Sermon preached on Matthew 5:31-32 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/4/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Whoever Divorces His Wife”
We considered this passage last week, and come now this week to look more specifically at verses 31-32. These deal with the subject of divorce and remarriage. By the way, remember where we are at in this sermon series. We are studying the Sermon on the Mount. We saw Jesus in verse 20 critiquing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees — that their righteousness was insufficient. We noted that Jesus then gives six examples in the rest of the chapter of how they had misapplied the law of God, resulting in this insufficient righteousness. We’ve been preaching through then these six examples. This is the third of the six examples when we talk about divorce and remarriage. Though to be clear, Jesus actually pairs this with what we looked last week — about committing adultery with our eyes and heart. Jesus understands this as an application of the command, “You shall not commit adultery.” Well, Jesus actually is continuing today to deal with that same command about adultery. That prohibition of adultery not only extends to what you do with your eyes and heart. That prohibition of adultery also speaks to the issues of divorce and remarriage. So then, we will consider this subject today. We’ll think about how Christ’s kingdom righteousness bears upon marriages in this way.
Let’s begin then by observing Jesus’ general teachings on divorce and remarriage. To say it simply, Jesus is saying that, in general, divorce is not something to be done. It’s just not to be an option, generally speaking. You should not divorce your spouse. That’s Christ’s righteousness — you don’t divorce your spouse. Now, yes, Jesus does give one exception to this. You can legitimately divorce your spouse if they commit sexual immorality against you. In other words, if they commit an explicit act of adultery against you, you then have legitimate grounds to divorce them, whether they want a divorce or not. To clarify, this does not say you must divorce them in that case, but that is the only reason Jesus says you have to divorce your spouse. Otherwise, you are to stay married to them. That’s Christ’s righteousness. If you divorce them otherwise, Jesus is saying here that you are violating the spirit of the command of “You shall not commit adultery.”
Let me explain this further by stating that the reasoning for this is that God’s definition of marriage is that it is something that is lifelong: “Till death do we part.” Jesus explains his reasoning for this in Matthew 19. There he points back to how God instituted marriage with Adam and Eve. Jesus talks about in Matthew 19:5-6 that the man and woman are being joined together and becoming one flesh. He concludes this by saying, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” In other words, Jesus is saying that God designed and instituted marriage. That God intended for it to be a lifelong commitment. And that divorce is therefore, generally speaking, an immoral, unrighteous, thing. This explains why sexual immorality is the only exception that Jesus gives here. Sexual immorality is when the spouse goes and becomes one flesh with someone else outside of the marriage covenant. That has violated the heart of the marriage covenant. It’s that sinning spouse then who has already broken the marriage covenant in their affair. They’ve committed the adultery, breaking the marriage bond.
That being said, Jesus doesn’t focus on that one exception here. He rather gives an example to make sure they really understand what he’s getting at. Look at verse 32. He says there that if you divorce your wife then, apart from this one exception, then you are causing her to become an adulteress. Let me clarify what the original language seems to be conveying here; it can sound a bit confusing. The idea here is that you divorce your spouse without biblical justification, then presumably they will want to get remarried. When they do that, they are in a sense committing adultery then in God’s eyes. Because in God’s eyes they are still married, because there weren’t legitimate reasons for getting a divorce.
Some people think this is rather harsh to say it this way, because it makes it sound like the victim is the one being scolded here. In other words, if you do this evil by divorcing your spouse, they are the victim, but then it mentions how that victim can end up sinning by remarrying in the aftermath. But shouldn’t the blame go on the one doing the divorcing, and not on the person who got divorced in this evil way? Well, rest assured, the blame does also and especially go on the one doing the divorcing. In fact, Jesus says that explicitly in Matthew 19:9. That the divorcer commits adultery by divorcing his spouse. So, both are true. You sin by divorcing your spouse and then remarrying another. And your spouse sins even when you divorce them and they immediately remarry another — obviously things change if the divorcing spouse gets remarried first or otherwise commits sexuality immorality after that divorce, that would then otherwise free the divorced spouse based on the exception Jesus gives here. But the point here by Jesus isn’t really so much about the divorced person, in other words about the victim, but about the divorcer. It’s about how you can even cause your spouse to sin by divorcing them. And Jesus teaches elsewhere says that it’s really bad to cause someone else to sin. In other words, the emphasis here isn’t on blaming the victim. It’s that when you sinfully divorce your spouse, you can be causing them to sin, and it’s really bad to cause someone else to sin.
