This passage of scripture is like a Mac truck in how jarring it is to the senses. One reason is because Jesus’ line of argumentation. Throughout chapter 16 Jesus deals with the idolatry of riches, and this word on divorce seems to jump from out of nowhere at you.
But, of course, it is the solemnity of the words that rattles us the most. Jesus tells us that the sin of divorce (which is a great evil in and of itself) can be compounded by the egregious act of adultery.
Lord willing we can. And perhaps we can begin by simply starting with a summary statement of what Jesus says in this verse. I will suggest to you this theme:
Unlawful divorces cause adulterous relationships.
I. The Contention of the verse: Unlawful divorce.
Now, the key word there is “unlawful divorces.” That is Jesus’ contention. He is not speaking out against all divorces or giving a broad blanket statement on all divorce. He is dealing with those divorces that are unbiblical in nature.
Of course, no divorce is good. We know that God hates divorce and we should recognize that no divorce is desirable. But there are some divorces that are biblically justifiable. And as we take a look at the broader scope of Scripture, we find that there are two grounds for divorce. The one is adultery and the other is desertion. Matthew 5:32 is something of a parallel passage to what we have here. In that passage Jesus says, “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.”
So he makes that exception. We also find in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul telling us that if you are married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever wants to separate, then you are to let them do so.
Now, again, there is some difference of opinion on these texts, especially the 1 Corinthians passage. But this has historically been the belief of the Reformed churches (See WCF 24.6). And in these cases, remarriage will not result in adultery. You are free to remarry.
What you should understand though is that is not what Jesus is talking about in this verse. Jesus is here addressing an unlawful divorce. He is speaking out against divorces that are not warranted by Scripture. And this becomes apparent when you understand the context.
II. The context of the verse:
First, you have to understand the historical context. In Jesus’ day getting a divorce was almost as easy as getting a hamburger at the McDonald’s drive through window. The standards for divorce had been softened to the point where marriage had become almost trivialized.
For instance, one Rabbi said that you could get a divorce if your wife burned your dinner. Another Rabbi, writing much later, said that you could get a divorce if someone prettier came along.
Now, these might have been extreme examples. But you can see that it didn’t take much to bail out on a marriage.
I would suggest to you that getting a divorce in Jesus’ day was akin to our own. We find ourselves in a similar situation today because the only reason you need for a divorce today is that you are incompatible. In most states all you have to do is say that you have “irreconcilable differences” and you can be divorced.
We even have gone so far as to permit this odd phenomena of “no fault divorce.” That is to say, you can go to the judge and say, “Neither of us are at fault, we just don’t want to be married anymore.”
But that was the kind of thing that was going on in Jesus’ day. Divorce had become justifiable for virtually any reason and no one seemed to have a problem with it. The religious leaders were even countenancing it.
And when you look at the literary context you can find this to be true too. Throughout the book of Luke Jesus condemns the religious leaders because they were doing all kinds of gymnastics with God’s law. You may remember that we looked at the passage in Luke 11 where Jesus pronounced the woes upon the Pharisees and lawyers. They were guilty of twisting God’s word and bending it and outright contradicting it just to suit their own delights.
And you will remember that we read in our immediate context that the Pharisees were lovers of money. And they were justifying themselves in the sight of man. In other words, they were boasting about being men who upheld the law. But in actuality they were breaking it and trying to cover it up in order to make themselves look good.
Then Jesus says in verse 17, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void.”
I think JC Ryle sums it up well when he says, of the Pharisees, “They had lowered the standard of the law of divorce. You have allowed divorce for trivial and insufficient causes. And hence, while you make your boast of the law, you are by your unfair dealing with it, encouraging adultery.”
So when we understand the context, we will understand that Jesus is speaking of these unlawful divorces. He’s talking about a divorce that occurs that does not have biblical grounds. And he says that this kind of divorce is what gives rise to adultery.
And that really brings us to the content of our passage this morning.
III. The content of the verse
Jesus is saying that if you walk out on a relationship without lawful grounds and then you remarry, then you are committing adultery. Or, if you marry someone who has divorced his or her spouse without just cause, then you are guilty of committing adultery.
Why is this? It is because, in the eyes of God, you are breaking the covenant that exists between you and your spouse. Even though you have reneged on your vows, those vows have not been annulled.
You have to understand the gravity of that covenant. When you stand at the alter take those vows that is not something that you can terminate at your whim. Even though you do not want to acknowledge the marriage, that does not mean that the marriage no longer exists.
We can think of it in terms of a basketball game. If you are playing basketball, you have to keep the ball on the court. Once it crosses the out of bounds line, the game stops. Now, if you are one of the players out on the court. You might decide that you want to step out for a second. So you decide to go over and stand by the bench. But the game is still being played. And even though you are off the court, you are still considered a part of the game.
Now someone on your team can pass you the ball. But as soon as they do that, the referee will blow the whistle. That’s a turnover. That’s the rules of the game. You cannot stand there and yell at the referee, saying, “Hey, I’m off the court. I’m not playing. That doesn’t count.”
