Until Death Do Us Part
There are some pretty ugly words in the English language. I used to work on a construction site and was surrounded by guys who couldn’t order lunch without using colourful language. Every day I heard lots of words that I could not and would not ever repeat to you, especially from this pulpit.
And yet here I am today and I need to say a word in this sermon, a word that in my mind is one of the most ugly words in the English language. This word offends me way more than any four-letter word I heard on the construction site. And yet I have to say it and repeat it because Jesus said it. It’s right here in our passage today.
I’m talking about the word “divorce.”
I’m not being melodramatic here. I hate this word. I wish it didn’t exist. I hate the word divorce because I hate what it represents. I hate the reality of divorce and the experience of divorce and the twisted, shattered lives that it so often leaves in its wake.
And yet you and I live in a day when divorce is all kinds of common, isn’t it? The average length of a marriage in Canada is 14 years. 2018 statistics suggest that 38% of all marriages end in divorce. That’s down a little bit form the 41% divorce rate of the 1980s, but not because marriages are necessarily lasting longer. It’s because fewer and fewer Canadians are getting married in the first place. We are increasingly giving up on the idea of marriage in the first place. 1https://www.mjonions.com/divorce-rates-in-canada/, https://phys.org/news/2020-02-canada-divorce-revealingand-murky.html
Many of you know that I’m the child of a divorced marriage. My parents split when I was 8 and divorced four years later, each of them for the second time. And I know that my story is far from unique.
Now when we hear these kinds of things, we often take them as evidence that our world is falling apart and things are worse than they ever have been. And this is not necessarily the case. Believe it or not, our situation is not all that far off from Jesus’ day.
Divorce in the Roman world was very common. Men who didn’t divorce troublesome wives were called cowards. 2Craig S. Keener, “Adultery, Divorce,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 6.
And among the people of Israel, things were not much better. The law of Moses assumed the reality of divorce and permitted it, but very little was said to limit it. In fact, there was only one law concerning divorce, found in Deuteronomy 24.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house…” (Deuteronomy 24:1). And it goes on from there to say that if her second husband divorces her, her first husband can’t take her back again.
That’s it. If her husband found some “indecency” in her, he could just send her away with a certificate that said she was free from that marriage, and free to marry another man. That’s basically what divorce meant—the freedom to remarry.
Notice that “indecency” is not really spelled out for us at all. That was left up for interpretation. And in Jesus’ day, some interpreted it pretty broadly. According to some of these Pharisee rabbis, “indecency” was anything that offended the husband. Including burning supper. Literally—they said that spoiling supper was sufficient grounds for divorce. So was finding another woman who you thought was more attractive than his wife.
So just put yourself in the shoes of a woman in those days. Your husband could be a good pious Pharisee, and yet you could be treated as little better than a piece of property or a baby-making machine. If you burnt supper or he decided that someone else was prettier than you, he would have the full protection of the religious community to send you packing.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps, that after speaking about lust and adultery, the next stop Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount has to do with divorce and adultery.
Back in verse 20 He told us that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, we would not enter the kingdom of heaven. And in this passage He applies this to marriage and divorce, showing us the standard of faithfulness that is expected of His disciples in this area of life.
What Moses Said
Just like He’s done in the past two passages, Jesus begins by addressing what the people had been taught. That’s what we see in verse 31: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’” (Matthew 5:31).
What Jesus is doing here is directly referring to Deuteronomy 24:1, where Israel was given their one law about divorce. This is almost a quotation of the very words of that passage, where the only limitation on divorce was that a certificate needed to be given to the wife.
Notice that Jesus is not quoting from one of the rabbis. He is pointing to the Torah. This fits with the whole context of this passage where Jesus is telling us to follow His instruction which is more demanding than what God had given them through Moses.
“Here’s what God said through Moses, but now that I have come to fulfill the law, the expectations in my kingdom are different. The standard is higher.”
And that new standard of righteousness is given to us in verse 32.
Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce
“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” (Matthew 5:32).
Here’s the big idea of what’s going on here. According to Jesus, when you get married, you are married. For life. And that little divorce certificate doesn’t change that at all. It doesn’t change the fact that in God’s eyes, you should still be married.
So if your wife burns the supper and you send her away with a nice legal divorce and she goes and marries another man, all your Pharisee buddies might not bat an eye, and maybe you’re even ok according to the law of Moses, but in Jesus’ eyes you should still be married. And so in Jesus’ eyes, your wife has actually now committed adultery with that new man.
In other words, Jesus is saying that the whole system of divorce found in the law is not good enough anymore. That divorce certificate means as much in the kingdom of heaven as Monopoly money in the real world.
