Divorce

“It was said also, ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement’:
but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Jesus addresses a matter controversial in almost every age.

It is no secret that marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR) issues are tearing the church and the Lord’s people apart. People prove too eager or not eager at all to discuss divorce and remarriage. Nevertheless, we do well to consider what Jesus is saying in context and to what end He says what He says.

In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus speaks about divorce and remarriage as the third of six contrasts between “what was said” and what “I say unto you” in Matthew 5:21-48; these six statements are framed by Matthew 5:17-20 with the expectation that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the Kingdom. The previous two contrasts both emphasized not only the avoidance of the physical behavior of sin but also the thoughts and feelings that lead to such behaviors: not just to not kill or commit adultery, but not to hate in one’s heart or look upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:21-30). In all these things the Pharisees would stress the letter of the Law and the physical behavior only; Jesus shows how those who would serve Him in His Kingdom must be as concerned about the heart and mind as the behaviors of the body. Yet this section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is not just about thoughts and feelings vs. behavior; Jesus will go on to exhort believers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:34) and to not resist the evil person (Matthew 5:39), behavior matters indeed. The consistent contrast is between what Jesus’ audience understood as not only the Law but the acceptable and approved interpretation thereof by the scribes and the Pharisees versus the greater standard of righteousness necessary to enter God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-2).

It is worth noting that Jesus only speaks of marriage, divorce, and remarriage when involved in conversations with or about Pharisees (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18). The reason for this becomes clear in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12: the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus in terms of how to understand Moses’ legislation in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and whether a man has the right to divorce his wife for almost any reason or only for sexually deviant behavior. Pharisaic understanding of the matter was no certain thing as is evident in Jewish sources:

The school of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds in her a matter of lewdness, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing” [Deuteronomy 24:1], but the school of Hillel say: Even if she burnt his food, as it says, “If he finds in her an unseemly thing”. Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found one more beautiful than she, as it says, “If she should not find favour in his eyes” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

A wide dispute within not just Second Temple Judaism but even among the Pharisees thus stand as a backdrop behind Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 5:31 He paraphrases Deuteronomy 24:1-2, having the entire scenario in view. He then declares that anyone who would thus put away his wife makes her to commit adultery, and that whoever would marry a woman thus having been put away commits adultery (Matthew 5:32). For many the way Jesus phrases His declaration seems curious: how can it be that a man divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery? We do well to remember that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is case law based on a particular scenario in which a man might attempt to remarry a wife he had put away who in the meantime had been married to another man. Deuteronomy 24:4 declares such would be an abomination; he cannot have her back since she had been the wife of another. Thus in the legislation as written the assumption exists that the woman will take the certificate of divorce and become the wife of another man (Deuteronomy 24:2). Jesus is saying that in the Kingdom if a woman thus divorced went and became the wife of another, her (ex-)husband has proven guilty of the divorce and has put her in the position whereby she is committing adultery, and the new husband is committing adultery by being married to her as well (Matthew 5:32).

How can it be that marrying another means a person is committing adultery? Many suggest that Jesus is adding a new definition of adultery when in fact He is returning to the simplest definition of adultery: having sex with someone other than your spouse. On the surface Jesus’ statement does seem paradoxical yet is rooted in what He will declare in greater detail in Matthew 19:6: what God has joined man is not to separate. Man can commit the sin of separating what God joined, and God recognizes that he has done so; God does not legitimate that separation unless done because the spouse has committed sexually deviant behavior. Thus, according to the rule, if either spouse has sex with another person, they are having sex with someone other than the one to whom God joined them. This is the case when either the (active) divorcing spouse or the (passive) divorced spouse marry and have sex with another. Jesus’ statements are pretty clear and comprehensive. It is only because of sin that His truths regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage seem so difficult to understand.

Jesus’ contrast is blunt, shocking to His audience, but entirely consistent with what He has been saying. The Law and the Pharisees may justify divorce in many circumstances, but from the beginning it has not been so. God does not want separated what He has joined, either by sexually deviant behavior (which involves one spouse joining themselves to another, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20) or by divorce. It may be a more difficult standard, but it is the standard of righteousness in the Kingdom of God in Christ. What God has joined let not man separate: may this be true of us in terms of both our spouse as well as with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adultery in the Heart

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus is working through a theme, and it is getting more uncomfortable.

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus presents the second contrast between “what was heard” and what “I say unto you.” The first such contrast in Matthew 5:21-22 involved murder and hatred, insult, and derision of one’s brother; Jesus extended the principle to discuss the significance of reconciliation and the need to find grace before judgment (Matthew 5:23-26). While He quotes Exodus 20:13 from the Law of Moses in Matthew 5:21, He has no quarrel with the substance of the teaching, but insists that there is greater application and deeper concern than just the surface matter of the actual killing of another human being. The mental and emotional conditions of separation, alienation, judgmentalism, anger, hostility, etc. are just as wrong as the action when committed. Such instruction was in contrast to the standard of righteousness of the Pharisees which is under critique throughout this section (cf. Matthew 5:17-20).

