Job 31:1; Matthew 5:27-32, 19:3-9; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
April 15, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: I’d like to share with you some statistics from the Web, mostly from the websites of law offices. According to the American Psychology Association, roughly 40-50 percent of marriages in America end in divorce. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the world record for longest marriage goes to Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher, who were married close to 87 years. But the shortest marriage reported was that of Ramon Cusi, 65, and Esperanza Manapat, 45, in 1967 in Manila. Mr. Cusi dropped dead shortly after saying “I do.”
Anyone remember Rudolph Valentino and Jean Acker? Six hours after their wedding in 1919, Ms. Acker locked him out of their wedding room. Two years later, they officially divorced. How about Britney Spears and her childhood friend Jason Alexander. In 2004, they flew to Las Vegas to have a “good time,” but ended up getting married. The next day, she broke the “good news” to her mother and managers, they opposed the marriage. Fifty-five hours later, they were officially divorced.
California is a no-fault state, which means that all a spouse has to do is to give any reason valid in the state for divorce. No proof of any fault is required! So it allows divorce only on two grounds: irreconcilable differences and incurable insanity. A law office’s website lists the most common reasons for divorce: (1) irreconcilable differences, which can be anything from changes in personal behavior, lack of communication, constant arguments, unrealistic expectations, lack of intimacy, lack of equality, even weight gain!; (2) lengthy separation; (3) money problems; (4) abandonment or willful desertion; (5) physical or even verbal abuse; and (6) adultery.
Our text today explains the Biblical doctrine of marriage and divorce. Is divorce ever permitted in the Bible? And if so, what reasons are allowed? And what does Jesus mean by “adultery in the heart”? So we have three main things to look at today: first, Adultery and Divorce in the Old Testament; second, Adultery and Divorce According to the Pharisees; and third, Adultery and Divorce According to Jesus.
Adultery and Divorce According to the Old Testament
As in the law against murder, Jesus introduces his teaching about adultery by saying, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” He is quoting the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the only law about divorce. If the wife “finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her,” he can give her a “certificate of divorce.” The woman is then free to marry another man. But the first husband cannot marry her again, if the second husband divorces her or dies. This prevents the husband from acquiring her dowry from her second husband, and therefore, from exploiting the woman.
“Some indecency” is a broad allowance for divorcing a wife. So in Matthew 19, the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus answered them by saying that God designed marriage to be an unbreakable bond between a man and a woman, quoting Genesis 1:27, 2:18, 21-23. In these passages, God’s design for marriage is clear right in the Garden of Eden in creation in four ways. First, marriage requires the husband and wife to be loyal first to each other, not to family or friends or job. Second, they are to be loyal “till death do they part.” Third, husband and wife become one flesh, which means both physical and spiritual union. And fourth, the physical union must be after marriage and continue throughout their married life.
But Jesus silences the Pharisees when he tells them that Moses allowed divorce “because of your hardness of heart.” This does not mean that only hard-hearted people divorce, but that divorce is a result of sin in man’s heart. If not for God’s mercy and grace on our hearts, the divorce rate in our nation would be much higher than 50 percent.
Adultery and Divorce According to the Pharisees
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees debated how easily a man could divorce his wife. One school of the Pharisees strictly says that a man can only divorce his wife if the husband found her unchaste in any way. But another school of the Pharisees says that a man can divorce his wife even if she spoils a dish for him, of if he finds a woman fairer than her. Jews divorced their wives all too easily by misinterpreting and corrupting the law about divorce.
Asking Jesus about what he thought of the Law of Moses concerning divorce was a good ploy by the Pharisees. It was not clear to them what Jesus really taught about divorce. In these testy questions, they were continuing to drive a wedge between Jesus and Moses. It was their goal to discredit Jesus among the Jews by proving that Jesus opposed the Law. After Jesus said that God designed marriage as an unbreakable bond, they tried to trap Jesus when they asked why then did Moses allow divorce? Surely, they thought, Jesus was caught.
