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Life Upside Down

Marriage and Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32


Four weeks ago, we took a break in our study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and today I want to pick that up again at verses 31-32.  Keep in mind that as Jesus preaches to this large gathering of people on the hillside on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we find that much of what He teaches is like turning life upside down.  That is why I have called this series “Life Upside Down, A Faith that is Counter Cultural.”

Last year we looked at the eight Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 and we found that genuine happiness is experienced when our lives are characterized by self-emptying, mourning over sin, exemplifying meekness, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, becoming merciful, pure in heart and a peacemaker in this world.  Then in verses 13-16, Jesus said that people will find genuine joy when they are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and are persecuted by the rest of the world.  This is definitely life turned upside down!  

But Jesus go on to tell us in verses 17-20 that what He is teaching in no way abolishes the Old Testament Law, like some of those listening to Him thought, but rather He has come to fulfill every demand of the Law.  In fact, without His fulfillment of the Law, we cannot be righteous enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  We cannot be good enough, do enough, or live obedient enough.

Then in verses 21-30, we found that Jesus is not just talking about outward obedience to the legal standards of the Law, but the intentions of our heart.  He talks about a person who is angry, or calls someone names, or slanders them . . . is like a person who commits murder, they both begin with the same intentions.  He also talks about lust in our hearts.  A person who lusts has committed adultery in their heart.  Again, it is about our intentions.  This is life upside down and what Jesus is teaching is counter to the culture in our day.

As we continue in our study, Jesus is still proclaiming something that is counter to both His culture and most certainly our culture.  Jesus speaks about marriage and divorce.  Now before we get into our study, I know that several here have been through a divorce.  For the most part, I don’t know details or even the circumstances that has brought about a divorce in your life.

This would be a great message to skip because of the sensitive nature of the subject.  But Jesus has it in His sermon and so I don’t feel at liberty to just skip it or gloss over it.  Divorce is never easy and any one that has been through a divorce, knows that way better than I do.  For a believer, divorce is one of the hardest choices they will ever make, or at least it should be.  Today I want to treat the texts we are looking at as honestly as I know how, and I pray that you understand that nothing I say is done with any hurtful intent.  Let’s begin by reading our text and then we will jump into it.

Matthew 5:31-32

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.

First, I think it is important that we understand:

God’s Intention for Marriage (Matthew 19:4-6, Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:16)

Our nation, much like many nations around the world is in a state of moral confusion.  This confusion has crept into many churches today also.  Family, marriage, and how they are defined has changed quickly and drastically over the last few years.  We spent many Sundays talking about marriage in a series last year and in a series of messages a few years ago when our state was voting on same sex marriage, we talked about God’s intent.  Nothing has changed in our understanding that God intends for marriage to be between a man and a woman in a covenant relationship of giving themselves for each other.

God’s intention for the home is a mother and father united in wedlock raising children to the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  He never intended for co-habiting couples, single parenting because one of the parents chose not to be there, or even for children raising themselves, God’s design for family is clear in Scripture.  When we were married to our spouses, most of us, as we took our vows, we pledged to love and honor one another until death parts us.  Thus, our intention in the beginning of our married life was certainly a lifelong marriage commitment to one another.  

Certainly, God’s intention for marriage is a lifelong commitment to one another.  Listen to Jesus’ response to some Pharisees who asked Him if it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”

Matthew 19:4-6

4 He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,

5 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'?

6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."

In this passage, Jesus is quoting Genesis 2:24.  Adam and Eve were joined in marriage by God and He said that what God has joined, no one should separate.  God’s intention for marriage is permanence.

God addresses divorce in Malachi chapter 2.  Malachi 2:14 says that God is a witness to your marriage between you and your spouse.  Verse 15 tells us to be faithful to this union that took place in the Spirit of God and that we need to guard ourselves.  Then we are told in verse 16 of Malachi 2, that the one who no longer loves their spouse and divorces them, it is as if they have done violence against them.  He says that they are covered in a garment of violence.

