The phrase “When Jesus had finished saying these things” is Matthew’s typical way of ending a teaching section and beginning a new narrative section. Remember Matthew organizes his Gospel in alternating sections of teaching and narrative. However, in the narrative sections, as in this new one, there is a good bit of the Lord’s teaching as well and we get an important piece of it in our paragraph this morning.
v.1 Most of the Lord’s ministry was conducted in Galilee. Most of those three years he spent in the environs of his youth and young adulthood. Only occasionally had he gone south to Judea and Jerusalem. But in this next section of narrative, from 19:1 to 20:34 we find him en route to Jerusalem and the final chapter of his life’s work. There is much more material on this period of the Lord’s ministry in the Gospel of Luke – fully ten chapters of his Gospel cover the months taken on this slow southward journey – and further material in John. Perea was the name given to the territory across the Jordan from Judea and so this period of the Lord’s work is often known as the Perean ministry. Matthew gives us only a same selection of events and of the teaching that the Lord delivered during this time. Mathew doesn’t draw attention to this fact but Jesus was leaving Galilee for the last time. He would not return until after his resurrection!
v.2 The teaching and the healing continued as they always had. Luke gives us some of the details.
v.3 The Pharisees were not, of course, really interested in learning the truth about marriage and divorce; they wanted to trip Jesus up. They knew something of his views because he had spoken to the question before – we read of his views already in the Sermon on the Mount – and so they expected him to toe a strict line and so lose support with the masses who were used to and favored the current permission of divorce on almost any grounds. Fact is, whatever answer he gave he would offend someone. Moreover, it was an explosive question politically because John the Baptist had been arrested, as you remember from Matthew 14, in large part because he had criticized publicly King Herod Antipas’ divorce and remarriage.
Perhaps you have heard that there were, in the Jewish church of that time, broadly two schools of thought on the question of the proper grounds of divorce. The debate revolved around the interpretation of the Hebrew word in Deut. 24:1 that the NIV has translated “something indecent.” If a man found “something indecent” in his wife he could divorce her. That isn’t precisely what Deuteronomy says – that paragraph in the Mosaic law is not about divorce per se but about remarriage, and, in particular, remarriage to the same spouse after an intervening marriage. Nevertheless, it is the only passage in the voluminous Law of Moses that actually stipulated the possibility of divorce and so it became the focus of discussion.
In any case, one school, the school of the rabbi Shammai held that “something indecent” meant a sexual sin that was verified by witnesses. That was the strict view, of course. Most Jews followed the advice of the rabbi Hillel who was much more lenient. He took “something indecent” to be virtually anything that a husband found objectionable in his wife, even something as trival as her burning dinner. A later rabbi, Akiba, took it to mean that even if a husband found a woman he thought prettier he could divorce his wife to marry her. By the way, remember, we are talking about the man divorcing his wife. The wife had no such rights in the Jewish practice of the time. In other words, for most Jewish males of the time, as for most Americans today, divorce was easy to get and was easy to justify. There was little conscience about the sanctity of marriage. They had misunderstood the law because their hearts were not constrained to offer a deeper obedience to God for love’s sake. They were not really trying to be what God called them to be. Jesus, as you remember, attacked their wooden and artificial and superficial understanding of obedience in the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7.
In any case, the question that they put to Jesus must be understood against this background: will anything do as a justification for divorce or are their limits?
v.6 The Lord returns to first principles. He cites Genesis 1 and 2 to establish that marriage is a divine institution, for which God made man both male and female, and that it was God’s intention that marriage be exclusive and the marriage bond inviolable. Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher, makes the point that God did not make one man and many women, but one man and one woman. When the Scripture says that a man leaves his parents and is united to his wife it is clear that it means he is forming a tie that is intimate and permanent and takes precedence over all other ties. His more sacred than one’s first family and his relationship with his parents. In a cuture where ties to parents were very sacred and important, that is saying a lot! “One flesh vividly expresses a view of marriage as something much deeper than…human convenience or social convention.” The Jews had lost sight of the essential truth that marriage was not a casual union but the closest of all possible unions. It created a new family and the relationships of family are unbreakable and unchangeable. And the Lord makes that point emphatically and specifically himself by adding his interpretative comment: “…what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “To see divorce as man undoing the work of God puts the whole issue in a radically new perspective.” [France, 280]
v.7 The Pharisees were, no doubt, delighted with the Lord’s answer. He had fallen into their trap. Now they pounce. If the bonds of marriage were to be permanent and never broken, why then did Moses approve of divorce?
v.8 The Lord replies that Deuteronomy does not command divorce, it allows it and does so only as an accommodation to human sinfulness, not because God intended marriage to be an impermanent arrangement. The mistake that had been made was to elevate a necessary concession into a divine principle. [France, 281] The divine ideal for marriage was permanence and faithfulness. Divorce was a regrettable, but necessary provision for cases in which human sinfulness had made impossible the maintaining of that ideal. It is too easy for us to build our expectations on the Lord’s concession to sin and not, as we should, on the divine ideal as it is enshrined in the law of God.
v.9 Jesus had already said in 5:32 that remarriage after divorce constituted adultery because it creates a new sexual union besides the one that God had created. In Mark the Lord is also cited as applying this standard equally. Both men and women may divorce and both men and women may do it sinfully.
