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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
Title:Jesus Upholds the Sanctity of Marriage
Text:Matthew 19:1-9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, every year in our nation there are more than one million divorces. It’s estimated that of all the first time marriages in the United States this year, no less than 43% will end in divorce. Those are staggering statistics when you stop to consider the millions of broken lives and fractured families that lay behind those numbers.

One million divorces translates into two million adults and several more million children who must suffer through this brokenness together. Without question, one of the main factors contributing to the high rate of divorce is the ‘no fault’ divorce laws which almost every state recognizes. These laws make getting divorced just about as easy as getting married.

But what’s even more alarming is that divorce rates are increasing among Christians, even Christians who attend churches that are traditionally strong on marriage and family. More and more, marriages in the church are following the patterns and standards set by the world.

John Macarthur gives an example of a Christian entertainer who claimed that her divorce to her husband was justified because he was a detriment to her career. And, if indeed her divorce was wrong, then she believed that God would love her in spite of it. Besides, she was convinced that she and her husband would be happier as divorced friends than as married enemies.

Beloved, that might sound a bit sensational to us, but the truth of the matter is, when a marriages break down in the church, we also tend to justify our actions and motives before God and man. In fact, Macarthur states that some Christians not only condone divorce, but insist that it is sometimes God’s will. A husband may sue for divorce, get remarried, and insist that his newfound love proves that God has blessed his decision, making his divorce legitimate.

In the end, it is God’s own people who wind up making more of a mockery of God’s Word and the institution of marriage than any unbeliever. What a shame it is. But the truth of the matter is clearly set forth by God, and we cannot fool Him.

As Malachi 2:16 states, I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel. That is basically what Jesus is reiterating in Matthew 19. Jesus wants His own people to know the truth about divorce. So before the large crowds, and especially the Pharisees themselves,

Jesus Reaffirms the Sacred Institution of Marriage.

Jesus does so by explaining that marriage was:

1) Ordained/Instituted by God at Creation;
2) Restored by God through Christ.

1. Ordained by God at Creation

It is very important for us to understand that Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce comes within a very clear and specific context. As obvious as that may sound, it still needs to be said for our sake. That’s because when we encounter a controversial topic like divorce in a sermon, our immediate inclination is to zero in on the topic and ignore the surrounding context.

That’s exactly what makes preaching this passage and listening to a sermon on this passage so difficult. We are tempted to ‘bring to this passage’ or ‘impose upon this passage’ all our thoughts, questions and arguments about marriage, divorce, and re-marriage. Meanwhile, we take our eyes off the glory of the Gospel and we miss what Jesus is doing here for our salvation!

So the challenge before us is to keep our minds focused on this passage with respect to its context. That context is established in the first 3 verses. Matthew explains that Jesus left the northern region of Galilee and traveled south to the region of Judea, to the other side of the Jordan (technically not Judea, but perhaps ‘surrounding region’, like ‘Chicagoland’).

But as we have learned by now, the Pharisees were not there to be healed; they were not there to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. No, verse 3 says, They came to him to test him. The word for testing is the same word used for ‘temptation’.

In other words, they came to Jesus for one purpose and one purpose only: to stir up trouble; to cause Jesus to stumble if that were possible; to discredit Jesus in front of the crowds. That was their M.O. (method of operation).

They wanted to paint Jesus out to be a radical, making it seem as if His teachings contradicted the teachings of Moses. They wanted to make Jesus say something, say anything that would not sit well with the people; that would make the crowds finally turn against Him.

The Pharisees had tried this already in relation to the Sabbath laws, and now they are trying the same approach in regards to divorce. So they asked Jesus, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason (on any grounds whatsoever)?

Notice what they’re asking. They weren’t asking if divorce was wrong. They weren’t asking what circumstances warranted divorce. No. They were asking if it was lawful (permissible) for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason (and marry another).

Now, where would the Pharisees ever get an idea like this? People of God, there were rabbis and rabbinical schools of thought that had been around for many years, long before Jesus arrived on the scene. And when it came to teachings on divorce, they turned to Deuteronomy 24:1, which speaks about a man becoming displeased with his wife and giving her a certificate of divorce because he has found something ‘indecent’ about her.

As you can imagine, there was quite a divergence of opinion even among rabbis as to what all could be regarded as indecent to a husband, and what would cause him to be displeased. One very conservative rabbi interpreted that word indecent to mean sexual impurity or adultery. Therefore, divorce was lawful if the husband discovered that his wife was not pure.