Marriage is for life. And in the kingdom of Heaven, disciples of Jesus who are married will be faithful to their spouses for life. This is the better righteousness of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus requires of His disciples. Anything less is adultery.
Now you may have noticed that so far I’ve skipped over a few words in verse 32. “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
Jesus does permit divorce when someone’s spouse has already been unfaithful to them. And the reason is that when a wife or a husband has been intimate with another person, they have already broken the marriage covenant. They have already committed adultery. And so divorce is permitted.
We should note the words that Jesus uses here. He speaks about anyone who divorced his wife “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” “Sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word πορνεία. Does that sound familiar? It’s a word that refers to any kind of sexual sin.
At this point I want to clarify and even correct something I said in the message last week. Last week I talked about the word “adultery” and said that in the rest of the New Testament, that word opens up to mean anything that anybody does that should only be done with their spouse.
When I said that I was actually getting these two words mixed up. The word adultery does specifically refer to a married person being intimate with someone who is not their spouse, especially when that person is married to someone else.
But it’s this other word, πορνεία, used here in today’s passages, that has a broader meaning. It’s used to speak about anybody, single or married, doing anything with anybody that should only be done with your spouse. And Jesus uses this broad word here to say that if a husband or a wife is sexually unfaithful in any way, then they have broken their marriage vows, and divorce is permitted in that case.
Notice, however, that Jesus does not require divorce in these cases. He gives permission, but not a command. And that puts Jesus in a different category than even the strictest rabbis, who said that a man must divorce his wife in this kind of scenario. Jesus merely says that you can.
This is Jesus’ exception. And notice that according to Jesus, this is the only exception.
There’s one other place in Scripture where Christians are given permission to be freed from a marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul addresses the situation of a someone who becomes a Christian, and their spouse doesn’t like it, and so they leave. And Paul says that the Christian spouse who was left behind is not “enslaved” to that marriage.
And many people understand Paul’s words to say that this Christian who was left behind is now free to remarry another person if they so desire. I would point out that, especially in that culture, it’s a pretty safe assumption that the unbelieving spouse who left them is probably going to get involved with another person before too long, and so this actually falls pretty close to the same territory as Jesus’ exception.
But these are the only two cases in Scripture. Other than this, divorce is not permitted by God.
Some of you Bible college students might be familiar with Wayne Grudem’s recent work on the “third exception,” and without saying a ton, I think his arguments are very unconvincing. They are almost difficult to take seriously. And he basically admits that he arrived at the conclusion that we should be more lenient with divorce, and then he went to the Bible looking for a loophole to allow this. And that is simply not the way that we treat the Word of God.
Jesus gives us a single case where divorce is permitted. Other than this, disciples of Jesus who are married hold fast to their marriage vows for life.
And in so doing they reflect the nature and character of God, who loves us with a steadfast love. God does not abandon us when we displease Him. God does not look at us when we’re struggling and decide that “things just aren’t working out.”
Ephesians 5 shows us that God designed marriage to be a picture of the love between Jesus and the Church. Jesus will not divorce His church, and neither do disciples of Jesus divorce their spouses.
“But What About?”
Now I realize, as I say these words, how unpopular they are in so many circles today. We live in a culture of such easy divorce, which has sadly often seeped into the church, and it makes what I’m saying sound incredibly radical. I’ve spoken up about these things in Christian environments and had people look at me like I’m a crazy, simply because I think that we should obey Jesus’ words instead of trying to find ways around them.
And usually when you do speak up about these things, people start in to the what-abouts. “Ya, well what about this situation? What about that situation?”
And I want to take a moment to speak to some of those “what-abouts” at this point in the message. I’m going to mention four. But before I do, I want to address the very fact that we play “what-abouts” with Jesus. When the king walks into the room, and gives you a command, you don’t say “well what about?” You obey Him.
When Jesus’ first followers heard this teaching, it challenged them too. But instead of saying “well what about?” you know what they said? This is from Matthew 19, right after Jesus taught the exact same thing as He did in our passage today. “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry’” (Matthew 19:10).
That’s so sad it’s almost funny. “If I can’t get out of a marriage really easy, then I’d better not get in in the first place!” But notice that they took Jesus’ words seriously. And they were willing to let go of marriage itself rather than disobey Jesus on this matter.
So before we get to the “what-abouts,” we need to acknowledge that Jesus has spoken. And as disciples of Jesus we submit and we obey, full stop.
With that being said, I am going to address four of the “what-abouts,” because it’s likely that we’ll encounter these and it is helpful to have an answer for when they come up.
The first one is the big one, and it’s physical abuse. What about a woman who is being beaten or physically harmed by her husband? And my council to a woman in that situation is always to get away and get somewhere safe, preferably not by yourself but into a community who will walk with you.
