The Kingdom of Heaven: Be Faithful in Marriage

Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immoralitya causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

(Matt. 5:32-32, NKJV)

aOr fornication

So far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words have already been pretty radical. He’s taken old commandments (“You shall not murder”, “You shall not commit adultery”) and extended them to also mean “you shall not hate” and “you shall not lust.”

Now He begins an even more revolutionary pattern. While still examining the topic of adultery and lust, he looks at an Old Testament command – and overrules it!

Since the days of Moses, divorce had been allowed. But now Jesus is saying very clearly that getting divorced is as bad as adultery, and marrying someone who is divorced is as bad as adultery – which, according to the OT Law, would have been punishable by death.

If the culture then was anything like it is today, this would have been a shocking statement! Many people wouldn’t have wanted to hear it!

But this is what Jesus, God the Son spoke. And if He was indeed bringing truth, then these verses are part of that truth.

And it must have been something very important to Him since He brought it up during the first third of His sermon.

This is part of what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven: to be faithful to your spouse as a picture of God’s faithfulness to us.

Again, while it may have jolted His hearers, this idea that God does not like divorce and remarriage is not new.

Later, in Matthew 19, the Pharisees brought up the same subject with Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”

Jesus gave a similar response to what He said here in chapter 5, but He expands upon it:

And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 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’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”

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. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immoralitya, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

(Matt. 19:4-10)

aOr fornication

From the beginning, God has intended humankind to worship Him – and Him alone. And to be married to one spouse – and one spouse alone (until parted by death).

Divorce was allowed because of the hardness of heart found in Israel. But God is calling people to His kingdom who will not be hard of heart, so the allowance is no longer tolerated.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to look at these verses without addressing what’s become known as the “exception clause.”

But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immoralitya causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

Matthew 5:32

aOr fornication

Many people claim that phrase as an excuse for their divorce, so here’s a few things to consider:

  1. It’s Only In One Place. While these words of Jesus are recorded in each of the synoptic gospels (see Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18), the “exception clause” exists only in Matthew’s account. So until these gospels were circulated more widely, it’s quite possible only Matthew’s audience would have known about this exception.
  2. It May Be Translated Poorly. “Sexual immorality” may be better translated as “fornication,” which is indicated in the NKJV footnotes. This is significant, because fornication refers specifically to sexual immorality that occurs before marriage, not after it.
  3. It may be audience-specific. Dr. Joseph Webb, author of Till Death Do Us Part, suggests that #1 and #2 may be linked together in a significant way. In Jewish culture, the betrothal period was practically considered marriage, even though it wasn’t technically consumated. This is why, when Joseph suspected Mary to be guilty of fornication (sexual immorality before marriage), he considered a divorce to “put her away” (Matt. 1:19) – even though they were only betrothed at that point. Therefore it is possible that the reason the “exception clause” is only mentioned in Matthew’s account is because that was the only Gospel written specifically for a Jewish audience, who would have understood the “exception clause” for divorce to be referring to fornication during the betrothal period only.

Regardless of whether that theory is correct, keep in mind the following as well:

  1. Nobody’s Perfect. Jesus had practically just said in the previous verses that nearly every man in His audience was guilty of adultery if they had lusted after a woman at any point. But He doesn’t seem to indicate in any way that all of their wives now have an excuse to split from them.
  2. God is Faithful to the Faithless. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was often compared to a marriage. This was especially dramatized through the life of the prophet Hosea. Through his story we see an analogy to the way in which God chooses to continue to pursue His harlotrous wife, even as she leaves Him and cheats on Him by serving other gods. If God calls us to imitate Him, then may He also be calling us to be faithful even to an unfaithful spouse?
  3. God’s Divorce Didn’t End His Marriage. In Jeremiah 3, God compares His relationship with Israel to a divorce. But while He “divorces” the adulterous Israel in verse 8, He still calls to her with longing in verse 12, pleading with her to return to Him. In verse 14 He says, “Return, O backsliding children. . . for I am married to you.” Note that (1) He still sought reconciliation after divorce, and (2) He still referred to Himself as married to her. So the divorce was more like a separation in their relationship, rather than a complete dissolution.
  4. God Hates Divorce, and It Hinders Our Prayers. In Malachi 2, God harshly rebukes Israel (especially her “holy” priests) for their hypocrisy. While they seemed genuine in their pursuit of Him, even covering the altar with their tears, the LORD refused to accept their offerings. Why?

. . . Because the LORD has been witness

Between you and the wife of your youth,

With whom you have dealt treacherously;

Yet she is your companion

And your wife by covenant.

But did He not make them one,

Having a remnant of the Spirit?

And why one?

He seeks godly offspring.

Therefore take heed to your spirit,

And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.

“For the LORD God of Israel says

That He hates divorce,

For it covers one’s garment with violence,”

Says the LORD of hosts.

“Therefore take heed to your spirit,

That you do not deal treacherously.”

Malachi 2:14-16

There is much more that could be said on this topic, and more to be found even in the New Testament, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to look at it only as a first-century Jew might have, who knows only the Old Testament writings and now the Gospel of Matthew.

Regardless of how the “exception clause” would have been understood by this Jew, he would have realized more fully the importance that God places on marriage. It is a holy institution that must not be taken lightly. Just as we are committing to God for all our lives and trusting that He will never leave us nor forsake us, so we should commit to our spouses for all of our lives, faithfully pursuing a God-honoring relationship.

“Till Death Do Us Part.”

 

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The Kingdom of Heaven: Put Away Lust

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

Matthew 5:27-30

If you hate someone, you’ve as good as broken the 6th commandment: “You shall not murder.” So we discovered in the last post.

Now Jesus looks at the 7th commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.”

And once again, He strikes at the root of the law.

It’s not just the physical act of adultery that God condemns. It’s the thoughts, the desires, the lust that precede the action – even if the action never happens. Continue reading

The Kingdom of Heaven: Thou Shalt Not Be Angry

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:21-26, NKJV

It’s easy to point fingers at the “big sins.” Murderers, rapists, robbers, scandalous tax collectors – they’re all the bad guys who deserve God’s wrath.

But what’s this that Jesus is saying?

Yes, murder is bad. And whoever murders will face judgment.

But guess what? Being angry at someone for no reason is right up there with murder! Continue reading

The Kingdom of Heaven: The Law Fulfilled

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

(Matthew 5:17-20, NKJV)

This can be somewhat of a controversial passage, particularly in debates over the role of the Old Testament Law in the New Testament era. My own opinion has changed multiple times over the years, so rather than take this opportunity to share a shifting opinion, I want to focus on how the original hearers would have heard and understood it.

Because that’s my goal with this series anyway. We’re putting ourselves in the shoes of a first-century Jew who is being introduced to Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew. If we were that Jew, how would we understand this portion of the Sermon on the Mount? And how does it relate to what comes before and after it, in context? Continue reading

The Kingdom of Heaven: Light in the Darkness

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

(Matt. 5:13-16)

This passage comes right on the heels of “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you.”

I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

It’s often easy for us – especially if we’ve grown up in the church and are already familiar with a passage, to accept the separations of chapters and verses and miss the broader context and flow of meaning. But Jesus’ sermon wasn’t a random hodge-podge of various topics.

So why did He go from a discourse on the blessings of persecution to suddenly talking metaphors of light and dark? Continue reading