My sermon title today is “Marriage, Divorce, and Severed Body Parts”. I want to be upfront in letting you know that this is not a sermon about getting revenge for a bad marriage.
Today we are going to look once again at a couple of subjects that Jesus is going to clarify for us. He takes the Biblical commands about adultery and divorce and helps us to see beyond the commands themselves, to the heart of God. These are powerful words and we must carefully listen and hear what is being said. We must also note what is NOT being said. Often when hard words are spoken, we want to put our fingers in our ears and make a lot of noise so we don’t hear what is being said. But it is important that we hear.
Let’s look first at the issue of adultery. It is an issue of vital importance today because most of us know someone who has been unfaithful to their spouse.
Defining Adultery Biblically
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Adultery, narrowly defined means a married person has a sexual relationship with someone (either married or unmarried) who is not their spouse. Even in our sexually promiscuous day we still recognize adultery as betrayal and as something wrong. In the Old Testament Law, adultery was punishable by death. God made adultery a capital offense because of the corrosive effect that it has on all of society.
Jesus expanded the definition of adultery. He said if you even have feelings of lust after someone, you have “in a sense” committed adultery with them. By lusting we have, if you will, welcomed the disease of infidelity whether we ultimately act on it or not. Once again we need to point out that lusting is not the same as adultery but it is a “lower form of adultery’) Jesus is saying they are related.
So, if we extend this principle it would seem that flirting with someone who is not your spouse, texting in a suggestive manner, long playful conversations on the phone, or even meetings with someone who is not your spouse would be a violation of this principle. You can add any kind of pornography to this list. Even if you are lusting for someone you do not know you are taking steps toward adultery and unfaithfulness in your marriage.
Ask any spouse of a person who does these things, and they will tell that it sure feels like you are being cheated on. It feels like something that should be given to you is being given to someone else.
If you confront your mate on these things they might say, “But we haven’t slept together!” or “I have never been unfaithful to you.” And what they mean is that they have never crossed the line of physically engaging with another person. They have not “technically” been unfaithful. It is to that mentality that Jesus is speaking!
God is not merely concerned with the outward act. He is concerned also with the seeds of that act.
Let’s put in another way. A Doctor does not wait until cancer has metastasized before labeling it a problem. As soon as any indicators of cancer reveal themselves they must be addressed. This is what Jesus is doing. He is pointing out that lust is the first sign of the cancer of adultery.
So, you should never give what you should be giving to your spouse, to someone who is not your spouse. This includes quality time, attention, flirting, texting, online chat rooms and so on.
One commentator writes,
Jesus explained that adultery begins in the heart that harbors lust. To simply avoid the act of adultery but to have a mind filled with lustful thoughts and desires for someone else misses the point of God’s law.
To be faithful to your spouse with your body but not your mind is to break the trust so vital to a strong marriage. Jesus was not condemning natural interest in the opposite sex or even healthy sexual desire, but the deliberate and repeated filling of one’s mind with fantasies that would be evil if acted out.
Severed Body Parts
After this exhortation to be faithful to your spouse in each and every capacity; Jesus takes a big step forward. He says this is so important that,
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
To say this is extreme would be an understatement. If we obeyed this literally, most everyone would be mutilated in some form. However, Jesus is using hyperbole to make the point: strong marriages are essential to a strong society. Therefore anything that appears to be “termite like” in our faithfulness to marriage should be addressed quickly and decisively!
We should pursue purity with more intensity than we pursue weight loss, job advancement, success for our children, riches, politics or sports.
In Proverbs 4:23 we read,
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. (emphasis mine)
Job (who was considered the most righteous man on earth) tells us in Job 31:1
“I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.
Jesus encourages us to take holiness seriously. He challenges us to follow the Lord with our whole heart. This sounds a lot easier than it is. We live in a world where we face enticements to lust everywhere we look. Much of the advertising we are exposed to is playing on our lusts. The same is true for television programs and movies. Things are becoming more and more explicit. Pornography is just a click away. Lust has become “natural”. Adultery is dangled in front us with exhausting regularity.
It is easy to sound righteous when we talk like this but the fact is that the people of the church face these same temptations. Many have fallen.
The challenge then is this: We must proclaim the truth even while showing compassion for those in the midst of the struggle or have fallen.
When we see these compromises in our lives we need to repent and turn to the Lord. In many cases we will need to ask for help to overcome the lust that burns within us. Pornography is a serious problem that needs serious attention. You would not play games with cancer in your body. You likewise should not play games with cancer in your soul.
We have to face something: If we are not going to be faithful in our marriages it is hard to believe we can or will be faithful in any other area.
Divorce and Remarriage
This leads us straight into the next section of the text. The reality is that people get divorced. Because of this, Jesus is asked about the issue of divorce. He said,
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
This passage has caused a great deal of concern and pain to many who have been divorced. It appears that Jesus is saying, “If you get a divorce, you cannot be remarried because to do so is to commit adultery.” The rationale is simple: even though the state has declared that you are no longer legally married, the Lord has not dissolved the marriage.
