce. Why is that important? Because what you believe about divorce reveals what you believe about marriage. And God is the creator, the inventor, the designer of marriage. Therefore, only God can helps us understand wether our thinking is healthy or unhealthy when it comes to both marriage and divorce.
With all that in mind, turn over to Matthew 5:31, 32.
II. The Passage: "Whoever Divorces His Wife" (5:31, 32)
We are returning this morning to Jesus' 'mountain message', a three-chapter long discourse on living in light of the kingdom of God. Based on what we've studied recently in Matthew 5, you may remember that since Jesus came to fulfill God's law, he's been unpacking the fullness of several of the OT commands.
The first two OT commands Jesus touched on were straight out of the Ten Commandments: in 5:21 Jesus referenced the OT Law's prohibition against murder, and in 5:27, he quoted the commandment prohibiting adultery. But look at where he goes in Matthew 5:31...
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’”
Now, if you know the Ten Commandments, the you know that ain't one of them. No, Jesus is referencing a different Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. To be clear, Jesus is not quoting that passage. Instead, he is giving a popular understanding of that passage. Jesus is talking in verse 31 about that passage was commonly understood in his own day. Therefore, I think the first thing Jesus is speaking to here is the issue of...
1. When Divorce is Unexceptional (v. 31)
Unexceptional means ordinary, right? As it is today, in Jesus' time, it seems divorce was fairly prevalent. Yes, there were some different perspectives on divorce in Jesus' time; some more restrictive, others more permissive. But what these perspectives had in common is their understanding that, in light of Deuteronomy 24, if you wanted to divorce your wife, you simply gave her a “certificate of divorce” and that was that.
So that's the mindset Jesus is addressing here in verse 31. Now, remember, what you believe about divorce is a reflection of what you believe about marriage. And we can't miss that about Jesus' teaching here. Even though the word is nowhere to be found, this passage is really about marriage.
Remember what Jesus has done in the last two passages. When speaking about murder, he pointed his listeners to the anger-poisoned heart from which murder springs. When speaking about adultery, he pointed his listeners to the lust-corrupted heart from which adultery springs. In both cases, he pointed them (and us) back to the heart and demonstrated how all of us are guilty, even if we haven't committed murder or adultery.
But in doing this, he's doing more than showing us how guilty we are. He's also showing us where real change takes place: in the heart. So in light of that pattern, I think we can say that what we're seeing here is Jesus confronting our heart-posture toward marriage. How does he do this? By moving on from the popular perspectives of his day to the issue of...
2. When Divorce is Unacceptable (v. 32)
Listen to what Jesus goes on to tell them in verse 32. Actually let me include verse 31 in there as well. Jesus declares...
“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.”
Based on verse 32, when, according to Jesus, is divorce unacceptable? Almost always. That stood in stark contrast to their thinking, and in stands in stark contrast to how most of our society today thinks about divorce. For many today, there are lots of acceptable reasons to get divorced. According to one relationship website, here are some of the reasons people today give for getting divorced...
1. Getting in for the wrong reasons, 2. Lack of individual identity, 3. Becoming lost in the roles,
4. Not having a shared vision of success, 5. The intimacy disappears, 6. Unmet expectations, 7. Finances, 8. Different priorities and interests, 9. Inability to resolve conflicts., and 10. Un-faithfulness.
So how can Jesus, the Son of God, God in human flesh, say that divorce is almost always unacceptable? Well look again at what he says in verse 32. Divorce is almost always unacceptable because in getting remarried, the wife who is sent away is committing adultery. And the man who marries such a woman is also committing adultery.
Now wait just a minute. What in the world is Jesus talking about? Well, by definition, adultery is marital unfaithfulness. By definition, only someone who is married can commit adultery. So what is Jesus saying here (remember, he's really saying something about marriage)? Jesus is telling his listeners that even though you men write certificates of divorce and send away your wives and think that's that... the marriage bond is still intact.
Now to better understand how Jesus thinks about marriage, we need to look at another passage from Matthew's Gospel. This is from chapter 19, verses 3-9...
And Pharisees came up to [Jesus] 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.”
Did you see there (or hear there) how Jesus was expanding on his teaching in 5:31, 32? Matthew 19 gives us a much clearer window into what Jesus thought about marriage. In fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is bring his listeners (and us) back to the fullness of God's original design for marriage. The certificates of divorce Moses mentions in Deuteronomy 24 were allowed for a time, as Jesus says in 19:8, “because of your hardness of heart”. But as with anger and lust, Jesus wanted to bring them back the root issue.
What was this root issue? It was an unhealthy heart-posture toward marriage. They saw marriage through a self-centered lens. This attitude, as reflected in so many of the items on that website list about divorce, [this attitude] might saying something like, “marriage is great... as long as things are going my way”.
What Jesus wanted to them to understand is that every marriage is an act of God. It is a God-forged union, where two become one. So God's design for marriage always has been and always will be about merger, not moving on; about uniting, not untying; about closeness, not closure; about addition, not division; about being intertwined, not independent; about devotion, and not divorce.
