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“The First Marriage War”

Matthew 19:3-9
Bob DeGray
February 2, 2014

Key Sentence

The battle for marriage starts with upholding Biblical oneness.


I. The Principle of Marriage (Matthew 19:3-6)
II. The Provision for Hardheartedness (Matthew 19:7-9)


Todd and I were saying recently how rich this section of Matthew is. We’ve talked about who Jesus is, talked about faith, talked about forgiveness and this week we’re talking about marriage, which is not only of interest to us as individuals, but of huge interest in our culture. We live in the midst of a marriage war, which today is often focused on the debate over homosexual marriage but which is also very present when we talk about cohabitation or divorce.

The Huffington Post reports this week, with its usual liberal bias, that divorce rates are higher in religiously conservative areas despite a Bible-based culture that discourages divorce. The article claims rates are higher in religious states like Arkansas or Alabama than in liberal states like New Jersey or Maine because ‘conservative religious culture’ creates social institutions that "decrease marital stability." What the study doesn’t seem to take into account is that fewer people per 1000 marry and more people live together in liberal states. Fewer means fewer divorces – but not fewer broken relationships.

Our culture wants us to accept its values: cohabitation, abortion, easy divorce and yes, homosexual marriage. But as God’s people we have to ask what Jesus thinks of all this. In a passage I’m calling the first marriage war, Jesus speaks to the principle of marriage and the provision God made for hard-heartedness. What we learn in this passage is that the battle for marriage starts with upholding Biblical oneness. Let’s begin with the principle of marriage.

Matthew 19:3-6 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees have been trying to trap Jesus since chapter 12, hoping Jesus would say something to damage his reputation with the people or seem to contradict the Law of Moses. The question whether a man can divorce his wife “for any cause” was the subject of frequent debate. Opinion was divided roughly into two camps, two rabbis. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai both permitted divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24, because of "some indecency." But they disagreed on what indecency might include. Shammai and his followers interpreted the expression to refer to gross sinful indecency, mostly sexual sin, though not including adultery, which carried a rarely enforced death penalty.

But Hillel expanded the meaning to all kinds of real or imagined marriage offenses, including nagging, or an improperly cooked meal. Rabbi Akiba permitted a woman to divorce if her husband had a roving eye. The Pharisees themselves divorced frequently. Josephus, the Jewish historian, was a Pharisee, was divorced, and in his view divorce was permitted "for any causes whatsoever."

This argument, and the question posed to Jesus are relevant today: what should be the grounds for divorce? Prior to the 1960’s in the US the grounds for divorce were things like adultery, abandonment, cruelty, which today we call abuse, or criminal behavior. Couples who simply chose to get divorced were forced to lie on oath about the existence of one of these causes. But with the sexual revolution, feminism and other forces, California in 1969 adopted the first no-fault divorce law; ‘irreconcilable differences’ became the grounds for divorce. All fifty states have adopted some form of this, which is essentially Hillel’s position: “for any cause.” So we have as much interest in the answer to this question in our culture, and in our churches as the Jews did in Jesus’s day.

How does he answer? By taking marriage back to its first principles. Verse 4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Jesus cites Genesis 1:27 and then Genesis 2:24. The Creator made them "male and female;” The implication is that the two sexes should be united in marriage.

When I do pre-marital counseling we look carefully at Genesis 1-2 as foundational chapters for Biblical marriage. We note, for example, that these marriage truths precede the fall – marriage is not a response to sin in the world, but the design of the world before sin entered. We note that when God made man, male and female, he said ‘let us make man in our image,’ a picture of the unity of the persons of God. But when God made the man he did not at first also make the woman, and that was the first thing of which he said ‘no, it is not good.’ “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him.” The implication is that the man alone was not fully in the image of God, but only when man is united as male and female is that image portrayed. In marriage there is a oneness and relationship between two persons similar to, though falling short of, the oneness and relationship of the persons of God.

So the oneness, the usness of marriage is part of God’s design, as is the maleness and femaleness of marriage. This goes beyond the physical differences that make sexual union and procreation possible; it also means that from a Biblical point of view, only a marriage between male and female fulfills the relational, emotional and spiritual designs of the creator God.

Again in premarital counseling I do this to indicate that oneness between husband and wife is mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. In Genesis 2 Adam sees that Eve is "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh," made from him and for him. The man and the woman were in the deepest sense “fitted for each other.”

So, Jesus concludes, a man and woman who marry are no longer two but one, and that by God's doing. As Don Carson says “If God has joined them together, according to the structure of his own creation, divorce is not only "unnatural" but rebellion against God.” This oneness, this usness is at the center of God’s design. It is the first principle of marriage: first in the sense that it appears first in Scripture, first in the sense that it is the nature of God’s creation, God’s image in humanity, and first in the sense that in every marriage debate and every difficult marriage circumstance, the first thing to remember is ‘they are no longer two but one flesh.’ As Carson says “Jesus dealt with the sanctity of marriage by focusing on the God-ordained unity of the couple.”