But this, however, is not the same as saying, “After a year of being separated like that, you’re free to get a divorce and go on to marry someone else.” I can’t say that because Jesus didn’t say that.
And I know that some people might get upset when I say this, and my response is, “Don’t get upset with me. Take this up with Jesus. I’m just saying what He said.”
There’s a lot more that could be said about abuse in marriage, but in this context all I’m saying is that this is not a ground for divorce. Separation is one thing. But divorce without unfaithfulness is off limits for disciples of Jesus.
There’s a second “what about” I’ve heard more than once, which is, “What about my happiness? What if I’m totally miserable in this marriage? Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”
My response comes in two parts. First, of course God wants you to be happy. But happiness will not be found by disobeying Jesus and going and doing your own thing. What’s the old song say? “There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Last time I checked that was still true.
By the way, they did a study a few years ago where they followed a group of married couples who were unhappy in their marriages, and they found that if they stayed together instead of divorcing, over 70% of those couples were happy in their marriages five years later. You see, happiness is so often found on the other side of obedience, on the other side of faithfulness, not by running off and doing our own thing.
The second part of my response to “shouldn’t I be happy?” is “You married this person. You made vows. The whole point of marriage is that you promised to stay together when things get tough. So why are we even having this conversation?”
There’s a third “what about” which goes like this: “What if I married the wrong person? What if we have major differences, irreconcilable differences, that I didn’t know about when we got married?” Or, “What if they are not really ‘the one’ that I thought they were?” Very often these kinds of “what-abouts” come when someone has met someone else whom they think is the right person, or “the one.”
My response is that, in God’s eyes, “the one” is the person you made your vows to. The person you are married to is “the one.” You made them “the one” the day you got married and promised that you’d be faithful to them until you died. And so again, why are we having this conversation?
There’s a fourth “what about” that I’ve often heard. And it often comes out like this: “You know, God has given me such peace in my heart about leaving my spouse.” Or even, “God told me to leave my spouse for this other person.” And it’s often followed up by, “God has really brought me together with this other person.”
I almost don’t even know where to begin with this one. I’m not sure what you follow that gives you permission to disobey Jesus as long as you feel “peace” in your heart, but that’s not Christianity. I’m not sure what voice in your head is telling you to disobey the Lord Jesus Christ and be unfaithful to your marriage vows, but that’s not God talking.
Disciples of Jesus obey Jesus, not our own hearts. We obey Jesus, and any other path is a shortcut to misery.
And I’ve seen this play out in my own story. My parents were separated for four years before my mom divorced my dad. She did that because it was the only legal way she could make him pay a set amount in child support each month.
And she went ahead and divorced my dad with the full support of the Christian community around her. They twisted all kinds of Bible verses out of context to reassure her that this was the right thing to do, despite the very clear words of the Lord Jesus.
And so she did it, and we got our child support cheques. And no good thing came into our life as a result of her doing that. Those years on child support were some of the most chaotic and painful years of our life. It was not worth it.
And I could tell you a lot more stories beyond my own. But the stories aren’t really the point, are they? The point is the words of Jesus. If you are a disciple of Jesus, than He is your king and your Lord. And He has said to us that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and he who ever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. And His disciples say “amen.”
The Real Point
So let’s review where we’ve been so far this morning. We’ve looked at the culture of Jesus’ day, and how it wasn’t all that different from ours in terms of easy divorce. We’ve seen the teaching of Jesus that significantly limits divorce with small exception. And we’ve reviewed some of the objections that people have to this.
But I don’t think we’ve finished this morning until we go back to that big, central idea behind everything Jesus says here, which we’ve touched on a few times. The idea is that marriage is for life.
This was God’s intention from the beginning. When some Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus to them, “‘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.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ 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’” (Matthew 19:4–9).
Notice how Jesus grounds His teaching on marriage in God’s original created intent. He quotes there from Genesis 2, which we’ll be working through together this spring, to show that God’s intention for marriage was one man and one woman coming together in a covenant that could only be broken by death, saying to one another, “I will be faithful to you and you alone until one of us dies.”
And many people in Jesus’ day had lost sight of this. I’d suggest that many people in our day have lost sight of this. In Jesus day, they had turned marriage into something that was mainly economic. It was all about property and offspring and money. In our day, I’d suggest, we’ve turned marriage into something that is mainly romantic. It’s all about feelings and romance and being “in love.”
Just think about the way that we use that phrase “fall in love and get married.” Marriage is what you do after you’ve fallen in love with someone.
And this message has been reinforced for us over and over again by Jane Austen stories and Disney movies that show a wedding at the end of the movie as the climax to this love story.