Well, Jesus teaching here actually takes this one step further. Read further in verse 32. He says that if you marry someone who was not legitimately divorced, you have also committed adultery. Again, the same point seems to be here. If the person does not have a legitimate divorce, then in God’s eyes they are still bound in that marriage covenant. Consequently, if you marry them, you are committing adultery.
Let me step back and make another important observation here. This teaching by Jesus here seems to particularly have in mind marriage and divorce and remarriage among professing believers. Jesus is teaching here to the visible church at the time. He’s dealing with how the people within the church handle marriage and divorce and remarriage. By extension, Christians are not to divorce each other, save for sexual immorality. Making this distinction is helpful, because Paul offers some complementary teaching on this in 1 Corinthians 7. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, it talks about the situation of divorce. Paul says that you should not divorce your spouse, just like Jesus is talking about here. In context, Paul is clearly speaking this to Christians. They are not to divorce their spouse. Paul then says that they if do nonetheless separate, these two Christians then should either remain unmarried or else be reconciled together. This fits well with Jesus’ teaching. Because if one of them did get remarried in that circumstance, that would be adultery, because they didn’t have grounds for a biblical divorce.
What is interesting there in 1 Corinthians 7, is that Paul distinguishes between this as it pertains to Christians being married, and with the situation when a Christian finds themselves married to a non-Christian. It says that in such circumstances, the Christian should still not divorce their non-Christian spouse. However, if the non-Christians spouses decides to divorce them, then so be it. Paul says the believer is not enslaved in that situation. In other words, it seems to mean that the Christian would then be freed from their marriage commitment and able to remarry, but of course, they should only marry a fellow Christian then.
And so Jesus’ point here is to talk about the importance of marriage. Divine righteousness is to see it as a lifelong commitment and covenant between a man and a woman. Man many try to make up many reasons why someone can get a divorce, but any reason other than the case of sexual immorality is just another way to commit adultery. That’s his basic teaching here.
That being said, let’s make sure we understand why Jesus is even talking about this right here. How does this relate to the lacking righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, verse 31 clues us in on this. Jesus quotes this saying of old, that “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” You see, we learn from several other passages in the gospels, that the scribes and Pharisees were taking a passage from Deuteronomy 24 and misapplying it. We read this passage earlier in the service. By doing so, they were yet again advocating a righteousness that fell short of divine righteousness.
Let me then explain how Jesus’ teaching here explains the way that they had misunderstood and misapplied the Mosaic provisions for a certificate of divorce. First, note that Deuteronomy 24 does not exactly state what verse 31 says. In other words, this saying is not a direct quote from Deuteronomy. And yet it seems that during Jesus’ day the scribes and Pharisees were basically advocating that you could get rid of your wife, for virtually any reason, as long as you gave her a certificate of divorce. But if you read Deuteronomy 24’s teaching about the certificate of divorce, that’s just not what it says. Now to be fair, Deuteronomy 24 does envision a situation when someone divorces his wife because of some displeasing thing he found in her. It doesn’t go into much detail about the reason, other than it was some “uncleanness” in her. That being said, the command of Deuteronomy 24 is not, “You shall give her a certificate of divorce”. The command is that if you do, and she goes and gets remarried after that, and then later on gets divorced or her new husband dies, then the original husband can never take her back again.
In other words, when you read Deuteronomy 24, it is not advocating getting divorced for any reason, nor is it even advocating the use of certificates of divorce. Now, to be fair, it’s not prohibiting divorces. And to be fair, it does seem to imply that if one was to divorce their wife, it would be normal to express that with a certificate of divorce. That being said, it is not advocating easy divorce. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. The command of Deuteronomy 24 is actually to get someone to think very seriously about a divorce before doing it, because it is saying that you won’t be able to get your wife back later if she goes and gets remarried. It’s a warning of the consequences of someone’s actions in divorce. For that matter, I heard a rabbi speak once on this Deuteronomy provision and point out how this would have protected the people from essentially engaging in a form of wife swapping back and forth through marriage, divorce, and remarriage, thinking they are doing it in a legitimate way, when that would be promoting great promiscuity and uncleanness in the land. And so the Deuteronomy provision was actually to heighten the seriousness of divorce and provide limitation on remarriage.