And this has to be our appeal as well. Whatever the government or the culture says about the institution of marriage, we within the church and those married in the church must shape our understanding around ‘from the beginning he made them male and female’ and’ therefore the two shall become one flesh’ and ‘what God has joined let no one separate.’ These principles are universal. They apply to every nation and culture and provide the basis for answering every question about marriage that a fallen culture can come up with.

And yet it’s clear Jesus has not directly answered the Pharisee’s divorce question. They jump on that, verses 7-9: They said, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

One of the things I like about the Pharisees is they at least try to frame their thinking with Scripture. Their divorce debate centered on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which some interpreted to mean "If a man’s wife... does not find favor in his eyes... he shall write a bill of divorce... and shall send her away from his house." But the Hebrew more naturally means: "If a man’s wife... does not find favor in his eyes... and he writes a bill of divorce... and her second husband does the same thing, her first husband must not marry her again" So Moses did not command divorce but permitted it and the text is less concerned with the grounds for the divorce than with prohibiting remarriage of the twice-divorced woman to her first husband. Divorce and remarriage are presupposed by Moses; they exist; he gives this command to regulate them.

Moses' permission of divorce takes account of the hardness of men's hearts. Divorce is not part of the Creator's perfect design, but the sin of fallen humanity can be so vile that divorce is preferred to continued "indecency." This is not to say that the person who divorced his spouse was necessarily sinning in so doing; but that divorce could even be considered shows that there is already sin in the marriage. So any view of divorce and remarriage that sees the problem only in terms of what may be allowable has already overlooked a basic fact: divorce is never to be thought of as a morally neutral option but as evidence of sin, of hardness of heart. The fundamental attitude of the Pharisees to the question was wrong. And the fundamental attitude of our culture is wrong. Our culture sees divorce as morally neutral. Our culture sees cohabitation and homosexual unions and abortion as morally neutral – and they are not.

But I care a lot less about what the culture does than I care what the church does. And I think much of the church has given in on divorce. We rightly say a great deal about homosexual unions and abortion. We bemoan the prevalence of pre-marital sex and cohabitation. But do we defend in our churches a Biblical understanding of divorce? No, not widely. The church in America long ago substantially surrendered to the culture on this question. Should divorce be allowed for any and every reason? The church’s answer is often yes.

I looked up a few statements on divorce and found this ‘irreconcilable difference’ attitude often. The United Methodist Church, for example, as early as 1960 “declared its position of support for marriage while allowing for divorce.” They currently say: "God's plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. . . . However, when a couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.” That’s irreconcilable differences, any and every reason. Others agree; Episcopal church bodies, Lutheran church bodies, Presbyterian church bodies, even many individual Baptist churches or Bible churches have moved to the same kind of ‘sorrowful permission’ approaches since the sixties.

But statements like that sadden me, or make me angry. First, in practice this attitude often means there is no one in a person’s secular world or their church who is fighting for their marriage. It’s assumed if things get bad you get divorced, and maybe you come to us afterward for divorce recovery. That’s not universal: many people have good friends, and there are good marriage ministries. But it’s too often true: pious words on a page but nobody really caring if you’re headed toward a divorce. Second, if the principle of marriage is oneness then the irreconcilable differences argument is like saying that the left half of your body wants to be divorced from the right half because they are irreconcilably different. But it can’t be done without killing the body.

So despite the loud fuss about cohabitation and rampant pre-marital sex, and the rise of homosexual marriage, I believe we lost the war when we stopped fighting for individual marriages. I don’t care what the culture does, but when we embrace ‘divorce for any reason,’ when we fail to come alongside and help people save their marriages through grace, when we permit what God has joined to be casually torn asunder we surrender the trenches in the war we are now losing. We have sown the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind.

Because this is not what the Bible teaches. This isn’t how Jesus answers the question. Verse 8: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Moses did not command divorce but the law he gave did concede that divorce was inevitable in a fallen world of broken relationships and hard hearts. But the Pharisees took this permission and went where our churches and our culture have gone, from a real cause related to lewd or immoral behavior to a loose standard based on perceived differences and vague offenses – divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus says ‘that’s wrong.’ Verse 9: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” With one stroke Jesus rules out the ‘any cause’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law. He says a divorce based on this loose definition is not a divorce at all, and so a person who remarries, or gets involved in a sexual relationship after this ‘non-divorce’ is effectively committing adultery. Now I’m not saying that divorce is some kind of unforgivable sin; when it is a sin it is like every other sin, paid by Jesus on the cross with forgiveness available to all who trust in Him.

But he does make an exception. He allows divorce in the case of ‘sexual immorality.’ He said the same thing in Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount. The Greek word in both places is porneia, a word usually used for sins of a sexual nature; broader than adultery but including it, and yet much more restrictive than the grounds for divorce allowed by some Pharisees. So Jesus is moving adultery from the death penalty category of the Old Testament to this new divorce-permitted category. He is also permitting divorce for a range of sexual sins, including those prevalent in our culture. But he is not saying divorce is mandatory in these cases: repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration are the Biblical goals when dealing with any and all of these sins.