However, a more liberal rabbi interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 in a wider sense, saying that if the husband found anything at all displeasing in his wife, he not only could but must divorce her (mandatory). Based on that interpretation, a husband could divorce his wife and marry another woman based on nothing more than the fact that she burned his supper, or let down her hair in public, or spoke to another man, or if she spoke ill of his family.

Another rabbi taught that it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife if he found someone prettier. So obviously, the institution of marriage in Jesus’ day (even among His own people) was under the same kind of attack at it is today. What made this sin so egregious was that the teachers of the law were the ones allowing and promoting the destruction of marriage.

Now, try to imagine how dangerous it was for Jesus to answer such a loaded question in the midst of all those people. We have to assume that the multitude which surrounded Jesus was equally divided on this issue (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when we consider how controversial this issue remains today even among Christian Reformed, United Reformed and Protestant Reformed believers. We could easily split a crowd or arouse people’s anger when speaking about divorce and remarriage).

So the Pharisee’s strategy is clear. They knew that no matter what position Jesus took on this issue, no matter what Rabbi he sided with, Jesus would most certainly alienate (offend) a large percentage of the crowd. So it appeared as if Jesus was squeezed into a corner. He was in a no-win situation. Answering that question would be like taking a stroll through a minefield.

But notice how tactfully and wisely Jesus handles this devious question; notice where Jesus goes with this question. Does Jesus take sides with any Rabbi? Does Jesus take issue with any Rabbi? Not directly. Instead, Jesus defuses the potentially explosive situation by going back beyond Rabbinical teachings, back beyond the law of Moses, and he goes all the way back to the days of Creation (see verses 4-6).

Jesus says, Haven’t you read that at the beginning, the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said ‘for this reason a man will leave his mother and father and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.

All at once, Jesus goes from being on the defensive, to putting the Pharisees on the defensive. Once again he trumps their question with a greater question of His own. The sheer simplicity of His question would surely have come as an embarrassment to the Pharisees. After all, they claimed to be the supreme authority on all matters pertaining to God’s law; but Jesus asks them, "Haven’t you read what the opening chapters of the Bible say about marriage"?

By quoting Scripture, Jesus is telling them, "Your argument is not with me, but with God’s Word". In effect, Jesus was asking, "Whose word, whose tradition is more faithful and reliable; whose Word will you follow, that of the Rabbis or the Word of our God Himself".

And isn’t it amazing that even though Jesus responds to the question about divorce in an indirect fashion, the truth is, his response is the most powerful argument against divorce found anywhere in the Bible. In these words, Jesus declares His contempt for all divorce, by stating positively how significant and meaningful and divine the institution of marriage is.

Jesus reminds them that marriage is not an earthly institution which man has created for his own pleasure and enjoyment and benefit; where a man can simply feel free to marry and divorce as many wives as he so chooses and whenever he sees fit. No. Marriage is an institution ordained by God, created by God.

In Paradise, God gave Eve to Adam to be his wife. That first marriage was to be the pattern for every other marriage (for this reason, am man will leave his father and mother...). Even though many of the Patriarchs and kings of Israel took more than one wife, their bigamy was approved by God-in fact it only caused them trouble.

God did not establish the marriage bond, the marriage covenant between men and women in general, who could constantly switch partners. No, marriage was ordained by God to be a lifelong covenant between one specific man and one specific woman. So, to divorce, to break the bonds of the marriage covenant is to destroy what God has created; it is tear into two what God has joined together as one.

Think of it this way, marriage is always God’s work, whereas divorce is always man’s work. It makes no difference if a couple knows the Lord or not, marriage is still a sacred institution in the eyes of the Lord, and divorce is always something God hates.

So for anyone in Jesus day, or in our day to claim that their unbiblical divorce was blessed by God or that it was ‘God’s will’ is not only nonsense, it is outright blasphemy; it is to call God a liar. That is exactly the point that Jesus was getting across to the Pharisees.

As the marriage form in the back of our Psalter Hymnal states so well, marriage then is a divine ordinance, intended to be the source of happiness to man, an institution of the highest significance to the human race, and a symbol of the union of Christ and His Church.