But that’s not how the scribes and Pharisees were interpreting it. You can read more on this in Matthew 19 where Jesus dialogues with them further about this exact subject. It seems they basically turned the Deuteronomy provision into something which they thought gave them license to divorce for whatever reason, as long as they issued a certificate of divorce. Jesus’ response in Matthew 19 is basically that the mention of a certificate of divorce was a kind of concession in the law, not something being advocated. In Matthew 19:8 he says that Moses gave this provision to the people because of the hardness of men’s hearts. In other words, Jesus is saying that this provision was given in light of men’s evil propensity to divorce their wives; in such a circumstance their ability to later remarry them was being greatly limited. They could only later remarry their former wife, if she hadn’t in the mean time married anyone else. So, in other words, the scribes and Pharisees had misinterpreted Deuteronomy 24, and thus misapplied it. So then, how would they have known that Jesus’ interpretation was correct? Well, Jesus explains how. Jesus in Matthew 19 goes on to teach God’s intention for marriage out of Genesis. Jesus says that if you see what God’s plan was from marriage from elsewhere in Scripture, you wouldn’t have misinterpreted Deuteronomy 24. Scripture interprets Scripture. Good hermeneutics are needed when dealing with God’s laws. That’s imperative if you are going to go beyond just the letter of the law to its spirit. Of course in this case, it seems they missed both actually!
Stepping back then, I might ask, why did the scribes and Pharisees want to interpret Deuteronomy 24 like this? Were they really just trying to interpret and apply Scripture rightly? Well, Jesus refers to their hard hearts in Matthew 19, and that seems to be the answer to that. In their hardness of hearts, they wanted a way to get out of their marriage commitments whenever it didn’t suit them. They wanted a way to not have to honor their covenant with their spouse. But that is a great evil to God. In Malachi 2:14, God speaks against this sort of thing. He said the people who do such things are being faithless to the wife of their youth, even though she is their wife by covenant. Malachi shows their how much God despised such wretchedness on the part of husbands in treating their wives this way.
And so in Malachi’s day this was a problem. And during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry it was a problem. And it certainly continues to be a problem today, and not just among the heathen. Within the visible church, there is shockingly still much divorce for apparently unbiblical reasons. And in our culture such divorce is increasingly seen as no big deal. The law in California essentially provides for a no-fault divorce system. But Jesus tells us here that there is no such thing as a no-fault divorce. At least one of the parties, if not both, is at fault. There is no such thing as a no-fault divorce. Period. California can tell you that there is. But that is not God’s perspective. Christ puts such in the category of adultery. It’s not the righteousness that is greater than the scribes and Pharisees. It’s actually pretty similar to their righteousness, frankly, in that regard.
In light of all this teaching on marriage and divorce, it is wonderful to see how elsewhere in Scripture, we are told that the relationship of Christ and the church can be described in terms of a marriage. Ephesians 5 is one example. There Christ is called as the betrothed husband of the church, which is its bride. And how is that we came to be the bride of Christ? Ephesians says that he gave himself up for us. The start of this marriage-like relationship with Christ is founded in his sacrifice for us. And why did he have to die for us? Because of our sin. Because of our all uncleanness. Because of the sins and spiritual adulteries we have done to God. But Jesus from the start of our relationship gave up his life because of how unworthy we are. So he could be wed to us. And then as the time of betrothal continues, even before we are fully consummated in our marriage, as we further show uncleannesses, does Jesus then just send us away, writing us off with a certificate of divorce? No! Because of his great love for us, Ephesians 5 goes on to talk about the washing he is doing in us, in order to prepare us for the final consummation. That when he finally presents us to himself on that great wedding day, that we would be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we would be holy and without blemish. This is the promise of Scripture for all who have come to be united to Christ by faith. And God is faithful, he will keep his word, to finish that good work that he has begun in us.
This means that there is hope for sinners. Hope even for sinners who have in the past committed adultery in the forms described in today’s passage. There is forgiveness and healing in Christ. These are often the sins that have hurt the worst. Maybe we got a divorce because it seemed so right at the time, but it turned out to be so painful. The time has surely left you scarred. And yet there is grace from God that can even heal these wounds. For God’s people, Christ’s grace is greater than all our sins.
As we close for today, I encourage us to be renewed in the righteousness of faithfulness. God has been faithful to save us, as promised from all the way back at the fall. God continues to be faithful, true to his word and all his covenant promises. That overjoys us, because we look forward to the final fulfillment of those. Let us in turn see the call for such righteousness. That’s the call again to the Christian today. Having known this great salvation, we are called again today to grow as Christ’s disciple in his righteousness. That includes then the call to be faithful to your commitments. We’ve seen that applied to our marriages today. But this is an idea that transcends just marriage. You don’t have to be married or engaged today to walk away with this call to being a person of integrity and faithfulness. Be true to your word. Be true to the commitments and covenants you will make in this life. Even when they are difficult. Do so, because Christ has been true to his word and covenant to you. And do so, knowing that as you do, it is the Spirit of Christ’s faithfulness shining through you as his disciple. Praise be to God. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.