Matthew 5:31-32
Marital Fidelity, Divorce & Re-Marriage

Two American academics — Dr David Buss of Bradley University, Illinois, and Dr David Schmitt, of the University of Texas at Austin — have been studying the sexual habits of men and women in the Western world. Their research has shown that a latter-day Casanova is more likely to be found haunting the streets and amusement arcades of Margate than the waterways and squares of Venice. For the British, it appears, are the most skilled poachers of wives, husbands and partners, and are adept at taking other people's spouses and making them their own. Buss and Schmitt, having completed their survey of 40 countries, have demonstrated that a third of British men are living with women whose affections they have seized from someone else. British women behave in a similar way — almost 30 per cent have lured their regular sexual partner away from an established relationship. This report is different from previous ones in that the American doctors are talking about — as Nancy Mitford would have said — bolters rather than transient adulterers. The modern sexually predatory British are not like their wicked Edwardian ancestors, who were content to borrow and share a wife or husband, as their King did, but intend to take them for all time, like marauding Vikings.

Fifty years ago a latter-day Don Juan could offer the inevitable defence heard in the magistrates court by a joy rider who has stolen a car. "Your Worship, my client pleads that he had no intention of keeping this car. It was just that he had an immediate need to drive it and fully intended to return it in good order to its rightful owner." Stuttaford says his experience as a GP confirms the academics' observations. When I started in practice 40 years ago it did seem, as Buss and Schmitt suggest, that men and women did not commonly intend to break up established unions, and the attendant families.

But men of that generation could be fairly ruthless. Fifty years ago transient infidelity was not a sin that most husbands and wives would consider so heinous that, in isolation, it was a justifiable cause to end a marriage or long- lasting liaison. Divorce and remarriage were far too fundamental a step to make it a likely conclusion to an affair.

Television and Hollywood films have influenced modern British marital mores and have sent people, at the first whiff of an affair, scurrying off to the divorce courts without regard to the mayhem that this will cause to their families. No one gains from this resurgence of puritanism other than the lawyers who service the divorce and juvenile courts. I sense that, as regards infidelity, there has been little change in behaviour over the past 50 to 70 years. The difference is that now we are less discreet and no longer accord marriage and a comparatively stable family life such importance. The tragedy is that the earlier British tolerance, which kept families together despite the weaknesses of human nature, has been undermined by Hollywood sentimentality and idealism. (Cover more of the report tonight)

The trauma of divorce is something that has probably affected every family present here in some way or another. It may have impacted you personally, or a member of your family. At the very least we will know a friend who has suffered the trauma. The many confused and conflicting ideas in our day about the grounds for divorce and re-marriage have caused much guilt, heartache and sadness, not least to any children caught in the middle. But the confusion on this subject lies not with God but with us. What ever may be the current state of the Law on divorce in Britain or the mixed and confusing signals given by the Church of England, God's will has always been the same since the beginning of time, and His will is clear in Scripture. The problem is that when we read God's Word through the lenses of our own preconceptions or carnal dispositions, a confused and perplexing picture is often the only possible outcome. And much unnecessary self-imposed pain and guilt is suffered as a result. The last thing I wish to do this morning is to inflict any more. Instead, my prayer is that as we examine God's Word, any remaining confusion will evaporate and any unresolved pain will be dissolved by the grace and mercy of a loving God who cares for His children.

The commands in Scripture were given to protect us from harm and provide for our future. There are four basic interpretations of the biblical data on divorce and remarriage. The strictest view is that divorce is not permissible under any circumstance. Or for any reason. The liberal view contends that both divorce and remarriage are permissible for any reason. The other two views lie between these extremes. The third view is that divorce is permitted under certain circumstances but remarriage is never permitted. The fourth is that both divorce and remarriage are permitted under certain circumstances. The Bible actually teaches only one of those four possibilities, and that view is taught by Jesus here in Matthew 5:31–32, repeated in Matthew 19:1-9 and amplified in 1 Cor 7. Like many people today, the Jews of Jesus' day, had developed their own standards for divorce and remarriage—which the Pharisees taught as God's Word.