However, the Lord adds an exception: “except for porneia,” that is, except for unchastity, for sexual infidelity. In such cases the marriage has already been broken and divorce by the innocent spouse is not the breaking of the marital bond but a recognition of its having been broken by the other. In any case, in God’s universe, it requires a vicious sin to end a marriage. That is the way people come to think about marriage in a culture of easy divorce.
v.10 The disciples’ weak response to the Lord’s remarks about the inviolability of marriage indicate something of the thinking about marriage then current in the church: as if a life-long marriage was so difficult that one would be better not even to attempt it.
v.11 Some have taken the Lord to be agreeing with his disciples and saying, in effect, that it was better not to marry. That is a very unlikely interpretation, however, given the Lord’s emphasis on the divine institution of marriage in vv. 4-6. Rather, by “this word” the Lord means his previous statement about the sanctity of marriage and its unbreakable bond. Not everyone is called to marriage, he is saying, but most are and those who are called to it must meet its obligations. Verse 12 is then something of a parenthesis, listing the few whose calling it was not to be married. It was unusual not to be married in Jewish society of that time. Jesus was himself a bachelor and this remark may be something of a defense of his own singleness. Some remain unmarried because of physical defect and others have renounced it for the sake of the kingdom of God. Paul, you remember, will make this same point in 1 Cor. 7. I have been reading a biography of John Stott, the influential evangelical English pastor, evangelist, and writer. He remained a bachelor all his life though he had no intention to do so at first. He fully expected that he would marry and have a family, but as the years passed and as his schedule filled up with engagements to the point that his life was not his own, he realized, in his early forties, both that he was unlikely to marry and that God had given him the grace to live a single life and the calling to do so. There was so much ministry this world traveler could never have done had he been responsible for a marriage and a family. [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 330-333]
Jesus, in answering the Pharisees’ insincere question, has laid the foundation for all true thinking about marriage. It is here that our own culture has gone so terribly wrong; for it is building marriage on a wrong foundation. It is treating marriage as if it were a human invention and subject to human regulation. But marriage is from God. God made it and he made us for it. And having made marriage and men and women for marriage, it is to him and to his purposes that we are to look when we have questions about marriage. What did God intend for the life of husbands and wives? What was his purpose? That is what I mean by a theological marriage; a marriage that is understood, that is practiced, and that is reverenced with a view to its being God’s creation, God’s institution, and God’s calling for a man and a woman. When we marry we are not sovereign. God is our match-maker and we must be his servants as husbands and wives as surely as we must be his servants in every other aspect of our lives. Thinking this way about marriage changes everything. It also brings immense blessing, happiness, and security. God’s way is always the best way.
Or is it? You have perhaps heard, as I have heard many times of late, pundits who say that evangelical Christians are getting divorced almost as often if not as often as unbelievers, as non-Christians do. Unbelievers are getting divorced in our society, as you know, in vast numbers. Some studies reckon that more than half of American marriages end in divorce and there is reason to think that, over time, the percentage of failed marriages is actually higher still. Divorce is easy to get in our culture and a great many husbands and wives are getting divorces. So it was in the Lord’s day. Divorce was easy and frequent. And, if you listen to the pundits they will tell you that American evangelical Christians are getting divorced almost as frequently as non-Christians. In other words, it appears that the Lord’s words here in Matthew 19 have had little effect on the security, the fidelity, the fruitfulness of Christian marriages. Being a Christian apparently has little bearing on the security and faithfulness of your marriage. And why is that? Surely we Christians believe not only that we must do what Christ commands but that our happiness and fulfillment in life lie in doing what Christ commands. There is blessing in obedience to him. What is more, what Christ says here is that this universe has been constructed in such a way that marriage ought to be permanent. When marital bonds are broken God’s purpose for human life is frustrated. And man is never going to be happier following his own will rather than the will of the all-wise and all-loving God who made him. Christians know this! So how can it be that evangelical Christians are divorcing as often as non-Christians? Well, the answer is that they are not.