Jesus’ answer to their question in Matthew 19:8 must have shocked them: Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the hearts of Jewish men. It was Jesus who trapped them. Now Jesus went to the heart of the Pharisees’ problem: their sinfulness and disobedience. They were the ones who were proven to be unfaithful to the Law.
Adultery and Divorce According to Jesus
The Pharisees believed that they are obeying the Law about divorce by giving a certificate of divorce to their wives for any cause. But Jesus tells them, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That was the first shocker.
Like murder, Jesus says adultery is a matter of the heart. We may not commit the actual sin, but he teaches that even looking at a woman (or a woman looking at a man) with lustful intent is already adultery. The NIV translation says, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully,” while the KJV says, “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her.” The ESV and KJV captures the small nuance in what Jesus was teaching: The original Greek is better translated, “anyone who looks at a woman in order to lust after her.” That is, a man must not stare at a woman in order to stir up lustful thoughts. Or it can also be translated, “anyone who looks at a woman in order to cause her to lust after him.” What Jesus means is that a man must not intend to seduce another woman. Obviously, this excludes intimacy in a marital relationship. Marital intimacy is good according to the Bible. The Song of Solomon is a beautiful depiction of this intimacy. But there is a place for this God-given relationship, and that is, only within marriage.
Jesus warns men, but this is also applied to women. Wise and godly women know how to dress well and make herself attractive to others. But they know the difference between making herself seductive to other men. Our modern world is not a model for young girls. One sociologist observes, “the average square yardage of boys’ fashions grows and grows while the square inches in the girls’ outfits shrink and shrink, so that while the boys look like tent-wearing skateboarders, the girls look like preppy prostitutes.” The clothing industry and the movie-television industry ridicule any appearance of modesty. Our wives cannot compete with polished actresses and models. Indeed, pictures of such women are even photoshopped to make them look perfect.
What is a man to do when the world around him seduces him into lustful thoughts? First, the Bible says, “Flee!” This sounds simple, but we know how hard this is. Jesus says in the next verses that it is better to have one eye plucked or to have one arm or leg cut off if they cause us to sin. Obviously, he is not speaking literally. What he means is that it is better to suffer physical pain in the present than to suffer both spiritual and physical pain in eternity in hell. Here, he even implies that our bodies will be whole in heaven. But if maiming the body is horrible, adultery is even more horrible. If our eye tempts us to sin, we should strive to act as if we had no eye. We are to refuse to be seduced by looking, and we are not to use our hands and feet to commit sin. Instead, Paul says to young Timothy, “Flee youthful passions” (2 Tim 2:22), and to all of us, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). Flee, shun, avoid sexual immorality like the plague. It is not just dangerous to your soul, but deadly!
Second, we are to be content with the wife or husband that God has given to us. Many men say to others (and to their wives) that she is the most beautiful woman in the world! This must be how a man must look at his wife. He is to glory in the beauty of the wife God has given to him. Every woman is most beautiful in her own way. In Proverbs 31:10, 29, the Preacher praises his wife, “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
Contentment then is the cure for lust. Paul says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6). Our culture is counter-Christian, for it encourages everyone – men and women, young and old – to be discontented with our bodies. The images of fitness, beauty and strength they present can only be attained by an infinitely-small number of people, especially only those who have money.
The second shocker that Jesus tells the Pharisees is in verse 32, “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The Pharisees have made it all too easy for men to divorce their wives, so Jesus’ words must have greatly offended them.
In this verse, Jesus clearly says that no-fault divorce is unbiblical. Our divorce laws make divorce as easy as the Pharisees’ “for any cause.” But Jesus says there can only be one valid reason for divorce: adultery. If adultery is not the ground for divorce, both husband and wife will be committing adultery when they remarry.