In this passage Jesus continues to correct the erroneous doctrines and practices of the rabbinic traditions and to replace them with God's truth. Theoretically no nation ever had a higher ideal of marriage. It was a sacred duty which a Jew was bound to take. The only reason a Jew could delay getting married was if he was studying the Law. If a man refused to marry and have children it was said he had broken the positive commandment given in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply. The tragedy was that in practice this high view of marriage had been abandoned. It had a lot to do with the low view with which women were held in Jewish society. The woman was at the absolute disposal of her father or husband. She had no legal rights. She could be divorced for all manner of reasons.

There were 2 schools of interpretation, the Shammai were strict arguing divorce was only permitted on the grounds of adultery. The school of Hillel said that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, went in public with her head covered, if she talked to other men in the street, or if she was rude to his parents, and one Rabbi Akiba said that divorce was permissible if a man found another woman more attractive than his wife. Human nature being what it is it is obvious which school of thought became popular among men. In the days of Jesus then, quick, "no-fault" divorces were as easy to obtain as today with the same destructive effects on family life. Lets turn to the text.

And it was said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal"; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Notice Jesus makes a stark contrast between what He says, and how the Law had been interpreted. "you have heard it said...""But I tell you" If we are to take Jesus words in their simplest and most literal sense he is saying that the marriage bond is for life and there are no grounds for divorce other than marital unfaithfulness. It is clear then that Jesus was disagreeing with just about everybody in his stand for the sanctity of marriage, and the equality of the sexes. When he repeats His stipulation that divorce is permissible but only on the grounds of unfaithfulness its not surprising that his disciples are astounded. It is as hard now as it was then for people to stomach, both inside and outside the church.

So Jesus says to you and I, as he did to those first hearers, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given, the one who can accept this should accept it." Where does that leave those who are divorced and those who have remarried? Some have initiated divorces, some had no choice, some desired it, some did not, some were divorced before they came to know Christ, others since.

Some have been divorced by non-christian husbands and wives, others by believers, some have been divorced for reasons Jesus appeared to allow, some for reasons he did not. In all our relationships whether single, married, divorced or remarried we start by recognising that we all fall short of Gods standards. In all our relationships we are continually in need of His cleansing, forgiveness and redirection.

From that common starting point, recognising we are all sinners, forgiven, I want us to understand this passage in the light of the Old and the New Testament's teaching on marital fidelity, divorce and re-marriage. Lets start with the OT.

1. The Teaching of the Old Testament
(Deut. 24:1-4)
And it was said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal"; The Bible's teaching on divorce, in this case from Deut. 24 cannot be understood apart from its teaching on marriage. At the creation God declared, "For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (Gen.2:24).

Marriage was God's plan, not man's, and in the deepest sense every couple that has ever been married, whether believers or not, participates in a union established by the Creator Himself. Marriage is God's institution. From the beginning, God intended monogamous, life–long marriage to be the only pattern of union between men and women. "Cleave to" carries the idea of firm, permanent attachment, as in gluing.

In marriage a man and woman are so closely joined that they become "one flesh." This involves spiritual as well as physical oneness. In marriage God brings a husband and wife together in a unique physical and spiritual bond that reaches to the very depths of their souls. As God designed it, marriage is to be the welding of two people together into one unit, the blending of two minds, two wills, two sets of emotions, two spirits.

It is a bond the Lord intends to be indissoluble as long as both partners are alive. One of the most immediate and damaging consequences of the Fall was the destruction of the blissful, loving, and caring relationship between husband and wife. The Fall distorted and perverted the marriage relationship. At the Fall the battle of the sexes began. Women's liberation and male chauvinism have ever since been clouding and corrupting the divine plan for marriage. One of the most tragic consequences of that battle is the tendency to divorce.

In light of God's perfect plan for marriage divorce is like cutting off your arm or leg because you have a splinter in it. Instead of dealing with whatever trouble arises between husband and wife, divorce tries to solve the problem by destroying the union. On an even deeper level, divorce destroys a union that God Himself has made. That is why Jesus said unequivocally, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matt. 19:6). The union of marriage is one which God, as its Creator, never desires to be broken.