The pollsters George Gallup and George Barna, both evangelical Christians themselves by the way, report that it makes scarcely any difference to the likelihood of your marriage surviving if you are an evangelical Christian. I heard that for the umpteenth time recently and so, in preparation for conducting a recent wedding, I decided to take a small survey of my own. I apologize to the few of you who have already heard these statistics. I have kept on file all the marriage licenses that I have accumulated during the time that I have been, as the State of Washington describes me, a person “authorized to perform marriages.” Every time I conduct a wedding I am given the marriage license, which is, in effect, permission granted to me by the State to marry the couple in question. And through the years I have kept everyone of those licenses. I have in my file 74 of them. 74 weddings and 74 marriages. Of those 74, however, 7 of them were weddings I conducted for unbelievers. That is, I did not consider them Christians and they did not think of themselves as Christians, at least not in any serious way. In most cases I have not had continued contact with those couples and don’t know whether their marriages have survived or not. But, in any case, the 74 is down to 67 because, after all, we are trying to discover how many evangelical Christians are getting divorces these days.
Of those 67, I married 5 of them more than 20 years ago. The church was much smaller and much older in those days and there were fewer weddings. But, of those 5 married more than 20 years ago, four are still married. That is 80%, far above the national average of approximately 50%, though, as I said, some recent evidence suggests it has now dropped below 50%. Of the total number whom I married ten years ago or more there are 27 of whom 24 are still married. In one case the husband died and I am also counting that marriage as a surviving marriage. It would have survived and anyone who knew the husband and wife know that it would have lasted until the death of one of the spouses. 24 marriages out of 27 is 89%.
More interesting still, of the three marriages between evangelical Christians that did end in divorce, two of them involved one of the spouses deserting the Christian faith. So, while both might have been considered evangelical Christians when they married, they were not so considered, at least one of the spouses, when they divorced. Further, it was the acts of the spouse deserting the faith that brought an end to the marriage, not the acts of the faithful Christian spouse. Such cases also prove my point: it isn’t evangelical Christians who are getting divorces. Still 24 out of 27 is far, far above the national average.
If, however, I consider the total number of weddings that I have conducted through the years – the 74 minus the 7 that were never Christian marriages – of those 67, some of which, I admit, are quite recent, 63 are still married. 63 out of 67 amounts to 94%. Fact is, looking through the names of those 63 couples, I would say the chances of them divorcing is very small. I might not be able to convince a survey taker of this fact, but I know who is likely to divorce and who is not.
All of this is to say that when Gallup and Barna say that evangelical Christians are getting divorced as often as non-Christians, some evaluation of their data is required. What has happened, of course, is that both pollsters are counting as evangelical Christians anyone who tells the survey taker that he is born again, or that he believes the Bible, or that he believes that Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners. There are a great many people in the United States today who will tell a pollster that they have the convictions of an evangelical Christian who may or may not go to church, whose beliefs make little difference to the way they live their lives, and, therefore, whose marriages are not shaped in any significant way by loyalty to Jesus Christ or to that theological view of marriage that Jesus taught here. They may claim to be evangelicals, but it is not supremely important to them that God made man male and female, that he ordered a man to leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, that by God’s appointment marriage creates a family, making of a man and a woman who come from different families one flesh, or that in a man and a woman’s uniting in marriage the living God himself is at work. They may claim to be evangelical Christians but they do not take seriously the prospect that in getting a divorce they are undoing what God has done, are rebelling against their Maker and their Judge, and are expecting that the world will work just as well when they flaunt God’s will as when they obey it.
The people whose names are found on the marriage licenses in my file are, by and large, evangelical Christians who take their faith very seriously, whose way of life is a reflection of their loyalty to Christ, of their belief in the divine authority of the Bible, and whose marriages are conducted in accordance with those profound commitments. Those people hardly ever get divorced and, when they do, alas, it is usually, because one of them proved not to be a serious, devout Christian after all. That is the message of my survey, of my highly unscientific but practically highly reliable poll. And I have talked to enough fellow pastors to know that my results are typical of the results they too report from the marriages of serious, earnest, devout Christians.
And it bears our asking why is that so? Why do Christians make so much more of a success of their marriages than non-Christians. They live in the same world, they are influenced by the same culture. Why then do they manage to keep their marriages secure and sound when all around them people are getting divorces? The answer is, of course, that their commitment to Christ purifies and protects their commitment to each other. The answer is that they understand what marriage is, where it comes from, what it is for, and why such sanctity and holiness attaches to it. The answer is that they have the same theological view of marriage that Jesus taught here in Matthew 19.
