Jesus went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea. Large crowds followed Him. The Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
“What therefore, God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” These are the words that end the most common form of marriage service used in Christian churches. But men are “putting asunder,” as are women. The statistics tell us that nearly one in two marriages taking place in the United States today ends in divorce, and the statistics are not much better for Christian marriages. We see the evidence of decay all around us. What are we to make of these statistics, especially when we turn to the Bible and find that God requires chastity before marriage, fidelity afterward, and lifelong unions of wives and husbands without easy divorce as an escape?
When we compare our practices with God’s standards, we might very well exclaim, as the disciples do in Matthew 19, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v.10).
But it is good to marry! The problem is not with the institution of marriage since marriage is God’s idea. It was God who brought the first bride to the first groom in Eden, after all. Everything God does is good. The problem is sin, or to put it another way, the problem is with our own hard hearts. Jesus says, referring to the Old Testament law about divorce, “Moses permitted you to divorce…But it was not this way from the beginning.”
I am sure this is why, in Matthew’s Gospel, the long discussion of divorce immediately follows the equally long discussion of the need of Christ’s followers to forgive other people, knowing that they themselves have been forgiven much more by God. Marriage is the most intimate of all relationships, and in marriage the most piercing pain can be experienced. It follows that it is the relationship above all others that must be upheld by that “seventy times seven” forgiveness about which Jesus speaks.
This important discussion of divorce and marriage was occasioned by a question the Pharisees asked Jesus. The question had been debated seriously among the rabbis, but Matthew says here that it was asked “to test him.”. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” they asked. Presumably, they wanted to force Jesus to one side of the issue or the other, thereby automatically alienating Him from at least half the Jewish leaders. But perhaps, knowing that Jesus was conservative in His views and was likely to oppose divorce, or at least easy divorces, they also wanted to brand Him with a view they knew would be unpopular.
The discussion among the rabbis was over the meaning of the only Old Testament passage (Dt.24.1-4) that explicitly discusses divorce. It uses the words “some indecency” to describe what a man might find in his wife as a ground for his action. What does that refer to? And regardless of what it refers to, does the passage grant a husband the right to a divorce? The adherents of the Qumran sect judged all divorces to be wrong. The well-known Rabbi Shammai permitted divorce but only because of gross indecency, though he did not spell out clearly what that was. The equally well-known Rabbi Hillel permitted divorce for all kinds of offenses, even preparing bad meals. Hillel was the liberal spokesman on this matter; Shammai was the conservative.
Jesus does not answer the Pharisees’ question directly at first. But here, instead of debating the matter on their level – they were asking about the minimal grounds for divorce – Jesus raises the discussion to the level of God’s original intention in marriage, directing His questioners to the first and second chapters of the Bible, where a description of the institution of the marriage relationship is found.
“Have you not read” He replies, “ that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female” (Ge.1.27). The implication is that God instituted marriage by the creation of humans in two genders, male and female, and that the woman was created for the man just as, in a corresponding way, the man was given to the woman.
In Genesis 2 we read, “…the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ …So, the Lord God caused a deep sleep, to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
“The man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘Woman,’ because she was taken out of Man.’
“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
According to these words, marriage was instituted by God for man’s well-being, and the union that makes a man and a woman one flesh is to be permanent throughout both their lives – “’til death do us part,” as one form of the marriage service states it. Therefore, Jesus stood against the common lax divorce practices of His day and for Scripture when He taught that marriage was a permanent institution.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org