This second contrast involves the next of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). As before, Jesus has no quarrel with the command itself; when making His contrast He is not attempting to justify or commend adultery in any way. Yet, as with murder, so with adultery: the final action is but a realization of previous thoughts and desires. Jesus’ declaration means that it is not enough to just not commit adultery: to look at a woman with lustful intent is to commit adultery with her in the heart, and Jesus declares such thinking as its own form of covenant betrayal (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus’ theme has become apparent: to observe the letter of the Law and avoid the outwardly sinful behaviors is well and good, but true righteousness demands not just a reformation of behavior but also a reformation of thought and feeling. Under the Law, and certainly in the Pharisaic system of thinking, one might be justified if they did not commit adultery even if they secretly harbored fantasies of doing so; in the Kingdom of God the fantasy is a transgression as well. Since how you think and feel dictates how you act, if you would act righteously, you must also think and feel righteously; if you sin in behavior, you have most likely already sinned in thought and feeling beforehand (Mark 7:14-23, James 1:13-15).

Jesus’ main point is fairly clear and understandable, yet many questions are asked in modern times about how we might apply it. For instance, what about single people? Jesus does not speak in terms of “fornication” in action or in the heart (understood as “sex before marriage” or “sex by unmarried people” in thought or action) since most people, by the age of sexual maturity, would have already been married. Nevertheless, on what basis would this principle not apply to those who are unmarried, who remain just as much under the commands to avoid lascivious behavior and to keep their vessel in sanctification as those who are married (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)? They must take care to not allow lustful thinking to overtake them. Likewise, many ask whether this means that it is wrong for a man to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a woman whom they see, or vice versa for females. To this we emphasize what Jesus says: He does not make a blanket statement saying that any man who looks at a woman commits adultery in his heart, but it is those who look at women with lustful intent who commit adultery in their heart (Matthew 5:28). Men well know the moment where the thought process goes from aesthetic appreciation toward something darker; one can have the aesthetic appreciation and then work diligently to keep the mind away from where it might go under such circumstances. These days some are willing to justify divorce on the grounds that a husband has viewed pornography and thus has committed adultery in his heart and thus the wife can divorce him for sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). While lustful thoughts toward other women and pornography are absolutely sinful and have no place in a marriage such viewing is not actual contact with another person or creature and therefore does not fit the definition of the term porneia and it is dangerous to justify a divorce for such a reason!

Yet we do well to take seriously what Jesus says about the dangers of adultery in the heart. It is its own form of betrayal, either of one’s present spouse or the spouse one intends to have one day. Humans have always yearned for fantasy realms in order to escape the challenges and difficulties of their present reality, and that is also true in terms of relationships. One can always imagine a better relationship with another: for men the focus tends to be on sex and that is why pornography has become such a large business. For women it tends to focus on other aspects of the relationship and such is why romance novels have become such a big business. Such escapism easily leads to separation and alienation in the marriage relationship, and it is a small step from thinking about what it would be like to be with someone else to actually committing the act of adultery. Not for nothing does Solomon say the following:

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, And running waters out of thine own well. Should thy springs be dispersed abroad, And streams of water in the streets? Let them be for thyself alone, And not for strangers with thee. Let thy fountain be blessed; And rejoice in the wife of thy youth. As a loving hind and a pleasant doe, Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; And be thou ravished always with her love. For why shouldest thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Proverbs 5:15-20)

Let us take Jesus’ instruction to heart, finding satisfaction in our spouse and not in fantasies about others, maintaining not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings in sanctification and holiness to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justified in the Sight of Men

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at [Jesus].
And he said unto them, “Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Luke, of all the Gospel writers, spends a decent amount of time chronicling Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees as He is about to head to Jerusalem. We find within this context some of Jesus’ most famous parables and stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd steward, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:1-16:31). These specific narratives are unique to Luke’s narrative, even if their themes are consistent with the rest of the Gospel authors. Why, as the story of Jesus’ life is reaching its most climactic point, does Luke record all of these discussions?

There is much to be gained from each story on its own merits. Nevertheless, they are told and placed as they are as part of an overall critique, primarily of the Pharisees, exposing the wide gulf between their true condition before God and the righteous appearance they offered to others.

Jesus makes the critique explicit in Luke 16:15. He charges the Pharisees with justifying themselves in the sight of men, honoring what is exalted in the sight of men, as opposed to that which is exalted in the sight of God.

