READ : Matthew 19:1-12
What did Jesus have to say about marriage and divorce? G. K. Chesterton once said that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting; it had been found hard, and not tried. That is especially true about Jesus’ teaching on marriage.
One of my favorite New Testament characters is a bit player with a very small role. We
don’t even know his name — he is identified simply as a Roman centurion. He came up to
Jesus one day to ask for help for a servant who lay ill. Jesus immediately offered to go
with the man. “No need, Lord,” the centurion said, “Just say the word and I know my
servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority” (Matthew 8:9).
I like that Roman centurion because he speaks for me. “I too am a man under authority.”
All biblical Christians are. We live under the personal authority of Jesus Christ and the
general authority of God’s Word, the Bible. We’re not free to decide for ourselves what to
believe or how to live, nor are we free to pick and choose what we like out of Scripture,
selecting the parts we agree with and rejecting the parts we don’t. This is particularly
relevant when we listen to what Jesus has to say today on the subject of marriage and
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the
region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them
there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce
one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “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. And I say to you:
whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits
Yes to Marriage
Once again, Jesus is confronted by his old enemies, the Pharisees, who try to trap him
by asking him his opinion about divorce. What will Jesus say, how will he respond? Will
his answer be liberal, and offend the conservatives, or will it be conservative, and drive
away the liberals? Either way, the Pharisees figure, it’s bound to hurt Jesus’
But before he says anything about divorce, Jesus wants to say something about marriage.
The first point he makes with great emphasis is that he’s in favor of marriage. Marriage
is not some kind of arbitrary social convention. It’s not an anachronistic relic or an
outmoded tradition. Marriage is part of God’s original design for the world, as described
in the book of Genesis. It is God’s plan for human community, God’s gift for the
establishment and nurturing of the family. Marriage is something he built into creation
itself. From the very beginning, Jesus says, marriage has been the way — the only
way — that God intended men and women to experience sexual intimacy and bring children
into the world.
So when Jesus was asked for his opinion about divorce, he replied by teaching first
about the positive meaning and purpose of marriage. He took his questioners all the way
back to the second chapter of Genesis and its account of human creation. “Don’t you
remember what it says there?” says Jesus. God created humans as male and female, partners
made for each other, intended by the Creator to experience their fulfillment within the
covenant of marriage. Marriage involves divine arithmetic where one plus one equals one:
one man and one woman together in a lifelong union. Marriage was defined this way by God
himself, and worked by him into our very natures as creatures — not only the shape of
our bodies but our psyches as well.
Just in case we missed this in Genesis, Jesus makes it clear by saying it all over
again here in Matthew. So for believing Christians, there’s really no debate about issues
of sex and marriage — though of course, that hasn’t stopped the debates from raging in
our day. This does not mean one has to get married in order to be fully human. On the
contrary, the call to a single life of celibacy is a high path of discipleship, according
to both Jesus (Matthew 19:10-12) and the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7). But for biblical
Christians, as people living under authority, the only legitimate alternatives are
marriage as God has designed it, or a single life of celibate chastity. To claim that the
Bible teaches otherwise is to contradict Jesus himself.
No to Divorce
Now this brings us to Jesus’ second point. Because he says “Yes” so resoundingly to
marriage, he must speak an equally resounding “No” to divorce.
Three things need to be emphasized in what he says here. The first is that when Jesus
took such a hard line on divorce he was living in a moral climate very similar to our own.
The Pharisees who came to Jesus with their question were themselves divided on the issue.
One school of thought was very permissive. They interpreted the law to mean that a man
could divorce his wife for any fault that he found in her, even something as trivial as
burning his dinner. One influential rabbi went so far as to say that finding another more
attractive woman was grounds enough for divorce! (He would have been a big hit today,
But opposed to those liberal views was the school of thought that said divorce was
permitted only for the most serious offense, sexual immorality or adultery. Jesus clearly
comes down on this side of the divorce debate of his day. He did not believe in easy or
The second thing to observe is that in taking this attitude, Jesus was actually moving
to defend women in his culture. In his day, divorce was a man’s game. The popular view was
that adultery could only be committed by a wife against her husband; whatever the husband
did didn’t matter (as long as he didn’t do it with another man’s wife). Jesus cuts through
all of this. His strong stand against divorce, which sounds harsh to our modern ears, was
actually a way of protecting women from being casually dumped by their husbands.
Thirdly, while Jesus clearly hates divorce, he also recognizes that there are some
circumstances in which it must be permitted. Divorce is a concession to our sinfulness, to
the hardness of our hearts, he says. It’s never good, but sometimes, when sin of the
gravest kind has broken the marriage bond, then divorce may be the lesser of two evils. It
can be the choice that we are forced to make.
Yes to Sinners
G. K. Chesterton’s remark that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting but
had been found hard and not tried is especially true about Jesus’ teaching on marriage.
It’s one thing to listen to his teaching, or read it in the Bible. It’s quite another to
apply it to the lives of frail, struggling, imperfect sinners like ourselves. I agree with
commentator Dale Bruner who said that teaching what Jesus says about marriage, divorce,
and celibacy is unpleasant work because it often hurts and puts down people who have been
hurt and put down enough already.
So we can recognize that marriage is good and divorce is bad, but how does that help
people who have already lived through it? They know it’s bad! At Words of Hope we
sometimes receive letters from people asking for advice, and it’s usually about counsel in
this difficult area.
“I need to know if it is a sin that I have committed,” writes an Irish woman. A man
from Nigeria mentions the alarming divorce rate in his country among Christians and says,
“Please help. I had hoped it was the responsibility of preachers to have solutions.” A
South African Christian asks desperately whether she must remain in bondage in an unloving
marriage. Another woman from Northern Ireland who feels guilty because she has remarried
after divorce asks, “Is my present husband really my husband in the sight of God?”
Who can fail to be moved by the pain of people who have experienced marriage
difficulties and conflicts? What can we say to them?
Well, at the very least we can say this: the Lord who hates divorce still loves
divorced people. The Lord who counsels marriage still loves those who, for whatever
reasons, find themselves incapable of such a relationship. The same Jesus who says no to
sin also says yes to sinners.
Do you remember the time when a group of people brought to Jesus a woman who had been
taken in the act of adultery? They wanted to know whether he would condemn her to death in
accordance with the law. Jesus didn’t even look at them but stooped to the ground and
wrote something in the dirt. “Let whoever is without sin among you cast the first stone at
her,” he said. And when he looked up a few moments later, the crowd had melted away and
only the woman was left. “Where are your accusers?” he asked. “They’ve all gone,” she
said. “Then neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
Whoever we are, whatever we may have done, Jesus says the same thing to us when we come
to him. In Christ there is forgiveness for sinners of all kinds, male or female, husbands
or wives, married or divorced, straight or gay. The only way to miss that forgiveness is
to think you don’t need it.