The Bible, you remember me often telling you, is not first a book about what we are to believe or how we are to live. It is that to be sure, but before it is that it is something else. It is a book that describes what is! It is a book of reality, an introduction to the nature of things. The reason why marriage is practiced everywhere in the world and has always been is because God made marriage to be the fundamental unit and building block of human life. The Creator wove marriage into the fabric of human existence. The reason why, when God’s law for marriage is ignored or flaunted, bad things happen to a culture and a society – and hardly anyone denies nowadays that our culture of easy divorce has been extraordinarily harmful to people, to husbands and wives and to children – is because God made human life to depend upon faithful marriages. He wove the faithful, loving relationship of a man and a woman into the fabric of a happy, fruitful, fulfilling human life. The way of the transgressor is hard, and it is particularly hard here. Defy God in regard to his will for marriage and everything begins to unravel and the pain and the heartbreak and the disintegration begin to seep down into the rising generations to do more harm as the years pass.
Serious Christians, of course, are the first to admit that they are sinners, that they are far too often selfish and unloving. They are quick to admit that there is that in their hearts that, left to itself, could ruin any marriage. But for the Christian it is not left to itself. It is made subject to Christ and his love and his Word. A Christian who loves the Lord Jesus is eager, determined to live in a manner that pleases him. The Holy Spirit is always working that desire in him or her. And any real Christian knows that nothing pleases the Lord more than husbands and wives who truly love one another, who are faithful to one another, who serve one another, and who are committed to living in such a way that reveals their loyalty to Christ. They must forgive one another because Christ has forgiven them. They must love one another because Christ has loved them. They must serve one another as Christ has served them. When Christians are determined to live for Christ, as real Christians are, the result is always a faithful marriage. And that is why serious Christians, no matter what Messrs. Barna or Gallup tell you, rarely get divorces.
Their marriage, in their minds and their hearts – where it matters most – are fixed deep in cosmic and eternal realities: God’s creation, his will for the life of human beings, and his blessing upon those who trust in him and trust him to have spoken the truth about the proper way of life. Christians came to Christ not first for his understanding of marriage. They came for the forgiveness of their sins and for the hope of eternal life. They came, indeed, in many cases because they were beset by problems that they could not solve, a sense of alienation from God and the world that they could not themselves overcome, a sense of despair about the future, a sense of deep confusion about the meaning of it all. And in Christ they found the key. They discovered God’s love, his grace and forgiveness, and a new power in themselves put there by the Holy Spirit. A new world opened up to them that they had not seen or known before.
The wonderful thing that they then discovered was that this new world was the real world. And suddenly everything was new and many things made sense that had not made sense before. And one of those things and one of the most important of them was the love of a man and a woman and this universal human desire for deathless love. All of this comes from God. This pure and wonderful prospect, hope, and longing rises in our hearts because we are made in God’s image – a God of eternal love, whose love within himself, between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the origin and the pattern of all human life and, especially, the love of man and woman. No wonder marriage would be permanent, no wonder it would be a relationship so profound that the life of a new generation could be built upon it. No wonder it should be the source of so much that is happy and holy and life-giving in human existence. It is God’s plan, God’s will, God’s gift. It is God’s love woven into human life. And God’s love is immutable, unchangeable, eternal.
And Christians know this and that makes all the difference in the world.
I heard recently an exchange between a man who was arguing that being a Christian didn’t make that much difference to the morality of someone’s life and a man who was arguing that, in fact, being a Christian made a world of difference. Since the recent election, as you know, when the media reported that the “moral values” people went heavily for President Bush, there have been a number of people who are eager to argue that being an evangelical Christian doesn’t make you a better person than someone who is not. And, to be sure, real Christians are not likely to argue that they are better people than others. They are, as has often been said, more likely to say that they are beggars too, but have found where to find bread. But obviously it does make a difference to one’s life whether one follows Christ or not. Every Christian knows it. It must make a great difference to know God, to have the love of Christ in one’s heart, to know the truth about life, to have the Holy Spirit within.
Anyway, in reply to the one man’s assertion that it doesn’t make such a difference the Christian man put his case this way. He asked the man who was dismissing the difference that Christian commitment makes in a person’s life this question: Suppose you were walking by yourself at night downtown in some large city and, as you passed a doorway, five big, burly men came out of that doorway, caught your eye, and began to follow you down the street. That is a situation that would be likely to unnerve almost anyone. Would it make any difference to you however; would you be any less concerned, he asked, if you knew that those five men were just then leaving a Bible study? And the man was forced to admit that it would change, it would dramatically change his state of mind. He would stop worrying altogether. Men coming out of Bible studies don’t mug strangers on dark streets. Everyone knows that.
Well, it is the same with marriage. When you know that you are married to an earnest, serious, committed follower of Jesus Christ, you don’t worry about being mugged in your marriage. People who live by the Bible think very differently about marriage because they know where it came from, who gave it to them, and what marriage is for. They have a theological marriage and that is what marriage was always intended to be. Marriage from God, by God, and for God will always be the happiest and the most fruitful marriage for us.