For that reason marriage is not to be entered into inadvisable or lightly, but reverently and deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God. So in a beautiful answer to the Pharisees question, Jesus says without equivocation that it is not permissible for marriage to be destroyed, to be rent asunder, for just any and every reason.

2) Restored by God through Christ

Jesus reaffirms the sacred institution of marriage. He does so by explaining that marriage was ordained by God at Creation. Secondly, Jesus explains that marriage is Restored by God through Christ. Now, looking at verse 7 it is quite clear that the Pharisees are not quite finished with their attack. They remain unconvinced by Jesus’ argument from Creation.

They go on the offensive again this time countering what Jesus said with the words of Moses, Why then did Moses command that a man may give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? Notice how their question relates to what Jesus said. Jesus seemed to be saying that based on God’s work in creation, marriage was not dissolvable; a man and woman united in the bonds of matrimony were not permitted by God to be divorced-it was not God’s will.

The Pharisees hear that, and they immediately refer to what Moses says in Deuteronomy 24, (the passage we spoke of earlier), because to them, Moses is the authority on these matters. Moses is the giver of God’s law, so surely the people are to abide by what he says.

So again, they want to know why Moses (in their words) ‘commanded that a man may give his wife a certificate of divorce’. Before we get to the answer which Jesus gave, we need to understand what Moses really commanded. Turn to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Notice, Moses never issues any command nor gives any permission to Israel that she may practice divorce. In fact, what Moses is really speaking about in this passage is not divorce specifically, but remarriage. When a husband puts away his wife, and she subsequently is married to another man, and that second husband puts her away as well, the wife may not then go back to her original husband even if he never married again. Such a thing is abomination to the Lord.

Notice something else significant about Deuteronomy 24. In verse 1, Moses speaks of husbands giving their wives a certificate of divorce. This was not a command or an act of legislation which was designed to legalize or encourage divorce. Not at all. The fact is, the certificates of divorce were mandated by Moses for the protection of the women.

I’ve mentioned in previous sermons that women in Israel’s day held no real place or standing in the community. They were very much dependent upon the men in their lives-their fathers and husbands-to give them a name and a share in property and wealth and in the future.

But in Moses’ day, husbands were sinfully divorcing their wives, ‘sending them away’ for ungodly reasons. Thus, many women were left to fend for themselves. They were not free to marry again, since technically they still were the property of their estranged husbands. And if at any time the estranged woman desired to marry another man, all her former husband would have to do to foil her plans was to verbally claim her as his wife. She was completely powerless.

So for the protection of the women, Moses commanded that when a man sent his wife away, he was required to give her a certificate of divorce so (as Deut. 24: 2 says) she could legally become the wife of another man. Now, if we look back at the Pharisees’ question, it is clear that they did not properly represent or understand what Moses actually commanded.

Moses never commanded that a man should divorce his wife, nor did Moses ever give approval of divorce. Yes, he ‘allowed’ the practice, but for good reason. As Jesus explained, Moses permitted (allowed) you to (put away) your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not that way from the beginning.

Jesus was saying that while Moses may have permitted divorce (he put up with it, he never strictly forbade it), and while Moses definitely made laws which regulated divorce and remarriage for the protection of the women, the fact is, this allowance was made because of the stubbornness and hard-heartedness of the people.

In other words, this was not a pattern to be followed by the Pharisees, Rabbis and people of Jesus’ day, or in any day, for that matter. It was not that way in the beginning. That is not the way God created and intended marriage to be. So what was it that changed since the beginning? What was it that intervened, that changed marriage for every generation? It was one little word that brought about colossal and immeasurable consequences. It was sin.

It was sin that destroyed all that God had made perfect. That included marriage. So, it was on account of Israel’s hard-heartedness and stubbornness that Moses made this concession. It was a concession made out of their weakness. But again, it was not something that Israel should have every taken as the norm.

In a way, it’s something like we parents making a concession for the weaknesses of our children. Let’s say that on a certain occasion, you have guests over for dinner, and their children and your children are all excited, they’re extremely rowdy and rambunctious and disorderly, they don’t want to stay seated at the table; try as you may, you can’t settle them down.

So, when it comes time for family devotions, you decide to dismiss the children and let them run off and play. Now, that is not an ideal situation. It’s not like you’d want to get into the habit of doing that; and you certainly wouldn’t want that other couple, or your own children or future generations remembering that one occasion, and using that as the reason for why they neglect family devotions. You say, "We allowed for that because you kids were uncontrollable."