So Jesus, while emphasizing God’s design for marriage, the marriage principle of a unity and oneness and usness created by God and not to be torn asunder, does allow this exception for sexual immorality. Many scholars have noted that since the distinguishing mark of oneness in marriage is the sexual relationship, it makes sense to allow an exception when that core oneness has been violated.

Some question if this exception clause is valid, since it doesn’t appear in Mark 10. Mark and Matthew seem to record the same incident, but the way the account is told is different enough that Matthew is probably not using Mark as his source; he may be remembering the incident in his own words. One thing Matthew leaves out is Jesus’ assertion that these thing apply husbands to wives or wives to husband. In Matthew you might get the mistaken impression only a husband can divorce, but Mark makes it clear it can go either way.

But Mark also leaves out the exception clause. Why? It’s not, as some have said, because Matthew is making things up to suit his own purposes. Scripture is inspired by God and the human authors don’t get to do that. So Mark must have left it out, condensing, as Matthew often does. Perhaps Mark condenses here because he assumes that in the case of adultery divorce naturally follows. Scholars say that as the death penalty for adultery was no longer thought of, divorce became the norm. Matthew spells it, maybe to be consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. So I think we can be sure Jesus did make an exception.

It should also be noted that Paul, writing to the Corinthians, adds, I believe, a second exception: the abandonment of a believing spouse by an unbelieving spouse. Because of the growth of Christianity mixed marriages were inevitable in Paul’s day, and some unbelievers couldn’t stand living with a person changed to their core by faith and redemption. So, Paul says, if they leave, let them go.

Finally, many have wondered whether there is an implicit exception for physical and or sexual abuse by a spouse. There is no explicit exception, but 1st Corinthians 7:11 seems to permit a woman to separate from her husband to get out from under abuse. Some, including John Piper’s church, contend that extreme physical or sexual abuse violates the core oneness of marriage just as sexual immorality does. The Malachi verses on divorce seem to support this, and so some would allow divorce in this case. I’m not able to go that far, but I do firmly believe abuse is grounds for both short term and long term separation, while prayerfully seeking repentance, changed behavior and reconciliation.

But we have to remember that these are all exceptions to a rule which Jesus affirms clearly: because the unity between husband and wife is God’s workmanship, we must not, as Christ’s followers, allow this union to be dissolved for any and every reason. When we make divorce easy in the church, when we allow vague definitions of irreconcilable differences or regrettable alternatives to erode our attitude toward the sanctity of marriage, we lose the front line of the marriage war and we should not be surprised at the rout that follows. This unity which pictures the unity of the Godhead, the unity of Christ and the church, the design of humanity, is worth fighting for in individual cases.

So how do we do that? I hope I’ve already implied this. Last week we studied Jesus’ teaching on ‘a brother caught in sin.’ We emphasized that the purpose of confronting sin is always repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. That should be our purpose in every marriage that struggles. Husbands and wives need to be restored to each other, to fellowship and unity. Most of the time this can take place between themselves as they communicate God’s grace and love to each other. But at times they need the help of others committed to the loving care of that couple and to the sanctity of marriage. Marriages in crisis need people to come alongside and help, to be Jesus to that couple, to minister to their hurts and to hold up the principle of oneness to their faltering faith. Receiving grace from Jesus and giving it to each other and not giving up can turn a marriage around. The battle for marriage starts with upholding Biblical oneness. And when this battle is being won on the frontline of individual couples, the culture as a whole will be blessed.

I read a really good story this week of a restored marriage. I wish I had time to tell you the whole thing, but in the moment we have left I can only give the briefest sketch. The story is told by Laura Booz. She and her husband Ryan had just had a premature baby, and she was exhausted. Then she discovered, not for the first time, that he was filling his hours with internet pornography. She couldn’t handle it. When Ryan she was packed and she took the baby to her mother’s home. When she sensed God saying to her ‘you will not return to the same man,’ she heard this as permission to pursue divorce.

But Ryan, jolted out of complacency by her desperation, confessed his sin to some older men in the church and established accountability. He moved out of the house and lived with a friend so Laura could return home. Laura says “Mark – the friend - spent hours with Ryan at the breakfast table, under the stars by the fire pit, on the porch, asking him all of the tough questions and teaching him how to be a godly man. Every day Mark would remind Ryan that, in order to truly live, Ryan had to die to himself. This meant giving up every selfish, immature notion and behavior and replacing them with sacrificial love. He told Ryan that he had to fight for his marriage, fight for their oneness, just as Jesus fought the battle against sin and death to be one with us.

Counsel like this on both sides of the marriage, involvement in a godly community and the work of God in their lives had their effect: after several months Laura realized that she had no desire to pursue the divorce, and no reason to. A few years later, she says “I saw a man who had unveiled a terrible and omnipresent temptation; a man who had faced his own humanity and sinfulness; a man who had chosen to fall in the arms of Christ and obey Him step by step, even when the choices were tough. This was the new man God had promised me.