So clearly, God’s intention for marriage is that it lasts for life, it is to be to be permanent.  But like all of life, sin becomes a factor in all of this.  What if one spouse is violent, sexually immoral, abusive, lazy, unlovable, or any number of other situations?  What if it is clearly a bad marriage?  We see some horrible things take place in marriages and we feel that has to be a way out.  This brings us to our passage in Matthew 5.  Jesus talks about a:

Certificate of Divorce (Matthew 5:31, Matthew 19:7-9)

31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'

Jesus is referring to what had become a common method of getting out of a marriage relationship during His day.  The Scribes and Pharisees were teaching that it was okay to divorce someone for any reason.  They were changing the meaning of a passage found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that says when the woman has no longer found favor in the husband eyes because of some indecency, to mean that he could divorce his wife for any reason.

Deuteronomy 24 does not prohibit divorce, but it doesn’t make divorce a nonchalant action for any reason either.  Instead, Deuteronomy 24 brings out how serious divorce is because God’s intention is permanence.  Divorce can result in sexual defilement of one another if the reasons for divorce are not understood properly.  But the Pharisees of Jesus’ day saw this as a statement of permissiveness of divorce for any reason.  That is why Jesus makes the statement the way He does here.  He ties it back to verse 27, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said.”  Jesus is referring to the commonly held teaching of the Pharisees of their day.

Now, let me take you back to the Matthew 19 passage.  Remember, Jesus answered the question of whether it is “lawful to divorce his wife for any cause,” with the answer of “what God has joined together let not man separate.”  But the Pharisees had a question about that and they refer back to this passage in Deuteronomy 24.  Let me continue in Matthew 19:7:

7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?"

8 He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."

The Pharisees embellished what Moses said in Deuteronomy 24 by saying that Moses commanded divorce?  They had twisted what Moses had said into a command to divorce rather than a restriction and a caution against divorce.  There was a teaching that came about by Rabbi Hillel that divorce could be allowed for any reason at all.  It even allowed for divorce if the husband just found someone else he liked better, reasoning that the current wife would then be unfavorable in his eyes and therefore indecent to him.  Supposedly this make his reasoning fit the Deuteronomy 24 passage.

Our society is much like that today.  If she burns the bagels, then divorce her.  If he snores too loud, then divorce him.  If you become bored, then divorce and change partners.  No-fault divorce is one of the great tragedies of our society.  It was promoted as a way to reduce the pain of divorce, yet the pain of divorce is actually a protection.  The pain of divorce causes people think long and hard before seeking a divorce and forced them to try harder to work out their marriage problems.  With some of that pain and fear removed, more couples do not bother to work as hard on their marriage, or one partner seeks the divorce unilaterally.  The no-fault laws have resulted in more divorce.

Though certificate of divorce was important to the Pharisees, it was given for almost any reason.  Their focus was on the legal requirements.  Take note of the reason Jesus gave for Moses’ allowance of divorce . . it was because of the hardness of heart.  Before we go to verse 32 in Matthew 5, let’s talk for just a moment about the idea of marriage separation.  Separation is when one spouse leaves but does not file for a divorce.  Is marriage separation biblical?

Cause for Separation (1 Corinthians 7:10-16)

The idea of marital separation is very difficult.  Some have used this passage in 1 Corinthians 7 to justify the idea of separation.  Let’s read this and I will make a few comments on it.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband

 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.

 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Simply put, because one spouse is an unbeliever is not a reason for separation or divorce.  The term “separate” in verses 10 and 15, is χωρίζω chorizo.  It means to separate, divide, part, put asunder, to separate one's self from, to depart, or to divorce.  It is the same word Jesus uses in Matthew 19:6 in answering the divorce question, “What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate,”

I don’t believe this passage is referring to a cause for separation in a marriage as many might assume.  I believe it is referring to divorce.  The wife should not separate from her husband and the husband should not divorce his wife.  Divorce is still the key issue here, not married people living in separation.

May I summarize what I believe we are being told here.  Do all you can reasonably do to remain together, but if an unbelieving spouse refuses to live with you because he or she cannot stand your living for Christ, then you can let them go.  But the reason you strive to remain together is so that you can have a spiritual impact on them.  It is more important to put the testimony of Christ in front of them than for you to have a comfortable marriage with a godly spouse.