Divorce is a denial of His will and a destruction of His work. The seriousness with which God takes marriage is seen in the penalty for adultery. All illicit sexual activity that involved married persons was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10–14).

The Pharisees used an erroneous interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to defend their idea of divorce, conveniently interpreting that passage as a command for divorce (Matt. 19:7). In fact, the passage neither commands nor condones divorce. It simply recognizes it as a reality.

Far from encouraging divorce, most references to divorce in the Old Testament put restrictions on it. In the Old Testament, therefore, God does not condone or bless divorce. The entire book of Hosea is a picture of God's forgiving and patient love for Israel, dramatized by Hosea's forgiving and patient love for his wife, Gomer. She had forsaken Hosea, and was unfaithful to him in every possible way. But the heart of the story is that Hosea was faithful and forgiving no matter what she did, just as God is faithful and forgiving no matter what His people do.

God looks on the union of husband and wife in the same way He looks on the union of Himself with believers. And the way of God should be the way of His people—to love, forgive, draw back, and seek to restore the partner who is willing to be restored. Although Hosea's and Gomer's marriage is primarily a symbol of God's relationship to His people Israel, it is also an apt illustration of how to deal with a wayward but repentant marriage partner. God's forgiving love seeks to hold the union together. That is certainly Christ's attitude in His relationship to the church. He repeatedly forgives His bride and never casts her away (Eph. 5:22–23). There must be forgiving love and restoring grace in a marriage. That alone makes marriage a proper symbol of God's forgiving love and restoring grace.

That is the magnificence of marriage. To pursue divorce, except in certain limited circumstances, is to miss the whole point of God's dramatization in the story of Hosea and Gomer, the whole point of our Lord's love for His church, and thus the whole point of marriage. God hates divorce.

2. The Teaching of Jesus
(Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-12)

but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5:31–32)

Jesus affirms exactly what Moses taught in Deuteronomy 24:1–4—that unjustified divorce inevitably leads to adultery. To the legalistic, self–righteous scribes and Pharisees Jesus was saying,

"You consider yourselves to be great teachers and keepers of the law, but by allowing no–fault divorce you have caused a great blight of adultery to contaminate God's people. By lowering God's standards to meet your own, you have led many people into sin and judgment."

The Pharisees interpreted Moses' instructions to mean, "If you find something distasteful about your wife, divorce her." They saw the paperwork as the only issue. Jesus knew their warped interpretation and thus confronted them. Jesus confronted them with a proper interpretation of God's law. Where divorce is permitted, remarriage is permitted. But where divorce is not permitted, neither is remarriage.

To do so initiates a whole chain of adultery, because remarriage after illegitimate divorce results in illegitimate relationships for all parties involved. When the detrimental effects on children, other relatives, and society in general are added, we see that few practices match divorce for destructiveness. It not only causes further sin but also confusion, resentment, hatred, bitterness, despair, conflict, and financial hardships. On the Rictor scale of traumatic experiences divorce almost ranks with bereavement in severity. In Matthew 19 Jesus quotes God's declaration in Genesis that "For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh". "Consequently," He goes on to say, "they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (v. 6).

The Pharisees' response, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?" (v. 7) again betrayed their misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4. Jesus had to explain, "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way" (v. 8). God never "commanded" divorce but only "permitted" it as a concession not a command. The condition "except for unchastity" is the only grounds for divorce that Jesus recognizes here. So it is clear, Jesus gives no more approval for divorce than did Moses. The Old Testament ideal has not been changed. The permissions for divorce in the Old Testament economy were designed to meet the unique, practical problems of an imperfect, sinful people. God never condoned divorce, because what He joins together is not to be separated by man (Matt. 19:6). Adultery, another reality that God never intended, is the only thing that can break the bond of marriage. For Two reasons: First, under the Old Testament law, adultery automatically annuled a marriage by creating a new sexual union in its place. Contemporary Jewish law, demanded the termination of the marriage for this reason. Second, adultery would necessarily dissolve a marriage, simply because the guilty party was put to death (Lev. 20:10). Under both forms of termination, the innocent party was free to marry in the same way that a widow could.