It is easy to hear this critique and consider it in terms of 21st century America, concluding how the Pharisees’ religiosity was not really significant, their worldliness was apparent, and they honored the “secular” over the “spiritual.” In so doing we would be imposing our categories and concepts upon a time and place where they are quite foreign. The Pharisees are not being condemned as secularists; they are being condemned because they continue to justify the type of religiosity that marked Second Temple Judaism in a Gentile world.

All of the parables and stories of this section underscore this critique. The Pharisees murmur about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2); Jesus responds with the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the prodigal son/older brother (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to escape the understanding that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in terms of the “older brother,” showing the distance between their “entitled” attitude and the merciful love of the Father. In showing distance and alienation from “sinners,” the Pharisees are maintaining a “righteous” attitude that looked down upon all defilement and transgression; they were trying, at some level, to remain unstained from defilement, and to maintain holiness. Yet this was a socially acceptable type of exclusion; that is how they could get away with it and still be honored as the “righteous” in society.

The Pharisees’ scoffing in Luke 16:14 is related to the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1-12) and the declaration that a man cannot serve two masters, both God and money (Luke 16:13). Luke condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:13), and his condemnation is just. Nevertheless, this idea was pervasive throughout society at that time. After all, God blesses those whom He loves and causes affliction for those who disobey Him; how many proverbs were written indicating the honor of wealth and the shame of poverty? Even the disciples go along with this “conventional wisdom,” expressing complete astonishment at Jesus’ declaration of the difficulty for the wealthy to be saved, wondering how anyone could thus be saved if the rich were not (Luke 18:23-26)! Therefore, the Pharisees’ love of money was entirely in line with conventional thinking of the day, no doubt married with a sense of upright piety.

Jesus will continue on with declarations about the Law and Prophets being until John, how people seeking to enter the Kingdom, and yet how nothing would be modified in the Law until all was fulfilled (Luke 16:16-17), a declaration regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Luke 16:18), and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The Pharisees presume to understand the Law and the Prophets and thus the will of God, and yet in their declarations they add to and subtract from the Law, focus more on the technical legality of the Law than the intentions of its Author, and otherwise find ways to justify their desires with a distorted understanding of the Law as opposed to serving God through the Law according to God’s intentions.

In the end, the Pharisees were externally everything every first century Israelite would expect from a holy person. And yet they remained separated from God, exalting what was abominable in His sight.

We do well to consider Luke’s focus on these conversations and what it shows about the Pharisees, lest we walk in the same path toward destruction. As we seek holiness and righteousness in conduct (cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16), it becomes easy to feel superior to those who are “sinners” and who are “defiled by the world,” and seek to fully separate from them and condemn them. That may be what men expect, and one can certainly seek to justify such behavior in the sight of men with constant appeals to “holiness” and “withdrawal from evil,” but since it entirely neglects humility, love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, such is abominable in the sight of God. It also proves quite easy to honor wealth and the love of money and even do so with religious motivations and with a pious veneer; there will always be many who will have no qualms with the pretense of religion cloaking a covetous and greedy spirit. Yet the love of money remains the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and we do not do well if we seek to minimize the impact of Jesus’ lamentation of how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in Luke 18:24-25.

It is also easy to view Scripture like the Pharisees did: a source of justification for whatever thoughts, desires, or actions we seek to justify. In such situations the conclusion is never in doubt. The justification may persuade men, but it dishonors God and shows who really is in control. If God is the center of our existence and we seek to please Him, then we will allow His message in Scripture to change us into conformity with Jesus (Romans 8:29). This is not a matter of the spirit of the message or the letter of the message, but the proper marriage of both the spirit and the letter of what God has revealed in Scripture. There is a reason why Jesus first declared that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a tittle of the Law to fall and then to speak about marriage and divorce (Luke 16:17-18): the Pharisees might have been technically accurate with some of their interpretations, but by missing the entire intention of God as revealed in other Scriptures, they were justifying things which were contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Matthew 19:1-9).

Many falsely reason that if we focus on the “spirit” of the message, we will be led to compromise or minimize the importance of the “letter” of the message. In reality, as the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees show, by understanding the “spirit” of the message, we will honor it to the “letter”; it is by focusing on the “letter” to the exclusion of the “spirit” which will more often lead us astray, just as it did the Pharisees. And yet it all goes back to our intentions. Do we seek to honor self in the pretense of honoring God or to honor God as God and follow after Him? Are we seeking to look righteous in our current predicament, using elaborate justifications to persuade men of our religiosity, while God remains remote and unimpressed?