This is precisely why Jesus, in giving them (5:20) a “righteousness [that] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”, he is bring them back to God's ideal; back to the heart of God.
Think for a minute about how the first three of these “but I say to you” statements fit together. If Jesus is calling his followers, beginning in 5:21, to address the anger-poisoned and lust-corrupted heart, it shouldn't be surprising that he's also calling them to address how those very things affect their heart-posture toward marriage.
So what is Jesus doing in Matthew 5:31, 32? He is confronting a heart-posture toward divorce that is totally disconnected from God's heart for marriage. And he's doing that by sobering them about the corrupting consequences of divorce for the women they send away and the men who marry them. As with anger and lust, he is revealing the reality of their guilt.
But in Matthew 5, as well as in Matthew 19, Jesus also addresses the issue of...
3. When Divorce is Unavoidable (v. 32b)
Both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 include a very short exception clause related to this issue of divorce. Did you see that exception: “except on the ground of sexual immorality”. Notice it does not say, “except on the ground of adultery”. The word translated “sexual immorality” here is the Greek word porneia. We hear that same word at the beginning of our word “porno-graphy”. What is porneia and why is Jesus saying it's an exception to the rule?
Well, if in stating (in chapters 5 and 19) that divorce is almost always unacceptable in light of God's heart for marriage, then Jesus needs to remind them when and why divorce was acceptable for God himself. You see, in Jeremiah 3:8, God warns the southern kingdom of Judah by reminding them of what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel:
[Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.
If we look at the Greek translation of the OT, a translation produced before the time of Jesus, guess which Greek word we find all over Jeremiah 3? Yep, porneia. In fact, the verbal form of that word is right there at the end of 3:8... “she too went and played the whore”. Since God had a covenant relationship with his people, he often used marriage as an idea, as an image to describe that relationship. He was a husband to his people Israel. But Israel was unfaithful when she ran around worshiping false gods.
So what did God do? He sent prophets to warn his people. He did that over and over again. But eventually, he did the very thing he promised he would do when he gave the Law to Moses: like a husband sending away his unrepentant, whoring wife, God sent his people away by using a foreign army to carry them into exile. But as we know from Jeremiah and the other prophets, He never gave up on them. His decree of divorce did not mean the end of their relationship. It was a condemnation of her sin, but not a termination of his love for her.
So in speaking against divorce in light of God's design for marriage, Jesus (or possibly Matthew, as an inspired writer) does not want to speak against a husband who, like God, eventually has to send his wife away because she is flagrant and unyielding in her sexual sin. The longer his appeals go unheeded, the longer she stays in the home, the more it appears he is condoning her behavior. That's why we find an exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
III. The Persevering Heart
Brothers and sisters, friends, clearly that is a lot to take in. Not only are there a number of things happening here that connect us to other parts of the Bible, but all of this is very foreign to how we think about both marriage and divorce. And clearly, all this raises lots of questions about both hypothetical and actual situations. Unfortunately, we simply don't have the time to explore all of the questions, implications, and arguments that might be raised. To learn more, I would encourage you to pick up our pamphlet on marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
But even if we had the time this morning, I don't want us to lose sight of why Jesus is warning his listeners in Matthew 5:31, 32. Remember the context. If in 5:21-26 Jesus was calling his followers to peace instead of anger, if in 5:27-30 he was calling them to purity instead of lust, then I think what we find here is Jesus calling them (and us) to perseverance instead of desertion, instead of giving up, instead of throwing in the towel.
The hard words of Jesus in 5:32 were not spoken to heap guilt and shame and regret and those who had already left their marriages. As is clear from Jesus' words, he's speaking to those who are married and contemplating divorce. His warning is given in love. He wanted to keep them, he wants to keep us from sin. In light of the divine reality of marriage, do you understand the destructive reality of divorce? This should sober both the married and those who want to be married. Remember, this about more than divorce. It's really about marriage; specifically, your view of marriage in light of God's view of marriage.
Did you know the Bible tells us God wants to give you his heart for marriage? And that he sent Christ to make that possible? Think about your own heart: real peace is possible now because of Jesus; real purity is possible now because of Jesus; and real perseverance (in marriage) is possible now because of Jesus. God wants to take that self-centered lens and give you his eyes instead. Listen to the perspective he gives us through Paul in Eph. 5:22–28:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
As in the OT, the relationship between God and his people is described here in terms of a marriage. And if this morning, your faith is in Jesus Christ as your only hope, for this life and the next, then you belong to the church and the church is his bride. And what did Jesus do for his bride? He “gave himself up for her” on the cross, that he might cleanse her and cling to her; that he might redeem and receive her; that he might make her new.
And it's in that new life, with a new heart, that we can persevere in marriage. Through faith in Christ, living not for myself, but for God. Yes, living each day in light of my marriage vow: “I do”. But also committed with an ongoing vow: “I will”. And how is all this possible? By God's grace alone. Because of his vow, his promise, promises to us in Jesus. He can give us new eyes to see the truth about divorce in light of the truth about marriage. And He can give us a new heart to walk in that truth. Let's pray and ask for that.