The truth is, you might have left the game, but that didn’t end the game. The rules of the game are still on. It doesn’t matter how you feel or what decision you make along the way. You don’t have the authority to change the laws of the game.
That’s the way it is with marriage. A marriage isn’t over until the Lord says it is over. He has laid down the law when it comes to ending a marriage. You can’t just say you want it to end. You might walk out on that marriage, but the game is still on and the rules of the game are still in effect.
So if you leave a marriage for an unbiblical reason, and then you get married to someone else, you are committing adultery.
IV. Concluding remarks regarding the verse
I want to make a couple clarifications before we wrap up. I want to be clear on a few things.
1. First, I want to speak to those to whom this passage addresses. That is to say, if you are one who has divorced someone unlawfully, what should you do?
If you have been convicted by this message, you might wonder how you ought to proceed. The question obviously arises, “Does God want me to end the relationship that I am currently in?” Let me say that is not the response that the church has historically given.
There have been some who have said that this second marriage is an illegitimate marriage and therefore breaking it off would be the right thing to do and returning to your first husband/ wife is agreeable to the will of God.
However, we do not believe that you should divorce again. The vows that you took in this second marriage are real vows. Though you should not have done it in the first place, it does not invalidate the reality of those vows and binding nature of them. It is our belief that this second marriage is still a legitimate marriage and ending it would only compound the sin of divorce.
But that does not mean that nothing should be done. You do need to do something. You need to still repent in so far as you can. It certainly means confessing it to the Lord and acknowledging before him that you have committed a serious error. It may also mean that you need to confess to your present spouse and/ or your ex.
You can be assured that the gospel promise is true in these cases. God can forgive. And he can even bless your current relationship. So no matter how things currently stand or how much sin has been compounded, you can be sure that the Lord will pardon you if you seek his mercy.
2. Secondly, I would like to address those who have been the victims of an unlawful divorce. We acknowledge that in many cases there is the divorcer and the divorcee. There is the one who divorces, and there is the one who is divorced. In other words, you might have been one who did not want to see the relationship end. You may have sought to do everything in your power to prevent that from happening. However, you could not stop your spouse from walking away. The divorce was, in some respects, inevitable in that regard.
The question arises, what ought you to do? Should you remain single, or are you permitted to remarry?
We should begin by saying no one should be hasty to remarry. Even if your spouse divorces you, you will want to hold out the hope of reconciliation. However, the answer to your question is that there is a great chance that you can remarry.
Of course, you will want to talk to the elders and have them evaluate your situation. But you may be within your rights as a child of God. Your spouse has either proved to be an unbeliever who has deserted you, or he has committed adultery. These, as we discussed above, are the two legitimate grounds for divorce. Thus, in the Lord’s eyes, you would be free to remarry.
3. Now, I would like to speak to anyone who is single. This passage has a word to those of you who are not married or divorced. If you are looking to begin a relationship and would like to be married, there is something here you need to heed.
Before you enter into a relationship or begin to get serious with a person, you need to make sure that this person is biblically eligible.
A verse like this reminds us that we are to make it our business to marry only one who is a Christian. But beyond that, we want to make sure that the person you are becoming involved with is not unlawfully divorced.
Again, a person may not be married in the eyes of the state; He or she may be legally divorced. But in the eyes of God, they may still be bound by the covenant of marriage.
You must understand that this person is off limits. You are not permitted to marry him or become anywise intimate with him/her. That would be a breach of God’s commandment and you would be committing adultery.
4. I would like to conclude by reminding each of you of the power of the gospel. Each and every one of you should recognize that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. And it teaches us that there is no such thing as “irreconcilable differences.” That is a blatant denial of the power of the gospel.
The gospel is in the business of reconciliation. It reconciles us to God, and it reconciles us to each other.
The Lord Jesus came into this world to restore that which is broken. He came to bring life to that which is dead. And if you would ever find yourself in a situation where you are contemplating divorce (and have no grounds to do so), then you need to look to Christ and trust in the healing power of the gospel.
Of course, none of us should let our marriages deteriorate and come to the point where you are contemplating divorce. You should do everything in your power to preserve and protect your marriage, including seeking the church’s counsel and discipline.
But Jesus’ words here may be summarized well by Winston Churchhill’s rousing call to England in WWII. “Never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up!”
The sum of Christ’s teaching is that we may not give up without biblical grounds. We must never take the easy way out of a marriage and simply get a lawyer. We are obligated by our vows to have and to hold this person for better and for worse; for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.
No matter how hopeless things may appear to you, you must renounce your desire to give up and you must trust Christ.
It might seem hopeless to you, but that is why the gospel is good news. It flies in the face of hopelessness. It gives hope where none exists. And when we avail ourselves to Christ’s appointed (proper counsel and church discipline) we allow the gospel its opportunity to rekindle the flames of love and renew a broken marriage.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.