Because Jesus specifically mentions divorce being permissible rather than commanded on the ground of adultery (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), and because He also specifically says that He did not come to contradict or annul the least part of the Law (5:18–19), it seems evident that sometime during Israel's history divorce was allowed to take the place of execution as the legitimate penalty for adultery.

Certainly by Jesus day, under Roman Law, Jews were not allowed to exact the death penalty. Because Matthew 5:31–32 focuses on marriage and divorce, the primary unchastity involved here would be adultery. But the word "porneia" also included incest, prostitution, homosexuality, and bestiality—all of the sexual acts for which the Old Testament equally demanded the death penalty (Lev. 20:10–14). In other words, any of these perverted sexual activities was a permissible ground for divorce. Jesus does not advocate divorce in such cases, much less demand it.

He simply says that divorce and remarriage on any other grounds always leads to adultery. Jesus sets the record straight that God still hates divorce. His ideal is still monogamous, life–long marriage. But as a concession to sin and as a gracious provision for those who are innocent of defiling the marriage, He allows divorce on the single ground of unchastity. The innocent party who has made every effort to maintain the marriage is free to remarry, if his or her spouse insists on continued adultery or divorce.

In this Jesus is not introducing a new provision. In sanctioning divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery Jesus was making explicit what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted. Jesus is instead calling for the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation in a marriage which the coldness and harshness of the Scribal interpretation of the Law had ruled out in their zeal to justify their own behaviour. There is one further ground for divorce allowed in the New Testament which recognises the unique struggle Christians were facing in living out their new faith in a hostile, largely pagan society.

3. The New Testament (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul adds one more legitimate ground for divorce and remarriage.

"But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away" (7:12–13).

"Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace" (v. 15).

The Greek word translated "leave" was often used for divorce. Similarly the word "not bound" is used a little later in 7:39 and in other places to describe the widow who is also no longer bound, but free to marry. If an unbelieving spouse deserts or divorces a believer, they may regard the marriage as dead and free to remarry.

God allows divorce in such a case of desertion because He has called us to peace. When an unbeliever wants out of a marriage, the peace no longer depends on the Christian. If the unbelieving husband or wife cannot tolerate the spouse's faith and desires to be free from the union, it is better that the marriage be dissolved in order to preserve the peace of His child. Again, it is a concession. "If possible," Paul says in Romans, "so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (12:18). So, to summarize, In God's sight the bond between a husband and wife is for life and is dissolved only by death (Rom. 7:2), by adultery (Matt. 19:9), and by an unbeliever's leaving (1 Cor. 7:15). When the bond, or bondage, is broken in any of these ways, a Christian is free to remarry. Throughout Scripture, whenever legitimate divorce occurs, remarriage is assumed. Where divorce is permitted, remarriage is permitted. Read Matthew 19:11, 12b.

Lets apply this passage a little more specifically.

1. If you are contemplating an immoral relationship
My advice to you is don't. Its worse than self-inflicted mutilation. It will bring guilt and shame. It will hurt those you love and destroy your marriage. You may be able to hide it from most people for some while, but not from God. Sooner or later, like Lord Archer or Bill Clinton, whether here on earth or on the day of judgement it will be exposed. And you need to know before you start what the cost will be. Galatians 6:7-8 says,

"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
" (Galatians 6:7-8)

2. If you are in an immoral relationship
My advice to you is get out quick. The consequences will be worse than terminal cancer. It may not destroy your body but it will destroy your reputation and your self esteem and unless you repent, it will destroy your soul.

"The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; [20] idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

3. If you are contemplating divorce
My advice to you is think long and hard about it. Seek the help of a neutral third part. Try conciliation. God hates divorce. God is in the reconstruction business. There is always hope.

4. If you find yourself divorced
My advice is accept it. What ever part you played in it. If you cannot change the past you can learn from it. Accept it and move on. Determin to experience God's love and forgiveness and seek his perfect will for your future.

5. If you know someone whose marriage is under threat
Pray for them. Invite them to seek counselling. David and I are available in total confidence. Give them this book. Rob Parson's "60 minute marriage". Its brilliant.

Material used in this sermon drawn with grateful thanks from John McArthur's commentary on Matthew.