In a sense, that’s what Jesus was saying about His Old testament people. In many ways, they were spiritual infants, immature, and unreasonable; their hearts were not soft to the teachings of God. So in their weakness God made allowances for them.

Now, if we were to take the words or Jesus and try to re-state them in a positive fashion, we would come up with something like this. "For all of God’s people who are righteous and just and have softened their hearts to receive the teachings of His Word; for God’s people who have the Spirit of God abiding within them and have resisted sin, they will live according to God’s original pattern for marriage at creation."

In a very real sense, Jesus’ response was yet another scathing rebuke against the self-righteous Pharisees. If they were not blinded by their legalistic tendencies, if they truly understood what God’s will was for their lives, if they would abandon their trust in old traditions and if they truly knew Jesus Christ as the Son of God who had come to save all creation from the power and destruction of sin, then they would see for themselves the truth of what Jesus was saying, and that truth would set them free.

But instead, they proved to be just as hardhearted and blind as their ancestors before them. By their own stubborn questions, they showed that they were more than content to go on living their lives in the darkness, and brokenness, and pain of sin. Beloved, that is real tragedy, the real calamity that lies behind every divorce. It’s the fact that that we as God’s very own created beings prefer the ways of this sinful world-we choose the way of pain, and sadness, and brokenness and dividing up our assets, and paying alimony and child support, and swapping children on weekends and holidays, over against the harmony and the oneness and happiness of the righteous life in Jesus Christ.

Harmony and oneness and man’s happiness was God’s original design for marriage in the beginning; and even though sin destroyed that harmony, God in His grace sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross that all who believed on him might again know the joy and happiness and harmony of living together as one flesh, as man and wife.

And there’s also something to be said about this in relation to the exception clause which Jesus gives in verse 9. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital infidelity, and marries another woman commits adultery. There are cases that Christ and His church recognizes as legal (by that I mean ‘Biblical’) grounds for divorce.

Divorce is "legitimate" in cases of martial infidelity or what Paul described as spiritual abandonment in I Corinthians 7:15. Sadly, there have been many marriages that have been victimized by the sin that Jesus mentions there-marital infidelity (sexual immorality).

But even in such a case, Jesus does not command divorce, does he? No. He allows for divorce, but He does not make it mandatory. I can’t emphasize this point enough. It has happened where a Christian husband or wife has been betrayed and hurt deeply by the infidelity and immorality of their spouse. They may have been lied to for years. And often when they first find out about the infidelity, they want to march right to divorce court and dissolve the marriage.

But that’s when you have to realize that in Christ’s church, in the company of the righteous, in the house where God’s grace and Spirit abides, where hearts are soft and quick to forgive, divorce is never the first option. Even though a hurting spouse may feel at the time that he or she could never live with that person again, let alone share the same bed, the truth remains that divorce is not mandatory.

What is mandatory? Reconciliation is mandatory. Reconciliation and the restoration of the fallen sinner, of the broken marriage, of the fractured family is always at the forefront of God’s mind. Yes, in cases when the offending party refuses to be reconciled to God and to his or her spouse, then divorce is permitted, and that spouse is set free. But not before reconciliation.

And let me make this point very as clear as possible: there is NO ISSUE which you will face in your marriage (no matter how painful and awful it may seem) that cannot be reconciled through Jesus Christ. In Christ’s church there is no such thing as "irreconcilable differences".

That is always the difference between Christ’s Church and the world-even in cases of divorce. The Church looks to the blood of Christ to make even the foulest of marriages clean. The Church looks to the blood of Christ to restore relationships that anywhere else could never be put back together again.

You know what really helps us to understand this, beloved? What helps is when we see ourselves as the Bible portrays us to be. The Church of God is the bride of Jesus Christ. And as a bride, we have been unfaithful to our husband. Not just once, but again, and again, and again. But in His love, Christ took us back to Himself, He washed us and cleansed us and made us beautiful once more, and gave us hearts that would be faithful to Him once again.

That’s what makes marriage in Christ’s church so beautiful. It’s a symbol of the love and oneness and harmony that exists between our risen Lord and us His redeemed people. That is the pattern that God wants us to follow for our marriages. We are not look for ways to dissolve marriage and escape reconciliation; but we are to look for ways to uphold marriage and exemplify reconciliation. For that is what brings great glory to God and true happiness to us.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Keith Davis

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