We can know the answer by how we react to the message of Jesus’ parables and stories. Do we feel the joy of the people who lost their sheep or coin? Can we feel thankful for the merciful love of the Father for both the prodigal son and the older brother? Do we understand how love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive? Do we sympathize with Lazarus? Or do we feel as if the people who found the sheep and coin are irrationally exuberant? Do we feel the Father is acting shamefully in how He welcomes the prodigal son? Do we chafe at the idea that the love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive? Is our sympathy more directed toward the rich man?

Do we want the justification of men that passes away or the justification that comes from God as His humble servant, trusting in Christ the Lord? Let us seek the latter and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

Thou shalt not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).

The seventh commandment is one that has been universally upheld in societies throughout the world; nevertheless, it is continually violated. Statistics on rates of adultery are difficult to properly ascertain, but it is believed that somewhere between a third and two thirds of all married people will commit adultery at some point in their lifetimes. That is astoundingly depressing!

The emphasis placed on this commandment by its placement is notable. In terms of the commandments involving one’s relationships with fellow humans, it falls right in the middle, after commands to honor parents and to not murder, and before commands to not steal, bear false witness, or covet. One might think that the latter three commandments would have greater importance, considering that they involve a lot more than just one’s spouse. Thus, what makes adultery such a challenging problem, and why is emphasis placed upon it?

We should first note two things. First, the commandment is specifically against adultery, which demands that at least one, if not both, parties are already married or betrothed. This is probably because people got married rather young in ancient times, and fornication was not as much of a problem as it would become in later generations (nevertheless, see 1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Secondly, one of the significant impulses leading to adultery– coveting the wife (or, for women, the husband) of one’s neighbor– is condemned in the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17). If the impulse that leads to adultery is already condemned, why does God feel compelled to come out and condemn the fruit of that impulse? And why would the command against adultery come before the command against coveting?

The big problem with adultery is the violation of covenant that it represents. The marriage commitment was always intended to be mutual and perpetual (Genesis 2:24). To this day people will vow to love and cherish only their spouse; to commit adultery is to demonstrate that one thinks nothing of that vow, and is unable to maintain a solemn commitment made before God.

Jesus demonstrates the seriousness of adultery in Matthew 19:3-9. He derives a principle from God’s originally stated purpose for marriage: what God has joined man is not to separate (Matthew 19:4-6). Those who would divorce and marry another are condemned as committing adultery, yet an exception is made for those who have divorced their spouse for the latter’s sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). It is evident that said sexually deviant behavior– adultery by any other name– is itself a way of separating what God has joined. Paul uses this same principle to condemn the use of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.

In fact, sexual sin constantly makes the top of the list of sins in the New Testament– witness Galatians 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and Ephesians 5:3. There are good reasons for this: humans easily fall into sexual temptation and then sexual sin.

And let us be honest– sex is treated differently than most subjects. If we consider many of the consequences of violation of these commandments– adultery, stealing, false witness– people are made to feel violated when these acts are perpetrated. When possessions are stolen, it is easy to feel very violated– something we feel is secure is proven to be rather insecure. When people bear false witness against us, it is easy to feel betrayed.

Yet adultery always reaches very deeply since it represents violation and betrayal on the deepest level. Sexuality is the greatest form of physical intimacy that can be attained in this life, designed to reflect, in some small measure, the connection we are to have with God (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). The two becoming one flesh is to lead to a very tight bond, one not freely shared with everyone. That is why, of all things, most people understand that sexuality is to remain private. Therefore, when a spouse betrays us by committing adultery, we are deeply betrayed and feel violated– that intimate connection has been made with another, and the severity of that indiscretion sinks deeply.

Such is why adultery ranks so highly in the Ten Commandments; stealing, false witness, and covetousness are sins people might commit against one another, but adultery tends to cause greater hurt and deeper mistrust. A cloud of suspicion hangs over any adulterous spouse, and reconciliation is quite the challenge if it can even be pulled off.

It is little wonder, then, when God wanted to express to Israel the severity of the latter’s idolatry, He used the imagery of adultery, as evidenced in Hosea 1-3 and very graphically in Ezekiel 16, for example. The comparison was apt– just as a man makes a covenant with a woman so as to become husband and wife, so God made a covenant with Israel (cf. Malachi 2:14, Exodus 19-20). Such covenants were designed to be mutual and perpetual– husband and wife for one another and no other, God and Israel for one another, and Israel certainly for no other (cf. Exodus 20:1-4)! But Israel went and served other gods, and in so doing committed spiritual adultery (Hosea 4:9-19).

Adultery is one of those sins that leads to profound regret for most of the people who commit it. Whatever pleasure the fling might provide cannot compare to the pain, guilt, and misery inflicted upon the existing marriage relationship. The same is true in our spiritual relationship with God: no matter how attractive it might be at times to forsake God’s way, such ultimately causes more grief than it is ever worth. Let us all strive to honor the covenants which we have made, both to our spouses and to God!

Ethan R. Longhenry