God has provided divorce as a solution to those marriages that are ruined beyond repair by adultery. But this law was corrupted by human rebellion against God. Jesus makes a provision for divorce and remarriage on the ground of sexual immorality. And what constitutes sexual immorality? Is it only sleeping with a person who is not the husband or wife? Of course not, because the Greek word porneia includes a broad range of other sexual sins contrary to Scriptural standards: sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, lesbianism, sodomy, harlotry, incest and bestiality. All of these violate the “one flesh” aspect of marriage.
Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, adds another lawful ground for divorce: willful desertion or abandonment (1 Cor 7:10-16). If an unbelieving spouse leaves, then Paul says, “let it be so.” Does desertion mean only packing one’s bag and leaving the spouse? No, for some actions can be considered desertion and may be lawful grounds for divorce, such as: (1) deliberate withholding of food, clothing, and sexual relations from the spouse (1 Cor 7:1-5); and (2) life-threatening spousal abuse, or any other actions that are destructive to the “cleaving” aspect of the marriage relationship (Exo 21:10-11).
Lastly, in case of sexual immorality and willful desertion, is the husband or wife free to remarry? In Matthew 19:9, Jesus implies that remarriage is lawful, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” In 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Paul explains in more detail Jesus’ teaching, even saying, “not I, but the Lord.”
But he adds his own inspired command (“I, not the Lord”) in verse 15, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” The offended party is not “enslaved” in the sense that implies the freedom to obtain a legal divorce and the freedom to marry someone else. The marriage bond is dead, so the spouse is also “dead” (Rom 7:1-3; Westminster Confession of Faith 24:5). It also implies that God releases the believing spouse from two difficult lifelong situations: (1) a futile hope of reconciling with the spouse who left (1 Cor 7:10-11); and (2) celibacy, which means never to have the joys and blessings of married life, together with “burning with passion” (1 Cor 7:8-9).
Dear friends, some of you might not agree with this teaching. You might think that it is too strict to allow lawful divorce only in cases of sexual immorality and willful desertion. Some of you might think that it is too liberal to allow divorce and remarriage. In both cases, consider seriously these texts that we studied this morning.
What if one or both parties desire to be reconciled? Let it be so, for Jesus teaches forgiveness (1 Cor 7:10-11). If he forgave all the sins of those who believe in him through his death, how can we not forgive others who have offended us greatly, even if it is the sin of adultery? Forgiving others is Jesus’ command (Matt 6:14; 18:21-22).
Remember God’s mercy and grace and patience. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Our song, “A Goodly Theme is Mine,” is a song sung at the wedding of a handsome, gallant king and his beautiful wife, both arrayed in majestic garments. But this is also a picture of the future glorious wedding of Christ and his Church. Before we became the bride of Christ, we were adulterous sinners like Gomer, the wife of the prophet Hosea. Yet, Hosea is the picture of God who forgave his adulterous wife Israel (and the Church) and took her back:
And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hos 2:19-20).
In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul paints another picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church his Bride as the relationship between a husband and wife:
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.
Imagine yourselves in heaven on the last day, as you stand before being wedded as the Bride to Christ the Bridegroom. You who were transformed from filthy, unattractive sinners to a beautiful bride adorned for Christ, your Bridegroom (Rev 21:2). Revelation 19:6–8 then paints a glorious picture of the Marriage of the Lamb, with the Bride singing with great joy:
Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
 For the Reformed perspective on marriage, divorce and remarriage, see the following:
(a) Howard Griffith, “The Ethics of Divorce and Remarriage,” http://rts.edu/site/RTSnearyou/washington/documents/The_Ethics_of_Divorce_and_Remarriage.pdf. Accessed 04/14/2018.
(b) Bob Burridge, “Nomology: Lesson 9 – Divorce,” 2011, http://www.genevaninstitute.org/syllabus/unit-five-nomology/lesson-9-divorce/. Accessed 04/14/2018.
 “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Special Committee Report of the Reformed Church in the United States (1991),” http://www.rcus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/RCUS-Position-Marriage-Divorce-1991.pdf. Accessed 04/14/2018.