This biggest example of all of this comes from my experience going to dozens of “Christian” weddings through my teens and 20s. And at some point I started to pay attention to the kinds of things that people were saying in their “vows” at these weddings. I would hear things like, “I love you so much. I can’t wait to share my life with you.” In other words, what you have there is not a promise of future faithfulness but rather a statement about your current feelings.
And when these “vows” did venture to talk about the future, they would say things like, “I want to grow old with you” or “I can’t wait to grow old with you.” That’s just expressing a desire. That’s not a promise.
And every once and a while I would hear an actual promise, but it would be something squishy like, “I promise that my feelings for you will never fade but will only grow.” Or, “I promise to share my deepest heart with you and never hold any secrets back.”
Believe me, you will break both of those promises the first time you smell their morning breath. You’d better keep some secrets to yourself at that point.
But do you hear what I’m getting at? It was just so much fluff. And I’ve been to “Christian” wedding after “Christian” wedding where I did not once hear an actual covenant promise. Where not once did the other person say, in whatever words they wanted, “I will be faithful to you, no matter what, until one of us dies.”
And so I’m not surprised when I hear about all of these divorces. If its all about the feelings, then when the feelings fade you’ve got nothing left.
And this is why, when Aimee and I got married, we dug deep and resurrected the traditional wedding vows. Following the traditional pattern, we began by making vows to each other. Here are the words I said to Aimee on our wedding day:
“I, Chris, take you, Aimee, to be my wedded wife; to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part: according to God's holy ordinance. Relying on the strength and grace of our Lord, I promise to first love God and then love you, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. I will lead you, serve you, protect you, comfort you, honor you, and keep you in all circumstances. And forsaking all others I will keep myself only for you, so long as we both shall live.”
And then next, we made promises not just to each other but to God and the gathered witnesses. After saying these things to Aimee, our pastor asked us, “In affirmation of the vows that you have shared with each other, do you, Chris, solemnly promise, before God and these witnesses, to take Aimee, whose hand you hold, to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
And I said, “I do.” Who was I talking to when I said that? Not Aimee. I was talking to the pastor, and God, and all of the people who had gathered to witness our covenant making ceremony. I was promising them that I would be faithful to Aimee.
And then, still following the traditional vows, when I put the ring on her finger I said "With this ring, I vow to live with you, Aimee, after the pattern of God's Word and I pledge my unending love and life to you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
I read this all to someone once, and they said, “Wow, that’s a lot of vows.” It was a wedding! A wedding is the vows. Everything else is just decoration.
We had a wedding photographer that day. She had been at dozens of supposedly Christian weddings, and she went home and wrote on Facebook that our ceremony was one of the most meaningful she ever had been to, because of our vows, vows—she said—which would take a lifetime to keep.
And all we did was use the traditional vows instead of making up a bunch of feel-good fluff. And we did that because we knew that marriage wasn’t going to be a bunch of endless romance. Marriage was going to be tough.
Exhibit A was the summer right before we moved up here to Nipawin. I broke my collarbone on July 1, and so all that hot summer Aimee had to pack up our whole condo by herself, while collecting furnishings for our new home from garage sales all over the city, while nursing an infant and taking care of a toddler and a four-year old and a husband who needed her help with pretty much everything that required movement.
She did not sign up for that. Except she did when she said “For better, for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
So please hear that I’m not against romance. Romance can be a gift from God, and we enjoy a healthy dose of it in my marriage. But what I am against is redefining marriage to make it all about romantic love. If you do that, a culture of easy divorce is no mystery.
According to God’s word, staying married is not about staying in love. Staying married is about staying faithful to each other, no matter what, until death.
So if you are married this morning, the application is easy. Stay faithful to your spouse. Cherish them and love them and never even think about getting divorced.
And here’s a practical suggestion for you: go dig out your wedding vows and read them together. Remind yourselves of what you promised.
And maybe, like someone I spoke to recently, you’ll discover that your vows were pretty fluffy without any real promises. If that’s the case, then I actually encourage you to pull some family and friends together and make some real vows to each other. Do it right in God’s eyes. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
If you’re not married today, whatever age you are, what can you take home from a message on divorce? How about this: never forget that marriage is just a picture, just a pointer, to the real thing, which is Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:25). Marriage is like a baseball card, and being a Christian means that you’re actually a part of the real game.
So never forget that Jesus loves His church for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death. Except that it didn’t end there. He came back from His grave for you, and your own death won’t keep you from Him.
So rest in the love of Christ for you. And ask the Lord to give you a heart to invite others into this love. The bride of Christ has not quite made herself ready. There are others who still need to hear. And married or unmarried, this is the mission that we all share today.
We’re going to celebrate this covenant-keeping love of Jesus together now, a love that any one of us can know here and now today.