Now having said that, God never intends for you to remain in an abusive marriage or a marriage that is filled with sexual promiscuity.  We will talk about in a moment.  This passage is about a marriage that doesn’t feel comfortable because the spouse is not a believer, they don’t hold the same values, or desire a life in Christ.  1 Corinthians 7 is saying that we strive to remain married and be an influence on our spouse, but in the end if they desire a divorce, we cannot stop them.  Let’s go back now to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  What was Jesus’ response to the Pharisaical idea of a divorce?

Divorce and Adultery (Matthew 5:32)

Matthew 5:31-32

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.

Jesus is correcting the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees that said you can give a certificate of divorce for any reason.  But Jesus says unless there is already sexual immorality involved, divorce causes an opportunity for adultery.  Jesus’ comment about divorce follows directly from His comments concerning adultery in verses 27-30.  Remember, the teaching was that if you did not commit adultery, you were not guilty of adultery.  But Jesus corrected that to say that even if you lust, you are committing adultery.

The Scribes and Pharisees also believed that if you did the legal paperwork of divorce and had a certificate, then it was okay.  But Jesus corrects that to show that divorce is a serious matter and it is way more than just about the paperwork.  The legal paperwork does not make it right or wrong, it still comes back to the heart of the individuals involved.  It is about the betrayal of this consummated union between a man and a woman.  Divorce is in contrast to God’s design for marriage.  It is not about the legal regulations of it, it is about our heart in the matter.

I believe that what Jesus is telling us is that central to any marriage is the idea of the two becoming one flesh by sexual union.  This is why adultery, incest, and sexual perversions are so strongly punished in the Old Testament when it involves married people.  If there is already sexual immorality in the marriage, then the one flesh relationship has already been defiled.  But if divorce takes place for reasons of simple indifference toward one another, then the couple is causing the other to commit adultery.  Divorce is the breaking of the one flesh relationship you have with a spouse and that is why Jesus clearly links divorce with adultery.

All of these passages in Scripture give us serious warning about seeking a divorce from our spouse.  As Christians, each of us should have a commitment to marriage that reflects God’s original design.  If divorce does occur, then it should only be because the other spouse has become hardened in heart and committing sexual sin.  This is certainly counter to our culture and like life is turned upside down because today divorce is sought out for almost any reason.


In conclusion, I would like to make a few summarizing statements:

~ it is clear that God’s design is for permanence in marriage but sin has clearly disfigured His design.

~ God desires that we strive at remaining together for the spiritual benefit of the other.

~ divorce is allowed by God but should be done with a careful examination of the heart of the matter.

~ never does God intend for you to remain in an unsafe environment.

~ divorce is always the result of sin and the hardness of the heart of one or both of the spouses involved.

Now as the Body of Christ, the church should be helping, encouraging, and strengthening those who have been through a divorce, certainly not looking down on them as second-class Christians.  If sin is involved, we should be encouraging them in repentance and receiving God’s forgiveness.  We need to understand that divorce is probably the most difficult thing a person can go through personally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  I praise God that this local assembly is filled with people who don’t look down on divorcees but understand and seek to help in any way they can.  If you have been divorced, I hope that is what you sense also.

We have not discussed every passage in Scripture that deals with divorce, but I think we can see the heart of the matter.  Because that is what this is about . . . the heart of the one seeking a divorce.

I would probably not counsel a person to get a divorce without every known effort being made to reconcile, and this would even be true for most situations of sexual sin.  I may counsel separation and maybe even legal actions to be pursued, especially in circumstances of safety and wellbeing.  I would always encourage repentance of the spouse that is sinning.  If the spouse is unsaved, I would pursue salvation.  If a professing believer seeks divorce, I would certainly question their heart in the matter.  But let me tell you, this is a very complex matter and we cannot take it lightly.  For me, remarriage would depend on several factors that I won’t take time to elaborate on here.

For those who are divorced, I want you to know that you are loved by God, you are loved by this church, and we want you to know that no matter the situation of your divorce, if there is a way we can help you or encourage you, we want to step up and be the refuge you need.