The text that Jesus quotes about the certificate of divorce is from Deuteronomy 24,
“Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. 2 When she leaves his house, she is free to marry another man.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2)
When Jesus was asked specifically about this text and how it relates to marriage and divorce Jesus said,
4 “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ 5 And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ 6 Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
7 “Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked.
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. 9 And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful.” (Matthew 19:4-9)
Jesus said the provision in the Law for divorce was given as a way of regulating a practice that was taking place but was not God’s design. It was never God’s design for marriage. God designed marriage to be permanent yet the Pharisees were known for their “loophloles” when it came to divorce. Jesus refuses to get into an argument with these guys. Instead of teaching about divorce, He was teaching us about marriage.
I think in reality Jesus said, “You guys are looking for reasons you can use to divorce your spouse. In this discussion Jesus turns the table on them. He says in essence, “You guys are asking the wrong question. The right question would be: “What can we do to strengthen our marriage?” not “Under what conditions can we get divorced.””
Jesus understood that giving any ground on this issue would encourage divorce. We have seen this in our own day. When “irreconcilable differences” became a grounds for divorce the divorce rate skyrocketed. Anytime it gets easier to get a divorce there will be more divorces. So Jesus wasn’t going to talk about when you could divorce, He talked instead about commitment in marriage.
The reality we must deal with is this: People do get divorced. It was happening even back in the time of Jesus. How do we deal with this reality? Is divorce the unpardonable sin? Does someone who has been divorced have to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives? Must the failure of their relationship restrict them forever?
In answering the question we face the same dilemma as Jesus. By extending grace to those who have faced the heartache of divorce are we encouraging divorce? That is something we must not do.
This is true in all situations of sin. We are told to be perfect as the Father is perfect. If we lessen that standard we encourage people to think that some sin is acceptable. It is not. When we make allowances for lying, stealing, or even negotiating the Sabbath we water down the truth of God’s Word. The more we make allowances, the more we may be guilty of encouraging sin. That’s what makes discussion of divorce so difficult.
However, at the same time we must recognize that the gospel is about grace and forgiveness. It is about recognizing the sin, failure, and brokenness of our lives and finding atonement in the cross of Jesu
So when it comes to divorce this is where I think we end up,
- Divorce is always sin. It is a violation of God’s design. It is a failure to live up to the vows that we declared. Before we can know God’s forgiveness we must admit that our divorce is a perversion of God’s design.
Many who find themselves in “the club no one wants to join”, understand this completely. They know why God hates divorce . . .for the same reason they do. It takes the family unity that had previously seen two become one seamlessly not has torn what is One in two. It is painful to the individuals involved, and to any family or friends associated with them. Any person who treats divorce as a casual thing should never remarry because their view of the sanctity of marriage is skewed.
- Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. Like every other sin, if we confess this sin and do so sincerely with a broken and sorrowful heart, The Lord will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
- If we are thus cleansed and forgiven, then we are no longer viewed by God in terms of our failure (divorce). Because of this I believe God allows you to be remarried under certain conditions.
First, you must address the problems and failures of the first marriage. Second, you must only marry another believer. The command not to be unequally joined together with unbelievers is not invalidated in a second marriage. In fact, I believe it becomes all the more important. There is a great deal of baggage that goes with marriage after divorce. It will be vital to have the central presence of the Holy Spirit in that marriage.
This is a difficult issue. It is an issue with which Christians and churches have struggled since these words of Jesus were spoken. In the Bible when Jesus encountered people who had been divorced (the Woman at the Well) or even people who had been sexually promiscuous (the woman caught in adultery). He didn’t focus on their sinful acts; He focused on the desperate need of their heart. I think we would be wise to do the same.
Our job is to pursue the design of God. We are called to give our heart and our attention and our affection to our spouse. We are to be committed in our marriages and make every effort possible to save that which may be struggling. The church must be the voice for permanence in marriage as much as we are a voice for marriage being a union between a man and a woman. We can’t consistently argue for the Biblical definition of marriage in one situation and disregard it in the other.
Having become a lighthouse, if you will, for permanence in marriage between a man and a woman, we can now provide rescue and care for those who have experienced the shipwreck of divorce. Our job as followers of Christ is to extend mercy and grace to those who hurt.
One of the ways we show mercy, grace, and love to those who have been divorced is to love them and help them to build a new life. And if that new life involves another person (remarriage), then we should encourage them and counsel them to pursue a marriage that is in line with what God created marriage to be.
It is a difficult line to walk. And truthfully we are called to walk it in many different areas. We do not negotiate the fact that some things are sin. But we also point to Jesus and remind each other that Jesus died for sin. All sin. Even the sin of divorce.
 Bruce B. Barton, Matthew, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 96.